Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Archive for the ‘war’ Category

The Greats

with 8 comments

by Bronwen

This week I lectured on ‘The First World War and Africa’.  My students seemed to really enjoy the topic, which isn’t surprising; in a course (African History since 1800) where so much is new to first year undergraduates, the First World War is a topic they know quite a lot about and for which they have an extensive frame of reference.  This is because the First World War is constantly talked about here.  Between high school course work on the causes of World War One, and the pervasive cultural memory – enhanced by Downton Abbey and recent BBC miniseries like Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – students arrive at university with a pretty solid foundation in World War One history.

Obviously, the First World War was pretty devastating to Britain.  Not only did 2.19 per cent of the population die in the war, but over a million and a half servicemen were wounded as well.  Its social and economic impacts in the British and French colonies in Africa were similarly devastating.  Contrast this with America’s 0.13 per cent casualty rate (as a percentage of the population) and its easy to see why this is a topic that has a much greater, more lasting emotional impact here. World War I was the event that catapulted Britain – like it or not – into the modern age. Add to that the historiographical line that has made its way down to the classroom level – the futility and pointlessness of the war – and it becomes clear that all my student essays this term are going to be about the impact of the Great War on Africa.

I think all of this is interesting because, although I feel like I had a really excellent high school history education, and a fantastic undergraduate history education, I arrived in Britain knowing only a few key facts about the First World War: that it had been the first major conflict in which the flame-thrower was used; it gave rise to Egyptian nationalism; and it was a major influence on Hemingway.  My husband was pretty dismayed when I explained that in a lot of American schools, World War I is taught as basically the pre-World War II: the same actors, basically; the same plot-line from an American perspective (we come in late and end the war); and pretty much important (from our perspective) because it lines up the causes of the Second World War.  Obviously this is not the case everywhere in America, and I’m sure that if you chose to focus on this in college, there’s loads of good teaching out there.  But it is possible to come through the American education system without too much emphasis on this conflict.

Despite my explanation, I’m not sure he believed me until we (finally) watched the first season of Boardwalk Empire.  Talking about it afterward, we were commenting that if this had been a story set in Britain at the same time (1920), it would have been all about the war, the changes in society after the war, the crumbling British institutions, etc that are all the fodder for Downton drama [in fact, the first episode of season 2 of Downton drove me nuts a little because they just wouldn’t shut up about the war! even though it was supposed to have been going on for a couple of years by that point!].  Instead, the characters who fought in the war are outsiders, are really not supposed to bring it up, and are even shunned a little for having participated (especially for having volunteered).

In fact, the big cultural shared moment that pushed the US into modernity in the way most like World War I for Americans is the Great Depression, an event that really didn’t affect Britain to the same degree.  For both countries, there’s a heyday for the wealthy before an almost hubristic crash, which brings about more equality and more social programs. A recent piece in the FT Magazine by Gillian Tett points out that the reality of economic austerity is much closer for those in Britain than for those in the US precisely because our big cultural shared memory of austerity in America is over a generation ago, while the memory of the pain Britain felt in the 1970s is still relatively fresh.

Perhaps, following on from Gillian Tett, this all helps to explain both countries’ recent behavior, then.  If the First World War is such a dominant theme in British life and education, maybe that explains their unwillingness to get sucked into the entangling alliances of European politics and finance.  And if the Great Depression is a strong cultural memory in America, perhaps the idea of austerity and life before safety nets, and the pre-modernity it implies, makes the total return to Gilded Age politics distasteful enough to prevent too many cuts.  Here’s hoping, at least.


Written by apini

January 27, 2012 at 08:35

On Christopher Hitchens

with 6 comments

by David

I suppose it’s fitting that Christopher Hitchens has passed away just as the American involvement in the recent Iraq War is coming to a close. To his critics, waiting less than 24 hours from his death to heap their scorn, the eloquent English-American essayists’ career should be defined largely, perhaps entirely by his last, and greatest monumental error, his support for the George W. Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

This conclusion is unfortunate. After all, Hitchens was not alone among liberal hawks who misguidedly supported Operation Iraqi Freedom: David Remnick, Salman Rushdie, Peter Beinart, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, the list goes on. If we were to include people outside the public eye, well then I’d have count myself among the guilty. And I sure as hell hope that my error there won’t define whatever career I may have.

