Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

Heaving Dead Cats on Memorial Day with H.L. Mencken (and Boyd Rice too!)

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Yesterday I came across an interesting piece at The New American, a John Birch Society website and magazine.  Jack Kenny writes that

Perhaps as we remember the war dead this Memorial Day, we might commit our prayers and any efforts we can make for our country not only to the cause of liberty, but also to the all-important task of guiding our nation to a path of peace. Perhaps we should determine to stay out of those foreign wars and “entangling alliances” that Washington and Jefferson warned against, and employ the force of arms only when it is genuinely a last resort — when war truly is “forced upon us,” as our leaders like to say when they are all the while pursuing a war of choice. While decorating the graves of our war dead this Memorial Day, let us resolve to make fewer of them.

Kenny cites a remark by Robert Taft, a U.S. Republican senator who opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and involvement in Korea.

“War, undertaken even for justifiable purposes, such as to punish aggression in Korea, has often had the principal results of wrecking the country intended to be saved and spreading death and destruction among an innocent civilian population,” he said. “Even more than Sherman knew in 1864, ‘war is hell.’ War should never be undertaken or seriously risked except to protect American Liberty.”

I also recently ran across a quotation from Russell Kirk, the great American conservative thinker:

A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions.

We tend to conflate conservatism with hawkishness.  There are good reasons for doing so, but the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.  There’s been the American Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the annexation of the Philippines and was comprised of such working-class heroes as Andrew Carnegie, William Graham Sumner, and Grover Cleveland; Middle-American opposition to World Wars One and Two; and, a libertarian site against U.S. invention overseas.
Nearly two years ago I concluded “No More Veterans Days” with a passage from Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States:

Let’s go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end…  Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches…  Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.  As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

Isn’t it curious that the words of paleo-conservatives and a Marxist historian sound so similar?  Maybe it’s because they express a basic truth: War is a pointless waste of lives and resources.
“Yet the human race,” H.L. Mencken wrote, after watching generals “perform their gory buffooneries, cheers them when they come home, dazed and empty-headed, and thrusts its highest honors upon them.  What a certificate to its judgment, its common sense, its sense of humor, its right to survive on earth!”

Mencken with cigar

H. L. Mencken, contemplating throwing kitty corpses into shrines

That’s a tad insensitive, particularly on this day of remembrance, don’t you think?  Yes, but as Mencken wrote elsewhere “Such are the facts.  I apologize for the Babylonian indecency of printing them.”   There’s a time for sensitivity, but it limits and controls dialogue.  We hold back from expressing heterodox ideas because we don’t want to risk ostracism.  What do we call that which runs against notions of propriety?  “Bad taste,” i.e., doesn’t taste good.  As any mother will tell you, the most nutritious foods often are the least tasty.  If your diet only consists of candy, pizzas, and milkshakes, get ready for a date with diabetes.

As Mencken said of image breakers,

The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least [ital]one[ital] visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts.  The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud.  One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.

More than a half a century later, another American iconoclast, Boyd Rice, would remark on the irreconcilability of sensitivity and truth:

I have never pretended to be a nice guy, because I’m not. It’s fairly impossible to remain true to oneself and still be a “nice guy.” Similarly, only people as misanthropic as myself can be counted on not to have to lie to others, since we have the unique luxury of not caring what sort of opinions others formulate about us. . .   If others choose to see the world in terms of sugar, spice and everything nice, that’s certainly their prerogative, and I would never dream of trying to tell them otherwise.

Boyd Rice

Boyd Rice: The American Iconoclast

Memorials, whether of marble or holidays, are reliquaries for received truths.  As such, a trace of impertinence, even the heaving “dead cats into sanctuaries,” is essential to the frank study of war history.  Examining the new spate of books that challenge assumptions about World War Two, Adam Kirsch writes in The New York Times Book Review that

The passage of time doesn’t just turn life into history; it also changes the contours of history itself. Over the last several years, historians, philosophers and others have begun to think about the Second World War in challenging and sometimes disturbing new ways, reflecting the growing distance between the country that fought the war and the country that remembers it. . . .

To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

If that didn’t ruffle your feathers, I’ll leave you with this scene from Platform, Michel Houellebecq’s fantastic novel of sex and Fundamentalism.  While on a group tour of Thailand, the protagonist visits a museum dedicated to the horrors suffered by allied POWs.

