First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Learning from History
History does repeat itself. Never exactly -- there are always enough differences in the details that people who are determined not to learn anything from the past can find an excuse.
But history shows patterns precisely because human beings don't change.
After the First World War (then called the Great War), Britain and France were exhausted. They had triumphed -- barely -- but they had left more than a million dead soldiers on the battlefields.
Germany suffered nearly as badly. But the German people did not feel defeated. They were ripe for Adolf Hitler to come along and tell them that they had really won the war, except that they were stabbed in the back by traitors at home.
So as Adolf Hitler began to rearm Germany, preparing for a rematch, he found an enemy that simply did not want to fight any kind of war at all.
France was ruled by shaky governments that did not want to act alone -- if Britain didn't act, France would not take a single step.
So it was up to the British to stop Hitler. And there were a good number of Britons who knew that Hitler had to be stopped.
However, few of them were in any position of power. Britain was ruled by Neville Chamberlain who, as Prime Minister, used the Conservative (Tory) Party machinery to ruthlessly stamp out any dissent from his policies.
Chamberlain was among the many Brits who believed that war was no longer to be regarded as a legitimate instrument of power. No more British blood would be shed on foreign soil.
Furthermore, most British and French leaders realized that the Versailles treaty that ended the Great War had been unfairly punitive to Germany. They felt a little guilty. Chamberlain and many others were willing to let Germany rearm a little, build back its national pride, restore its economy if it could.
Nor was Chamberlain alone. Most of the press lords -- the rich men who controlled the newspapers in Britain -- firmly agreed with Chamberlain's optimistic belief that Hitler was just another dictator that Britain could "do business with." Give him what he needs in order to feel secure.
So there was a virtual conspiracy in England to keep the truth about Hitler from the common people. After all, we don't want to build up any kind of anger or fear or war fever among the people -- keep things calm.
Thus there was no readily-available, unexpurgated English translation of Hitler's book Mein Kampf, in which he laid out his plan to conquer eastern Europe and dominate the world, whereupon he would exterminate the "races" that polluted the world -- most especially the Jews.
And when Hitler and the Nazis took over country after country, the British press did its best to suppress the truth about what was going on. American readers knew that when the Nazis took over Austria, many anti-Nazis and Jews were simply murdered out of hand. British readers barely heard anything about it.
With Chamberlain in control of the party machinery, and with a huge majority in the House of Commons, and with the press firmly on his side, there was simply no point in opposing him. And if anyone doubted it, they had only to look at Winston Churchill.
Churchill had been the wunderkind of British politics since the Boer War, when, as an intrepid young reporter, he had gotten himself captured and then made his escape and wrote about it. As a writer -- journalist, historian, biographer -- he was extraordinarily prolific and popular.
And during World War I he had distinguished himself. His Gallipoli campaign failed (though much blame must be laid on half-hearted commanders on the scene who did not do what the plan required them to do), but he was the one who pushed to get tanks introduced to the battlefield in France.
He was widely regarded as one of the smartest men in government. Too smart for his own good, some said. And when he openly declared the danger of Hitler and warned of the rearming of Germany, he was completely shut out of government.
The picture most of us have is of Churchill standing alone until Hitler finally revealed his evil plans. Then, as Hitler's tanks rolled through France, Churchill was elevated to the Prime Ministership and led Britain courageously through the war.
Partly true. Churchill did all that we think he did. But he was not alone.
There were Tory Members of Parliament (MPs) who listened to him and knew he was right. They had their own sources of information, too, and were alarmed at the sheer stupidity of Neville Chamberlain's policies.
Chamberlain kept treating Hitler as if he had rational goals, as if he could be appeased -- kept peaceful by giving him what he wanted. But these "troublesome young men" in Parliament understood the truth: That Hitler responded to every concession as if it were a message telling him that Britain would not stand against him no matter what he did.
Far from appeasing Hitler, Chamberlain's policies were encouraging him to be more and more reckless.
When Hitler's troops went into the demilitarized Rhineland, a mere show of force by the French and British would have sent him in full retreat -- and might have toppled his government.
If Britain had forbidden the annexation of Austria, or had stood with the Czechs when Hitler demanded the Sudetenland and had the strength and will to resist him, or had fielded any kind of force in the west of Germany when he invaded Poland, Hitler probably could have been stopped and World War II avoided.
