Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Whiff of Sauerkraut

It is a misunderstanding to suppose that human beings descended from chimpanzees or gorillas. In reality, both modern apes and modern men have a common ancestor, albeit one that would have struck an observer as distinctly apelike. Anybody who suggests that the current administration is analogous to Hitler’s regime falls into a similar error. Bush and his cohort are obviously not Nazis. They simply share a common ancestor with them, namely, the Second Reich. Bush is not very much like Hitler, but he’s quite a bit like Kaiser Wilhelm II and he’s surrounded by quite a few Ludendorff wannabes—McCain is more in the tradition of Hindenburg, a dullard who looks good in a uniform. Unfortunately, many of the people with a spiritual kinship with pre-1918 Germany are not part of the Bush administration or even necessarily Republicans.

It is well known that the American system of postgraduate education follows a German model. Unfortunately, the Ph.D. is not the only institution we borrowed from them. Our military was formed on a German model. If you read old American army textbooks on the conduct of war, you’ll find that our ideas of how to deal with insurgencies are distinctly Teutonic, featuring bland instructions to take civilian hostages and burn down villages. The similarities are small wonder since the infantry manuals recommend, with footnotes, no less, the methods the Germans used against French guerillas during the Franco-Prussian War and against the Herero in Southwest Africa. Of course all modern militaries borrowed a lot from the technical innovations of the German military. What worries me, however, is not that our men go into battle in German helmets or that we have a general staff, but the way in which the military has become for us as it was for the Germans: the moral model for national behavior.

The German Empire was characterized less by an ideology than by a set of practices, a general admiration for authority and violence, and a tendency to automatically justify any action by appeal to military necessity. Long before Bush and Chaney dispensed with international law, the Germans were abusing prisoners, engaging in preventative wars, and using terror weapons such as gas, not because a threat to national survival justified these transgressions but because victory was thought to depend upon them. The precedent for our occupation of Iraq was the German occupation of Belgium and Eastern Europe in the years 1914 to 1918; and the methods of occupation were not dissimilar either, i.e., they were both characterized by the extraordinary levels of incompetence and corruption that are routine in areas run by military fiat. The Republicans may give lip service to the virtues of a competitive market economy, but in giving carte blanche to the military industrial complex they are really opting for a command economy.

The Teutonic/American idealization of the military has a disastrous effect on strategy, which, contrary to the usual bleat, is not about winning victories. That’s simply not the point of rational policy. It’s the object of a game of tin soldiers. Serious strategy may certainly include resort to violence, but the German example shows what you get when you make a fetish of the glorious decisive battle. Before World War I, the military philosophers of the Reich endlessly dreamed of repeating the triumph of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae and contemplated with rapture (if not tumescence) the neat diagram of his paradigmatic double envelopment. They spent much less time noticing that Carthage lost the war. Many Americans also make a fetish of purely operational and technical military efficiency as if a big, smash up victory solves all problems. Of course, at least in the case of the Second Iraq War, it was the civilian authorities who imposed this mind set on the military and not the other way around since many professionals in the American army have a far more adult conception of war and politics than the average right-wing politician.

In the absence of a sense of specific purpose, a military will more or less inevitably pursue the abstract, almost tautological goal of absolute power. That’s what happened in Germany before World War I. In the quest for the ability to crush all enemies, the Germans guaranteed a non-stop arms race that they could only lose and alienated much of the world. Our situation is similar. We keep pouring money into the military, not to defend ourselves from any particular threat, but in pursuit of the dream of total world dominance. Now it may be that we can afford to spend more money on arms than the rest of the world put together, though I doubt if that will remain possible indefinitely or even very much longer; but unless you plan on actually dominating the world, all the money you spend over and beyond what it would take to remain safe is in any case a sheer waste. Worse, since the other countries are aware of what we are doing and will take steps to match our endless build up. The most important strategic consequence of the anti-ballistic missile program, for example, is likely to be an increase in the number of Russian and, more importantly, Chinese weapons aimed at us. Our endless quest for overwhelming power also has the effect of encouraging the development of non-conventional ways to thwart our power. Terrorism is the most obvious asymmetric response. There will be others.