Lessons from Hitler

W.J. Astore

Purely by chance this morning, I came across old notes I took from historian John Lukacs’ study of Adolf Hitler.  Lukacs said that Hitler’s genius “lay in his understanding of human weaknesses,” for which he had the nose of a vulture.  Lukacs further identified him as a populist who used propaganda pragmatically.  He knew what people wanted to hear, and not only the common people at his rallies, but prominent leaders whose illusions he recognized and exploited.

For example, Hitler wasn’t religious, but he presented himself as pro-Christian as a contrast to the atheism of his German communist opponents.  He claimed to support families and moral order, what we today term “family values.”  Hitler knew people were frustrated with the Weimar Republic, an experiment in parliamentary democracy in Germany after World War I; Lukacs uses the words “schismatic” and “chaotic” and “weak” to describe Hitler’s critique of democracy.

Hitler’s response was to appeal to nationalism (I’m a nationalist, he might have said) and a revival of Germany as a “spiritual community” in which class differences wouldn’t matter.  Persecution among the right sort of Germans was to be avoided; instead, “good” (read: Aryan) Germans were to come together against racial and political enemies.  Hitler’s goal, Lukacs said, was to achieve a tyranny not simply through violence but through a political majority, and he was incredibly successful at it.

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Interestingly, Lukacs points out that Hitler convinced the Nazis in 1926 (when the Nazis were still very much a fringe party ostensibly for the working classes) to vote in favor of the restitution of property to German princes.  In short, Hitler appeased powerful conservative elements within German society, Weimar Germany’s version of today’s 1%.  He gained power legally as Chancellor early in 1933 by persuading Germany’s aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, that “The Bolshevization of the masses proceeds rapidly.”  To an avowed monarchist like Hindenburg, it was worth the risk of appointing Hitler and empowering the Nazis so that the communist “mobs” could be put in their place.

Virtually everyone underestimated Hitler and the ruthlessness of his drive to power.  He was often dismissed as crude, vulgar, harsh.  As lacking class.  Yet he knew his audience and he knew how to get his way in a deeply divided Germany.

Food for thought as Americans prepare to go to the polls.

Update (11/6/18): I’ve been re-reading Lukacs; two points I came across yesterday after writing this article:

  1. Hitler said hate was a real strength of the Nazi party.  We have learned to hate our political rivals, Hitler said, and that hatred makes us strong.  In reading this, I thought of Trump and his efforts to demonize Democrats as a “mob” that wants to allow “invaders” (rapists, murderers) from Central America into the country.  Also, of course, Trump’s denunciation of the media as “the enemy of the people.”
  2. Even as Hitler was throwing communists and other rivals into concentration camps by the tens of thousands in 1933-34, he was lying about the growing threat to Germany coming from the left.  Hitler knew the power of lies, the bigger the better, and used them to eliminate his rivals in the name of keeping Germany safe (“homeland security,” we might say).

The Fall of the American Empire

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Uncle Sam: No stranger to imperialism (from the Spanish-American War of 1898)

W.J. Astore

Why do empires fall?  Sometimes, it’s easy to identify a cause.  Whether led by the Kaiser or by Hitler, Germany’s Second and Third Empires were destroyed by world wars.  Germany’s ambition was simply too great, its militarism too dominant, its policies too harsh to win long-term converts, its leaders too blinded by the pursuit of power, its enemies too many to conquer or otherwise neutralize.

Other imperial falls are more complex.  What caused Rome’s fall?  (Leaving aside the eastern part of the empire, which persisted far longer as the Byzantine Empire.)  Barbarians and their invasions, say some.  The enervating message and spirit of Christianity, said the historian Edward Gibbon.  Rome’s own corruption and tyranny, say others.  Even lead in Roman water pipes has been suggested as a contributing cause to Rome’s decline and fall.  Taking a longer view, some point to the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its rapid expansion into previously Roman territories as the event that administered the final coup de grâce to a dying empire.