Instead, Britain's inaction bordered on the insane. Even when Chamberlain finally declared war during Hitler's invasion of Poland, he acted as if the declaration should be enough. He kept seeking diplomatic solutions. It seemed clear that nothing would get him to take any kind of decisive action.
And to be fair, it's not as if Britain's army were in any condition to fight anyone. Undertrained and underequipped, they simply couldn't handle combat, despite the courage and good will of the soldiers. Chamberlain and his predecessors had neglected the military too long.
But whose fault was that? For years Churchill had been demanding that Britain rearm, and quickly. And so had his admirers in the House of Commons.
In the brilliant book by Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: the Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, the story emerges of a situation much more complicated than we usually conceive it.
What we forget is that Chamberlain was, above all, a politician. As soon as war was declared, he understood that the voters would demand that Churchill be part of the government. So he took Churchill into the cabinet and gave him responsibility for the war.
From that moment, Churchill became a loyal cabinet member and never spoke a word against Chamberlain. Nor did he plot or conspire against him. His sense of honor would not allow it. Once he took office in Chamberlain's cabinet, he became Chamberlain's man.
Yet Chamberlain remained completely unwilling and incompetent when it came to war. He had to be booted out, and Churchill was the only one who could replace him. Yet Churchill would do nothing to accomplish this.
So who did it? Who changed the government and got rid of Chamberlain?
It was a group of brave young MPs whose names are almost forgotten. And what marked the ones who made a difference was their supreme courage and willingness to sacrifice their own political careers.
Anthony Eden's heart was in the right place, and he was the natural leader of this group. But he was also an ambitious politician, and he would take no action that might be seen as disloyal to his party. So he was useless to the cause.
Leadership fell upon those with the courage to act. Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby, Ronald Cartland, Harold Nicolson, Alfred Duff Cooper, Richard Law -- and a couple of women, Lady Violet Bonham Carter and the Duchess of Atholl -- took the steps that had to be taken.
Even before Poland was invaded, the group was gearing up for revolt within the party. As Macmillan told Nicolson, "We should have clamoured for Chamberlain's removal.... No man in history has made such persistent and bone-headed mistakes, and ... we all go on pretending all is well" (p. 195).
It was clear to them that only Churchill could lead Britain during the coming war. Yet Churchill, maddeningly enough, would have nothing to do with them.
In fact, now that he was in government, Churchill was using his considerable skills as a speaker and writer to support Chamberlain's government and assure the British people that their current leaders were doing the job.
Within the government, Churchill was doing his best to try "to infect his colleagues with the same urgency he felt" (p. 265), but nothing could get Chamberlain to take the war seriously.
Yet even as the government did far too little and took few useful actions, even though they were supposedly at war with Germany, Churchill spoke to the public as if he were the voice of a very different government. In a speech in Manchester that was broadcast throughout the country, in January 1940 he said:
"Come then: let us to the task, to the battle, to the toil -- each to our part, each to our station.
"Fill the armies, rule the air, pour out the munitions, strangle the U boats, sweep the mines, plough the land, build the ships, guard the streets, succour the wounded, uplift the downcast, and honour the brave.
"Let us go forward together in all parts of the Empire, in all parts of the island.
"There is not a week, nor a day, nor an hour to lose" (p. 266).
You can see that, hearing a speech like that, the British people thought that their government was fighting a war and preparing to win it. So in a way, Churchill was inadvertently making it harder to get the people to see the need for change.
In the end, it was a close-fought thing. In fact, in the vote of confidence in Parliament in which the "troublesome young men" tried to remove Chamberlain, Chamberlain actually won. And he thought, for about a day, that he could go on ruling Britain.
However, the revolt in his own party made it plain that he had to change the government. He needed to have a coalition government that included the other parties. But the Tory rebels had done a good job of convincing everyone in the other parties that they must stand firm against Chamberlain's continuing in power.
To have a coalition "unity government" to run the war required that someone other than Chamberlain be at its head. In the end, without any help from Churchill, it was Churchill who was chosen.
In hindsight, it seems inevitable. But it was not. It took enormous courage.
Worse yet, the "troublesome young men" paid a high political price. Because Churchill himself valued loyalty so highly that he did not reward those who installed him in power. Instead, most of them were virtually shut out of significant roles in the wartime government.
