With fires raging in California and Oregon, and with unemployment rates high, I recalled the experiences of my dad, which I wrote about twelve years ago for TomDispatch.com. My dad served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), mainly fighting forest fires in Oregon. The CCC was one of those alphabet soup agencies created by FDR’s administration to put people back to work while paying them a meaningful wage. You might call it “democratic socialism,” but I prefer to call it common sense and applaud its spirit of service to country.
We need to revive national service while deemphasizing its military aspects. There are all sorts of honorable services one can render to one’s fellow citizens, as my father’s example shows from the 1930s, an era that now seems almost biblical in its remoteness from today’s concerns.
Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us? Reviving National Service in a Big Way
By William J. Astore
Lately, our news has focused on tropical depressions maturing into monster hurricanes that leave devastation in their wake — and I’m not just talking about Gustav and Ike. Today, we face a perfect storm of financial devastation, notable for the enormity of the greed that generated it and the somnolent response of our government in helping Americans left devastated in its wake.
As unemployment rates soar to their highest level in five years and home construction sinks to its lowest level in 17 years, all our federal government seems able to do is buy up to $700 billion in “distressed” mortgage-related assets, bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (at a cost of roughly $200 billion) or “loan” $85 billion to liquidate insurance giant AIG. If you’re Merrill Lynch, you get a hearing; if you’re just plain Marilyn Lynch of Topeka, what you get is a recession, a looming depression, and a federal tax bill for the fat-cat bail-outs.
But, amazingly enough, ordinary Americans generally don’t want bail-outs, nor do they want handouts. What they normally want is honorable work, decent wages, and a government willing to wake up and help them contribute to a national restoration.
How America Was Once Rebuilt
Before surging ahead, however, let’s look back. Seventy-five years ago, our country faced an even deeper depression. Millions of men had neither jobs, nor job prospects. Families were struggling to put food on the table. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, soon widely known as the CCC.
From 1933 to 1942, the CCC enrolled nearly 3.5 million men in roughly 4,500 camps across the country. It helped to build roads, build and repair bridges, clear brush and fight forest fires, create state parks and recreational areas, and otherwise develop and improve our nation’s infrastructure — work no less desperately needed today than it was back then. These young men — women were not included — willingly lived in primitive camps and barracks, sacrificing to support their families who were hurting back home.
My father, who served in the CCC from 1935 to 1937, was among those young men. They earned $30 a month for their labor — a dollar a day — and he sent home $25 of that to support the family. For those modest wages, he and others like him gave liberally to our country in return. The stats are still impressive: 800 state parks developed; 125,000 miles of road built; more than two billion trees planted; 972 million fish stocked. The list goes on and on in jaw-dropping detail.
Not only did the CCC improve our country physically, you might even say that experiencing it prepared a significant part of the “greatest generation” of World War II for greatness. After all, veterans of the CCC had already learned to work and sacrifice for something larger than themselves — for, in fact, their families, their state, their country. As important as the G.I. Bill was to veterans returning from that war and to our country’s economic boom in the 1950s, the CCC was certainly no less important in building character and instilling an ethic of teamwork, service, and sacrifice in a generation of American men.
Today, we desperately need to tap a similar ethic of service to country. The parlous health of our communities, our rickety infrastructure, and our increasingly rickety country demands nothing less.
Of course, I’m hardly alone in suggesting the importance of national service. Last year, in Time Magazine, for example, Richard Stengel called for a revival of national service and urged the formation of a “Green Corps,” analogous to the CCC, and dedicated to the rejuvenation of our national infrastructure.
To mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, John McCain and Barack Obama recently spoke in glowing terms of national service at a forum hosted by Columbia University. Both men expressed support for increased governmental spending, with McCain promising that, as president, he would sign into law the Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act,” which would, among other things, triple the size of the AmeriCorps. (Of course, McCain had just come from a Republican convention that had again and again mocked Obama’s time as a “community organizer” and, even at Columbia, he expressed a preference for faith-based organizations and the private sector over service programs run by the government.) Obama has made national service a pillar of his campaign, promising to spend $3.5 billion annually to more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, while also doubling the size of the Peace Corps.
It all sounds impressive. But is it? Compared to the roughly $900 billion being spent in FY2009 on national defense, homeland security, intelligence, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $3.5 billion seems like chump change, not a major investment in national service or in Americans. When you consider the problems facing American workers and our country, both McCain and Obama are remarkable in their timidity. Now is surely not the time to tinker with the controls on a ship of state that’s listing dangerously to starboard.
Do I overstate? Here are just two data points. Last month our national unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, a five-year high. This year alone, we’ve shed more than 600,000 jobs in eight months. If you include the so-called marginally attached jobless, 11 million Americans are currently out of work, which adds up to a real unemployment rate of 7.1%. Now, that doesn’t begin to compare to the unemployment rate during the Great Depression which, at times, exceeded 20%. In absolute terms, however, 11 million unemployed American workers represent an enormous waste of human potential.
How can we get people off the jobless rolls, while offering them useful tasks that will help support families, while building character, community, and country?
Here’s where our federal government really should step in, just as it did in 1933. For we face an enormous national challenge today which goes largely unaddressed: shoring up our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The prestigious American Society of Civil Engineers did a survey of, and a report card on, the state of the American infrastructure. Our country’s backbone earned a dismal “D,” barely above a failing (and fatal) grade. The Society estimates that we need to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure maintenance and improvements over the next five years or face ever more collapsing bridges and bursting dams. It’s a staggering sum, until you realize that we’re already approaching a trillion dollars spent on the Iraq war alone.
No less pressing than a trillion-dollar investment in our nation’s physical health is a commensurate investment in the emotional and civic well-being of our country — not just the drop-in-the-bucket amounts both Obama and McCain are talking about, but something commensurate with the task ahead of us. As our president dithers, even refusing to use the “R” word of recession, The Wall Street Journalquotes Mark Gertler, a New York University economist, simply stating this is “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”
The best and fairest way to head off that crisis is not simply to spend untold scores of billions of taxpayer dollars rescuing (or even liquidating) recklessly speculative outfits that gave no thought to ordinary workers while they were living large. Rather, our government should invest scores of billions in empowering the ordinary American worker, particularly those who have suffered the most from the economic ravages of our financial hurricane.
