As the 2012 elections get closer and you think about what qualities to look for in leaders you can believe in and vote for, consider the issue of war: what it means to you and what kinds of attitudes about war you’d like your political leaders to have.
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue! — Barry Goldwater, 1964
I enjoy watching old movies, what you might call “classics”, from the 30s, 40’s and 50s. Films from those decades reflect the cultural values that were formative to the development of my own attitudes and world view. I feel comfortably as if I belong to the intended audience for those old classics. Most movies today are designed for a significantly different audience — an audience with different sets of values and expectations, different points of view and even different ways of processing information.
In fact, the art of telling a story has changed so much in movie-making in the last 50 years that watching a new movie now is like trying to understand the dreck that passes for junk art or conceptual art in modern museums. The beauty is not in this beholder’s eye. But even worse, beauty is no longer an ideal that artists even strive to express.
“Whatever works” is the new credo in art, which is pretty much meaningless, since what works for one person or group, won’t work for another. I was taught in school that art is an intimate communication between artist and audience. The more universal that connection, the greater the art and the greater the artist. But today art is a great divider. Artists only appeal to their small group of homeys. They don’t care about anyone else. Art today isn’t really about communicating or connecting. It’s more about making a statement and to hell with the popular response.
But during WWII, film makers were primarily concerned with universally impacting general audiences. This has been called “propaganda” by a generation critical of that era, but the mainstream view of that period of time was agreeable to the message that we’re all in this together, so we should work together and fight to win. I think that’s a message of social cohesion that fosters confidence, exactly what WWII audiences wanted and what society at large needed at that time. Propaganda, to my way of thinking, doesn’t undergird values that are already there, but rather manipulates people into believing something that goes counter to their own self interests and needs.
During Thanksgiving week, I found a British film on Netflix from 1943 called “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”. It was pretty long (2 hrs, 43 minutes) but Netflix’s description piqued my curiosity: “A blustery but dedicated soldier reflects on his 40 years of service in the British Army, and how the passing years have altered the nature of war.” Both the “nature of war” and the idea of a 40 year span of change appealed to me, so my wife and I watched it.
In a scene toward the end of film, a radio broadcast of the General’s speech is cancelled because it included a statement which undermined the War Department’s efforts to generate a strong, anti-German public opinion. The General had emphasized British civility and fair play as something that differentiated the Brits from the Germans. Because of his sentiment, he was forced to retire, being perceived as weak.
Returning to his home, the General (Clive) has a conversation with his friend of 40 years (Theo), himself a former German officer and now an expatriate, living in England. Clive is upset because he feels the knowledge he’s amassed during his long career is going to waste. The following lines are highlights from that scene:
Theo – “It is a different knowledge they need now, Clive. The enemy’s different, so you have to be different, too.”
Clive – “Are you mad? I know what war is.”
Theo – “I don’t agree. I read your broadcast up to the point where you describe the collapse of France. You commented on Nazi methods for fighting — bombing refugees, machine gunning hospitals, life boats, light ships, baled-out pilots and so on — by saying you despised them, that you would be ashamed to fight on their side, and that you’d sooner accept defeat than victory, if it could only be won by those methods.”
Clive – “So I would!”
Theo – “Clive, if you would let yourself be defeated by them just because you fail to hit back the same way they hit at you, there won’t be any methods but Nazi methods. If you preach the rules of the game while they use every foul and filthy trick against you… They’ll laugh at you. They think you’re weak, decadent… You’ve been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman in peace and in war, but Clive, dear old Clive, this is not a gentlemen’s war. This time you are fighting for your very existence, against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain: Naziism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year. Perhaps not even for a hundred years.”
This film was made during WWII, 68 years ago. Back then, the Brits had realized in order to beat the enemy, they had to do so mercilessly. They had realized that you can’t fight a sportsmanlike war when your enemies refuse to follow the same rules. They had realized that the only way to win a war against an enemy who will stop at nothing to destroy you is to unequivocally crush them into submission. And American entry into that war was the last time Congress made a declaration of war, formally committing the nation to that effort.
What must be remembered is that we won that war. Since then, we’ve fought lots of wars, first in Korea, then in Viet Nam and so on. We’re still fighting wars — none of which we’ve won; none of which were declared by the Congress, as prescribed by the Constitution. All of these wars were entered into by Presidential decree. Rather than declaring those wars, Congress funded them without owning the responsibility of the decision to go to war.
Besides being unconstitutional, this cavalier approach to waging war has other weaknesses: 1.) When Congress doesn’t declare war, the people never “own” it. Rather than being a national effort, it becomes a government effort, separate from the people; 2.) The military becomes a political weapon and war becomes a political act; 3.) In an effort to win general support for war, rules of engagement are written to be “fair” and “respectful” to the enemy, in effect turning the military into a police force trying to fight a “nice” war; 4.) Because of this, these political wars are unwinnable, and we no longer win wars.
What’s the best thing for our country now, and what can we anticipate in the elections of 2012? Don’t you want leaders who will keep us out of political wars that cost so much in terms of loss of human life and economic vitality, yet don’t seem to accomplish any more than making both allies and enemies hate us more? Don’t you want leaders who will only lead us into war if that is unquestionably the will of the people? And don’t you want the rest of the world to do everything possible to avoid going to war with us because they know if they do, it will be suicide for them?
There is great wisdom in Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” But the big stick is only half of the picture. If we don’t speak softly, then carrying a big stick is nothing more than being a bully (no pun intended). I don’t think America should act like a bully or be perceived as a bully. I’d like the entire world to see us as a gentle giant as long as we are treated with respect, but a feared enemy to anyone who threatens us. We should stay out of the affairs of other nations and only use our “big stick” when we absolutely need to, when the American people agree and when Congress is willing to declare war. Then, and only then, should we go to war with the intent to totally destroy the enemy.