Waffling Anthony Eden ended up Prime Minister, eventually, for a few minutes, anyway. And Macmillan was able to rise to the Prime Ministership many years after the war. But others who saved Britain by dumping Chamberlain never recovered, politically. They paid the price of their boldness.
But they saved the world. For if Churchill had not headed the government of Britain, it is doubtful that anyone would have been able to stand against Hitler. Even some of his most foolish mistakes -- trying to defend the utterly unimportant island of Crete, for instance -- managed to distract Hitler long enough that he was not able to succeed in his invasion of Russia.
That was World War II. We take it for granted that Nazism was destroyed. We forget what a near thing it was.
That's why it's a good thing to read Bevin Alexander's brilliant book How Hitler Could Have Won World War II: The Fatal Errors That Led to Nazi Defeat.
This book not only points out Hitler's mistakes, it also points out, over and over, the utter incompetence of the allies when, time after time, their mistakes virtually handed Hitler his early victories.
The great tragedy of the war was that in every case where the leaders made gross mistakes, somebody on the scene saw the danger and tried to forestall it. By the end of the book, you wonder how anyone ever wins wars!
The key mistake Hitler made, however, was that he really believed what he wrote in Mein Kampf -- and was not patient enough to pursue the right strategy.
If Hitler, instead of invading Russia, had given Rommel a serious force in North Africa, Rommel would have easily defeated the British and taken the Suez Canal.
From there, it would have been simple to take over the Middle East, which was eager to be liberated from French and British colonialism, and once he was in possession of Iran, the British would have been so desperate to protect India (which they ruled at the time) that Hitler would have had a free hand against Russia.
Instead, Hitler invaded Russia at least a year before he needed to or should have, and it destroyed him. No other mistake of his compares to that one.
And what was that mistake?
He could not see the big picture. He could only see that he wanted to destroy the Soviet Union and rule eastern Europe; he was incapable of seeing how easily he could have accomplished it by taking a roundabout course through the Middle East, without the high price in blood that came from a frontal assault.
Britain would have been crippled; Hitler would have had all the oil he needed; he could have invaded Russia from the south as well as the west; it is unlikely Stalin would have had the power to stop him.
But how in the world are we supposed to be able to learn anything from these books?
American politics in the decade of the Zips (it's zip-seven right now) aren't British politics in the 1930s. American strategy in the war we're currently fighting isn't anything like the specific strategies that Hitler or Churchill needed to follow in order to win.
In fact, in one key way, we are living through the opposite of the run-up to World War II. America has a President who has taken the early action against the maniacs who seek world domination that Chamberlain refused to take.
But there are still some very important lessons we must learn:
1. When the press has decided to report only one side of the story, the public is ill served. If the British press had simply told the truth about what Hitler was doing, and reminded people of what Hitler had promised in Mein Kampf, it is likely that British public opinion would have been supportive of the early action that would have stopped Hitler without the devastation of World War II.
The people only know as much as they are told. Even when they say they don't trust the news media, in fact they do. So when the media keep pounding them with the story that we can't win in Iraq and need to get out of a useless war, then even if the opposite is true, it simply won't get through to the people and it will be hard to marshal support for a necessary preemptive war in order to avoid the later, nightmare version.
2. If you do not believe the threats of an insane enemy and destroy their war capacity early, when it can be cheaply done, you will pay for it in blood and horror.
Just like Hitler, our enemies in Al-Qaeda and Iran have announced their intentions over and over. Hitler said he would invade Russia and kill all the Jews (and a lot more!) -- and he acted out his script faithfully.
Well, Al-Qaeda and Iran's murderous, fanatical leadership have told us that they want a world without Israel and without America. They will obliterate Israel with nuclear weapons as soon as they get them.
They will keep Europe from interfering with them, with medium range nuclear missiles and with large Muslim populations that are poised to revolt and terrorize in Europe.
And eventually they will eliminate America as a factor in the world. When Islam rules the entire planet, America will fall into line. Meanwhile, all they have to do is outlast us -- Americans always give up and go away if you just kill enough of them.
We know their intentions. We know their plan. And just like Chamberlain, we would have to be idiots to think they don't mean it.
3. Only fools believe that an enemy cannot do what he threatens to do.
The Brits really believed that because they had a long reputation for ruling the ocean, Germany could not really challenge them. They ignored all the intelligence reports about Germany's effort to rebuild its army and, particularly, its air force.