Just as in 1933, a call today to serve our country and strengthen its infrastructure would serve to reenergize a shared sense of commitment to America. Such service would touch millions of Americans in powerful ways that can’t be fully predicted in advance, just as it touched my father as a young man.
What “Ordinary” Americans Are Capable Of
My father was a self-confessed “regular guy,” and his CCC service was typical. He was a “woodsman-falling,” a somewhat droll job title perhaps, but one that concealed considerable danger. In the fall of 1936, he fought the Bandon forest fire in Oregon, a huge conflagration that burned 100,000 acres and killed a dozen people. To corral and contain that fire, he and the other “fellows” in his company worked on the fire lines for five straight weeks. At one point, my father worked 22 hours straight, in part because the fire raged so fiercely and so close to him that he was too scared to sleep (as he admitted to me long after).
My father was 19 when he fought that fire. Previously, he had been a newspaper boy and had after the tenth grade quit high school to support the family. Still, nothing marked him as a man who would risk his own life to save the lives of others, but his country gave him an opportunity to serve and prove himself, and he did.
Before joining the CCC, my father had been a city boy, but in the Oregon woods he discovered a new world of great wonder. It enriched his life, just as his recollections of it enrich my own:
“Thunder and lightning are very dangerous in the forest. Well, one stormy night a Forest Ranger smoke chaser got a call from the fire tower. They spotted a small night fire; getting the location the Ranger took me and another CCC boy to check it out. After walking about a mile in the woods we spotted the fire. It had burned a circle of fire at least 100 yards in diameter from the impact of the lightning bolt.
“You never saw anything so beautiful. The trees were all lit in fire; the fire on the ground was lit up in hot coals. Also fiery embers were falling off the trees. Some of the trees were dried dead snags. It looked like the New York skyline lit up at night. The Ranger radioed back for a fire crew. Meanwhile the three of us started to contain the fire with a fire trail.
“Later, we got caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains. We stretched a tarpaulin to protect ourselves from the downpours. You could see the storm clouds, with thunder and lightning flashing, approaching and passing over us. Then the torrents of rain. It would stop and clear with stars shining. And sure enough it must have repeated the sequence at least five times. What a night.”
Jump ahead to 2008 and picture a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. Do you see a self-centered slacker, someone too preoccupied exercising his thumbs on video games, or advertising himself on MySpace and Facebook, to do much of anything to help anyone other than himself?
Sure, there are a few of these. Aren’t there always? But many more young Americans already serve or volunteer in some capacity. Even our imaginary slacker may just need an opportunity — and a little push — to prove his mettle. We’ll never know unless our leaders put our money where, at present, only their mouths are.
Remaking National Service — And Our Country
Today, when most people think of national service, they think of military service. As a retired military officer, I’m hardly one to discount the importance of such service, but we need to extend the notion of service beyond the military, beyond national defense, to embrace all dimensions of civic life. Imagine if such service was as much the norm as in the 1930s, rather than the exception, and imagine if our government was no longer seen as the problem, but the progenitor of opportunity and solutions?
Some will say it can no longer be done. Much like Rudy Giuliani, they’ll poke fun at the whole idea of service, and paint the government as dangerously corrupt, or wasteful, or even as the enemy of the people — perhaps because they’re part of that same government.
How sad. We don’t need jaded “insiders” or callow “outsiders” in Washington; what we need are doers and dreamers. We need leaders with faith both in the people — the common worker with uncommon spirit — and the government to inspire and get things done.
The unselfish idealism, work ethic, and public service of the CCC could be tapped again, if only our government remembers that our greatest national resource is not exhaustible commodities like oil or natural gas, but the inexhaustible spirit and generosity of the American worker.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at email@example.com.
About fifteen years ago, I wrote a short history of World War II for an encyclopedia on military history. I was supposed to be paid for it, but apparently the money ran out, though my article and the encyclopedia did appear in 2006. Having not been paid, I still own the rights to my article, so I’m posting it today, hoping it may serve as a brief introduction for a wider audience to a very complex subject. A short bibliography is included at the end.
Dr. William J. Astore
World War II (1939-1945): Calamitous global war that resulted in the death of sixty million people. The war’s onset and course cannot be understood without reference to World War I. While combat in the European theater of operations (ETO) lasted six years, in Asia and the Pacific combat lasted fourteen years, starting with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Unprecedented in scale, World War II witnessed deliberate and systematic killing of innocents. Especially horrific was Germany’s genocidal Endlösung (Final Solution), during which the Nazis attempted to murder all Jewish, Sinti, and Roma peoples, in what later became known as the Holocaust.
Rapid campaigns, such as Germany’s stunning seven-week Blitzkrieg (lightning war) against France, characterized the war’s early years. Ultimately, quick victories gave way to lengthy and punishing campaigns from mid-1942 to 1945. Early and rapid German and Japanese advances proved reversible, although at tremendous cost, as the Soviet Union and the United States geared their economies fully for war. The chief Axis powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy) were ultimately defeated as much by their own strategic blunders and poorly coordinated efforts as by the weight of men and matériel fielded by the “Big Three” Allies (Soviet Union, United States, and Great Britain).
Militant fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and an expansionist military regime in Japan exploited inherent flaws in the Versailles settlement, together with economic and social turmoil made worse by the Great Depression. In Germany, Adolf Hitler dedicated himself to reversing what he termed the Diktat of Versailles through rearmament, remilitarization of the Rhineland, and territorial expansion ostensibly justified by national representation.
Concealing his megalomaniac intent within a cloak of reasoned rhetoric, Hitler persuaded Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier that his territorial demands could be appeased. But there was no appeasing Hitler, who sought to subjugate Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, re-establish an African empire, and ultimately settle accounts with the United States. For Hitler, only a ruthless rooting out of a worldwide “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy” would gain the Lebensraum (living space) a supposedly superior Aryan race needed to survive and thrive.
Less ambitious, if equally vainglorious, was Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Italian limitations forced Il Duce to follow Germany. Disparities in timing made the “Pact of Steel,” forged by these countries in 1936, fundamentally flawed. The Wehrmacht marched to war in 1939, four years before the Italian military was ready (it was still recovering from fighting in Ethiopia and Spain). Yet Mussolini persevered with schemes to dominate the Mediterranean.