America’s empire, it is clear, is now in decline, and a key reason is imperial overstretch as manifested by endless wars and overspending on the military (with literally trillions of dollars being thrown away on fruitless wars).  An especially fine summary is Alfred McCoy’s article this week at TomDispatch.com.  As McCoy notes:

In effect, the president and his team, distracted by visions of shimmering ships and shiny planes (with their predictable staggering future cost overruns), are ready to ditch the basics of global dominion: the relentless scientific research that has long been the cutting edge of U.S. military supremacy.  And by expanding the Pentagon while slashing the State Department, Trump is also destabilizing that delicate duality of U.S. power by skewing foreign policy ever more toward costly military solutions (that have proved anything but actual solutions) …

In just one extraordinary year, Trump has destabilized the delicate duality that has long been the foundation for U.S. foreign policy: favoring war over diplomacy, the Pentagon over the State Department, and narrow national interest over international leadership. But in a globalizing world interconnected by trade, the Internet, and the rapid proliferation of nuclear-armed missiles, walls won’t work. There can be no Fortress America.

In this passage, McCoy stresses the damage being done by the Trump administration.  But Trump is just the culmination of certain trends, e.g. favoring the Pentagon over the State Department is nothing new, as I wrote about here in 2010.  And America has been in love with shimmering ships and shiny planes for generations, with several administrations supporting the F-35 jet fighter, a program that may end up costing as much as $1.4 trillion.  Plenty of money for weapons that kill; not so much for medicines that cure: that’s imperial America in a nutshell.

I would stress that America’s strength overseas was (and is) always based on its strength at home in areas such as science, education, infrastructure, medicine, manufacturing, and exports.  But what we’ve witnessed over the last 40 years is an immense and wasteful “investment” in wars and weapons even as our country itself has hollowed out. Science is now marked by the denial of facts (such as global warming). Education is all about students as consumers, with an overall decline in standards and performance. Infrastructure is crumbling. Medicine is too expensive and America’s overall health and life expectancy are both in decline. Manufacturing and exports have withered (except for the production and export of weapons, naturally).

As a result of all this, America is running a national debt of roughly 20 trillion dollars.  The future is being sacrificed for the present, a tragic reality reflected in the latest Republican tax cut, which benefits the richest Americans the most, along with big corporations, and which will likely add another trillion to the national debt.

In short, America’s foreign decline is mirrored (and driven) by its domestic decline as reflected by its choices.  Looking at the USA today, you get the sense it’s the best of times for the richest few, and the worst of times for so many Americans struggling with health care debt, student loan debt, and the uncertainty of low-wage jobs that could be outsourced at any moment.  At the same time, the American political scene is driven by fear: of immigrants, of a nuclear war with North Korea, of Russian meddling (real or imagined), of growing Chinese power, and of the perpetually-hyped threat of terrorist attacks on “the Homeland.”

Empires can fall very quickly, as the “thousand-year” Third Reich did, or they can fall ever so slowly, as the Roman Empire did.  But fall they do.  What is in the cards for the United States?  Readers, fire away in the comments section.

Update (1/20/18):  Secretary of Defense James Mattis now claims that China and Russia represent bigger threats than terrorism, along with Congress itself since it can’t pass an extended budget for the Pentagon.  He also claimed the U.S. military’s “competitive edge” is eroding in “every domain of warfare,” despite a defense budget of $700 billion.

None of this is a surprise.  Indeed, this is exactly what happens when you put a retired general and known war hawk in charge of the defense department.  Generals will always want more: more troops, more money, more resources, more authority.  And to support their demands, they will always find more enemies as well.

Work Mania

W.J. Astore

A good friend sent me Miya Tokumitsu’s recent article, “The United States of Work: Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?” One answer: Americans have been sold on the idea of work as fulfilling and even ennobling, and indeed the more work the better.  Yet if work is so wonderful, why do we pay some people only $7.25 an hour (the minimum wage)?  That’s less than $15K a year if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks.  Try living on that.  Work is so “great” in America that some people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time for leisure or for family.

