November 23rd, 2009 22:03 EST
The President is Not Our War Machine's Supply Sergeant
Historic parallels are as seductive as conspiracy theories, but that doesn`t mean we should dismiss either out of hand.
For example, we may doubt the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, was an inside demolition job designed to justify an imperialist war, but we can`t reasonably doubt that there are unanswered questions.
We may not see exact parallels between our involvement in Vietnam and our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there are eerie similarities.
And there are always cogent reasons not to explore parallels and conspiracy theories. To hotheads everything is simple and obvious. Too simple. And debunkers of conspiracy theories too often sound like establishment apologists.
When I think of such matters I find myself examining the nature of patriotism. I think of myself as a patriot, a man who loves his country and was in his youth and is willing in his old age to defend it by taking up arms. But I see what appears to me a cult of patriotism growing in our midst, one that is all too eager to accuse others of not being patriots if they happen to dissent from policies that serve our immense war industry. Patriotism as a bludgeon in the hands of bullies is a disgrace. Didn`t Nazi Germany teach us that? Remember all the decent Germans beaten and jailed by brownshirts for merely dissenting?
And when I think of patriotism as distinct from the cult of patriotism "that is, patriotism used to silence dissent "I think of the perilous relationship between a democracy`s civil society and its military. Ideally, it`s a marriage of shared ideals, but like all marriages it can be knocked out of kilter by assorted seductions. To honor the military because it defends our lives and liberties is not the same as glorifying militarism. It is all too easy, and has been in almost every civilization, to stir the winds of war in order to take the eyes of the ignorant off their leaders` wrongdoing. That is why President Eisenhower in his famous farewell address warned against the military-industrial establishment. Who knew better than he did?
The military can be seduced by politicians and money. Civil society can be seduced by naive doves on the one hand and chicken hawks on the other hand. The military can abuse civil society and civil society can abuse and neglect the military, as we are witnessing today as veterans return home to betrayal, empty promises and official indifference.
Once my musings take me this far I inevitably think of our historic partner in democracy, France, and its dicey pas de deux with its military. When the Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954 most Algerian nationalists were moderates who envisioned some sort of special assimilationist relationship with France.
But misconceptions on both sides quickly poisoned the moment for accommodation. Perhaps 80 percent of the pieds noirs, the French settlers, were struggling economically. Some were as poor as their Arab and Berber counterparts. They were not all racists. Many of them, like many Muslims, envisioned a just and assimilated society. But there was a rich elite, a predator class that envisioned the Muslims as cheap labor and little more, a predator class not unlike our own.
The Muslim nationalists did not always see these nuances, nor did their French opposites. At the end of the day, by 1960, extremists on both sides held sway and compromise was no longer possible. There were a number of exacerbating incidents, chiefly a massacre of Muslims at Sétif by French colonial forces, and in 1961 a revolt of right-wing generals called the Generals` Putsch.
Key elements of the French army and civilian ultras, as they were called, mounted an insurrection in April 1961. Their battle cry was Algerie Francaise. Their intent was to topple the government of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who had led the Free French during World War II. Units of the French Foreign Legion joined the revolt. An organization called the Secret Army was formed. Paris was gripped by fears of invasion, but most of the French army and air force stood fast and the rebellion collapsed.
It was, however, the end of any moderate Muslims` hopes for some kind of peaceful resolution.
It had all begun with outspoken generals in Algeria telling Paris what it needed to do to win a war that the French population did not fully support. Sound familiar? World opinion was decidedly against continued French rule of Algeria. Most Algerian nationalists would have settled for some kind of autonomy in which France would act as a kind of mother protectress. But the generals and a rich minority of pieds noirs drove policy into a corner and provoked an armed conflict that eventually cost more than a million lives.
A republican democracy had been bullied into a disastrous war by a small minority emboldened by a handful of generals. France was a democracy not unlike our own, a democracy that had in fact been predicated on our own ideals.
The next time a weak American president forgets that he is our elected commander in-chief and starts acting like the generals` supply sergeant we might usefully remember Harry Truman`s dismissal of Douglas MacArthur in Korea. MacArthur was a hero, and rightly celebrated as one. But he overstepped the bounds between the military and civil society. He created pressure from Korea to make decisions neither Congress nor the presidency were ready to make. And Truman fired him.
General Stanley A. McChrystal, our general in Afghanistan, is a well-read man. He should read up once again on this pivotal incident in American history, and so should Barack Obama. The military is not invariably right, and neither are its civilian bosses. But in a democracy only the civilians make national policy. If we forget this, if we find it too inconvenient to abide, we will no longer be a democratic republic.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.