Japan considered its war plans to be defensive and preemptive, although in their scope they nearly equaled Hitler’s expansionist ambitions. The Japanese perceived the alignment of the ABCD powers (America, Britain, China, and Dutch East Indies) as targeted directly against them. The ABCD powers, in contrast, saw themselves as deterring an increasingly bellicose and aggressive Japan. As the ABCD powers tightened the economic noose to compel Japan to withdraw from China, Japan concluded it had one of two alternatives: humiliating capitulation or honorable war. Each side saw itself as resisting the unreasonable demands of the other; neither side proved willing to compromise.
Nevertheless, Japan looked for more than a restoration of the status quo. Cloaked in the rhetoric of liberating Asia from Western imperialism, Japanese plans envisioned a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” in which Japan would obtain autarky and Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos would be colonial subjects of the Japanese master race. In their racial component and genocidal logic, made manifest in the Rape of Nanking (1937), Japanese war plans resembled their Nazi equivalents.
European Theater of Operations (ETO), 1939-1941
1939-1941 witnessed astonishing successes by the Wehrmacht. With its eastern border secured by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. As French forces demonstrated feebly along Germany’s western border, Panzer spearheads supported by Luftwaffe dive-bombers sliced through Poland. Attacked from the east by Soviet forces on 17 September, the Poles had no choice but to surrender.
Turning west, Hitler then attacked and subdued Denmark and Norway in April 1940. By gaining Norway, Germany safeguarded its supply of iron ore from neutral Sweden and acquired ports for the Kriegsmarine and bases for the Luftwaffe to interdict shipping in the North Sea, Arctic, and North Atlantic. Throughout this period, Germany and France engaged in Sitzkrieg or Phony War.
Phony War gave way on 10 May 1940 to a massive German invasion of the Low Countries and France. A feint on the extreme right by Germany’s Army Group B in Belgium drew French and British forces forward, while the main German thrust cut through the hilly and forested Ardennes region between Dinant and Sedan. The German plan worked to perfection since the French strategy was to engage German forces as far as possible from France’s border. The Wehrmacht’s crossing of the Meuse River outpaced France’s ability to react. Their best divisions outflanked, the Franco-British army retreated to Dunkirk, where the Allies evacuated 335,000 men in Operation Dynamo. The fall of Paris fatally sapped France’s will to resist. The eighty-four-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain oversaw France’s ignominious surrender, although the French preserved nominal control over their colonies and the rump state of Vichy.
Surprise, a flexible command structure that encouraged boldness and initiative, high morale and strong ideological commitment based on a shared racial and national identity (Volksgemeinschaft), and speed were key ingredients to the Wehrmacht’s success. Intoxicated by victory, the Wehrmacht’s rank-and-file looked on the Führer as the reincarnation of Friedrich Barbarossa. Higher-ranking officers who disagreed were bribed or otherwise silenced.
Hitler next turned to Britain, which under Winston Churchill refused to surrender. During the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe sought air superiority to facilitate a cross-channel invasion (Operation Sea Lion). This goal was beyond the Luftwaffe’s means, however, especially after Hitler redirected the bombing from airfields to London. By October the Luftwaffe had lost 1887 aircraft and 2662 pilots as opposed to RAF losses of 1023 aircraft and 537 pilots. Temporarily stymied, Hitler ordered plans drawn up for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s defeat, Hitler hoped, would compel Churchill to sue for peace.
Hitler’s victories stimulated Japan to conclude, on 27 September 1940, the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Japan also expanded its war against China while looking avariciously towards U.S., British, Dutch, and French possessions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile, Mussolini, envious of Hitler’s run of victories, invaded Greece in October. The resulting Italo-Greek conflict ran until April 1941 and exposed the Italian military’s lack of preparedness, unreliable equipment, and incompetent leadership. Italian blunders in North Africa also led in Libya to Britain’s first victory on land. The arrival of German reinforcements under General Erwin Rommel reversed the tide, however. Rommel’s Afrika Korps drove British and Dominion forces eastwards to Egypt even faster than the latter had driven Italian forces westwards. Yet Rommel lacked sufficient forces to press his advantage. Meanwhile, German paratroopers assaulted Crete in May 1941, incurring heavy losses before taking the island. Events in the Mediterranean and North Africa soon took a backseat to the titanic struggle brewing between Hitler and Stalin.
The Eastern Front, 1941
After rescuing the Italians in Greece and seizing the Balkans to secure his southern flank, Hitler turned to Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Deluded by his previous victories and a racial ideology that viewed Slavs as Untermenschen (sub-humans), Hitler predicted a Soviet collapse within three months. Previous Soviet incompetence in the Russo-Finnish War (1939-40) seemed to support this prediction. The monumental struggle began when Germany and its allies, including Hungary, Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Italy, and Finland, together with volunteer units from all over Europe, invaded the USSR along a 1300-mile front on 22 June 1941. The resulting death struggle pit fascist and anti-Bolshevik Europe against Stalin’s Red Army. For Hitler the crusade against Bolshevism was a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation). Under the notorious Commissar Order, the Wehrmacht shot Red Army commissars (political officers) outright. Mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) rampaged behind the lines, murdering Jews and other racial and ethnic undesirables.
The first weeks of combat brought elation for the Germans. Nearly 170 Soviet divisions ceased to exist as the Germans encircled vast Soviet armies. Leningrad was surrounded and endured a 900-day siege. But by diverting forces towards the vast breadbasket of the Ukraine and the heavy manufacturing and coal of the Donets Basin, Hitler delayed the march on Moscow for 78 days. By December, sub-zero temperatures, snow, and fresh Soviet divisions halted exhausted German soldiers on the outskirts of Moscow. A Soviet counteroffensive (Operation Typhoon) threw Hitler’s legions back 200 miles, leading him to relieve two field marshals and 35 corps and division commanders. Hitler also dismissed the commander-in-chief of the army, Walter von Brauchitsch, and assumed command himself. His subsequent “stand fast” order saved the Wehrmacht the fate of Napoleon’s army of 1812, but this temporary respite came at the price of half a million casualties from sickness and frostbite.
A crucial Soviet accomplishment was the wholesale evacuation of its military-industrial complex. By November the Soviets disassembled 1500 industrial plants and 1300 military enterprises and shipped them east, along with ten million workers, to prepared sites along the Volga, in the Urals, and in western Siberia. Out of the range of the Luftwaffe, Soviet factories churned out an arsenal of increasingly effective weapons, including 50,000 T-34s, arguably the best tank of the war. Hitler now faced a two-front war of exhaustion, the same strategic dilemma that in World War I had led to the Second Reich’s demise.
