Category Archives: History

Check out the often chilling ‘Look Who’s Back’

Just wanted to bring to your attention a fascinating dark comedy that recently made its appearance on Netflix, in case you haven’t seen it already.Er_ist_wieder_da_(book_cover)

In English, it’s called “Look Who’s Back.” But it’s a German film, and the original name is “Er ist wieder da.” It’s based on a satirical novel of the same name. Here’s the premise…

One day in the present, Adolph Hitler wakes up, disoriented, in a park located on the site of the Führerbunker. He meets up with a desperate man who has just lost his job at a TV network, who uses the Führer to turn his fortunes around. Subsequently, Hitler becomes a huge draw on a popular show called, “Whoa, dude!”

The idea is that no one knows this is actually Adolph Hitler. People think he’s a brilliantly ironic comedian or method actor (since he never drops out of character). They love him. And many come to love him for the wrong reasons.

SPOILER ALERT!

What makes this interesting is that it punctures our smug assumptions that we moderns are so much better than those awful people who live in the past. Two of the most chilling moments:

  • Hitler is delighted by many aspects of modern life. He particularly is drawn to the Web, especially because anyone can make use of it, without editors or other conventional controls being in the way. When he learns that no one ultimately controls Wikipedia, he is delighted. He sees the opportunity that provides.
  • HUGE SPOILER ALERT: Repeatedly, the Führer runs into everyday people on the street who are filled with indignation over the way nonEuropean immigrants are flooding into their country. Hitler encourages them in this, and declares, in the very last line of the film, “I can work with this.”

Because, you see, while everyone else thinks their using Hitler — to drive TV ratings and such — he is single-mindedly bent on rising to power again.

Oh, and don’t think this is just a German problem, given how well politicians with similar messages are faring in this country in this election year…

Insight into our modern polarization over guns

The Wall Street Journal today published an excerpt from a interesting-sounding book called The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, by Pamela Haag.

After asserting that in the early part of our history, guns were not so much romanticized as seen as tools that a lot of people needed, the account gets to the point when marketing came into play:

BN-NR025_guns_JV_20160421123914Though some Americans always loved their Winchesters and Colts, many others saw guns as dowdy, practical tools. They would shop for them by perusing advertisements in farm-focused periodicals like the American Agriculturalist or the Rural New Yorker.

As the frontier was settled and U.S. cities grew, fewer Americans even needed guns as tools. By the turn of the 20th century, the industry had embraced the emerging science of marketing. Gun companies began thinking about how to create new demand for their products. In this respect, their business was no different from the stove or soap business.

Having started with customers who needed guns but didn’t especially love them, the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them. In the late 1800s, gun companies were innovators in advertising, among the first merchandisers to make extensive use of chromolithography, an early technique for producing multicolored print. Their calendars and other promotional materials were works of art, depicting exciting scenes in which gunmen faced off with bandits or beasts….

I like that bit about how “the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them,” which helped encourage many people’s emotional attachment to these items.

The piece concludes:

Gun-industry advertisements began to invoke the “natural instinct” to own a gun or a “real boy’s” yearning for one. A 1920 ad in Literary Digest neatly summarized this spirit: “You know [your son] wants a gun. But you don’t know how much he wants it. He can’t tell you. It’s beyond words.” Gun marketing had moved from describing how guns work to describing how guns make their owners feel.

This period, before the outbreak of World War I, saw the birth of today’s American gun culture. Within a few decades, as guns became more prominent in criminal activity and suicides, an antigun culture also began to rise. Many Americans recoiled from these new forms of everyday violence, even as others increasingly cherished their firearms and the personal meaning they found in them. The U.S. was on a slow spiral toward the modern, polarized politics of guns.

And here we are, a nation split between people who are appalled by the existence of guns and others who would rather die than relinquish them.

 

Remembering the great, up in Boston

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Doug Ross sent me this photo this morning with the message:

Coincidence?

Here’s where I am at today. .my son’s train stop in Boston.

That’s a reference to our discussion of John Quincy Adams on a previous post.

I’ve never been to Boston, but if they refer to John Quincy as often as we Southerners do to Andy Jackson, maybe I should go to there, if just for a visit…

Tubman to replace Old Hickory; Hamilton to stay on sawbuck (Yay!)

Here’s some mighty fine news:

WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department will announce on Wednesday afternoon that Harriet Tubman, an African­American who ferried hundreds of slaves to freedom, will replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the center of a new $20 note, according to a Treasury official, while newly popular Alexander Hamilton will remain on the face of the $10 bill….

And the best part to me — with all due respect to Ms. Tubman and the noble role she plays in our history — is that Alexander Hamilton will stay on the sawbuck. As I’ve said before, if anyone needed to go, it was Old Hickory.

I celebrated that part of the news on Twitter the other day:

But I neglected to mention it on the blog, so I’m glad to have this opportunity to make up for that.Tubman mug

Jackson is one of my less favorite major American historical figures, despite his triumph at New Orleans. I consider his defeat of John Quincy Adams — possibly the best-qualified president in our history — in their second contest to be one of our nation’s low points.

And I feel something of a personal connection to Ms. Tubman — when my wife and youngest daughter moved up to Pennsylvania for a year so my daughter could study ballet there, they lived in part of a house that had been part of the Underground Railroad. Or, at least, its cellar had been.

