I'll begin my admitting my prejudices: I quite like Ralph Peters. His novel War in 2020, while possessing all of the flaws of military technothrillers, did when I bought it a decade ago and still does now strike me as a well-written example of the genre. His Red Army, a book that is now an alternate history scenario given that it focuses upon a successful Soviet invasion of West Germany sometime in the late 1980s, also interested me, as did his subtle and entertaining Flames of Heaven. I enjoyed his geopolitical scenarios, thought highly of his writing, and generally respected the gentleman.
Unfortunately, as we say on soc.history.what-if, of late Ralph Peters has been struck by the geopolitician's version of the brain-eater disease. "Crocodile Tears" is a case in point.
By RALPH PETERS
March 10, 2003 --
I spent last month in Africa, pausing for a respectful visit to Robben Island, the former prison that confined Nelson Mandela for two decades. It was a physically beautiful setting spoiled by humankind's past intolerance and by the crocodile tears of European tourists.
You know, if not for the last eight words in this sentence, Peters' introduction would have been a perfectly serviceable if somewhat boilerplate introduction to Robben Island.
Young and old, the German, French and Dutch visitors deplored what had been done to one of the great men of the last century - who remains a powerful, if aging and erratic, voice in the cause of freedom. I certainly shared their regret at the suffering imposed on Mr. Mandela and his comrades.
This sentence is better. The aging I'll agree with; I disagree more with the erratic bit, since I do think that Mandela's recent statements match up with his stated ideology. It's self-consistent.
But I wanted to smack the lot of them and yell, "What about the Iraqis? Don't they matter, you smug, little hypocrites?"
It's wonderful to know that Peters holds every last person out of a combined population of just under 135 million people personally responsible for their government's policies, isn't it? Also, how he doesn't appear to know that the Dutch position is generally supportive of the American position.
As deplorable as conditions were on Robben Island during the imprisonment of South Africa's champions of freedom, they were civilized compared to the treatment of uncounted thousands of Iraqis at the hands of Saddam and his henchmen.
- Does the fact that one man suffered less than another man in a different circumstance mean that the first man's suffering is meaningless?
- Does memorializing the first man's suffering mean that you care nothing for the other man's suffering?
I do not underestimate the crimes of the apartheid regime. Yet, despicable though that government was, it didn't use nerve gas on thousands of men, women and children, torture children in front of their parents, rape wives in front of their husbands, exterminate entire families and clans on a whim, or slaughter minority populations.
No, South Africa used its proxies elsewhere in southern Africa--RENAMO in Mozambique, UNITA in Angola, and its security forces against South African refugees elsewhere in the region--to commit those atrocities. South Africa had managed to displace its most serious atrocities outside its borders. Not that it didn't commit atrocities inside its borders, mind--South Africa's expulsions of millions of black South Africans to their supposed homelands ranks as one of the 20th century's larger post-Second World War acts of ethnic cleansing.
Those Euro-trash tourists were right to mourn what had been done. But why on earth didn't they care about the present sufferings of their fellow human beings?
Why assume that they don't?
The sorry truth is that Europeans love to cry over corpses, but won't lift a finger to prevent the killing in the first place. They shake their heads over the Holocaust, though their parents were happy enough to pack the local Jews off to Auschwitz.
1. It's been almost sixty years since the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. You'd think that Peters could come up with more potent criticism of early 21st century European foreign policies formulated by politicians who were only children at the time of those tragedies and whose ideologies bear next to no resemblance to Naziism. The most potent criticism you can make--and perhaps rightly so--of Schroeder and Germany is that both are too passive in foreign affairs. Nazis certainly never were that.
2. We come to the question of a statute of limitations applied to crimes of a previous regime in relation to the people over whom it reigned. Myself, I agree with Factory that "any country that still maintains the policies of relevance at the time when such things occurred, should still bear the guilt of the policies." Again, lack of continuity.
3. I wonder if, in the era of "Strange Fruit", the United States would really have behaved that much differently from France in the unfortunate case of a Nazi conquest? (Let's say, to make things more-or-less equivalent, that FDR never comes to power and the United States languishes.)
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter cry.
In similar circumstances, would Americans and the American state really behave any different from French and the French state?
The French grudgingly accept that their intellectals defended Stalin long after evidence of his crimes came to light, but they avoid the issue of how many of their thinkers and artists admired Hitler and profited from the Occupation (French cafes and cabarets boomed under the Nazis).
Hmm. This article, published in the French paper of record, suggests otherwise; or, at least, that it's surfacing as quickly as the other traumas of the Second World War. When did the Holocaust become a major issue in the public mind?
Was there ever an African dictator the French didn't adore?
