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September 01, 2006

Stalingrad and Baghdad, A Tale of Two Cities?

In his 1999 film, Moloch, Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov recreates a weekend visit by Adolf Hitler and entourage to his Bavarian mountain retreat, Berchtesgaden. It is late autumn of 1942 and the Fuhrer, fickle, impotent and prematurely aging, passes a bizarre 24 hours  romping  with his vapid mistress, Eva Braun, his seemingly androgynous propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and a morose Martin Bormann. It's clear that already, "Adi", as Eva likes to call him, has premonitions of the impending disaster awaiting his troops on the Eastern Front that Stalingrad winter.  

Even on matters of policy, or his favorite subject, racial purity, Sokurov's moody and taciturn Fuhrer waxes incoherently, to the chagrin of his accompanying scribe. Sokurov succeeds, through his grainy, gray, album-like palette,  to draw us back in distance and time, though back, as in a hallucinatory dream. In the subdued, often hazy canvas of the massive Alps, studded with an ever present guard of immaculately black-uniformed storm troopers positioned behind every rock, Sokurov seems to be saying, "look, over there, gaze at those absurdly paltry humans."

The Fuhrer, who we know has single-mindedly thrown into motion a project that will result in the suffering, and destruction of millions upon millions of his fellow beings, here in private is little more than an introvert with a simple single-minded philosophy unable to make small talk in what for him is as close as he will get in his adult lifetime to a familial setting. It is impossible to imagine this same nervous man performing on the world stage, bringing a great throng of fellow Germans to its thrall.

In the first evening of this brief weekend visit, Hitler takes time out after a drab, wineless, repast, for a screening of Goebbel's latest film, that in the style invented for the glorification of the Reich by  Leni Riefenstahl, is designed to exalt the lightening thrust of his "Operation Barbarossa" invasion launched eastward in 1941. It's clear, however, through his pensive reaction, that the Fuhrer, a primary architect of Fascist imagery as well as its military strategy, already senses that the war in Russia will not be won by quick film editing no matter the film's artfulness and force nor will the combat be as easy as the early successes the film extols.

We, the safely distanced observers of this moment in time, of course, know that within months, the bulk of the great army launched by the Fuhrer that rolled so menacingly across the summertime Steppes primarily to secure the oil fields and then to march north towards Moscow, will be first bogged in the winter battles of Stalingrad, then surrounded and mercilessly destroyed before the coming Spring. Unlike his predecessor, Napoleon, Hitler's army will never take the Kremlin or even, after a long siege, Peter's European-facing capital, Leningrad.

We also are aware that even when the Eastern Front was to become an open door swinging back before the burgeoning Red Army, the Western Allies were gathering overwhelming force in the South and building strategic strike forces in Britain, the leader would not only opt to persist beyond the point when a negotiated escape from destruction might still be possible but against all military logic would pour much needed military assets into an ever accelerated effort to round up and wipe out Europe's civilian, Jewish population, which, unarmed, posed virtually no threat in the greater war effort.  Hitler, in character, would not risk his reachable priority of genocide to the possibility he might not first succeed in securing Germany's place as first among the next generation of world powers! But worse, more level headed minds in Germany would not muster the political will to remove the dictator and stem the pending doom that was sure to leave the entire nation in rubble.

For the German people throughout late 1943 and '44, an air of unreality sets in as the invading armies advance from all sides. Bombs fall from the sky, one after another, their great cities collapse into smoldering ruins and they begin to face choices such as to which army they wish to surrender. Those who can see and express what is happening are labeled defeatists by the regime. Still, there are rumors of a secret weapon that may turn the tide while children and the elderly and infirm put on uniforms to defend the capital, block by block. In May of 1945 the same figures we saw in Moloch, including Goebbel's and his tall, fashionable wife, Magda, commit suicide together with their five children in a bunker deep in the heart of a shattered Berlin.

Sokurov, the painterly film maker has drawn our gaze, if not all our thoughts, backward.  As the last credits roll off the screen we look up --scanning ever fast forward: Sokurov seems to be saying that in our passions and acquiescence, each of us deserves the reality we get. And thus, if zeal, revenge, jealousy and racial hatred made up the DNA that rendered last century's Fuhrer, what can we say about the genetic material that has brought us, today, into our own nation's present downward spiral?