I remember when the “future” (which is now) was sold as a time when mechanization and robots and efficiency would grant us much more leisure time.  The idea was that new machinery and methods would curtail work.  That most people would work 25-30 hours a week at better jobs involving less drudgery, leaving them lots of time to raise families and otherwise to enjoy life away from the tedium and regimentation of the workplace.

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It’s not so easy keeping up with our machine-driven mania for work

But the future isn’t what it used to be.  There are many reasons for this.  Americans often consume too much, i.e. they keep working to keep up with the Joneses.  Companies want higher and higher profits, driving them to squeeze more and more out of fewer and fewer workers.  And work in the USA isn’t just about work.  It’s often directly connected to health care, life insurance, and other benefits.  If you choose (or are told) to work part-time, you may lose your employer-provided health insurance.  If you’re fired, you lose your health benefits along with your salary and perhaps as well your sense of worth.

So much of our lives, especially in the USA, is tied to work.  After “What’s your name,” the next question most commonly asked of new acquaintances is, “What do you do?  Where do you work?” People’s sense of identity, their sense of worth, is often tied to their job, another big reason why losing one’s job is among the most stressful events in a person’s life.

And now work in America is often 24/7/365 since nearly everyone has electronic leashes, the Smart phones and so on, meaning the boss can always contact you.  And if you choose to unplug, maybe the boss will find someone else to take your place.  France recently passed a law to protect employees who choose to “unplug” after work and on weekends.  No such law in the USA, of course.

From my days in the military, I recall how so many officers put on a great show of looking busy.  “I have 276 emails to answer.”  “I’m wrestling alligators.”  “So busy — need to come up for air.”  When did being swamped by work become a sign of success?  In my view, the more efficient you are, the less grinding work you should need to do.  (Of course, many jobs are all about grinding work: as my dad used to say, the more physically grueling the job, the less he usually got paid.)

Work mania has many pitfalls.  Exhaustion leads to mistakes.  Broken health, either physical or mental.  Estrangement from family and the natural world.  I wonder, for example, whether people are dismissive of global warming and other environmental issues simply because they spend no time outdoors.  They’re always working, or going to and from work.

I used to commute 60+ miles to and from work.  I’d get up about 5:30AM, leave about 6:15AM, get to work by 7:30AM, work until about 4:30PM, then get home about 5:30PM (on a good day).  After that, I was tired.  And I didn’t come home to screaming kids with school and sporting events and so on.  Are we so busy and distracted that we hardly recognize that we live in an ecosystem of great fragility?  In fact, all our commuting, all our busyness, all our consumption, only broadens our carbon footprint.

This is not a rant against work, or a cry to get ourselves back to the garden.  But surely there’s a better way of striking a balance between work and everything else.  I recall watching Michael Moore’s documentary, “Where to Invade Next.”  The segments on Italy and Germany are telling here.  In Italy, workers get much more vacation time than their U.S. counterparts, roughly five weeks plus 12 national holidays (watch this segment).  U.S. workers by comparison are lucky to get two weeks’ paid vacation.  In Germany, Moore asks a bunch of German workers if they have second jobs.  They look at him like he’s crazy.  One job is enough, they say, at which they work about 36-38 hours a week.  What do you do with all the “extra” time, Moore asks.  Hang out at a café, read, and otherwise decompress, they answer.

I recall that Italian workers often get a long break so they can go home and prepare lunch for the family.  U.S. workers may be lucky to get 30 minutes (often unpaid), or even 15 minutes, for lunch, during which they’re fortunate to be able to bolt down some (probably unhealthy) fast food.

Some things in life shouldn’t be “fast,” like food.  And some things shouldn’t dominate our lives, like work.  Sure, some people work long hours at jobs they love, and if that’s the case, go for it.  But America’s work mania has its costs, including an estrangement from ourselves as well as the living world around us.