Bokassa comes to mind. And was there ever an African dictator that the Americans didn't adore? As I recall, Reagan was quite fond of South Africa--anti-communist bulwark, capitalist power, all that.
The Dutch criticize America's military as trigger-happy, but their own troops didn't fire a shot in defense of the Muslims of Srebrenica, who they had been tasked to protect and whose slaughter was the worst single massacre on European soil since the end of the Second World War.
Considering that the Dutch government fell over the issue, and the Srebrenica massacre seems to have become something of a national shame ... It's also questionable whether the 110 lightly-armed Dutch soldiers could have done anything apart from getting themselves massacred, like the 10 Belgian soldiers killed in Rwanda the previous year.
When I served in Europe in the '70s, Chairman Mao prefigured Viagra in his effect upon the European Left. Of course, the Soviet Union remained noble and virtuous until the end, its failure to construct heaven on earth explained away by American scheming and malevolence. Today, Europeans dismiss their historical guilt toward Jews by insisting that Israel is as bad as Nazi Germany - a Big Lie worthy of Hitler and Goebbels - while cheering on Israel's genocidal enemies.
It's interesting: You'd be left with the impression that naive student radicalism was unique to Europe.
What can we do in the face of such a profound lack of honesty, morality or even decency? How can we work constructively with those for whom evidence only matters when it supports their prejudices?
This paragraph is somewhat ironic.
What shall we make of those who would let millions die at the hands of tyrants while accusing America of aggression for opposing the killers?
It's interesting, here, how Peters doesn't even allow for the possibility of legitimate differences of opinion: A case can be made that containing Iraq for the time being would be rather less destructive than a badly-bungled invasion. I wouldn't agree with it, but still, it's consistent within itself. Opposition is inherently evil, and that's that.
The short answer is: Not much. In the longer term, though, we must accept the fact that states such as France and Germany have declined to the mentality of yesteryear's Mexico, blaming the United States for all their failures and defining themselves not in positive terms, but merely as the anti-America.
And, of course, no one in the United States has defined their country in like terms.
We must accept, from today onward, that America shall often need to act alone or with a handful of courageous allies. Increasingly, we will need to do that which we recognize as strategically and morally necessary, disregarding those states, in Europe and elsewhere, that weep so readily for the dead while caring so little for the living.
Well, at least this is consistent with what he has already argued.
We must accept the world's jealousy as a given and must not become distracted by attempts to placate European racists who refuse to set high standards for governance in developing states. Indeed, nothing so abets tyranny and oppression today as French and German condescension toward black, brown or yellow populations - and their unspoken conviction that nonwhites remain inferior.
You can be certain that liberalism has become mainstream when conservatives wholeheartedly assimilate their more naive arguments wholesale. If you oppose a war in Iraq, then, and you believe that as a result of more than a generation of brutal dictatorship that has atomized an Iraqi civil society that was never strong to begin with a halfway-democratic government is impossible, you're racist. Presumably if you made the same argument in regards to, say, Russia, you'd be equally racist.
Oh wait. Peters did:
There is no hope. There will be no vast, prosperous market for Western goods in Greater Muscovy in my lifetime. [. . .] I envision only a landscape of failure, indigence, and misery. The Russians are a doomed people. We must be careful not to let them know.
[. . .]
The people are too weary. They are good only for short, brutal, outbursts.
-- War in 2020, p. 432
Peters then, and pessimists re: Iraq now, can be accused of pessimism. But racism? For his sake, I reject the charge.
When Robert Mugabe, the Stalin of Zimbabwe, is welcome in Paris,
Which, to be quite certain, is a shameful thing.
while the French government takes pains to insult Colin Powell, you have a very clear illustration of the ethics of French diplomacy. The current wave of jokes about the French are ill-judged only in the sense that the French impulse toward racial totalitarianism is no laughing matter. Ask the populations of Ivory Coast or Rwanda. Or Algeria. Or of the brown and black suburbs of Paris.
Racial totalitarianism? Naivete and the expected cruelnesses, sure, but racial totalitarianism? Let's examine Peters' examples one by one:
- In Ivory Coast, France is intervening on behalf of a perhaps-doomed effort to support a failing peace process, overcome the effects of almost a decade of government based on the principles of ivoirité, a nationalism that excludes the majority of Muslims and immigrants from any legitimate role in national life, destabilizing one of the most prosperous economies in all west Africa.
- In Rwanda, France found itself supporting the genocidal interahamwe in an effort to keep out Anglophone influence from the former Belgian empire. This is bad, but alas, not the first example of a powerful Western government supporting thugs.