So I’m quite pleased…

Once, parties provided a hedge against excesses of direct democracy. No more…

I enjoyed seeing, in The Washington Post today, a Muslim from birth and son of an Islamic scholar explaining the American political system to Donald Trump, and other “real” Americans who are as confused about it as the Donald is.

I refer to Fareed Zakaria’s weekly column. An excerpt:

Having recently discovered how the nomination process works in the Republican Party, Donald Trump is furious. “They wanted to keep people out,” he bellowed. “This is a dirty trick.” In fact, Mr. Trump is right on the first count and wrong on the second. Political parties do have mechanisms to “keep people out.” But far from being a trick, they are the crux of what makes parties valuable in a democracy.

Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria

Clinton Rossiter begins his classic book “Parties and Politics in America” with this declaration: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties.” In a large and diverse country, to get things done, people need devices to navigate the political system, organize themselves, channel particular interests and ideologies, and negotiate with others who have differing interests and views. Political parties have traditionally played this role in the United States. And they have often played it as a counterweight to the momentary passions of the public.

At the heart of the American political party is the selection of its presidential candidate. This process used to be controlled by party elites — mayors, governors, legislators. In the early 20th century, an additional mechanism was added to test a candidate’s viability on the campaign trail: primaries. Still, between 1912 and 1968, the man who won a party’s presidential primaries became the nominee less than half the time. Dwight Eisenhower was chosen not by primary voters but in a complex, contested convention.

1968 was the year things changed….

… and not for the better. That was when the Democrats, and then the Republicans turned toward letting primaries decide.

Which was when the parties lost the one characteristic that made them useful — providing the service of vetting candidates so that total whack jobs didn’t show up on the November ballot.

I remember the late David Broder waxing nostalgic about what parties had once been, and he hoped, could be again: entities that asked candidates the key question of “Who sent you?” — meaning, what reliable person or people vouch for you? The problem he was lamenting is that too often, the answer had become “I sent myself.” Which is how you get socially dysfunctional egoists such as Trump — and Ted Cruz — threatening to take the GOP nomination.

My response to that was that to the extent parties played that vetting role in the distant past, there was no sign they were prepared to play it now. And as I said then and now, the evil parties do greatly outweigh any slight benefit they still provide.

Anyway, I thank Mr. Zakaria for providing this small history lesson to people like the caller I heard on NPR this week who wanted to know why convention delegates had any say in the nominating process….

 

Halcyon days, when Americans were Americans

By that I mean, when Americans were Americans first, as opposed to seeing themselves as Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives or Tea Partiers or what have you.

This fit of nostalgia was prompted by reading a book review in The Wall Street Journal today, of a book titled Harry & Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World. After noting that upon the death of FDR, many (including the new president himself) doubted that Harry Truman was up to the job, the review continues:

Watching from the Senate, Republican Arthur Vandenberg wrote to the new president with words of encouragement. “Good luck and God bless you,” he said. “Let me help you whenever I can. America marches on.” In his diary, he was more pensive: “The gravest question-mark in every American heart is about Truman. Can he swing the job?” To which the optimistic answer came, “Despite his limited capacities, I believe he can.”download (2)

Those words seem extraordinary today. The Republicans had not won a national election since 1928. Roosevelt had ridden roughshod over them in Congress with his New Deal, broke the tradition of serving only two terms and fashioned a liberal Supreme Court. After 12 years of humiliation and defeat, FDR’s death could have provided Republicans with an opportunity to get on the front foot, to take advantage of an inexperienced and uncharismatic new president. And yet here was Vandenberg, one of the leading Republicans in the Senate, saying not only that he believed the man could overcome his limitations but also that he would do everything he could to help him.

Lawrence J. Haas’s “Harry & Arthur” is thus a story of bipartisanship at work. The subtitle, “Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World,” seems at first sight hyperbolic, at least concerning Vandenberg, but Mr. Haas makes an excellent case that Truman’s worldview could not have been implemented without the senator from Michigan. The two men shared a vision for America in the world and over the next six years, until the senator’s death from lung cancer in 1951, set about putting it place. Even a short list demonstrates the revolution in global strategy that would take place during the Truman years: the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, NATO, the U.N. Charter, not to mention the creation of the CIA, the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force.

Those were indeed the days, when such alliances were possible…

Bryan enjoyed Master and Commander, and you would, too

Master-and-Commander-Banner-ID-39TR-1G11-J6T7-orig

Bryan Caskey, having read the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels, has posted a glowing review on his own blog, Permanent Press.

As he wrote to me upon finishing Master and Commander:

I enjoyed it immensely, even with having to wade through the nautical lingo. It was sort of like reading Shakespeare in that it’s sort of confusing at first, but if you keep plowing through, you get used to the writing, and eventually you don’t have to focus so much on figuring what the heck is going on. One nice thing about the Kindle is that you can touch any word, and the Wikipedia entry for it comes up, so it’s a breeze to look up all the odd words. This was also my first time reading a Kindle, and I’ve enjoyed the lightness of not carrying around a heavy ol’ book. The one-touch lookup also saved me from dragging around some sort of Royal Navy dictionary.

The end battle was sort of odd, with JA not participating. The battle against the Cacafuego was shorter than I hoped, but I enjoyed how afterwards Harte tried to minimize the action by complaining about all the supplies that JA needed from the yard after the battle. Hopefully, JA will not continue to sabotage his career with these sorts of personal indiscretions.

