Wednesday, November 06, 2002

We Were Warned

by William Severini Kowinski

"Power is a poison...The effect of unlimited power on limited mind is worth noting in Presidents because it must represent the same process in society, and the power of self-control must have limit somewhere in face of the limit of the infinite." Henry Adams

"From a marketing perspective, you don't introduce a new product in August."
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, explaining why the administration waited until after Labor Day to push for war with Iraq

With an apparent election day mandate and a UN Security Council resolution on the way, an American attack on Iraq again looms on the near horizon. But if it happens, we can't say we weren't warned of the consequences.

One such warning comes in a book by an ex-President, about prior calls to get rid of Saddam. "Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the U.N.'s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish," he stated.

The ex-President's name is George Bush.

"Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq," according to Bush the First and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft in a 1998 book, "...would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama, which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq....Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."

Besides ex-presidents, the columnists and analysts warning of the dire geopolitical, economic and moral consequences of attacking Iraq, we have the benefit of other voices speaking with the authority-and anguish-of experience in past conflicts.

Notably among them are two men who observed and to some extent participated in decisions early in the Vietnam war. Daniel Ellsberg began working for the Pentagon the same week that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to openly deploy American bombs and troops in Vietnam. In what he describes as an unhappy coincidence, Ellsberg was promoting his new book, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" in September, as Congress was passing its authorization to attack Iraq, which Ellsberg called "Tonkin II."

In media interviews and promotional appearances Ellsberg drew strong parallels and lessons from Vietnam to Iraq, from the questionable facts behind the reasons given for attacking, to the lack of understanding concerning the historical and political dynamics of the region.

He also asserted that the U.S. military leadership is unanimously against an invasion of Iraq. Other have pointed out-perhaps Ellsberg's book does as well-that many U.S. military analysts concluded as early as the 1950s that America could not win a war in Vietnam.

Coincidentally or not, Ellsberg's views--that an unprovoked attack would violate international standards and American principles, that it would never lead to democracy in Iraq but would embroil the U.S. in wider warfare for years to come-showed up in a Doonesbury series depicting "previews" of future years' cartoons.

Ellsberg claimed that as in the Vietnam era, American citizens are not getting the information they need. He praised those who have leaked information from inside the government which cast doubt on the official premises for a war on Iraq. He especially emphasized that others should not wait until the killing starts to leak documents, as he did. It wasn't until 1969 that Ellsberg finally sent to the New York Times a top secret Pentagon study revealing that the government had repeatedly and knowingly lied to the American public to justify the war in Vietnam.

Bill Moyers was President Johnson's press secretary in 1964. In a commentary on his weekly PBS program, "Now," Moyers emphasized constitutional and moral issues in arguing passionately against an invasion of Iraq. He recalled that President Johnson became so distraught over the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam war that he sometimes took to his bed and pulled the cover over his eyes. Moyers urged President Bush to heed this lesson before he had to face such consequences.

October marked the 40th anniversary of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and in a commemorative event at the John F. Kennedy Library, Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson pointedly contrasted the decisions made then with the proposed attack on Iraq, in particular the decision that a large country like America should not invade a small one like Cuba without being attacked first, not even with nuclear missiles in place there.

Both Sorensen and former Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara noted that President Kennedy made reference several times that week to "The Guns of August," Barbara Tuchman's history of the beginning of World War I. Kennedy emphasized the book's descriptions of miscalculations on both sides that led to the prolonged tragedy that engulfed the world.

Just as Vietnam was America's trauma, there was turmoil in Europe for a generation after World War I. Many Europeans hadn't believed a war would really come, and leaders on both sides were confident of quick victory once the war started. The length and savagery of trench warfare, the growing destructiveness of weaponry and technology, and the huge number of deaths and crippling injuries were intensely shocking.

When I heard from friends who said Bush would never really invade Iraq because it is so clearly self-destructive, or I saw the TV commentators assuring the U.S. of a brisk and easy victory, I thought of World War I.

Then I read a Jon Carroll column in the San Francisco Chronicle which said, "Folks with a sense of history think of the days before World War I, when everyone was sure that somebody sensible would stop this madness and no one sensible did, and the century of unprecedented carnage began."

Seeing that thought in print produced a real jolt. That my private fears were shared now made it really scary. It sent me to three remarkable films released when war seemed imminent again in the 1930s, including two that directly depicted World War I.

The most famous of these films is "All Quiet on the Western Front," released in 1930. The novel by Erich Maria Remarque about a group of young German soldiers in World War I was an international best seller. The movie version had an equally profound effect. "Image after image was burned into the brain of all of us for whom seeing All Quiet was one of the major experiences of growing up in the 1930s," writes Harvey Swados in the foreword to the novel's paperback edition.

The novel is a first person account from the trenches, simply but eloquently told. The horrors that comprise their daily reality soon transform these young men forever, so that they will never again quite fit into civilian life. "The war has ruined us for everything," the narrator says. "We will be superfluous even to ourselves." After reading this book, no one could think of "post traumatic stress syndrome" as new, or anything but tragically predictable.

At least until recently, this novel was taught in American high schools-possibly because it is short. But it also has a long history of being banned (by the Nazis first of all) when a nation is about to go to war.