They seemed to believe that just by being Britain, they could stop Germany whenever they wanted to.
Similarly, Americans seem to think that no matter what weapons Iran develops, when it becomes necessary we can stop them.
Well, maybe. But right now we could stop Iran without any threat of their detonating nuclear weapons anywhere. In a year or two or five (estimates vary, but the inevitability is not denied anywhere), we will have to stop Iran while facing the threat of the use of nuclear weapons against our armies.
If we invade a nuclear Iran, they will simply detonate nuclear weapons over their own soil to destroy our armies. And there is no technology currently foreseen that could stop them.
4. Only fools allow their best allies to be neutralized before the war begins.
If Britain had fought Germany when Czechoslovakia still had a powerful army and massive mountain defenses, Germany's army simply could not have handled the two-front threat. The German military would have had no choice but to surrender -- or remove Hitler from power and make peace.
Right now, we still have friends in Europe and in the Middle East -- governments that share our dread of a nuclear Iran and of Muslim terrorists in general.
But if we do insane things like withdrawing from Iraq (which would be seen by everyone as a massive victory for Al-Qaeda and Iran and a proof that America cannot be relied on as an ally) or allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons, then several things will certainly happen:
A. All the Muslim nations that have trusted us will immediately make friends with Iran or be toppled by Islamicist coups and revolutions.
B. Israel will be destroyed and its population slaughtered in a new holocaust. We might be able to bring out a few survivors.
C. Europe will be neutralized. Radical Islam will completely dominate the Muslim populations in European nations, and the governments will almost certainly bend their foreign policy to accommodate their demands. America will have no allies.
D. The world economic order, from which America skims its prosperity, probably would not endure. Oil still calls the shots, and Russia and China will join with Islam to marginalize or shatter the American economy. Never mind that the resulting worldwide depression would ruin their own economies. If America is brought down, they will feel like relative winners. And without America as a beacon of hope, what internal opposition would they have to worry about? None.
This is all easily foreseeable, even obvious. Outcomes A, B, and C would be inevitable, and while some optimists believe D could not happen, they merely underestimate the willingness of our enemies and rivals to hurt their own interests in order to bring us down.
5. Remember the big picture. However much you might want to achieve a short-term goal, you cannot let yourself be distracted from the primary objectives of the primary struggle. In this case, the details of the occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq are the distraction; the big picture is the war on terrorist Islam.
To declare the Iraq campaign a failure (absurd in itself) and withdraw, when our position in Iraq is now essential to everything else we need to accomplish in order to make the world safe from terrorist Islam, would be criminal and insane.
Likewise, it would be pointless to waste our time dealing with distractions like Darfur when Iran is a threat pointed at the heart of western civilization. We have the troops within striking distance of the heart of Iran. We cannot give up that position until Iran has a new, democratic, anti-terrorist government.
6. Everybody makes horrible mistakes; the side that learns from its mistakes and relentlessly moves forward is the one that will win.
Right now, our media and the opposition party are so determined to destroy the Bush administration that they are deliberately destroying popular morale and encouraging defeat, merely because our waging of this war has not been perfect. By any rational measure, this is the best-fought war in American history, with the lowest cost in blood and money, and with our new commander in Iraq we are pursuing a strategy that is proven to work against insurgencies, we are winning this war.
Yet our appeasers are so determined to lose this war that they are demanding that we hurry and withdraw now before we have any chance of victory.
7. Without leadership, the cause of democracy cannot be won.
Here is the place where I have finally come to despair of the Bush administration. There is no one -- no one -- who speaks with a voice like Churchill's.
Right from the beginning of the war against Islamic terror, I have been saying that President Bush needed to ask us for sacrifice, to work together for victory. Instead, his message was to ignore the war and just go about our business. This is not how democracies win wars.
We only win when we are stirred in our hearts, convinced of the righteousness of our cause, united in a common struggle, and asked to make sacrifices. In other words, in democracies the people have to believe it is their own war.
The sad thing is that our cause is righteous -- freedom from religious oppression and from the dictatorship of madmen. We are right now in the business of saving the world from a Muslim empire that will make Hitler look like an amateur, when it comes to murder and oppression. And yet nobody is telling that true story to the American people.