I liked the Court-martial bit toward the end in addition to all of JA’s interaction with higher-ranked naval officers. Throughout, the descriptions of the ocean and how ships cut through the water are wonderful. I now understand the title of the second book Post Captain, as it’s a rank – not something to do with the mail. I’m guessing he makes the rank of Post Captain near the end of the book, setting him up to really “let every stitch of cloth fly” in the next book – to use the vernacular.

I’ll try to get through Post Captain before I go on vacation so I can enjoy HMS Surprise while I’m actually on vacation in the Dominican Republic.

All in all, a wonderful read that is a nice easy transition from all the non-fiction I’ve read. While this is fiction, it has a decidedly non-fiction tone about it.

The most non-fiction thing about that first book is that it is based so faithfully upon the early career of Lord Cochrane, upon whom Jack Aubrey is in part based.

In reality, the astounding Sophie-Cacafuego battle depicted in the novel was between Cochrane’s real-life Speedy and the Spanish xebec-frigate Gamo — down to the smallest detail, including the parts you assume must be made up.

As for JA being sidelined during the battle of Algeciras — well, that’s what happened to Cochrane, so it happens to Lucky Jack as well.

But as to Bryan’s hope that “JA will not continue to sabotage his career with these sorts of personal indiscretions…” Well, Jack is a lion at sea, a man perfectly in his element. But he has a lot of trouble knowing how to behave on shore, which will cause further problems. Just so you’re forewarned. Dr. Maturin is the opposite, a lubber who will never lose his land legs. Which is good, as Bryan notes: “O’Brian nicely uses the device of explaining everything to Maturin (who knows nothing about sailing), as a way of explaining everything to the reader.”

Folks, if you haven’t read these books, you’re missing out. There’s no better historical fiction anywhere. But aside from literary merit, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will become two of your best friends. Their world, that of Nelson’s Navy, will become yours, and you’ll want to spend all your time there.

Fortunately, there are 20 novels in the series. I envy Bryan that he still has all but one still before him. I envy him, but wish him joy nonetheless…

sails1sails2

There’s no excuse for Cruz calling for ‘carpet’ bombing

Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins. Germany, 1945. Army. (OWI) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 208-N-39903 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1336

Wesel was 97% destroyed before it was finally taken by Allied troops in 1945. See that carpet of craters? Wikipedia doesn’t SAY those are bomb craters, but what else might they be?

I tend to agree pretty frequently with Charles Krauthammer on national security issues, but I was disappointed in him over the weekend.

Did you see his column assessing the foreign policy approaches of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, which he termed, respectively, “passivist,” “internationalist,” “unilateralist” and “mercantilist.”

There was much of value in the column, and some things to enjoy — such as his observation that Trump’s worldview comes closest to that of King Philip II of Spain (1556-1598).

Of course, I was disappointed that he left out Kasich — I reject the notion that we have no options left but these four. But to his credit, he promised that “If Kasich pulls off a miracle, he’ll get his own column.” Which he would, of course, unquestionably deserve at that point.

Most of his observations are sound, and he is scrupulously careful to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton would likely be less reluctant to take effective action in the world than her erstwhile boss, President Obama. He says her nearest historical analog is her husband’s approach in the 1990s — which isn’t as good as, say, Tony Blair in that decade, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

What gets me is the way he bends over backwards to make Cruz’ approach palatable:

The most aggressive of the three contenders thus far. Wants post-Cold War U.S. leadership restored. Is prepared to take risks and act alone when necessary. Pledges to tear up the Iran deal, cement the U.S.-Israel alliance and carpet bomb the Islamic State.

Overdoes it with “carpet” — it implies Dresden — although it was likely just an attempt at rhetorical emphasis….

Really?!?!?!? “Overdoes it?” The fact that Cruz uses that word utterly disqualifies him from consideration as POTUS. Whether he really wants to do that, or merely does not understand what the word means, he is beyond the pale.

Here’s what “carpet bombing” means:

Carpet bombing, also known as saturation bombing, is a large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selected area of land.[1][2][3][4] The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area, in the same way that a carpet covers a floor. Carpet bombing is usually achieved by dropping many unguided bombs.

And yes, when we think of “carpet bombing” we do think of Dresden, and Tokyo, and Cologne, and all those other places that we sent thousands of planes over in an effort to destroy everything below — including all those civilians.

I’m not going to get into the ethics of our having done that in the course of total war, in a time in which we lacked the technical precision of modern munitions. I’m just going to say that that is what is clearly, unquestionably meant when one says “carpet bombing” — that you’re dropping a carpet of bombs to destroy everything and everyone in the covered area, and let God sort them out.

There is no room in the 21st century, when we have so many other options, for a suggestion like that. The term is primitive, atavistic, barbaric — which is no doubt why Cruz said it, in an attempt to appeal to Trumpist sensibilities.

Yet Krauthammer is completely blasé about it, with that forgiving “overdoes.”

But that’s just the setup to the really bad thing: His assertion that Cruz’ closest historical analog is… Ronald Reagan.

So it’s come to this: That folks on the right are working so hard to talk themselves into settling for Cruz that Charles Krauthammer can equate the Cruz worldview with that of the one guy Republicans believe could do no wrong.

That’s just inexcusable.

Quote of the day, from Edmund Burke

“The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.”