Hitler arguably lost the war in December 1941, especially after declaring war on the United States on 11 December, which soon became the “arsenal of democracy” whose Lend-Lease policy shored up a reeling Red Army. Operation Barbarossa, moreover, highlighted a failure of intelligence of colossal proportions as the Wehrmacht fatally underestimated the reserves Stalin could call on. As Franz Halder, chief of the army general staff noted in his diary, “We reckoned with 200 [Soviet] divisions, but now [in August 1941] we have already identified 360.” As German forces plunged deeper into Soviet territory, they had to defend a wider frontage. A front of 1300 miles nearly doubled to 2500 miles. The vastness, harshness, and primitiveness of Mother Russia attenuated the force of the Panzer spearheads, giving Soviet forces space and time to recover from the initial blows of the German juggernaut. When the Red Army refused to die, Germany was at a loss at what to do next. Well might the Wehrmacht have heeded the words of the famed military strategist, Antoine Jomini: “Russia is a country which it is easy to get into, but very difficult to get out of.”
The Eastern Front, 1942-1945
Soviet strategy was to draw Germany into vast, equipment-draining confrontations. Germany, meanwhile, launched another Blitzkrieg, hoping to precipitate a Soviet collapse. Due to the previous year’s losses, the Wehrmacht in 1942 could attack along only a portion of the front. Hitler chose the southern half, seeking to secure the Volga River and oil fields in the Caucasus. Initial success soon became calamity when Hitler diverted forces to take Stalingrad.
The battle of Stalingrad lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 as the city’s blasted terrain negated German advantages in speed and operational art. As more German units were fed into the grinding street fighting, the Soviets prepared a counteroffensive (Operation Uranus) that targeted the weaker Hungarian, Italian, and Rumanian armies guarding the German flanks. Launched on 19 November, Uranus took the Germans completely by surprise. Encircled by 60 Red Army divisions, the 20 divisions of Germany’s Sixth Army lacked adequate strength to break out. The failure of Erich von Manstein’s relief force to reach Sixth Army condemned it to death. Although Hitler forbade it, the remnants of Sixth Army capitulated on 2 February 1943.
Stalingrad was a monumental moral victory for the Soviets and the first major land defeat for the Wehrmacht. After losing the equivalent of six months’ production at Stalingrad, Hitler belatedly placed the German economy on a wartime footing, but by then it was too late to close an ever-widening production gap. The Wehrmacht bounced back at Kharkov in March 1943, but it was to be their last significant victory. In July Hitler launched Operation Citadel at Kursk, which resulted in a colossal battle involving 1.5 million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Remaining on the defensive, the Red Army allowed the Wehrmacht to expend its offensive power in costly attacks. After fighting the Wehrmacht to a standstill, the Red Army drove it back to the Dnieper.
The dénouement was devastating for Germany. Preceded by a skilful deception campaign, Operation Bagration in Byelorussia in June 1944 led to the collapse of Germany’s Army Group Center. When Hitler ordered German forces to stand fast, 28 German divisions ceased to exist. By 1945, the Wehrmacht could only sacrifice itself in futile attempts to slow the Soviet steamroller. Soviet second-line forces used terror, rape, and wanton pillaging and destruction to avenge Nazi atrocities. Soviet forces had prevailed in the “Great Patriotic War” but at the staggering price of ten million soldiers killed, another 18 million wounded. Soviet civilian deaths exceeded 17 million. The Germans and their allies lost six million killed and another six million wounded. Hitler’s overweening ambition and fatal underestimation of Soviet resources and will led directly to Germany’s destruction.
The Anglo-American Alliance and the ETO, 1942-1945
In 1942 two-thirds of Americans wanted to defeat Japan first, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Churchill agreed instead on a “Germany first” policy. Their decision reflected concerns that Germany might defeat the Soviet Union in 1942. That year U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall argued for a cross-channel assault, but the British preferred to bomb Germany, invade North Africa, and advance through Italy and the Balkans. This indirect approach reflected British memories of the Western Front in World War I and a desire to secure lines of communication in the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and ultimately to India. British ideas prevailed because of superior staff preparation and the reality that the Allies had to win the Battle of the Atlantic before assaulting Germany’s Atlantic Wall in France.
Operation Torch in November 1942 saw Anglo-American landings in North Africa, in part to assure Stalin that the United States and Britain remained committed to a second front. Superior numbers were telling as Allied forces drove their Axis counterparts towards Tunisia, although the U.S. setback at Kasserine Pass in February 1943 reflected the learning curve for mass citizen armies. Fortunately for the Allies, Hitler sent additional German units in a foolhardy attempt to hold the remaining territory. With the fall of Tunisia in May 1943 the Axis lost 250,000 troops.
The Allies next invaded Sicily in July but failed to prevent the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal across the Straits of Messina. Nevertheless, the Sicilian Campaign precipitated Mussolini’s fall from power and Italy’s unconditional surrender on 8 September. Forced to occupy Italy, Hitler also rushed 17 divisions to the Balkans and Greece to replace Italian occupation forces. Churchillian rhetoric of a “soft underbelly” in the Italian peninsula soon proved misleading. The Allied advance became a slogging match in terrain that favored German defenders. At Salerno in September, Allied amphibious landings were nearly thrown back into the sea. At Anzio in January 1944, an overly cautious advance forfeited surprise and allowed German forces time to recover. Allied forces finally entered Rome on 4 June 1944 but failed to reach the Po River valley in northern Italy until April 1945.
The Italian campaign became a sideshow as the Allies gathered forces for a concerted cross-channel thrust (Operation Overlord) in 1944. It came in a five-division assault on 6 June at Normandy. Despite heavy casualties at Omaha Beach, the Allies gained a strong foothold in France. Success was due to brilliant Allied deception (Operation Fortitude) in which the Allies convinced Hitler that the main attack was still to come at Pas de Calais and that they had 79 divisions in Britain (they had 52). Germany’s best chance was to drive the Allies into the sea on the first day, but Hitler refused to release reserves. Once ashore in force, and with artificial harbors (Mulberries), Allied numbers and air supremacy took hold. In 80 days the Allies moved two million men, half a million vehicles, and three million tons of equipment and supplies to France. Once the Allies broke out into open country, there was little to slow them except their own shortages of fuel and supplies. After destroying Germany’s Army Group B at Falaise, the Allies liberated Paris on 25 August. Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s attempt in September at vertical envelopment (Operation Market Garden) failed miserably, however, as paratroopers dropped into the midst of Panzer divisions. High hopes that the war might be over in 1944 faded as German resistance stiffened and Allied momentum weakened.