Incurious Donald: The Woeful Trump Presidency

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Look at what I signed!

W.J. Astore

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)

The Deeply Disturbing Trump-Merkel Press Conference

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Trump, in his own militarized world

W.J. Astore

Yesterday’s Trump-Merkel Press Conference was disturbing on several levels.  Worst of all was the scene of a German Chancellor listening to an American president boast about how strong his military is, and how much stronger it soon will be. Not that long ago in historical terms, Germany was a country that stressed military dominance. Two lost world wars cured Germany of its militarism. American militarism has taken its place.

As Trump responded to questions, again and again he returned to the U.S. military, vowing that he’s going to strengthen it from its “depleted” condition, perhaps to a level of power that “we’ve never seen before.”

America as a country is “very strong, very strong,” said Trump, a “very powerful company/country,” and soon the U.S. military would be “stronger,” and “perhaps far stronger than ever before.”  Naturally, the president added that he hoped he wouldn’t have to use that “far stronger” military, even as the U.S. military garrisons the globe at more than 700 bases while launching ongoing attacks against “radical Islamic terrorism” (Trump loves enunciating those three words) in places like Yemen.

Merkel and Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington
She’s right to be worried …

This coming year, Trump is enlarging the military with a fresh influx of $54 billion.  “My generals,” as Trump likes to refer to James Mattis and John Kelly and Company, support him in part because he’s boosting military spending.  But will they continue to support Trump and his advisers like Steve Bannon when the President uses that “much stronger” military in unwise ways?

When you forge a bigger hammer, you tend not to leave it unused in the tool shed.  No — you look for bigger nails to strike.  As Trump noted at the press conference, he’s not an isolationist.  “Fake news,” he said.

That Trump, with his “far stronger” military, is not an isolationist is disturbing “real” news indeed.  Small wonder that the German Chancellor looked discomfited; her country has seen it all before.

What price military dominance?  Perhaps Chancellor Merkel could explain that to President Trump, if only he’d listen.

A Few Letters to My Dad during World War II

My Dad in 1945
My Dad in 1945

W.J. Astore

My dad was in the Army in World War II.  He was a dental technician in an armored headquarters group and never went overseas.  But many of his friends did go overseas and saw combat.  What follows are some excerpts from letters sent to my dad.

Bill Zerby was attached to the 781 Tank Battalion, 7th Army, in France and Germany.  In December 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, Zerby wrote to my dad that:

“Here we have plenty of mud and rain and 24 hours a day the field artillery lays down a barrage with everything they have.  The outfit is making out pretty well so far.  One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners…. We all live in houses and have lanterns for lights.  Everything is blacked out at 5 P.M. till dawn.”

I’d like to repeat Zerby’s 3rd sentence: One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners.

The fight against the Nazis was tough, and it wasn’t just the Germans who violated the Geneva Convention and its rules about taking prisoners.  War, in short, should never be sugarcoated.

At the end of March 1945, Zerby wrote to my dad again, a letter that contained this telling sentence:

“Bookbinder [a fellow soldier] sure got a break [by not going overseas] but he better hope he don’t get sent to Germany.  It seems they don’t like the Heb’s [Jews].”

By this point, Allied troops were beginning to liberate German concentration camps, and beginning as well to realize the murderous hatred the Nazis had for the Jewish people.

On a lighter note, Zerby regales my dad with the following story:

“The place where we live now is a large estate that belongs to a German big shot.  He got chased out and we moved in.  He has a wine cellar that runs all over town—all underground passages, and the dates on some of the casks run back to 1755.  Well some of the wine was really good.  The boys made a tour of the place and took all the best drinks for their own use.  Yes, I was in on it too.  Now we are tired of it and don’t take anymore.  Of course it’s bolted up now but that don’t mean anything.”

In another letter, Zerby writes about American soldiers hunting for deer.  Yes, American troops knew how to have a good time. Wine, venison, and women.  After all, who knew from day to day if you’d live to see home again?