As our own misconceived war spins ever further out of our control in Mesopotamia, lives, prestige and treasure are squandered like topsoil to the restless winds of a long drought. On today's canvas, the flat wall-hugging TV screen, instead of the chimera, victory and a pacified populus, we see the streets, marketplaces and mosques of Baghdad bloodied daily by well organized death squads that appear to act with impunity. 

We can see from the 1930's news footage, that most Germans enthusiastically embraced the suicidal proposals their leader presented them. In so doing, they turned their backs on some of their best and most creative citizens, forcing first their exile, then their imprisonments and finally their deaths. After a century in which they had achieved technical, scientific, social and cultural preeminence in Europe, they traded in their street clothes for uniforms, organized into massive, choreographed pageants, converted their factories to war machines, attacked a deeply embedded portion of their population, and when the call came mobilized and plunged wholeheartedly into a war of revenge and conquest. Certainly, off camera, there were dissenters, certainly, in this most civilized of European countries, there were men of conscience but, alas, they were swept away like confetti in the wake of a nationalist epiphany .  And when ordinary men and women, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, were given the task of committing horrific crimes against innocents up front and personal, they performed all too well. We know, because like tourists in Horrorland, some diabolical amusement park, they took snapshots and home movies wherever they went!

We, of course, are not like these Germans, not joined by crusading ideas of racial and cultural superiority, not citizens who have given up our rights to dictatorship, not enthralled by the ranting of a messianic leader, not burdened by our need to vindicate a historic failure; Quite the contrary, we are reminded from early childhood on, we are the custodians of a tested and enduring democracy, historical victors on the world stage, but yet, ahistorical in the European or Middle Eastern sense, without central grievances and century old needs for revenge, and the enjoyers of a prosperity that marks the distribution of information as one of its supporting pillars.

Yet, despite the wisdom that might be expected to have been gleaned over two hundred years of history in which we have been responsible for our destiny, with very insufficient debate, we (our leaders) launched an adventure in the desert that will surely be ranked as our greatest historical fiasco. Is it as important to our national destiny as Stalingrad was to Germany's?  Only time will tell. In June 1944, members of the German general staff, did try to assassinate Hitler, the bomb placed at his feet failed to do its job.

Here are some of the all too familiar mistakes we made in the lead up to Iraq II: First, we allowed our leaders to convince a majority of us that Iraq was central to the attack we suffered in New York. That majority then bought into a campaign that foisted the idea that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons and other WMD that could be used on us and our allies, even when our own allies and international monitoring regimes refused to go along with this supposition. We then accepted the proposition that this was a job our military could handle by itself and that it would require little or no sacrifice on our part to accomplish it. Finally, we accepted the assumption that occupation and nation building would be easy.

But what of the mistakes that occurred once we did, indeed, find ourselves in charge of this fractured country of 27 million people? We have seen, despite all the reassurances to the contrary, that our failure has been one of false assumptions, of hubris, and of a lack of knowledge, information-based analysis, experience and sophistication.

Iraq, in American minds, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with Stalingrad.  We have not acted as if we were waging an existential war there.  If we had, we would not have hesitated to use our full might and wealth to bring on victory. For the President to now argue that indeed, this is the defining action of our time, is to belie all that has gone before in his effort to keep troop levels and sacrifices on the home front to a minimum.

Early on, Hitler had laid the groundwork for his invasion of Russia.  He had convinced the German people that Germany needed to expand its territory to gain lebensraum. It was to the East, in territories occupied by "inferior" Slavs that this living space was to be taken back.

Indeed, up to now, and although Americans would be loath to use this terminology, the Iraq campaign has been conducted much more as a late 19th Century, early 20th Century colonial war, much more, say, like Britain's Boer War, than World War III. In these kinds of (colonial) wars, great powers fight to install friendly governments at the point of the gun barrel. The theorists for this kind of strategy, the so-called NeoCons led by Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush 43, apparently assumed that is was still possible to fight this kind of war in our own day. In their view, vital minerals (oil this time) were at stake, and there was only one world superpower, still standing. They squared the argument by insisting that the war could be paid for by that very same Iraqi oil. There was, after all and quite cynically thought, enough oil money to pay everybody off in the end, once it was secured into pliant hands.