Hitler chose December 1944 to commit his strategic reserve in a high-stakes offensive near the Ardennes. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, initial Allied disorder and panic gave way to determined defense at St. Vith and Bastogne. Once the weather cleared, Allied airpower and armor administered the coup de grâce. The following year the Allies pursued a broad front offensive against Germany proper, with George S. Patton’s Third Army crossing the Rhine River at Remagen in March. Anglo-American forces met the Red Army on the Elbe River in April, with Soviet forces being awarded the honor of taking Berlin.
The second front in France was vital to Germany’s defeat. Yet even after D-Day German forces fighting the Red Army exceeded those in France by 210 percent. Indeed, 88 percent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties in World War II came on the Eastern Front. That the U.S. Army got by with just 90 combat divisions was testimony to the fact that the bulk of German and Japanese land forces were tied down fighting Soviet and Chinese armies, respectively. Helping the Allies to husband resources in the ETO was a synergistic Anglo-American alliance, manifested by joint staffs, sharing of intelligence, and (mostly) common goals.
The Air War in Europe
The air forces of all the major combatants, the USAAF and RAF excepted, primarily supported ground operations. U.S. and British air power theory, however, called for concerted strategic bombing campaigns against enemy industry and will. Thus these countries orchestrated a combined bomber offensive (CBO) as a surrogate second front in the air. While the USAAF attempted precision bombing in daylight, RAF Bomber Command employed area bombing by night. The CBO devastated Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), and Dresden (1945), but Germany’s will remained unbroken. The CBO succeeded, however, in breaking the back of the Luftwaffe during “Big Week” (February 1944) in a deadly battle of attrition. Eighty-one thousand Allied airmen died in the ETO, with the death rate in RAF Bomber Command alone reaching a mind-numbing 47.5 percent. Hard fought and hard-won, air supremacy proved vital to the success of Allied armies on D-Day and after.
Battle of the Atlantic
Nothing worried Churchill more than the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats (submarines). Surface raiders like the Bismarck or Graf Spree posed a challenge the Royal Navy both understood and embraced with relish. Combating U-boats, however, presented severe difficulties, including weeks of tedious escort duty in horrendous weather. Despite Allied convoys and fast merchantmen, U-boats sank an average of 450,000 tons of shipping each month from March 1941 to December 1942. In March 1943 the Allies lost 627,000 tons, which exceeded the rate of replacement.
Yet only two months later, the tide turned against Germany. Allied successes in reading the Kriegsmarine’s Enigma codes proved vital both in steering convoys away from U-boat “wolf packs” and in directing naval and air units to attack them. Decimetric radar and high-frequency directional finding helped the Allies detect U-boats; B-24 Liberators armed with depth charges closed a dangerous gap in air coverage; and escort groups (including carriers) made it perilous for U-boats to attack, especially in daylight. These elements combined in May 1943 to account for the loss of 41 U-boats, 23 of which were destroyed by air action. Faced with devastating losses of experienced crews, Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the North Atlantic. They never regained the initiative. Germany ultimately lost 510 U-boats while sinking 94 Allied warships and 1900 merchant ships. Because the Kriegsmarine pursued lofty ambitions of building a blue-water navy, however, Germany never could produce enough U-boats to cut Britain’s economic lifeline. Poor resource allocation and strategic mirror imaging ultimately doomed the Kriegsmarine to defeat.
The Rising Sun Ascendant, 1937-1942
By 1938 the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had 700,000 soldiers in China. In 1939 the IJA attempted to punish the Soviets for supplying China only to be defeated at the battle of Khalkin Gol. After this defeat, and spurred on by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), Japanese leaders increasingly looked southward, especially as British, Dutch, and French possessions became vulnerable when Germany ran rampant in the ETO. Bogged down in an expensive war with China, and facing economic blockade, Japan decided to seize outright the oil, rubber, tin, bauxite and extensive food resources of the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies, and Southeast Asia.
After concluding a non-aggression pact with Stalin in April 1941, Japan viewed Britain’s Royal Navy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet as its chief obstacles. To destroy the latter, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, followed by attacks on British and Dutch naval units and invasions of Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, and other island groups using quick-moving, light infantry. Employing islands as unsinkable aircraft carriers, the Japanese hoped to establish a strong defensive perimeter as a shield, with the IJN acting as a mobile strike force or javelin. When the Allies confronted this “shield and javelin” strategy, Japan hoped their losses would prove prohibitive, thereby encouraging them to seek an accommodation that would preserve Japan’s acquisitions.
Japan’s key strategic blunder was that of underestimating the will of the United States, partly due to faulty intelligence that mistakenly stressed American isolationism. Pearl Harbor became for Americans a “date that shall live in infamy,” which permitted neither negotiation nor compromise. Japanese leaders knew they could not compete with U.S. industry (U.S. industrial capacity was nine times that of Japan’s), but they failed to develop feasible plans for ending the war quickly.
Nevertheless, until April 1942 the Japanese enjoyed a string of successes. Pearl Harbor was followed by attacks against the Philippines, where the United States lost half its aircraft on the ground. British attempts to reinforce Singapore led to the sinking of the battlecruiser Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales. At the Battle of Java Sea in February 1942 the IJN destroyed the Dutch navy. For the Allies, disaster followed disaster. At minimal cost, Japan seized Hong Kong, Malaya, most of Burma, and Singapore. Singapore’s surrender on 15 February was psychologically catastrophic to the British since they had failed at what they believed they did best: mounting a staunch defense. From this shattering blow the British Empire never fully recovered. By May 1942 remnants of the U.S. Army at Bataan and Corregidor surrendered, and the Japanese were in New Guinea. To this point not one of the IJN’s eleven battleships, ten carriers, or cruisers had been sunk or even badly damaged.
