“On Leave”: The Costs of War

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W.J. Astore

Recently, a good friend gave me a copy of Daniel Anselme’s “On Leave,” a book published in 1957 in the early stages of France’s war in Algeria, which ultimately ended in France’s defeat and Algerian independence in 1962.  A novel, it follows three French soldiers on furlough in and around Paris and their desperate (and mostly failed) efforts to reconnect to home prior to returning to a brutal war.

The main themes are disaffection and disorientation.  The gulf in understanding between the soldier-conscripts and their families and the wider public is simply too wide to be bridged.  Instead, the soldiers find comfort in drink, women, and especially in each other. Having relied on each other in war, they come to rely on each other again in the short downtime they have from its brutalities.

What struck me forcibly was the indifference of France to the soldiers.  We see a similar indifference today in the U.S., despite all of the “support our troops” rhetoric. This “support” often is, as the saying goes, a mile wide but only an inch deep.  Another similarity between then and now is the gulf in understanding between what the soldiers know about war and what the people think they know. The soldiers know the horrors; the people only know a few talking points.  Back then it was about upholding the honor of France; nowadays in the USA it’s about fighting them (the terrorists) over there so we don’t have to fight them here.

For the troops, it’s always the same cause: preservation.  Survival.  Saving oneself and one’s buddies.

One soldier gives an electric speech about “when will it end.” How many men is France willing to lose in its attempt to hold onto some smidgen of colonial glory? How long will the wars in Africa go on?  His speech made me think of our own, seemingly endless, wars.

All three men in this story — a sergeant, a corporal, and a private — are unwounded physically from war.  Yet all three are psychological casualties.  War and atrocity has already inflicted a serious toll, as all three suffer some of the less obvious costs of war and extended military service (broken marriages, family arguments and estrangement and resentment, guilt at not being able to conform to family expectations, a growing sense of fatalism).

Recognizing a lost cause, French President Charles de Gaulle eventually smartened up and pulled out of Algeria.  But the U.S. today doesn’t have leaders of de Gaulle’s grit and smarts to recognize a losing hand. So America’s wars just grind on and on.

“On Leave” is a fine book.  Would that it were on President Obama’s summer reading list, or on Hillary’s or Trump’s.  They could all use a heavy dose of reality about war’s futility.

The Attack in Nice, France

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W.J. Astore

In Nice, France, 84 people were killed by a maniac who drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day (French Independence Day).  The driver, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was a French-Tunisian with a criminal record but with no known terrorist links.

Much remains unknown about this attack.  Was the driver acting alone?  Was he “radicalized,” killing for a political/religious purpose?  Was he working with a terrorist sect, or perhaps he sympathized with one?  We should be careful not to jump to conclusions.

I want to make one rather obvious point: It’s easy to politicize such horrendous attacks. It’s easy to say things like: “It’s all the fault of radical Islam!  The West is at war with radical Islam!  Muslim immigrants are to blame!”  And so on. Before reaching any conclusions, let’s gather all the evidence.

There’s a natural tendency to resort to the rhetoric of warfare here.  Politicians are especially prone to this.  And if you don’t agree with them, they dismiss you as naive or delusional — or worse.

The problem with warfare rhetoric is that it answers questions before they’re even asked. It imposes solutions before you even fully understand the problem.  For example, if it’s a “war,” the inevitable solution is more militarization.  More surveillance.  More police. More weapons.  Perhaps more military strikes as well.

But what if more military strikes actually aggravate the problem?  What if more police, more surveillance, more raids combine to abridge the freedoms that France fought for, the very freedoms which the French celebrate each year on Bastille Day?

Liberty, equality, and fraternity are noble goals.  They need always to be nourished and protected, not just from terrorists and other criminals, but from those in authority who may overreact in the name of protecting the people.

A Contrary Perspective on the Middle East

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W.J. Astore

How about a contrary perspective on the Middle East, courtesy of my old globe?  It dates from the early 1920s, just after World War I but before Russia became the Soviet Union.  Taking a close look at the Middle East (a geographic term that I use loosely), you’ll notice more than a few differences from today’s maps and globes:

  1. Iraq and Syria don’t exist.  Neither does Israel.  Today’s Iran is yesterday’s Persia, of course.
  2. Instead of Iraq and Syria, we have Mesopotamia, a name that resonates history, part of the Fertile Crescent that encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as well as the Nile in Egypt.  Six thousand years ago, the cradle of human civilization, and now more often the scene of devastation caused mainly by endless war.
  3. Ah, Kurdistan!  The Kurds today in northern Iraq and southern Turkey would love to have their own homeland.  Naturally, the Arabs and Turks, along with the Persians, feel differently.
  4. Look closely and you’ll see “Br. Mand.” and “Fr. Mand.”  With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (roughly a larger version of modern-day Turkey) at the end of World War I, the British gained a mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia and the French gained one over territory that would become Lebanon and Syria.  The British made conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs over who would control Palestine while scheming to protect their own control over the Suez Canal.  A large portion of Palestine, of course, was given to Jews after the Holocaust of World War II, marking the creation of Israel and setting off several Arab-Israeli Wars(1948-73) and the ongoing low-level war between Israel and the Palestinians, most bitterly over the status of the “Occupied Territories”: land captured by the Israelis during these wars, i.e. the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (both not labeled on my outdated globe).
  5. Improvisation marked the creation of states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  Borders encapsulated diverse peoples with differing goals. Western powers like Britain and France cared little for tribal allegiances or Sunni/Shia sensitivities or political leanings, favoring autocratic rulers who could keep the diverse peoples who lived there in line.
  6. Historically powerful peoples with long memories border the Middle East.  The Turks and the Persians (Iranians), of course, with Russians hovering in the near distance.  They all remain players with conflicting goals in the latest civil war in Syria and the struggle against ISIS/ISIL.
  7. Three of the world’s “great” religions originated from a relatively tiny area of our globe: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Talk about a fertile crescent!  Sadly, close proximity and shared roots did not foster tolerance: quite the reverse.
  8. Remember when Saudi Arabia was just Arabia?  Ah, those were the good old days, Lawrence.
  9. Nobody talks much about Jordan, an oasis of relative calm in the area (not shown on my old globe).  Lucky Jordan.
  10. The presence of Armenia in Turkey on my old globe raises all kinds of historical ghosts, to include the Armenian genocide of World War I. Today, Turkey continues to deny that the word “genocide” is appropriate to the mass death of Armenians during World War I.

My fellow Americans, one statement: The idea that America “must lead” in this area of the world speaks to our hubris and ignorance.  We are obviously not seen as impartial.  Our “leadership” is mainly expressed by violent military action.

But we just can’t help ourselves.  The idea of “global reach, global power” is too intoxicating.  We see the globe as ours to spin.  Ours to control.

Perhaps old globes can teach us the transitory nature of power.  After all, those British and French mandates are gone.  European powers, however grudgingly, learned to retrench.  (Of course, the British and French, together with the Germans, are now bombing and blasting old mandates in the name of combating terrorism.)

I wonder how a globe made in 2115 will depict this area of the world. Will it look like today’s globe, or more like my globe from c.1920, or something entirely different?  Will it show a new regional empire or more fragmentation?  An empire based on Islam or a shattered and blasted infertile crescent ravaged by war and an inhospitable climate driven by global warming?

Readers: I welcome your comments and predictions.