Certainly, I thought, what had happened was thoroughly regrettable; but, let’s face it, worse things happened during the Second World War.  I couldn’t help thinking that if the prisoners had been Polish or Russian there would have been a lot less fuss.

A little later, we were required to endure a visit to the cemetery for the allied prisoners of war — those who had, in a manner of speaking, made the ultimate sacrifice.  There were white crosses in neat rows, all identical; the place radiated a profound monotony.  It reminded me of Omaha Beach, which really hadn’t moved me either, had actually reminded me, in fact, of a contemporary art installation. “In this place,” I said to myself, with a feeling of sadness which I felt was somewhat inadequate, “In this place, a bunch of morons died for the sake of democracy.”

Stalin Parade

J-O-S-E-P-H-S-T-A-L-I-N! Joseph Stalin! Joseph Stalin! Forever we hold our banner high, high, HIGH!


1919: The Year Liberalism Broke

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

City Journal this week published an outstanding piece on World War I and its aftermath in America.  In “1919: Betrayal and the Birth of Modern Liberalism”, Fred Siegel, a City Journal contributing editor and a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, challenges the notion that liberalism is a direct descendant of 19th and early 20th century reformers.  “Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism….  After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.”

However, it’s not as simple as that.  Siegel writes that

But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.

One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”

Like John Emerson’s great piece on the Bourbon Democrats and H. L. Mencken, Siegel reveals fascinating historical tidbits.  Almost 500,000 million Germans left America to join the ranks of the Kaiser’s army.  He details the era’s paranoia over all things Teutonic.  Little did I know that there was some justification for the fear:

Charles John Hexamer, president of the National German-American Alliance, financed in part by the German government, insisted that Germans needed to maintain their separate identity and not “descend to the level of an inferior culture.” Germans even began attacking that inferior culture. The most important instance of German domestic sabotage was the spectacular explosion on Black Tom Island in the summer of 1916, which shook a sizable swath of New York City and New Jersey. The man-made peninsula in New York Harbor was a key storage and shipping point for munitions sold to the British and French. The bombing sank the peninsula into the sea, killed seven, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Wilson denounced Germany’s supporters in America: “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

The war, with its jingoism and repression of dissent, together with Prohibition and the Red Scare, soured many forward-minded thinkers on American “progress.” 

What followed was not so much protest as simmering scorn. In 1919, the Germanophile H. L. Mencken, writing in The New Republic, called sarcastically for honoring the civilian heroes who had suppressed Beethoven by bedizening them with bronze badges and golden crosses. Mencken ridiculed the mass of Americans who had backed “Wilson’s War,” branding them a “timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob”; a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm, he denigrated American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Taking its cues from Mencken, the liberalism that emerged from 1919 was contemptuous of American culture and politics. For liberals, the war years had shown that American society and democracy were themselves agents of repression. These sentiments deepened during the 1920s and have been an ongoing current in liberalism ever since.

Siegel leaves out that Mencken himself was scornful of liberals.  His unleashes his wrath on them throughout Notes on Democracy.  Moreover, I don’t think liberals are alone in the their contempt of American society.  It would be more accurate to say they, like conservatives, hold a contempt for those stretches of the nation’s landscape that don’t adhere to their principals and values.  For some, gay marriage, atheism, and war resistance are vitally American.

To his credit, Siegel identifies one of liberalism’s best qualities:

The new liberal ethos was not without its virtues. In picking their fights with Prohibition and their former hero Wilson, liberals encouraged the sense of tolerance and appreciation of differences that would, over time, mature into what came to be called pluralism. “The root of liberalism,” wrote [Harold] Stearns, “is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys.” Though not always observed by liberals themselves, the call for an urbane temper would come to mark liberalism at its best.

This is no small point.  In Notes, Mencken himself contrasts repressive America with “more liberal and enlightened countries.”  Mencken’s “philosophy, stated one critic, was ‘thoroughly American,’ the remnants of nineteenth-century liberal thought,” Marion Elizabeth Rodgers explains in her introduction to Notes.

Regardless of Siegel’s views on liberalism, his piece is fascinating.  Anyone who’d like a backgrounder on the political and intellectual climate that fostered Mencken’s dark, cynical position on democracy and America should read it.