Eclipse of the Rising Sun, 1942-1945
The IJN suffered its first setback in May 1942 at the Battle of Coral Sea, where the USN stopped Japanese preparatory moves to invade Australia. The IJN next moved against Midway Island, hoping to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet and destroy it. The Japanese plan, however, was overcomplicated. It included coordination of eight separate forces and a diversionary assault on the Aleutians. Planned as a battleship fight by Admiral Isoroku Yamamato, the USN was forced instead to rely on carrier strike forces. Japanese indecision and American boldness, enhanced by effective code-breaking (known as MAGIC in the Pacific), led to the loss of four Japanese carriers. Midway was the major turning point in the Pacific theater. After this battle, the USN and IJN were equal in carrier strength, but the United States could build at a much faster rate. From 1942 to 1945 the USN launched 17 fleet carriers and 42 escort carriers, whereas the Japanese launched only four, two of which were sunk on their maiden voyage. Japan also lost its best admiral when U.S. code-breaking led, in April 1943, to the shooting down of Yamamoto’s plane.
The Japanese compounded defeat at Midway by failing to build an adequate merchant marine or to pursue anti-submarine warfare to defend what they had. Constituting less than two percent of USN manpower, American submariners accounted for 55 percent of Japanese losses at sea, virtually cutting off Japan’s supply of oil and reducing imports by 40 percent. By the end of 1944 U.S. submarines had sunk half of Japan’s merchant fleet and two-thirds of its tankers.
Much difficult fighting on land and sea remained. The United States adopted a Twin-Axis strategy designed to give the army and navy equal roles. While General Douglas MacArthur advanced through New Guinea in the southwest Pacific, neutralizing the major Japanese base at Rabaul to prepare for the invasion of the Philippines, Admiral Chester Nimitz island-hopped through the central Pacific. Guadalcanal (Operation Watchtower) in the Solomons turned into a bloody battle of attrition from August 1942 to February 1943 that ultimately favored U.S. forces. Tarawa in the Gilberts (Operation Galvanic) was the first test of the Fleet Marine Concept (FMC) that shortened the logistical tail of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. U.S. landings nearly proved disastrous, however, when Japanese defenders inflicted 42 percent casualties on the invading force. But the USN and Marines learned from their mistakes, and subsequent island operations had high yet sustainable casualty rates.
Battles such as Tarawa highlighted the astonishing viciousness and racism of both sides in the Pacific, with Americans depicting Japanese as “monkeys” or “rats” to be exterminated. Reinforcing the fight-to-the-death nature of warfare was the Japanese warrior code of Bushido that considered surrender as dishonorable. Jungle warfare on isolated islands left little room for maneuver or retreat and bred claustrophobia and desperate last stands. Ruthlessness extended to the U.S. air campaign against Japan that included the firebombing of major cities such as Tokyo, where firestorms killed at least 83,000 Japanese and consumed 270,000 dwellings.
The U.S. invasion of Saipan in June 1944 led to the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in which U.S. pilots shot down 243 of 373 attacking Japanese aircraft while losing only 29 aircraft. Most devastating to Japan was the irreplaceable loss of experienced pilots. To pierce American defenses, Japan employed suicide pilots or Kamikazes at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October and in subsequent battles. Leyte Gulf in the Philippines was a decisive if close-run victory for the USN, since the IJN missed a golden opportunity to crush Allied landing forces. Costly U.S. campaigns in 1945 led to the capture of Iwo Jima in March and Okinawa in June before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Together with Soviet entry into the war against Japan, these atomic attacks convinced the Japanese Emperor to surrender, with formal ceremonies being held on the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.
Japan’s unconditional surrender highlighted what had been a fundamental, and ultimately fatal, schism between the IJA and IJN. Whereas the IJA had focused on the Asian continent to neutralize China and the Soviet Union, the IJN had identified the United States and Britain as its principal enemies. The IJA had been more influential in Japanese politics and dominated Imperial general headquarters. Interservice rivalry led to haphazard coordination and bureaucratic infighting that degraded the Japanese war effort. Like their nominal allies the Germans, Japan had essentially engaged in a two-front war of exhaustion against foes possessing superior resources. IJA gains in the China-Burma-India theater had not been sustainable, especially as British, Chinese, and Indian forces learned to counter Japanese infantry tactics under the determined tutelage of William Slim, Orde Wingate, and “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell.
Technology and Medicine
World War II is known as the “physicist’s war” due to the success of the U.S./British/Canadian Manhattan Project that developed atomic bombs, as well as the invention and use of radar. Germany was especially innovative, developing the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 ballistic missile as “vengeance” weapons. While a remarkable technical achievement, the V-2 was ultimately a waste of precious resources. Its circular error probable (CEP) of 20 kilometers and small one-ton warhead made it little more than a deadly nuisance. Germany also developed the Me-262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, but its late deployment in small numbers had little impact on the air war. Less spectacular, but more telling, was the Allied emphasis on fielding large numbers of proven weapons, such as Soviet T-34 and U.S. M-4 Sherman tanks; aircraft such as P-51 long-range escort fighters and Lancaster four-engine bombers; and Higgins boats for amphibious operations.
Penicillin and DDT, both developed by the Allies, were the leading medical developments. Penicillin saved the lives of untold tens of thousands of wounded Allied troops, and DDT vastly reduced casualties due to mosquito-borne diseases in the Pacific. The Germans developed nerve gas but decided against employing it, apparently because they (wrongly) believed the Allies also had it. Unlike the previous world war, chemical weapons were rarely used. Finally, Allied code-breaking efforts such as ULTRA saw the development of primitive computers.
Legacies of the War
World War II saw the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as superpowers. The resulting Cold War between them created a bi-polar world until the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s. With the end of the myth of Western superiority came the decline of colonial empires and the independence of countries such as India (1947). The war also resulted in the division of Germany (reunited in 1989) and the occupation and democratization of Japan; the creation of the United Nations and the state of Israel; and the rise of leaders formed in the crucible of war, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle. A vastly destructive war with tragic consequences, World War II nevertheless saw the demise of Hitler’s Third Reich, a regime based on mass slavery of “inferiors” and the categorical extermination of “undesirables” (Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped and mentally ill, etc.), as well as the overthrow of a Japanese regime that glorified militarism and justified slavery and racial discrimination on a massive scale.