- In Algeria, we're seeing the aftereffects of a totalitarian war of national liberation fought for almost a decade between Algerian rebels and French colonialists. After withdrawing from Algeria, the post-colonial regime--in the manner of revolutionary governments everywhere--mismanaged things very badly, allowing an opening for ultra-violent Islamists to wage an incredibly violent campaign of slaughter lasting more than a decade. French colonization of Algeria did create, ultimately, a disturbed environment in which radicalisms of all kind could flourish, and with that, it shares the faults of all colonialisms.
- The Maghrebin immigrant communities of urban France--living in the public housing estates known as banlieues--are alienated in much the same way as, early in the 20th century, southern and eastern European immigrant communities of the urban United States. It's open to question how effective French policies are, though the new popularity of Algerian popular music in France suggests that the situation is more akin to that of the United States' African-Americans.
The case for a peculiarly French racial totalitarianism seems weak.
Of course, sincere allies will always be welcome in this new century of struggle between post-modern freedoms and the bankrupt sur-realpolitik of Paris and Berlin. And we must distinguish, of course, between Europe's freedom-loving frontier states, either on the Atlantic periphery or in the east, and the twilight states of "Old Europe."
Our natural allies are those who either have pioneered democracy, such as Britain, or who have struggled long and hard for their freedom - Poland, Hungary, Spain and so many others who suffered under Communism or fascism.
Saddam looks very different to a Romanian or Latvian than he does to a German or a Frenchman. The Frenchman sees a tantalizing business proposition, while, as a friend of mine serving in the Gulf remarked, "The Germans can't help loving Saddam. He's a dictator with a mustache . . ."
Interesting, isn't it, how popular support across Europe is rather massively opposed to participation? France and Germany are hardly alone. Of course, people who want to reconcile the manifest lack of support for a war in Iraq by a European population opposed to their government's participation define Europeans as "political idiots ... politically irresponsible." Which is a nice way of saying that governments which are supposed to be responsive to the electorate have decided that the people don't deserve to determine whether or not they'll be at war.
What did Bertolt Brecht write, back in 1953? "Would it not be easier...for the government To dissolve the people And elect another?"
Beyond Europe, America's efforts to face down tyrants are resisted by - surprise! - tyrants. The United Nations never had the strategic relevance its partisans insist Washington's liberation of Iraq will destroy. We should not seek to harm the U.N., but we cannot prevent it from slashing its own wrists.
Well, he's wrong. The United Nations does have problems, but it and its associated organizations are tremendously useful clearing houses. Wreck the UN, and you'll wreck some of the best multilateral institutions extant.
We Americans can expect neither gratitude, understanding nor support from the baroque regimes of France, Germany and their fellow travelers. Chancellor Schroeder? Bill Clinton without the moral fiber.
Considering that Schroeder's policy towards Iraq is more-or-less consistent with what went before, in Germany and the United States, I wonder. Doesn't it take more moral fibre to adopt a policy that you sincerely believe in than to fall in lock-step with your allies?
President Chirac? The mouth of de Gaulle, the soul of Petain, and the morals of a pimp.
I wonder how Peters assumes that de Gaulle and Pétain are two personality types that could ever be hybridized. And again, seeing as how Chirac hasn't buckled under to pressure from a larger and wealthier state, one wonders how the financially-lubricated morals of a pimp come into play.
Humanitarian Belgium? Yeah, just ask the Congolese.
And by the same measure if we wanted to take the measure of American humanitarianism, we could ask the Sioux or the Cheyenne (the Congolese's contemporaries). Or, better yet, the Filipinos; or, closer to our era, the Vietnamese and Cambodians.
Peters is arguing, here, that whenever a given nation-state has committed sins there is no amount of time or no degree of policy change that can ever wash the sins away, nothing that can be done to make those states able to make moral arguments. This position has one of two possible implications
- It's impossible for any state to stand in any kind of moral judgement given all states' origins in sin, and impossible for any private citizen in any of those states to make a moral argument on the principle of collective responsibility. In which case, a long-distance sort of interesting global moral nihilism comes to play.
- Peters and his ilk define who can, and who cannot, make moral judgements. This is similar to the moral nihilism argument, save that intellectually empty arguments are being made to reinforce the imperial power of the moment.
I wonder which argument Peters supports.
The European anti-war movement? Necrophiliacs licking the corpse of Josef Stalin.
An interesting image, if rather spectacularly incorrect. Are Stalinists that common in the movement as a whole? I suspect not.
Europeans will always be willing to weep over the dead. The United States must take a stand for the living. In Iraq. And beyond.
One wouldn't think that one of the main arguments of opponents of the upcoming Iraq war is that the war would cause too many dead to be morally tolerable. But then, according to Peters, one wouldn't thik that they're motivated by anything but their membership in a racist Stalinist death cult.
Ralph Peters just returned from a monthlong trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe. He is the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World."
And one shudders to imagine just what sort of strategy he suggested in that book.