They failed to see Britain's and France's experience in the 20th century as a lesson and they repudiated the obvious lessons of Vietnam, America's own first experience in a colonial war. This time, there would be no Russian superpower to supply the enemy and no potential draftees to mess up public opinion on the home front. What the rest of the world thought, of course, was of little consequence to them.

For ex-Cold Warriors, pragmatic business executives, Middle East conflict idealists, the mainstream media, and even the post-post-Vietnam military, there appeared from each angle the chimera of something, something for everybody. For the guys who would fight it, it was a job, a rite of passage, and, perhaps, most satisfactorily, a chance to give payback for 9/11. For the profiteers who surround every war like vultures, there would be untold opportunities to defraud the public. For the support of the broader population, fears of another 9/11, like the Treaty of Versailles before it, would serve as the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate's indispensable lynch pin.

As a result, once again, the credits roll across the screen, and we find ourselves in blinders and fighting the last war(s). For Iraq II, we don't talk about "hearts and minds" much because the administration understands echoes of Vietnam. But no occupying force, no matter how big, can succeed unless a sizable portion of the population views the occupation as in step with their history. It's interesting that Condoleezza Rice argues that this is another Postwar Germany or Japan.

In Iraq as in Vietnam, we, the people who invented the idea of Manifest Destiny, to describe our own extraordinary expansion, have chosen to be a counterweight to history in the Islamic world. In the eyes of this once colonized part of the world, we have from the beginning acted like a colonizing power, with our own Proconsul, our own designated leader and our own cultural biases. In a world reacting to the rush of westernization that had brought with it no successful indigenous economic or political models to point to and one that was already reverting back to its own mirage of an idealized Islamic state out of the distant past, where we needed Arabist intelligence officers we got Rumsfeld types, where we needed Arabic speaking troops trained in policing and the ways of the populace, we sent in raw recruits fresh out of high school. Successful colonial rulers exploit divisions in a society, pitting rival elements against each other.  Instead, we naively gave ourselves the nearly impossible goal of creating a democratically elected unity government that includes the three diverse populations in power and wealth sharing. But perhaps our biggest mistake, beyond our groping lack of understanding of where we are, has been our blindness to the opportunity we were opening up for Iraq's neighbor and our largest enemy in the region, Iran.

Iran is not an Arab country but is a leading Muslim country.  It is not as powerful as the United States, of course, but it is there in the region and it is not going anywhere. It's goal was to succeed in seeing that the Americans do go home. and with less prestige and power than they had before the Iraq adventure. It's obvious that in this they have already succeeded.  This is because whether we stay the course as we state we are doing now --waiting for the possibility of a hand off to Iraqi forces, yes, it's come down to that-- or leave a divided state to complete its own civil war and eventual partition --the scenario, we here in Dymaxia think most likely to occur-- Iran will end up the big winner. Iran, after all, understands Arabic, understands the Islamic mind and the currents running through those cultures that share in it, The leaders of Iran understand the rivalries of Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and non-Arabs, the colonial legacy, the jealousy of western wealth and power, and the siren-like lure of a distant history stretching from Toledo to Jakarta not unlike Hitler's evocation of purer Aryan past. The wind of history is at their back!

At the conclusion of World War II the great European powers faded inexorably into history. Do we somehow intuit that our great rise as a nation has now possibly passed its zenith?  Does this explain our increased addiction to gigantic cars and oversized living quarters, to mega-churches, to superstition over science, to our aversion to progressive experimentation but most importantly to our inability to deal intelligently with the most pressing internal and external issues of our time? New Orleans was the red flag on our own beach.

What to do now in Iraq is the moment's most pressing question. Do we persist mainly because there is no good outcome, because we can spare the lives and it appears we can afford the $2 billion a week price tag, at least for now? Do we just remain indifferent until the choppers evacuate the Green Zone? Do we believe Iraq is existential, a matter of life and death for our nation? If so, what does that mean?