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Watching a documentary commemorating the fiftieth anniversary year of Robert Kennedy’s (RFK) tragic run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, I couldn’t help thinking back to a venerable (if also somewhat moth-eaten) political science theory of critical realignment. This theory refers to a national election that radically and durably alters the balance of power in our two party system.
According to one iteration of that theory, these elections tend to occur on an approximately 36 year cycle of presidential elections and manifest in one of three ways: a new party displaces one of the two major parties (as when the Lincoln Republicans, calling for the containment of slavery, completed the dissolution of the Whig Party in 1860); a major party reinvigorates its dominance by mobilizing new and existing constituents around a fresh set of policy issues (as when the Republican Party ushered in a new period of electoral success with the 1896 election of the industrial protectionist McKinley); and when dominance switches between the two major parties (as when Franklin D. Roosevelt won overwhelmingly the first of his four presidential terms in 1932).
Key features of critical realignments include a crystallizing issue, heavy voter turnout, and major and durable shifts in voter allegiance. Political scientists have noted that this phenomenon seems to have petered out with the fracturing of FDR’s coalition in the Sixties. The election of 1968 did not see the emergence of a dominant new party (George Wallace’s success as a third party candidate that year was fleeting), nor did it witness either a renewal of Democratic dominance or a switch to long-term Republican Party dominance (control of the White House and Congress has instead oscillated between the two major parties).
Would the U.S. party system have experienced a critical realignment had Bobby Kennedy avoided assassination and won election as the thirty-seventh president of the United States? It is a question that occurred to me as I watched video footage taken from Kennedy’s funeral train of the people spontaneously gathered along the rail lines in big cities and small hamlets to pay last respects to their martyred candidate.
As one of the Kennedy family friends riding that train noted, those forlorn folks represented Kennedy’s base—Catholics, people of color, blue collar workers, the poor.
Had he lived and gone on to run in the general election, he would have added to these groups the students and liberals who had flocked to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar candidacy, as well as the party bosses who were supporting the sitting vice-president Hubert Humphrey. And had he won the presidency in 1968 and made significant progress in achieving his stated goals—ending US military involvement in Vietnam, retooling LBJ’s efforts at poverty reduction, fostering a sense of solidarity among racial and generational groups—would that have been enough durably to boost voter turnout and cement loyalty to a more social justice-oriented Democratic Party for decades?
A lot of “what ifs,” I know. But watching the stasis of American politics over the last decades in the face of mounting crises on both the domestic and international fronts, it is consoling to think of a possibility (however remote) of the critical realignment that could have been.
M. Davout, an occasional contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the American South.
At TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich asks a pregnant question: What should we call America’s no-name wars? (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on.) It used to be the GWOT (global war on terror), sometimes shortened to War on Terror and favored by the Bush/Cheney administration. The Obama administration punted, preferring the anodyne label of “overseas contingency operations.” Other names and concepts have been floated, such as “generational war” and “long war,” and the U.S. military itself, which is quite expert at creating acronyms, has used terms like MOOTW (military operations other than war). Indeed, the fact that America’s wars lack a commonly accepted name points to the lack of a common theme or strategy. Put differently, when you can’t name something accurately, how can you understand it, let alone fight it smartly and win it?
Forgive me for being flippant, but I can think of a few less than reverent names that serve to highlight the folly of America’s nameless wars. How about these?
“Perpetual Preemptive War”: Preemptive war was the great idea of the Bush/Cheney administration. Remember how we couldn’t allow the smoking gun of Iraqi WMD to become a mushroom cloud? We had to preempt the non-existent WMD, hence the disastrous Iraq war(s).
“Generational War for Generals”: General David Petraeus has spoken of a generational war against terror in countries like Afghanistan, comparing it to America’s 60+ year commitment to South Korea. Waging that war should keep a lot of U.S. generals busy over the next few decades.
“Bankrupt Strategy to Bankrupt America”: America’s total national debt just reached $21 trillion (you read that right), with perhaps $6 trillion of that due to America’s wars since 9/11. If we keep up this pace of spending, we will soon conquer ourselves to bankruptcy. Mission accomplished!
“The Wars to End All Peace”: Woodrow Wilson had “the war to end all wars” with World War I. Bush/Obama/Trump can say that they have the wars to end all peace, since there simply is no prospect of these wars ever ending in the foreseeable future.
“Endless War to End Democracy”: FDR had the Four Freedoms and a real war to end Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as threats to world peace. We now have endless war to end democracy in America. As James Madison wrote,
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …
In short, instead of fighting for Four Freedoms, we’re now waging a permanent war that will end freedom.
Small wonder we avoid naming our wars – their theme and meaning are too frightening to nail down with precision.
President Donald Trump is incurious, ignorant, and ill-informed. He hides this with rudeness, bluster, and lies. As an anonymous German Foreign Ministry official said during Chancellor Merkel’s visit, Trump “uses rudeness to compensate for his weakness.”
Trump couldn’t hold his own with a brilliant woman of substance like Angela Merkel, so he changed the narrative. He accused Germany of not paying up with NATO; he said Obama wiretapped Merkel, just like he tapped Trump tower; he whined about unfair trade with Germany. In public, Trump showed little substance and no sophistication.
It’s not that Trump can’t learn; he doesn’t want to. He’s happy watching Fox News or movies like “Finding Dory,” golfing at his expensive resorts, signing executive orders and holding them aloft like a proud second-grader (Look Ma! I can sign my name!), and holding rabble-rousing rallies (“Lock her up!”) and basking in applause.
Trump operates in the shallows. His experience is in high-priced real-estate and media. He’s best at hyping a certain image of himself. He’s a bull-shitter, and he’s had lots of practice.
A big part of the presidency is ceremonial: the U.S. president is king and prime minister all in one. Trump is failing at both jobs. As a symbol of America, he’s boorish, boastful, and bullying. As a prime minister, he’s incurious, ignorant, and vain.
Five examples: Candidate Trump knew nothing about America’s nuclear triad. He didn’t know it consists of SLBMs (on Trident submarines), ICBMs (land-based), and “air-breathing” bombers. All he “knew” is that allegedly the U.S. nuclear arsenal is obsolete and inferior to the Russian arsenal. But actually the U.S. arsenal is more accurate, more survivable, and far superior to that of any other country, including Russia.
Second example. According to Trump, before he came along, nobody knew how complicated health care could be. We owe that stunning insight to Trump. Third example. According to Trump, Germany owes vast sums of money to the U.S. for defense costs, a false claim rejected by the Germans.