Edmund Burke

Edmund_Burke2_c

Burke

I found that quote today at the top of a Washington Post column headlined, “Trump is the demagogue that our Founding Fathers feared.”

You should go read that if you need reminding of why our republic was set up the way it was — for that matter, why our Founders chose a republic, as opposed to (shudder) pure democracy.

As for Burke — one of these days I need to read more about him. I don’t know as much as I should about the politics in Britain at the time of our Revolution. For instance, I have trouble understanding how he could have been the father of modern conservatism when he wasn’t even a Tory.

I read that he was for American independence and Catholic Emancipation, and that he opposed the French Revolution. I’m with him on all those…

 

Heil Trump! — no, really; watch the video…

We’ve spoken before about the undertones of fascism in the appeal of Donald Trump. (Or maybe I just Tweeted about it; I’m not immediately finding the previous reference.)

Now there’s this, which somehow I missed over the weekend and didn’t see until today.

From the latest column by Dana Milbank:

So it has come to this: The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, at a campaign rally Saturday in Orlando, leading supporters in what looked very much like a fascist salute.

“Can I have a pledge? A swearing?” Trump asked, raising his right hand and directing his followers to do the same. He then led them in pledging allegiance — not to the flag but to Trump, for which they stand and for whom they vowed to vote.

Benito Mussolini (1883 - 1945) the Italian dictator in 1934. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) the Italian dictator in 1934. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Trump supporters raised their arms en masse — unfortunately evoking the sort of scene associated with grainy newsreels from Italy and Germany.

Among those not engaging in such ominous imagery were the demonstrators, who, by my colleague Jenna Johnson’s account, interrupted Trump’s event more than a dozen times. The candidate watched a supporter grab and attempt to tackle protesters, at least one of them black, near the stage. “You know, we have a divided country, folks,” Trump said. “We have a terrible president who happens to be African American.”

Loaded imagery, violence against dissenters and a racial attack on the president: It’s all in a day’s work for Trump….

If you watch that video and let it go on to autoplay the next one, you’ll hear the bit that goes, “We have a terrible president who happens to be African American.” You don’t want to miss that one, either.

Yeah, he’s a buffoon. But so was Mussolini. Hitler, too, but I think the Mussolini comparison is more apt. All that comic-opera strutting and mugging…

Why is the country flying apart now, when it didn’t in the ’30s?

How did the nation settle for an Establishment president in the same year that the Bonus Army was marching?

How did the nation settle for an Establishment president in the same year that the Bonus Army was marching?

I thought this passage from Yeats was appropriate four years ago. I had no idea how bad things would get:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

You think the centre can hold? Tell that to Jeb Bush (and Hillary Clinton, right after New Hampshire). You don’t think the worst are full of passionate intensity? Go to a Trump rally.

Why is this happening now? Why didn’t it happen in the 1930s, when socialism and fascism were competing across the globe… everywhere but here?

If ever there was a time that faith in the center, the mainstream, might have been shaken, you’d think it would have happened then rather than now.

How was it that, in an election going on at the same time the Bonus Army was marching, the nation chose an Establishment president? And you really didn’t get much more Establishment than Roosevelt.

Was FDR just that gifted and charismatic a leader? I mean, I think he was a lot of it. His ability to inspire and encourage the nation was amazing.

Why are civil, thoughtful, calm people swept aside in favor of blustering bullies? As I’ve said before, Trump and to a great extent Cruz behave in ways that most civilized people teach their children not to act. It remains beyond my understanding that any adult could look at these guys and think, This is my leader; this is the one I want.

True, the center is singularly lacking in charismatic figures. There is no FDR, no Lincoln, to pull the country together.

And if that lack is the answer, then our current situation is a great argument for the Great Man theory of history…

SC upside-down: Haley for Rubio, McMaster for Trump

Haley back in 2010, with Sarah Palin

Haley back in 2010, with Sarah Palin. She’s definitely grown in office.

Nikki Haley got off the fence today and backed Marco Rubio (and not poor ol’ Jeb!) in Saturday’s primary, which goes to show how weird and volatile the Republican Party is in South Carolina these days.

Let’s step back a bit…

In 2010, Henry McMaster was the perfect Establishment candidate for governor: A Reagan man through-and-through, former party chairman, loyal backer of John McCain in 2008. But he was running in the year of the Tea Party, and he got swept aside by an inconsequential junior House member who suddenly (I had not seen these tendencies in her before) seemed to speak Tea Party as her native language.

Now, we have Henry standing beside Donald Trump and praising him in Orwellian Ministry of Truth terms (up is down; black is white; Trump is not a “bomb-thrower” or “impulsive;” and we have always been at war with Eastasia).

And Nikki Haley, who rode anti-Establishment sentiment to power, is swooping in to help the Great Establishment Hope, Marco Rubio. Yeah, back in the day Rubio was nearly as Tea Party as she was, but that is not who he is this year.

And, of course, that’s the key to why Nikki is backing him. She’s not that wide-eyed insurgent, either — to her everlasting credit. She has grown in office, and governs more and more like someone who knows what she is about. Which is why you’ll see me saying more and more good things about her, and especially about her leadership last summer.

In an earlier time, an increasingly Establishment Republican governor in South Carolina would have been backing the guy whose last name is Bush.