True, Hitchens was less repentant than some of the above liberals, never really admitting his mistake. But to call Hitchens a warmonger, as Corey Robin effectively does here, is to badly misinterpret the man’s words and legacy, and distort the complicated record of one of our generation’s greatest prose stylists.

Glenn Greenwald, like Robin, has joined in the Hitchens excoriation. Greenwald is certainly right that public figures should not get the benefit of societal etiquette that asks us not to speak ill of the dead. Their lives had a substantial impact on the world around them, and they should be be judged honestly and objectively, whether living or dead.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

December 18, 2011 at 09:12

Gilad Shalit, Benny Morris, and Rachel Abrams

with one comment

by David

I’m very happy that Gilad Shalit has come home safely. And I’m ok with the fact that 1000+ Palestinians, some of them violent murderers and thugs, are in the process of being released to achieve that result.

I wasn’t always so sure of this. About a year ago (maybe more), I heard a talk at NYU by Benny Morris, the controversial Israeli historian. I generally appreciate Morris’ commitment to objective scholarship, but his political views can rankle. And on the question of what to do about Gilad Shalit brought a shocking response (I’m paraphrasing). Morris said something to the effect of:

On the question of Gilad Shalit, I take my cue from Josef Stalin. During WW2, the Nazis captured Stalin’s son, and wanted to trade him for a couple of German generals. Stalin’s refused, and basically replied, “kill him.” Israel should not take ridiculous risks to save one soldier.

I looked up this story later, and apparently there’s a good chunk of truth to it. Morris’ answer shocked me, but from a cool, calculating, pragmatic point of view, it sort of made sense. Maybe even from a utilitarian point of view. I recently argued with a friend that trading these prisoners for Gilad Shalit showed the Israeli society highly valued human life. He responded, with good reason: what if those released kill many more Israeli citizens? Wouldn’t that mean they value human life less, because more people will die?

That was a fair response. Except I think sometimes utilitarianism isn’t enough. Pragmatism isn’t enough. Societies need values and principles. And I think it’s a positive value to say that, if you’re going to war for us, we will do everything in our power to get you back. Even if it means freeing murderers to secure your release. Because that builds the sense of social cohesion Israel needs to survive. Bradley Burston, a Ha’aretz columnist, expressed this well:

The deal is a remnant of an Israel which is fast disappearing. It is a remnant of a particular brand of quiet, exceptional courage. It is an expression of a national character that goes generally ignored in a media environment which prizes the extreme over the honorable. It is evidence of a people true to values which time and sectarian agendas may appear to have diluted and erased.

The deal for Gilad Shalit is a remnant of a promised land that – to those everyday people who donate their very youth, their very lives, in order to defend it – still believes it important to keep its promises.

The first of those promises is a simple one. When they draft you and process you and inoculate you and arm you and begin to use you, they spell it out, to you and your family both: If you are lost on the field of battle, we will get you back. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. Even if it takes much too much.

In addition, there may be some hope, maybe a sliver, that this deal will lead to an advancing of the peace process. Gilad Shalit sure hopes so:

“Of course I miss my family very much. I also miss my friends,” [Shalit] said. “I hope this deal will lead to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and that it will support cooperation between both sides.”

Shalit also said he would be happy if remaining Palestinians held in Israeli prisons were freed to return to their own families, so long as they wouldn’t “go back to fighting against Israel.”

Contrast this with what Rachel Abrams wrote:

Celebrate, Israel, with all the joyous gratitude that fills your hearts, as we all do along with you. Then round up [Shalit’s] captors, the slaughtering, death-worshiping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages who dip their hands in blood and use women—those who aren’t strapping bombs to their own devils’ spawn and sending them out to meet their seventy-two virgins by taking the lives of the school-bus-riding, heart-drawing, Transformer-doodling, homework-losing children of Others—and their offspring—those who haven’t already been pimped out by their mothers to the murder god—as shields, hiding behind their burkas and cradles like the unmanned animals they are, and throw them not into your prisons, where they can bide until they’re traded by the thousands for another child of Israel, but into the sea, to float there, food for sharks, stargazers, and whatever other oceanic carnivores God has put there for the purpose.

Yes, that’s Rachel Abrams, who as Glenn Greenwald tweeted, is “true neocon royalty,” wife of Eliott Abrams, daughter of Midge Decter, step-daughter of Norman Podhoretz, half-sister of John Podhoretz and Ruthie Blum Leibowitz.