Fourth example: Based on a false Fox News report, Trump accused the previous president of committing a felony by tapping his phones during the campaign season, a charge for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Yet Trump refuses to rescind the charge, despite its repudiation by the FBI, NSA, British intelligence, and his own party.
Fifth example: Trump refuses to admit his Muslim ban is, well, a Muslim ban. Yet the ban refuses to target the one country that supplied 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11: Saudi Arabia. Most experts agree that Trump’s ban is unconstitutional and counterproductive in the war on terror.
Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry. In his unapologetic blustering, Trump echoes the foreign leader he seems to admire most: Vladimir Putin. In Putin’s Russia, with its history of Tsars and other strong leaders, uncompromising firmness and unyielding certitude are expected if not always applauded. In democratic America, an ability to compromise and a willingness to yield on matters of fact are generally seen as signs of adult leadership by statesmen who serve the people rather than themselves.
Trump’s behavior is better suited to that of Tsars and other anti-democratic strongmen. Trump the incurious has surrounded himself with loyalists, family members like his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, and commissars who watch over his cabinet appointees to ensure their loyalty. Pettiness, paranoia, and score-settling characterize the Executive branch.
Trump often harkens back to World War II and the likes of Generals Patton and MacArthur. How does he compare to the president back then? Franklin D. Roosevelt had a global view of the world while exhibiting a mastery of detail. (So too did Winston Churchill.) Self-confident, FDR looked for no-men, not yes-men. He and his administration took pains to be inclusive and bipartisan. And FDR, with help from Allies like Churchill and Stalin, won World War II.
By comparison, Trump has a parochial view of the world and can’t even master himself (witness those temper-driven tweets). He hires yes-men and demonizes Democrats and indeed anyone he sees as against him. Alienating allies like Britain, Australia, and Germany, Trump seems least critical of Russia.
Some leaders surprise: they grow in office. But Trump’s smugness, his unwillingness to admit when he’s wrong, his showboating to hide uncomfortable truths, are stunting him. Effective at selling himself and entertaining as a blowhard on (un)reality TV, Trump is failing as a statesman.
Rather than grow, it’s likely Trump will wither in office. The problem is he won’t be alone in his decline and fall.
Update: To state the obvious, Trumpcare is not a health care plan: it’s a massive tax cut for the rich combined with a cut in services for the working classes and poor. Under this “plan,” the CBO estimates that 14 million will initially lose coverage, rising by another 10 million in the next decade. How is this a health care plan? Add cynicism and broken promises to Trump’s qualities.
Update (3/25): As Heather Digby Parton puts it, Trump “truly believes that he’s never ever been wrong about anything and when he lies he’s actually telling the future. He said it over and over again in that astonishing interview [for Time Magazine].”
Matt Taibbi, in his inimitable style, captured Trump during the election season: “On the primary trail we had never seen anything like him: impulsive, lewd, grandiose, disgusting, horrible, narcissistic and dangerous, but also usually unscripted and 10 seconds ahead of the news cycle … maybe he was on the level, birthing a weird new rightist/populist movement, a cross of Huey Long, Pinochet and David Hasselhoff. He was probably a monster, but whatever he was, he was original.” (Insane Clown President, pg. 221)
America. Land of the free, home of the brave. Right? Peter Van Buren, who spent a career at the State Department, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that highlights the way in which America has changed since the 9/11 attacks. In sum: too many wars, too much security and surveillance, and far too much fear. One passage in Van Buren’s article especially resonated with me:
Her [Van Buren’s daughter] adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that’s too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.
Van Buren’s reference to Depression-era kids: Well, that was my dad. Born in 1917, he endured the Great Depression in a fatherless family. He really wasn’t certain where his next meal was coming from. Decades later, he still saved everything: plastic bags, twist ties, newspapers, old vacuums and toasters and other appliances (good for spare parts!), scrap wood, and so on. He wasn’t a hoarder per se; he just couldn’t throw away something that he might need if the times grew grim again.
My Dad would cook and eat broccoli rabe greens, then drink the green juice from the cooking. “Puts lead in your pencil,” he’d say. When he ate corn on the cob, there was nothing left on the cob when he was through. He stripped it bare like those crows I watched as a kid on Saturday morning cartoons.
He came of age in a time of want and later served in an armored division in World War II. My dad’s generation knew, like FDR knew, that the only thing they truly had to fear was fear itself. He became hardened to it, but the Depression indelibly marked him as well.
How is today’s generation being marked? Compared to the Great Depression, these are times of plenty. Few Americans are starving. The new normal for this generation is living in fear. Being surrounded by security guards and surveillance devices. Being immersed in celebrations of “patriotism” that involve steroidal flags and deadly military weaponry. Hearing about distant wars fought largely by the children of the working classes.
Looking overseas, they see an American foreign policy defined by perpetual war and an economy driven by perpetual weapons sales. Domestically, they see penury for social programs and profligacy for the national security state.
Is it any wonder that so many millennials seem detached or disenchanted or even defeated? They sense that America has changed, that the focus has shifted, that the American dream has darkened, that America the home of the brave has become the land of the fearful.
Fear is the mind-killer, to cite Frank Herbert. My father’s generation knew this and overcame it. Yet today our leaders and the media seek to generate and exploit fear. America has turned to the Dark Side, giving in to anger, fear, aggression. Just look at our two major party candidates for the presidency.
On this Super Bowl Sunday of 2014, doubtless we’ll be hearing about the “heroes” of the gridiron. Whichever team wins will have its “heroes” (Peyton Manning, perhaps?). Meanwhile, remote feeds will show various military units watching the Big Game, and doubtless these troops will be touted as American heroes. (They’re indisputably a tad more heroic than a multi-millionaire quarterback who shills everything from pizza to cars.)
But who are the real heroes of America? I tackled this question on Memorial Day 2011 at Truthout. For me, it’s loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing people like my parents. I recall learning in Catholic catechism class that love is all about selfless giving — giving of yourself, freely and generously, without expecting anything in return. That is assuredly one characteristic of a “hero.”
Here is what I wrote back in 2011. My thanks to Truthout for publishing it back then.
This Memorial Day , let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).
Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.
My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.
America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.
There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).
My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.
And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.
God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.