Carroll Campbell jumped in early for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and played a huge role in Bush winning the S.C. primary, the nomination, and the White House. I called his former chief of staff, Bob McAlister, to check my memory on that. Bob noted that the Campbell-Bush connection continues to be strong: “Iris and the boys endorsed Jeb” just the other day.

But that was then and this is now, and Rubio seems a more attractive brand for a governor asserting her Establishment bona fides.

So given who Nikki Haley is now, the direction in which she has grown, this endorsement makes perfect sense.

But don’t ask me about the McMaster/Trump thing. That doesn’t begin to make any sense…

Donald Trump embraces the left’s ‘Bush lied’ lie. How is this going to play here in South Carolina?

My last post arose from Marco Rubio’s response to what Donald Trump said over the weekend, at that debate I had to stop watching.

Basically, Trump repeated the left’s “Bush lied” lie:

“You call it whatever you want. I wanna tell you. They lied…They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”

It’s fascinating how starkly that belief continues to divide us, in terms of our perceptions of reality. The Post‘s Richard Cohen wrote:

Of all the surprises, of all the unexpected ironies, of all the unanticipated turns in the Republican presidential race, it’s possible that Donald Trump has been hurt by telling the truth. Trump himself must be reeling from such a development and has probably by now vowed to return to lying and bluster seasoned with personal insult — “You’re a loser” — but the fact remains that when he called the war in Iraq “a big, fat mistake,” he was exactly right. Jeb Bush, the very good brother of a very bad president, has now turned legitimate criticism of George W. Bush into an attack on his family. His family survived the war. Countless others did not.

Hey, at least he called Jeb a “very good brother,” right?

But it fell to The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board to state what really happened, and what did not. As to Trump’s “They lied” assertion:

Despite years of investigation and countless memoirs, there is no evidence for this claim. None. The CIA director at the time, George Tenet, famously called evidence of WMD in Iraq a “slam dunk.” Other intelligence services, including the British, also believed Saddam Hussein had such programs. After the first Gulf War in 1991 the CIA had been surprised to learn that Saddam had far more WMD capability than it had thought. So it wasn’t crazy to suspect that Saddam would attempt to rebuild it after he had expelled United Nations arms inspectors in the late 1990s.

President Bush empowered a commission, led by former Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb and federal Judge Laurence Silberman, to dig into the WMD question with access to intelligence and officials across the government. The panel included Patricia Wald, a former chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals appointed by Jimmy Carter, and Richard Levin, president of Yale University at the time.

Their report of more than 600 pages concludes that it was the CIA’s “own independent judgments—flawed though they were—that led them to conclude Iraq had active WMD programs.” The report adds that “the Commission found no evidence of political pressure” to alter intelligence findings: “Analysts universally asserted that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter their analytical judgments.”…

The Journal‘s headline for that editorial was “Donald Trump’s MoveOn.org Moment.” Indeed. Once again, the extremes meet.

The big question this week is, as W. comes to South Carolina — which has been solid Bush country since 1988 (although not so much in 1980) — to help his brother out, how is Trump’s rant going to play here on Saturday?

Everyone’s asking that question.

In a rational world, it would sink Trump’s chances completely. But when in the past year have you seen the phenomenon of Trump fandom respond to anything resembling reason? Actual Republicans would likely react to this latest by saying Trump’s gone too far. But do you think “Trump supporters” and “Republicans” are the same set of people?

Add to that the fact that the GOP electorate in South Carolina hasn’t entirely been itself since it caught the Tea Party fever in 2010, and the effect of this particular rant may turn out to be a wash. Things are so messed up this year, I’m not going to try to make a prediction…

All those times we DIDN’T kill bin Laden

Bin Laden in 1997, being interviewed by a Pakistani journalist.

Bin Laden in 1997, being interviewed by a Pakistani journalist.

The Washington Post did a fact check on Marco Rubio’s assertion that “The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him.”

Rubio also said that Clinton passed on the chance to kill bin Laden “Not once but four times….”

Let’s set aside the blame game. I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall particularly expecting Bill Clinton to kill him. I sort of knew who bin Laden was back in the ’90s and that he was a real problem for us, but this was well before it was an accepted thing that POTUS would have a kill list on his desk, à la President Obama.

I said something about this on Twitter and Facebook, and Jim Hammond reminded me of one incident that was well-covered at the time, and it started coming back to me.

That said, the fact that the Post identified nine incidents in which the U.S. nearly went after or nearly got bin Laden, not just four, is fascinating — not as fodder for blaming this president or that one, but because its interesting to review what was really going on in that relatively complacent, “end of history” decade. An excerpt:

1. May 1998: Tarnak Farms raid plan rejected

The CIA planned hard on an effort to capture bin Laden and to bring him to the United States for a trial. But at the last minute the CIA senior management lost its nerve and apparently never brought the plan to Clinton for a decision.

From the 9/11 Commission report:

A compound of about 80 concrete or mud-brick buildings surrounded by a 10-foot wall, Tarnak Farms was located in an isolated desert area on the outskirts of the Kandahar airport. CIA officers were able to map the entire site, identifying the houses that belonged to Bin Laden’s wives and the one where Bin Laden himself was most likely to sleep. Working with the tribals, they drew up plans for the raid. They ran two complete rehearsals in the United States during the fall of 1997. By early 1998, planners at the Counterterrorist Center were ready to come back to the White House to seek formal approval…

One group of tribals would subdue the guards, enter Tarnak Farms stealthily, grab Bin Laden, take him to a desert site outside Kandahar, and turn him over to a second group. This second group of tribals would take him to a desert landing zone …From there, a CIA plane would take him to New York, an Arab capital, or wherever he was to be arraigned. Briefing papers prepared by the Counterterrorist Center acknowledged that hitches might develop. People might be killed, and Bin Laden’s supporters might retaliate, perhaps taking U.S. citizens in Kandahar hostage.