The neocons prepare for war on behalf of all Gilad Shalits. But the real Gilad Shalit, so it seems, is looking for peace.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 19, 2011 at 12:20

Vilnius and Vilna: City of Ghosts

leave a comment »

by David

At the beginning of this trip, what seems like eons ago, my father and I attended a conference in Warsaw on transnationalism. At one of the lunches, we sat with Scotsman, a professor at a Swedish university who had spent the previous several years teaching in Vilnius, Lithuania. I knew it would be the last destination on my eastern European voyage, so I asked him how he felt about the place.

His face darkened. “It’s a city of ghosts,” he said.

That’s what I had heard, and read. In this way, Vilnius, formerly Wilno, or Vilna, was not unlike Lviv, formerly Lwow, Lemberg, or Lemberik. Vilnius had once been a mostly Polish and Jewish city, with a small Lithuanian population. In fact, it had been a seat to Jewish intellectual life in Europe, home to the famous rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, and to YIVO, an academic institution dedicated to the scientific study of Yiddish culture and language, until it relocated to the New York in the 1930s, where it became part of the Center for Jewish history, where I conduct much of my dissertation research.

Indeed, in American Jewish history, a distinction is made among formerly Polish Jews between Galicianers (from Galicia, the region of Poland/Ukraine controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1) and Litwaks (Lithuanians). They spoke Yiddish with different inflections and pronunciations, but supposedly the differences ran deeper. The Galicianers were supposedly simpler but more pious, the Litwaks more secular but also more educated and enlightened, with YIVO emerging as a shining example of this enlightenment.

The YIVO people who left were smart to get out when they did. Because then the Nazis came and killed all the Jews. And then the Soviets came and exiled all the Poles, and moved the Lithuanians in. And so Wilno/Vilna became Vilnius, a city populated by formerly rural Lithuanians, just as Lwow had became Lviv, a Polish-Jewish city now firmly Ukrainian.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

September 18, 2011 at 04:50

A Modest Reaganite Foreign Policy Proposal

with one comment

by Weiner

Over at The Nation, historian Jon Wiener (not to be confused with me) offers Obama some sarcastic foreign policy advice: “invade Grenada.” After all, it worked for Reagan back in 1983. He notes:

The US invasion of Grenada certainly was bad for the Grenadans. But now we can see that sending 7,000 troops to Grenada for a couple of weeks was a lot better for the United States than sending 130,000 troops to Lebanon for a decade.

A modest proposal: Obama should invade Grenada for a few days. Perhaps we have reports that Al Qaeda’s number-three man is vacationing there. Then Obama should pull out of Afghanistan. The right will howl in protest, but voters will happily re-elect him to a second term.

Read the whole thing.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 10, 2011 at 23:38

Why Terror: Islamic Fundamentalism, Revenge or Both?

with 5 comments

by Weiner

More than many liberals and progressives, and more than most of my co-bloggers, I think, I enjoy reading conservatives. Not only because I want to “know my enemy,” but also because few of my beliefs are firmly in place, because I change my mind on many issues time and time again, and because I feel like I have something to learn, even from the die-hards of the Right.

And so I read Charles Krauthammer‘s column in The Washington Post every week. Like me, Krauthammer is a Montreal Jew. I disagree with him on most everything, but I value his clarity of writing and thought, his consistency (which has unfortunately come to border on predictability) and his realism, even if it’s a realism that I don’t think is very hinged to reality.

In his most recent column, however, Krauthammer inadvertently advanced a point of his opponents. In arguing the Islamic fundamentalism is the chief cause of terrorism, Krauthammer wrote of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter:

Remember the wave of speculation about Hasan’s supposed secondary post-traumatic stress disorder — that he was so deeply affected by the heart-rending stories of his war-traumatized patients that he became radicalized? On the contrary. He was moved not by their suffering but by the suffering they (and the rest of the U.S. military) inflicted on Hasan’s fellow Muslims, in whose name he gunned down 12 American soldiers while shouting “Allahu Akbar.”

Krauthammer concludes that the chief cause here is Islamic fundamentalism. But what about the “suffering” that the US military has inflicted upon Muslims from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond? Islamic fundamentalism, like all religious fundamentalism, should not be ignored, but neither should US actions that inspire violent reactions.

Written by David Weinfeld

July 2, 2010 at 15:52

Christopher Hitchens and the Jewish Lust for Militarism

with 4 comments

by weiner

A few years ago I saw Christopher Hitchens speak about his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. It was about 6 pm, and Hitch has hammered. Glassy eyed and on unsteady legs, Hitchens delivered a marvelous address, both interesting and hilarious.

I certainly don’t agree with all his positions, but I admire his skill with the pen and his role as provocateur. And after reading this uncharitable interview, I discovered we have something in common. The author, Decca Aitkenhead, notes:

When the invasion of Iraq was first debated, one couldn’t fail to notice the preponderance of left-wing men of a certain age who came out in support of the war. Radicals as adults, but often from conservative backgrounds, now beginning to confront their own mortality, and preoccupied by masculinity and legacy, their palpable thrill about military might suggested that, deep down, they secretly feared progressive principles were for pussies. Now here was their chance, before it was too late, to prove their manhood.

In 2006, Hitchens’ wife, the American writer Carol Blue, told the New Yorker her husband was one of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There’s a whole tough-guy, ‘I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die’ talk, which is key to his psychology – I don’t care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing.”

Is there any truth in what his wife said? He pauses for a second. Then, unexpectedly: “Yeah. Yes. One of the things I’ve realised, writing the book, is that it has to be true.”

I was a left-wing man of a much younger age then, but I also supported the Iraq War. I’ve though about this a lot over the years. I certainly think it has something to do with my particular Canadian-Jewish upbringing: I grew up in a household where the major war of interest was not Vietnam, but World War II,  the “good war.” Both my grandparents and my great uncle had fought in it, for either Poland or the Soviets or both. The other wars I knew about, of course, were Israel’s wars, chiefly the War of Independence, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, all understood by my uncritical Zionist mind as righteous struggles for Israel’s survival.

Like many a young Jewish boy though, I had my issues with masculinity. Growing up, I never much cared for Sesame Street, but loved He-Man and G.I. Joe. I became a big boxing fan. In college, I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and was struck by the final section, where Alexander Portnoy visits Israel and exclaims, “Here we’re the WASPs!” Visiting Israel myself, seeing the proud Jewish men (often really boys) in uniforms, armed with M-16s, I was in awe of the macho Sabra ideal even before I read Leon Uris’ Exodus, which only happened a few years later.

When Matt Taibbi wrote this post, excoriating David Brooks for his attributing a militaristic “Christian” zeal to George W. Bush and even Barack Obama in their leadership in the War on Terror. The religion that jumped out at me, though, when I read the piece, was not Christianity but Judaism. First Taibbi admitted that his attitude towards Brooks “is colored by certain strong feelings… about his appearance–he just looks like a professional groveler/ass-kisser.” Taibbi went on:

Brooks is the kind of character who has thrived everywhere he’s lived throughout human history; it’s incredibly easy to imagine the nebbishy, hairy-kneed Gaius Domitus Brooksius strolling through Rome and swelling with pride over his new appointment to the post of Senior Licker of the Caligulan butt crack.

Taibbi’s use of the word nebbish was telling. Later, he employed the term again:

Brooks is a perfect example of the kind of spineless Beltway geek we always see beating the war drum at times like these. It’s because nebbishly [sic] little dorks like Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum got their books dumped in high school that we end up dropping daisy cutters on Afghan sheep herds and shipping working class American kids halfway around the world to get their nuts blown off. That sounds like a simplistic explanation, but anyone who doesn’t have a keen ear for the pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred is going to have a hard time understanding Washington politics.

When I first read this, an alarm went off in my head: “Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum,” Jew, Jew, Jew. I looked at Taibbi’s wikipedia page, and noted that he had played some form of professional basketball and baseball. Here was the cool, hip goyish athlete, picking on the nerdy, nebbishy Jews.

This resonated with me because I had been there, even if I went to an all-Jewish high school and the bullies there were Jews too. I don’t think Taibbi is an antisemite. In fact, I think he’s on to something, but he veered off track when focusing on “Christian Warriors.” He was right to identify the “pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred” but it’s very often a Jewish quest, including Brooks and Wolfowitz and Frum but also Hitchens (despite his being anti-Zionist) and undoubtedly many others. I know it because I felt it, and still feel it, even if my views on particular military conflicts have changed.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 22, 2010 at 11:24