Instead, it's as if the administration were trying to hide the war from us so we won't get annoyed by it. Meanwhile, the appeasers are telling their false and dangerous story and getting away with it. Even the bloggers and the Republicans in Congress waver, because they have no voice leading them.
President Bush has made the right decisions. But he is, in fact, a manager, not a leader. Nor has he found a Churchill and brought him into the administration to do that job. All the faces are grey, all the voices are dull, and so the opposition dominates the public conversation.
I look at the appeasers among us -- the Democratic Party, Hollywood, the academic-literary establishment, the media -- and I despair for America and for the world. Everything these people claim to stand for, Iran and Al-Qaeda are eager to destroy. If we do not stop them, then the Democratic Party, Hollywood, American academia, and the media will all be destroyed or neutralized.
But the appeasers, in their hopeless, wilful ignorance of history, simply do not believe that anything that is important to them is at stake. They have deliberately filled themselves with such an irrational, unjustified, insane hatred of President Bush that they cannot conceive of the possibility that he is doing what must be done to keep them safe.
Already we can see how freedom of speech is being suppressed in Europe because of the demands of radical Islam, but American appeasers simply will not recognize that this is their future. They live in a fantasy world where America will go on as it always has, even if the rest of the world changes.
Here is the strategy that should have been followed.
In 2001, instead of telling us to go about business as usual, President Bush should have mobilized the American people, should have electrified us, asked us to gear up for the long struggle that he warned us about. He should have told us that we would not tolerate any terrorist-supporting nation getting nuclear weapons.
Instead of wasting time trying to sell each campaign as if it were a separate war, he should have acted on his declaration that we would regard any support of terrorism as an act of war against us, and we would take appropriate action.
Immediately on the heels of action against Afghanistan -- preferably during it -- we should have invaded Syria. It has been an open, provocative supporter of Islamic terrorism against Israel and against us. It was then in occupation of Lebanon.
Almost certainly, Iraq would have jumped into that war, whereupon we would have needed no long political campaign in the UN to invade Iraq. The simultaneous invasion of Syria and Iraq would have had the same result as the invasion of Iraq alone -- except that Iraqi Sunnis would have had no ally to the west.
Meanwhile, Israel would have been infinitely more secure. Iran would have been deprived of its handhold on Israel's border. Palestinians would have had a far harder time getting armaments and probably would have been far more willing to live up to existing agreements with Israel.
Iran would have been isolated.
Instead, we allowed Syria to supply our enemies and act as Iran's left hand. We allowed our war against Iraq to depend on WMDs instead of on the fact that Iraq was an open supporter of terrorism in general and was already in a state of war with us and had been since the Gulf War.
In other words, we made big strategic mistakes. We allowed ourselves to get in a situation where we are trying to fight an insurgency that has an infinite source of resupply.
OK. We made some mistakes. What do we do now?
1. Withdrawing from Iraq is not an option. Not to save face, not to save our honor (though those are actually not trivial goals), but because if we do not have our troops all over Iraq, we will not be in a position to deal with the main threat, which is and always has been Iran.
2. There is no way, by bombing alone, to neutralize Iran's nuclear threat. After all the lessons of air-war history, it is astonishing to me that anyone still believes that air power alone can ever be decisive against a determined enemy.
3. Since, like Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and 1864, President Bush has no reason to believe that his successor will pursue the war to victory, he has no choice, for the good of America and the world, but to defeat Iran before he leaves office. Time is running short, and I see no sign that he recognizes this.
If we elect appeasers in 2008, we deserve what will happen to us.
But do our children deserve to inherit that hideous world?
Fanatical Islam is not a religion. It is the lust for power and control over other people. It is a destructive, evil force that will sweep away all that is good and fine in this world.
And right now, if we only have the courage and will, we -- and only we -- can save the world from that dire future.
So the question remains: Are we too stupid to learn from history? Must we, on the verge of victory, turn our future over to the fools and appeasers?
That's what the polls are saying right now. Those polls will change. But, as with England in 1939, the polls will change too late. Without leadership, the people do not see the danger in time.
Americans just want to be left alone. Our enemies are determined not to leave us alone. But our media, our intellectuals, and the Democratic Party are trying to soothe us and assure us that we don't actually have to fight anybody. We can win just by sitting still and ... being America.
America didn't get to be America by sitting still.
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