But the briefing papers also noted that there was risk in not acting. “Sooner or later,” they said, “Bin Laden will attack U.S. interests, perhaps using WMD [weapons of mass destruction].” The CIA planners conducted their third complete rehearsal in March…The plan had now been modified so that the tribals would keep Bin Laden in a hiding place for up to a month before turning him over to the United States-thereby increasing the chances of keeping the U.S. hand out of sight. …On May 18, CIA’s managers reviewed a draft Memorandum of Notification (MON), a legal document authorizing the capture operation. A 1986 presidential finding had authorized worldwide covert action against terrorism and probably provided adequate authority. But mindful of the old “rogue elephant” charge, senior CIA managers may have wanted something on paper to show that they were not acting on their own….

Discussion of this memorandum brought to the surface an unease about paramilitary covert action that had become ingrained, at least among some CIA senior managers. Despite misgivings, the CIA leadership cleared the draft memorandum and sent it on to the National Security Council.

From May 20 to 24, the CIA ran a final, graded rehearsal of the operation, spread over three time zones, even bringing in personnel from the region. The FBI also participated. The rehearsal went well. The Counterterrorist Center planned to brief cabinet-level principals and their deputies the following week, giving June 23 as the date for the raid, with Bin Laden to be brought out of Afghanistan no later than July 23.

On May 20, Director Tenet discussed the high risk of the operation with Berger and his deputies, warning that people might be killed, including Bin Laden. Success was to be defined as the exfiltration of Bin Laden out of Afghanistan. A meeting of principals was scheduled for May 29 to decide whether the operation should go ahead. But the principals did not meet…The plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.

Working-level CIA officers were disappointed….No capture plan before 9/11 ever again attained the same level of detail and preparation. The tribals’ reported readiness to act diminished. And Bin Laden’s security precautions and defenses became more elaborate and formidable.

Fascinating stuff…

The candidates as the cast of a WWII B movie

battleground

How did I get on this subject? Well, Bryan had said something about liking Scott Walker before he dropped out, and I said he failed to stand out and distinguish himself. All the other candidates have a shorthand character people can describe, for good or ill. For instance, Lindsey Graham, who did no better in the polls than Walker, was known as the hawkish guy with the wisecracks.

So I got to thinking about how we all think we know the candidates, even though we don’t really know them any deeper than we do the characters in a cliche-ridden B movie — as a group of familiar types.

So let’s treat them like old-style contract players and cast them in an imaginary flick about World War II, since most of us are familiar with the genre. The title of the film? I dunno. “Hell is for Sad Sacks,” or something like that.

Here we go:

LuzLindsey Graham‘s the wise-cracking guy who nevertheless can give a pretty good speech about why we fight, and though he’s obviously no John Wayne, he’ll likely be a passable soldier when the shooting starts. Think L.Q. Jones — the character, not the actor who played him and adopted the name (even though he was poorly cast) — in “Battle Cry.” Think the book version. Only Leon Uris fans will get that, so never mind. Instead, think George Luz in “Band of Brothers.”

HallScott Walker is the replacement who gets killed at the start of the first battle, and no one in the unit can remember his name. Or maybe he was a member of another company entirely who ended up fighting alongside the main characters because the drop zones were all messed up. Think Private Hall in “Band of Brothers,” the guy who is the first character killed on D-Day. Or, to switch genres, anyone in a red shirt on “Star Trek.”

FrankoTed Cruz is the blowhard who talks big about how many Krauts he’s gonna kill, and the first time he’s within hearing of the guns he’s found cowering, quivering, in his foxhole. Everybody hates him — he’s always figuring an angle for getting ahead, at the expense of the other guys in the platoon — so they’re inclined to leave him there in the hole, but someone calls the medic. In “The Dirty Dozen,” he’d be Victor Franko.

RicklesDonald Trump is the utterly corrupt quartermaster who runs the black market operations in the area. A real weasel, although a tremendous businessman (ya gotta give him that) he’s all about insulting the other guys in the battalion. He’s even trading with the enemy; anything for the deal. He gets along great with Starshina Putin, his counterpart in the Red Army unit just over the hill. Think Don Rickles in “Kelly’s Heroes.” (He’s not smooth enough to be Milo Minderbinder.)

earnest young officerJeb Bush is the well-meaning but largely ineffectual officer who lives under a huge shadow. His father was a general and even his ne’er-do-well big brother made a name for himself earlier in the war. He got great grades at West Point but thus far hasn’t distinguished himself. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not the kind of guy the men are all that eager to follow into battle. Picture Tom Hanks’ kid in “Band of Brothers.” (I’m not going to be cruel and call him Lt. Dike.)

PopsBernie Sanders is “Pops,” the impossibly old guy who somehow got drafted anyway. The young guys all think he’s great and look out for him, even politely listening to his crackpot ideas about politics, the Army, etc. He likes to freak out the recruits by popping his teeth out without warning. For some reason I’m picturing James Whitmore in “Battleground,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Can anyone think of somebody better?