At the end of 1945, Zerby writes again to my dad that “I am now a proud civilian and no more lousy Army life.”  And to my dad’s mention of a few of their friends from the battalion, Zerby writes with painful honesty: “I don’t remember many of those guys anymore.  A hell of a lot of them got bumped off also last winter [in action in France and Germany].  I guess we were just lucky.”

Another of my dad’s friends was Corporal Ed C. Sarna, who was assigned to a headquarters battery in Divisional Artillery.  He wrote to my dad in December 1944 that:

“To date, I have seen a number of [German V-1] buzz bombs at a very close range.  A little in regards to Germany.  If Hitler decided to fight until we hit Berlin, I can sincerely feel that the destruction will wipe Germany right off the map.  At our present place – there isn’t a place found to be livable.  Our forces are really doing a good job of it.”

The Allies wanted to make sure the Germans knew they had been well and truly beaten in this war, so as to prevent the myth that emerged after World War I that the German Army had not been defeated in the field.

This was a sentiment seconded by Corporal Paul Vella, 5th Depot Repair Squadron, Maintenance Division.  He wrote to my dad in March 1945 that “You’re right, Julie, the Germans are getting the shit kicked out of them and the quicker it’s over the better I like it.  I sure would like to see the states after a couple of years of being away from it.”

Corporal Vella also jokingly mentioned the “Soldier’s Prayer” in his letter: Please, Dear God, distribute the bullets like you do the pay and give officers first dibs. Yes, there’s some grim humor shared in the front lines.

There’s nothing really that special about these letters to my dad – and that’s their value.  They are the typical sentiments of American dogfaces in Europe in World War II.  Men who saw the destruction of Germany and the deaths of their friends.  They had no illusions about war, and they didn’t spout patriotic platitudes.  They just wanted the war to be over so they could get back to living their “real” lives.

As one soldier put it to my dad in 1945, “I sure hope that I’ll get my discharge soon, I’ve got plans to complete, my girl is getting tired of waiting so long.”

And thus baby boomers like me followed.

A New Thirty Years’ War in the Middle East?

Jacques Callot captured the miseries of the Thirty Years' War.  Here we see a mass hanging
Jacques Callot captured the miseries of the Thirty Years’ War. Here we see a mass hanging

W.J. Astore

The Middle East of the early 21st century is looking more and more like the Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century that tore apart the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire.  Religious sectarianism?  In the 17th century, Catholics and Protestants killed each other with gusto.  Disunity?  Yes, within and among the various Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire.  Great power intervention that made matters far worse?  Yes, Protestant Sweden and Catholic France intervened in a big way, among a host of other lesser powers. Privatized, for-profit militaries that threw more fuel on the fire?  Yes, Albrecht von Wallenstein, the greatest mercenary captain of the age, created his own empire until he was assassinated in 1634.

The war finally ended when it burnt itself out, and when European leaders realized the more they intervened, the more they risked the infection spreading to their own kingdoms.  Thus came the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but not before roughly eight million people, most of them civilians, died in and of the war.

When will conflicts in the Middle East finally burn themselves out?  In 2048?  When the oil is finally gone? (Sadly, water may replace oil as a major source of conflict.)

And when will great powers like the United States realize the more they intervene, the more the infection spreads elsewhere?  Indeed, the more it comes home to endanger the United States?

Speaking of 30 years, when did the war for the greater Middle East truly begin?  With the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s?  The creation of Israel in 1948?  The end of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918?  Biblical times?

The Thirty Years’ War worked to delay German unification until 1871, after which Germany, late to European power politics, decided to rattle its saber for a bigger seat at the table.  World War I was the result.

What will be the long-term effects of constant warfare in the Middle East?  Impossible to see, perhaps, but the short-term ones are before our eyes: more instability ahead, more innocents dead, more hatred spread.

The time is now to put a stop to the killing.