Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lest I Come And Smite The Land With Peace

Especially since the War in Iraq, this quotation has become fairly well-known:

Why, of course the people do not want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece.

Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

The speaker is Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Field Marshall, in Nuremberg on April 18, 1946, quoted by the psychologist and U. S. Army Captain Gustave Gilbert in Nuremberg Diary, originally published in 1947, reprinted by Da Capo in 1995. It doesn’t come from Goering’s trial testimony, but from conversation with Gilbert in his cell.

It’s almost too good to believe, isn’t it? By now I’ve learned to be suspicious when this sort of smoking-gun quotation is attributed to some political figure or other, in which he admits his conscious and deliberate wickedness. But this one does seem to be genuine.

Rereading the quotation recently, I noticed the word “pacifists” in the next-to-last sentence. A pacifist is someone who is opposed to all war or violence on principle. If you think about it, you’ll probably recognize that not everyone who opposes a given war is a pacifist. Certainly not everyone who opposed the Iraq War, or the various U.S. wars of recent memory, was a pacifist; some were active members of the military. When Clinton attacked Kosovo, he was opposed partly by the Usual Suspects on the Left, some (but not all) of whom really are pacifists, but he was also opposed by numerous figures on the Right who I’d be very surprised to learn are opposed to war or violence in principle. Their rationale was along the lines of, ‘There’s nothing in the Balkans worth the blood or life of one American boy.’ Whatever you think of that statement, it isn’t pacifistic; it implies that in other places – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, for example – there is something worth the lives of many American boys, to say nothing of the lives of vastly greater numbers of Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians.

I’ve noticed that defenders of Bush’s war -- the conservatives who are still defending it, but also various cruise missile leftists and liberals who jumped on board, especially at first – often referred to the opponents of the war as pacifists. I don’t think they meant ‘people who oppose war on principle’ by the term, any more than Goering did. What they meant was something like ‘dirty hippies and lily-livered cowards who are afraid to fight and would let Saddam Hussein conquer our Great Nation without firing a shot.’ Some of Noam Chomsky’s liberal critics, for instance, have said that Chomsky would oppose any American use of force; not on principle, it seems, but just because he Hates America and doesn’t want it to have any fun. One former friend of mine, a self-styled liberal, said basically the same thing to me in the weeks after 9/11; I countered that he would support any American use of force, as he had during all the time I’d known him.

The underlying assumption is that war is a good thing (its fans will hotly deny that they think so, even as they rattle the sabers) and that very compelling reasons are needed to oppose any given adventure. (In the case of Kosovo, the Right’s very compelling reason seemed to boil down mainly to its being Clinton’s war and not a Republican President’s.) To my mind, it’s the other way around, with the (very heavy) burden of argument lying on the advocate of violence; and no, “We’ve got to do something” is not an argument, especially not when “something” means bombing random civilians and destroying infrastructure. The cheerful readiness of war advocates to believe transparent propaganda about surgical strikes and smart bombs is good reason to believe that they really do love war. And once the killing’s underway, well, you can’t expect them to stop now, bellus interruptus is bad for the nervous system, as well as an abomination to Yahweh.

The use of “pacifist” as an all-purpose insult for anyone who opposes a given war, whatever the reasons, is one more sign of this preference for war. It’s a slightly more genteel way of calling the opposition a bunch of faggots – unmanly, lacking stomach for bloodshed, devoid of warrior values – and most important, it allows the war lovers to evade any serious debate. Debate might give people’s blood time to cool, they might start to think about the consequences of the proposed war, and vital momentum might be lost. That Goering’s tactic works as well in the US as it did in Nazi Germany (of course it works well just about everywhere) doesn’t speak well for us.