Savalas 2Chris Christie is the crusty sergeant who’s been there and done that and rides the younger guys pretty hard, calling them “craphead” and “boy in the bubble” and such. Maybe Telly Savalas, in either “Battle of the Bulge” or “Kelly’s Heroes;” take your pick. But not in “The Dirty Dozen” — totally different character. Was James Gandolfini ever in this kind of movie? That would be perfect, but I don’t think he ever was.

WebsterMarco Rubio is “College,” the guy who earned half a degree before deciding he’d better join up. He’s a slick talker and will probably get into politics when he gets back home. The guys respect him for his ability to talk his way out of KP and such, but he hasn’t proven himself to them yet, and some wonder how he’ll measure up in combat. Think of David Kenyon Webster, the Ivy Leaguer in “Band of Brothers.”

StrayerJohn Kasich is the battalion executive officer, like Major Strayer in “Band of Brothers.” (Yeah, I keep citing “Band of Brothers,” which doesn’t fit the mold of the stereotype-ridden B movie. But there were just so many characters to choose from.) He’s regular Army and he knows his way around and the guys pretty much respect him and accept him in the No. 2 role, but people just aren’t sure how he’ll lead if the Old Man gets hit. This guy doesn’t usually have a lot of lines in the movie.

rooseveltI don’t know who Hillary Clinton is. It’s tough, since the Pentagon hadn’t yet rubber-stamped an OK on women in combat. I’m still working on it… She’s not a nurse (unless we’re talking Nurse Ratched, and that’s the wrong genre), and I don’t see her as the dame back home who wrote you a Dear John letter and broke your heart. Maybe she’s the long-suffering wife of the good-time company commander who chases all the nurses — Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity.” But I don’t see her with Burt Lancaster. Maybe I’ll just say she’s Eleanor Roosevelt. She should like that…

‘The Nation’ on politics and race in South Carolina

My headline might make you cringe a bit, but the piece isn’t bad. It doesn’t really say anything about us that I haven’t said, or that you don’t already know.

After all, we are the state that seceded first, and some of us would do it again with just a modest amount of encouragement.

It’s tone-deaf in a couple of spots, though. For instance, it equates Strom Thurmond, the segregationist, with Ben Tillman, the advocate of lynching. Most of us can see the gradations of wrongness there rather clearly. And speaking of Thurmond — the writer either doesn’t know or has forgotten that the senator cleaned up his act in the last few decades of his career. In other words, he spent far more years in the Senate NOT being a segregationist than most people spend in the Senate.

That leads to confusion. After noting approvingly that Paul Thurmond says a lot of enlightened things — which he does; he’s a fine young man — the writer observes,

I leave Thurmond’s office wondering whether what I’ve just heard can be real. He seemed like a sincere man, but he, too, was eager to get beyond race. “My generation has not been taught to hate people based on the color of their skin,” the son of South Carolina’s most notorious segregationist told me.

Yet someone taught Dylann Roof and Michael Slager, the cop who shot Walter Scott in the back. The Confederate flag may finally be on its way to a museum, but the attitude of racial arrogance that the flag represented is very far from being a mere artifact. That’s a fundamental truth of our national life—though not one that’s easy to see from Iowa or New Hampshire. Perhaps South Carolina’s role in our politics is to remind us of all those parallel universes—not just Republican and Democratic, or rich and poor, but yes, still black and white—we work so hard to ignore. We always have a choice. We can carry on pretending that it’s still morning in America, that we’re all in this together. Or we can take a good hard look in the mirror.

Yep, Strom was a notorious segregationist, before he wasn’t. (Oh, and do I think it’s because he had some road-to-Damascus transformation, like Tom Turnipseed, the opponent of integration who did a 180 to become possibly the most ardent, sincerest progressive in South Carolina? No. The world changed, and Thurmond adapted. Early in his career, it was helpful to be a segregationist, so he was one. Later it was not, so he wasn’t. But it’s still true that he wasn’t.)

And the fact that Dylann Roof is a racist does in no way demonstrates that Paul Thurmond is lying when he says he wasn’t brought up that way. Possibly, Dylann Roof wasn’t brought up that way, either. I have my doubts about the old saw that children have to be taught to hate. I strongly suspect that people are capable of getting there on their own. Anyway, almost no one Paul Thurmond’s age was brought up that way, although his father certainly was. We live in subtler, politer times.

But there is no doubt that, decades after the Southern Strategy transferred the Solid South from the Democrats to the Republicans, race is always, always on the table. The article gets that right. It just misses some of the nuances…

Will the U.S. never disentangle itself from WWII?

Here are the two top stories in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:

  • The Bundeswehr Backs Away From the Brink — Since the end of the Cold War, NATO members’ defense expenditures, which include arms as well as personnel and facilities, have dropped dramatically. Now, Germany plans to increase its military spending, in large part to repair and maintain the Bundeswehr’s deteriorating equipment.
  • The Battle for Okinawa — Growing discontent in Okinawa has the potential to reverberate beyond Japan’s borders. If Washington and Tokyo wish to maintain the bases there, they must be prepared to address the historical and political issues that have led Okinawans to reject them.

By modern standards, we should all be wringing our hands that we are still not rid of the challenges arising from that mess we got involved in back in 1941.

At the moment, I’m reading a fairly new book about the battle in the Ardennes in December 1944 (a.k.a., Battle of the Bulge), and I’m reminded of how Hitler hoped it might give him a chance to fight to a stalemate in the West, so he could concentrate on his main enemy, Russia.

If some modern American leaders had been in charge back then, he might have succeeded. The nation would be in political shock from the disasters of Market Garden and the Hurtgen Forest, that a modern president might have seized upon the Ardennes as an excuse to quit and seek a negotiated settlement.

Then, he could have bragged about having “ended the war in Europe.” Of course, that would have been totally bogus, but not by our standards today…

Doesn’t everybody think of history this way (sort of)?

history

Tim Urban, Wait But Why

I found this piece in The Washington Post over the weekend interesting and enjoyable, but odd:

The history of the world, as you’ve never seen it before

Quick, what famous historical figures were living roughly 500 years ago?

A few creative people might bring to mind the rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and recall Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella. Some clever souls might recall that Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel in 1512, and recall from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a few other names — Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello. Or real history buffs might recall the astronomical work of Copernicus, or Henry VIII’s diva dips in the early 1500s.

But for most of us, what will come to mind is probably the hum of nothingness, or the gentle chirping of crickets. Most of what people remember from history class is pretty pathetic, a weak smattering of names and random anecdotes, like Eli Whitney and his revolutionary cotton gin, or Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in Florida.

We tend to learn about history by following a particular life or a conflict through the years – what Tim Urban, who runs the blog Wait But Why, calls “understanding history in a vertical sense.” But in a new blog, Urban offers another fascinating approach to understanding history: Taking a big “horizontal” slice to look at who was alive around the world in a certain year….

I say “odd” because… this is sort of the way I’ve always thought of history, not “a way you’ve never seen it before.” I mean, it’s not like I have this infallible database in my mind about when famous historical figures were born and died. I wouldn’t be able to construct a graph like the one above off the top of my head. In fact, I don’t really think in terms of precise dates, beyond the obvious ones such as 1066, 1492, 1776, 1800, 1861-65, 1939-45, and so forth.

But I think of people and events in context. I know roughly who was whose contemporary, because the events they were involved in were happening at about the same time.

How can you avoid knowing, for instance, that Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Horace Greeley, George Armstrong Custer and John Mosby were all alive around the same time? They were involved in the same issues during the same era. Admittedly, it’s harder to remember that Karl Marx was a contemporary, too, since he wasn’t involved in the same events and issues. And I had to check to see that The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital straddled the Civil War years. But I knew they were around that time — that is to say, roughly mid-century. I knew Crime and Punishment appeared in the 1860s, and I had this vague idea that Dostoevsky was interacting with Marxist ideas, and… to simplify, I see connections, even if they aren’t as organized as on Mr. Urban’s blog.

It seems to me odd that anyone would think about it any other way. I’m thinking some of y’all probably think of history in this “new” way as well…

WWII: The experience that everyone shared (and yeah, I know that’s a huge cliche)

Everyone, that is, except me, people around my age and of course, those much younger.

And yeah, I know the ubiquity of the war experience is pretty much a cliche, but I keep getting reminded of it in ways that make the notion seem fresh.

My history classes in school never got around to the war, even when it was right there, near the end of the textbook. I always sort of figured it was a low priority for my teachers because in their minds, well, “we all lived through it, right?” So I had to read about the events that most immediately shaped the world I grew up in on my own.

In typing my mother’s childhood memoirs, I’m reminded yet again of how the war shaped the lives even of those who never went overseas.

So I know all that, and have known it since childhood, but every time I run across by-the-way mentions of the war experiences of various famous people, I’m reminded that, unlike Vietnam and definitely unlike the War on Terror, pretty much everyone who was eligible did go.

61t3in9FBcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last night, I started reading one of the books I received for Christmas, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. (It was sort of an ironic experience, opening that present and seeing on the cover the beleaguered soldier in the snow — on a Christmas Day in the 70s.)

On the second page, I had another of those “Wow, everybody was in this” experiences. The author was explaining how, in August 1944, things were still unsettled in newly liberated Paris, which is why Eisenhower was pretty much ignoring FDR’s wishes and showing support for de Gaulle, who he believed could stabilize things in his rear while his troops moved on to Germany.

Within that context, I read this, in the middle of a paragraph:

…Together with a comrade, the writer J.D. Salinger, a Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, had arrested a suspect in an action close to the Hôtel de Ville, only for the crowd to drag him away and beat him to death in front of their eyes….

I mean, think about it: This guy was a famous recluse my whole life. We all knew two things about Salinger: He wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and he was a recluse. You didn’t see him anywhere. And yet here he is popping up in the middle of things in Paris during the war.

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Months later, in the battle that this book is about, Kurt Vonnegut would be captured, along with my father-in-law — both soldiers in the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division, that new unit of green troops who had been placed at the center of the line, where things were supposed to be quiet.

I’m not a student of Salinger — if I were, I’d be well aware of his extensive experience in the war — but it immediately occurred to me that maybe experiences such as that one in Paris help explain why he turned into such a hermit. And sure enough, I see that he was hospitalized for a few weeks with “combat stress reaction” — although he waited until the Germans were defeated to have his breakdown.

Anyway, it’s just a small thing, a footnote, but such things interest me….