 No one in Washington still believes that there will be such a thing as a "unified", "democratic" regime that will somehow restore the Iraqi nation in a way that is satisfactory to our purposes there. In the Pentagon there is a terrible foreboding that we will end up leaving Iraq much the way we left Vietnam, in a Green Zone being shelled by the forces controlling the streets of Baghdad. There is no doubt that when Iran wants it, the same rockets that poured into Northern Israel in July will find their way to the banks of the Tigris River and that there will be willing forces ready to launch them..

We are about to once again test our ability to make an important change, one way or another, since Iraq won't wait too much longer for us.

It's a critical discussion that needs to be had now while a little less than half of all the petroleum we are ever going to get is still in the ground. Unfortunately the leaders (we deserve?) have no desire to engage in the most pressing issue of our time.  Last month, in Twin Peaks, we talked about the implications of Peak Oil within the context of Global Warming. 

Once again, the critics of this bankrupt policy are labeled as "defeatists" or "cut and runners" in the vernacular. Never mind that the policy was ill conceived and based on a number of false assumptions and that the management of the endeavor has been deeply flawed right from the first day the Americans rolled into Baghdad and the situation got out of hand. Never mind the great costs in treasure and blood, never mind the loss of respect and prestige. This is merely a cynical strategy leading up to the Fall elections, an attempt to confuse and divide the electorate.  It is not a real strategy and it will not solve the essential problem. And worse, carried to its worst conclusion, it is the prelude to an expanded war!

Right now it behooves the dissenters, now a clear majority of Americans to come up with the least deleterious exit strategy, not because its their fault we're in this quagmire, but because the reality of the Middle East is that (unlike Vietnam) it is strategic! It's where the petroleum is, and yes, given time and the will, we can successfully wean ourselves from oil.  But it is also the heart of a Muslim world that counts nearly a fourth of the world's population. Bin Laden and the present rulers of Iran have laid bare the problem as clearly as, say, Katrina, rolled back the curtain on our own neglected populations. The problem won't go away just because we decide to go away, or sacrifice Israel or even, magari*, got serious about our addiction to petroleum.

Most Americans have hardly heard the words Peak Oil much less absorbed the implications of a shrinking supply but they are now aware of the potential cost consequences of tightened supplies. Even fewer know that there is no such thing as proven reserves.  It's taken for granted that Saudi Arabia has an almost bottomless supply but the fact is that the last time anyone had a good estimate was back in the 1970's when Aramco turned over the keys to the Saudi government.  Since then, the amount has been a state secret just as it is in a number of producing states.  Despite the fact that no new reserves have been discovered and that the Saudis have been the major supplier over the last three decades, the total amount of Saudi reserves commonly bandied about is higher today than it was when Aramco left!

We Americans have to figure out what to do in Iraq so we can put that discussion behind us and focus on the coming energy and environment crisis before it is too late. To put that in perspective, the Government's "most respected" climatologist, James Hansen, believes we have little more that a decade to start reducing greenhouse gas omissions before we reach a tipping point.

Justly fed up with the carnage and mess, many Americans are talking about something close to just marching out and letting the chips fall where they may. In our mind, if it was wrongheaded to barge our way into Iraq when we already had a viable embargo in place, it would be equally dumb to go FIGMO on it.

There is no good outcome for Iraq, only bad and worse ones. We can't let fear of defeatism further muddy the waters. It's time to put our advanced and vaunted Information Society to the test.  It's time for smart people to come forward and speak out.  We think Iraq will ultimately be partitioned, America can't dictate that outcome any more than we can dictate a democratic, unified Iraq. What we need to make sure, is that our role there is not to stand in the way.  Partition will not be easy to accomplish and it will require a referee, preferably a multi-lateral one that can deal with, and perhaps include, Iran.  Finally, it will require more smarts and fewer gun barrels! We need to nix in the bud the notion of an "inevitable World War III" in the region before Baghdad does indeed become our Stalingrad.

* magari, A common Italian expression, roughly translated as "would that it were"

*FIGMO, military lingo that's said to derive from "Fuckit I Got My Orders".

Posted by dymaxion at 03:47 PM


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