The film version, adapted by American playwright Maxwell Anderson, featured mostly American actors playing German soldiers. Their obviously American regional inflections (not yet homogenized a standard mid-Atlantic movie accent) has an odd effect. Their accents and American expressions aren't distancing or awkward at all, but give the film an additional innocence and immediacy, serving the point Remarque makes that soldiers on both sides had more in common with each other than with their leaders, or even with civilians back home. This aspect of the film inevitably also results in some weird moments of displacement, as the viewer realizes that the soldiers we are observing and rooting for, are being attacked by "the right side,"---our side--- in that war.

Remarque quietly dramatizes the disconnect between the realities of war and the noble-sounding shibboleths leaders used to promote eager participation in it. Anderson's adaptation emphasizes this with additional scenes of a teacher whipping his students into a frenzy so that they march off to enlist. The teacher shouts the same Latin phrase ( "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," meaning "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country") that British poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action at the front, used as the title of a famous war poem published in 1920, calling it "The old Lie."

Another movie pointedly using the horrors of World War I was "J'Accuse," directed by one of the great film innovators, the French auteur, Abel Gance. He made this film twice-a silent version in 1919, and a new talking version in 1938. Though it was mostly a love story, the "special effects" climax showed dead soldiers rising from their graves to warn the populace against another war. The 1919 version was shot during World War I, and real soldiers played this scene, including some who were killed in battle shortly afterwards. The eerie power of this sequence is indescribable.

Scenes in a third film of this era also convey an eerie power, though in a different way. When H.G. Wells adapted one of his books for the screen, his primary intention was not necessarily to produce a cautionary tale about war. Wells was more interested in suggesting a new, better and more sensible world society of the future, but he believed that only a major war would shock humankind into creating it. The resulting movie, "Things to Come" (directed by William Cameron Menzies) has since become something of a science fiction classic. But those first scenes depicting the war to end all wars (which was Wells' phrase before Woodrow Wilson adopted it) turned out to be the most prophetic.

Wells' had a remarkable ability to foresee the technologies of modern war: he was the first novelist to describe what aerial bombing might mean for warfare, as well as predicting armored tanks (which he called the 'land ironclads') and the atomic bomb ( which he named). Perhaps his visions also inspired Menzies' direction in the film's opening sequence, set in London just as war breaks out. To today's veteran movieviewer, these scenes may appear similar to many films depicting the London blitz, perhaps merging newsreel footage with artificial re-creation. But that perception changes as soon as you realize that this film was made in 1935, before any bombs had fallen on London, and before any major bombardments of English or European cities.

This was the aspect of "Things to Come" that Jorge Luis Borges praised in a contemporaneous review, for its salutary effect on "those people who still imagine war as a romantic cavalcade or an opportunity for glorious picnics and free tourism." It can still remind us that bombs meant to punish Saddam Hussein will randomly kill and maim the innocent in Iraq.

How strange it must have seemed to the first audiences of "Things to Come," to see the center of a city, populated only by civilians, suddenly destroyed by the bombs and missiles of an invisible enemy, when it had never happened in reality. This scene, too, was science fiction. But today it is a reality of every war. All of these movies are about the realities of every war. We can't say we haven't been warned.

While several of these films are blatantly anti-war, not all of these warnings say or imply that war is never necessary. Ellsberg and Moyers, for example, are not pacifists. But the consequences of war must be realistically anticipated, and the decision to inflict war is extremely serious, requiring (unless in the act of actually repelling an attack) scrupulous consideration, honest information and debate. It is very easy to get swept up in war fever.

It is interesting what might break that fever. Perhaps one of these voices, one of these films. Or something as simple as a painting.

I was struck by something Robert MacNamara recalled during the Kennedy Library symposium (shown on C-Span), about that fateful week in 1962 when the world faced imminent nuclear destruction, and a group of men around a table in Washington were deciding the fate of the earth.

The meetings of that committee had to be secret, and so they weren't held in the official offices of the White House. These leaders met instead in the Yellow Oval Room in the presidential residence portion of the White House. MacNamara recalled-forty years later-that sitting there they were surrounded by the paintings of Cezanne.

It seemed to me to be a remarkable thing to remember. It obviously meant something to him. Intrigued, I checked with the Kennedy Library and learned that there were indeed two Cezanne paintings in that room in 1962 ( "House on the Marne" and "The Forest") and perhaps one other elsewhere in the White House. A single donor had given eight Cezannes to the White House; the others were transferred to the Smithsonian.

MacNamara's comment seemed to suggest he saw more than two paintings, but perhaps their effect was powerful enough to produce a memory of more. Even two Cezanne landscapes would certainly stand out, especially in comparison to the paintings in the West Wing and the Oval Office itself, which tended to depict historical moments, battles and western scenes painted by American artists.

If MacNamara remembered these paintings, isn't it possible that sitting there that week, those men were affected by their presence? Could they have played a part in reminding them of the beauty that would disappear forever if they got too caught up in the Great Powers, Cold War, standard catalogue of acts and responses? Could "The Forest" have cooled the fever? Could beauty really tame the beast?

No comments: