Kristallnacht is Coming

Toppled headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo. (Photo courtesy of KTTN News)

Toppled headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo. (Photo courtesy of KTTN News)

Antisemitism. The bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers, and the vandalism to a Jewish cemetery in Missouri this week are just the latest manifestation of our dark, persistent social neurosis.

If you’re Jewish, you kind of expect this sort of thing. It’s depressing, disappointing, distressing – but it’s part of the background noise of daily life. What’s different now is how frequent and numerous these more public, directed incidents have become. This is a step beyond the usual casual antisemitism and, although coincidence is not causation, it’s hard not to see the connection between the political climate and these incidents. What worries me is that these things will inevitably get worse.

I have met, and spoken to antisemites of the most virulent type. They are mostly timid, fearful creatures who get strength by testing boundaries, and seeing how well they can push through them. They will start with small attempts to outrage, and gaining skill and strength, they will inevitably escalate to larger outrages. They conceive of themselves as the dispossessed, the “forgotten men,” and see Jews as both a great monolithic power that stands between them and their birthright, and a tiny minority community they can dominate and, yes, destroy.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Jews like Walter Rathenau were among the most prominent people in the country, but Jews made up about 0.8% of the total population. Today, in the United States, Jews like Jared Kushner, Bernie Sanders, Wolff Blitzer, and many others, are among the most prominent people in the country, and Jews make up about 1.4% of the population. The proportion is larger, and Jews are close to the centre of White Nationalist power, but that makes us both more threatening, and more vulnerable. To the antisemite, Ivanka Trump is not reassuring; she is a race-traitor, and an emblem of the awesome danger of infection and defilement posed by “the Jew.”

And that last category is important, because it is not a category controlled by Jews, liberal gentiles, or any rational people. As Sartre noted, “the Jew” is a creation of the fevered mind and dark imaginings of the antisemite – just as, it should be noted, “the Muslim” is a product of the Islamophobe’s mind.

So things will get bad. Very bad – and very soon. Just as the archetypal serial killer escalates from torturing pets, to butchering neighbourhood animals, to hunting humans, seeking greater gratification with every boundary crossed, so will the antisemite progress from a nuisance, to a problem, to a danger, to a vandal– to a murderer.

This is the reality: Kristallnacht is Coming.

The Chamberlain Moment: A Letter to Justin Trudeau

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrives at Heston Airport, returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1938, bearing

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrives at Heston Airport, returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1938, bearing “Peace for Our Time.”

Dear Mr. Trudeau:

I write to you from the United States in an atmosphere of crisis and fear. I am a Canadian citizen who has lived and worked in this country for more than a decade. I earned my doctorate, in American history, from an American university, and I married an American. But I have never abandoned my citizenship, or my connection or attachment to Canada. It is the homeland to which I hope someday to return.

My Canada is not merely a geographical location or a political abstraction; it is a place of the spirit, a constellation of ideals of democracy and human rights, of universal values of integrity and decency. I have not always agreed with your policies, sir, but I have never doubted your commitment to these values. More than any other world leader, you have made them the centrepiece of your political vision.

I look around me, appalled by the policies of the new American administration, frightened for the future and, quite frankly, despairing for the quality of our humanity – not just here, but around the world. President Trump has made the world far more dangerous than it has been for decades, and has imperiled the interests of our homeland and the welfare of the world. He is poised to destroy the United States’ relations with our mutual ally and economic partner Mexico, and has jeopardized the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has pledged to cripple NATO and undermine the UN, the international organizations that most define Canada’s role as the world’s honest broker. We can no longer dismiss President Trump’s words as mere populist bluster. The consequences of his foreign policies will be catastrophic for Canada and the world.

I only wish that was the worst of it but, as you know, President Trump’s policies are worse still. A little over two weeks ago, he signed an executive order on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. With the stroke of a pen, he turned his back on tens of thousands of people fleeing starvation, misery and death in Syria. He closed America’s doors to permanent residents and visa holders merely on the basis of their faith and national origin. Travelers from those lands have been prevented from embarking on flights to the United States. Those who were in transit at the moment when the President’s pen met paper were turned away upon anding. Although the courts halted the implementation of the order, there is no guarantee that this will be more than a temporary respite. The new administration’s policies are driven by Islamophobia and white nationalist chauvinism; it is inconceivable that it will let the matter drop.

I won’t address how, rather than dealing a blow to Islamic extremism and ensuring American security, these policies will almost certainly have the opposite effect. Others have written about this, and I am sure you are being well-advised. I will, however, note that they contradict every ideal that open, diverse democracies like Canada claim to defend. They are hateful and inhumane. They gainsay the Canadian values that you have so eloquently championed time and again.

I am an immigrant in the United States; I am the descendant of immigrants and refugees. One of my ancestors fled the persecution of Puritans in Britain and arrived in the New World in 1635. His descendant was a United Empire Loyalist who fled to Halifax during the American Revolution. I am the grandson of Jews who left Central Europe in the last days of the Hapsburg empire, a step ahead of religious persecution. Others like them were less fortunate, such as the passengers of the SS Saint Louis, and the millions of others who, denied safe haven in the United States and Canada, perished in the Nazi death camps.

What we face today, in America and around the world, is no longer a question of policy or diplomacy; it is a question of humanity. You and Canada have accumulated substantial political and diplomatic capital since you took office a little over a year ago. People around the world welcomed your strong and principled statement on 28 January that Canada would welcome refugees fleeing persecution, terror and war regardless of their faith. Many read it as a clear rebuke of the Trump administration’s xenophobic policies. Two days later, at a rally in Jersey City in support of refugees, the crowd chanted “hey hey, ho ho, we want a leader like Trudeau!”

Yet I learned today that you plan to make an official visit to the United States, to meet with President Trump, on Monday. I understand that the United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and most powerful ally. I am as aware as anyone of the significance of the world’s longest undefended border which we share with the United States. I recognize that you feel that you must balance the material and economic interests of our country with ethical principles. I believe your father called it a strategy of “constructive engagement.”

But there can be no constructive engagement with an authoritarian narcissist advised and directed by a cabal of white nationalist ideologues. President Trump, indeed the world, will inevitably view your visit as an endorsement and legitimation of his policies – at best! At worst, he will regard it as a vassal’s supplication. You stand to undermine all of the good will you and our country has accumulated. Consider the gravity of this historical moment: Do you really want to be remembered as an appeaser, returning home after your planned visit to Washington, striding off of your plane waving a paper, and claiming to carry “assurances” from President Trump?

Mr. Trudeau, you must take a stand. You must repudiate hate and explicitly condemn President Trump’s policies. Above all, you must recognize that you cannot travel to Washington to pay obeisance and shake the hand of a man whose every utterance and gesture denies every value you hold dear.

Canada’s call to history has always been to be a defender of democracy, human rights, and common decency. You have an obligation, as our leader, to step up to this historical mission.

Best Regards,

Matthew Friedman

Forsaken

donald-trumpMany of the people who voted for Donald J. Trump, appear to have voted the way they pray. That is, I have often noted, with some bafflement, that there are some religious Christians (a minority, to be sure) who beseech the creator for specific “gifts.” They pray to win the lottery, or to pass the final exam, or to get the job. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this, but it seems strange. Rabbi Treister always taught that, in the Jewish tradition, one prays to praise God, for thanks, or for the welfare of the community and others. So the concept of praying for specific, material benefits seems foreign to me.

Likewise, the idea of voting for specific, narrow, parochial, and often personal benefits strikes me as a little odd. For example, many of the voters who cast their ballots for Trump seem to have assumed that a Trump presidency would benefit them, personally. That is, by voting for Trump, they would keep their industrial jobs, would see their personal income increase, would feel personally safer, would not have to interact with unfamiliar foreigners in their daily lives.

While this kind of voting seems just as puzzling to me – perhaps because of my background in a Westminster-style parliamentary system, I always assumed that one voted for (or against) broader issues, relating to the community as a whole, and what kind of community one wanted it to be – what I really wonder is this: What happens when your god ignores your pleas?

I mean, there is no way that any Trump policy will be able to address the personal, individual needs and desires of 60 million people, so many – if not most – of his supporters are going to be terribly disappointed, as many already are. So what happens to people when, despite their most fervent prayers, their god abandons them?

Short Memories: Thoughts on Complicity

We have short memories.

They are selective. One of the running jokes in my family is my mother’s ability to recall how she dressed me on a certain fall day twenty-nine years ago, but not what we discussed five minutes ago. It is funny, then – innocuous things remembered, or simply gone. We would worry about incipient Alzheimer’s, except that she has been this way as long as I’ve known her.

Family memory works similarly. There’s an old story about how we ended up here, in the US, in an indefinite exile that turned into a permanent one. My great-grandfather’s cousin, or brother, or friend, depending on the rendition, had revolutionary sympathies. He may or may not have been part of a pro-independence organization once known for its terroristic tactics.

He was a kid.

He was pushed up against a wall and shot by authorities trying to protect the population from itself. The rest of the family got on a boat. We have not forgotten being marked, by our religion and accent, name and complexion. The injustice of it all colored my youth. For nearly a century after my ancestral homeland achieved independence, I avoided visiting the former colonial power, convinced that it would be unpleasant for people like me, and shocked when it was quite the opposite.

We remember the wrong of 1900. We remember what it was like to be marked as Other, and killed for the difference. Then we act like it only happened to us. We remember being perversely special, exceptional in our oppression. We forget in an instant that our Otherness was passed to other groups. We gave it to them, gleefully, when we walked into City Halls and police forces, and then we held the difference that we bestowed over the heads of the perversely special. We can’t let it go.

We have short memories.

My father was one of too many children. He was poor. His father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother was a saint. My father remembers being spat upon as a child, because he was destitute, and because he was the wrong ethnicity. His particular family misery was never individual. Too many kids, too much drink, too much abuse, too much foreign.

My mother’s mother had children out of wedlock. Everyone knew it. At school, my mother had to “confess” why she and her siblings needed a turkey from a religious benevolent organization. Her father, in one of her fuzzy memories of him, told her that she was a mongrel. She lived in a public housing project whose brutalities nobody escaped. She worried about making us look respectable, moved us to an all-white neighborhood, and cried when I took a Black boy to my first school dance. When my sisters and I were teenagers, she was always convinced that we might be pregnant – that we would be marked, again, by our origins.

My father almost never drinks. He moved us to a neighborhood where the white people are his white people, so he wouldn’t be the only one. By then, though, they all identified us with the racially-mixed place I’d grown up, and with its people of color – so the kids would hiss “Blackawanna” when I walked past.

My mother frowns at women who have children with different fathers. She shops at the second-fanciest grocery store in town, to appear afloat but not pretentious. She volunteers, like a proper middle-class white lady from the suburbs. When told her that I had found information about her muddy family history, she was overjoyed. When I told her what it was, she pretended not to hear me. When the pastor of the Baptist church where her great-great grandfather had preached told her – gently – that the congregation and its preachers had always been Black, she smiled. “No, we’re white.”

They have short memories. Or long ones. I’m never sure.

I was home for Christmas. My mother was talking about one of the women at the shelter where she works – a Black woman pregnant with her ninth child. My father shook his head. “Those people would be much better off if they’d stop having so many children.” I stared. I called him out. His mother had been one of “those people,” a generation ago. He conceded, that time. But he still doesn’t see it – how we got to be white. How we yanked the ladder up behind us.

My brother, who is affable, works in a prison. He looks like a cop. He believes that the people in his jail put themselves there. He feels bad for them, but he thinks that the justice system works. I want to ask him about our great-great-grand-uncle, and if the system worked when he was shot against a wall because of his religion, and his accent, and his complexion, but I know that he wouldn’t see the connection.

We have long memories, but they only work backwards.

We have short memories. We walk through the streets unmolested, because we know that nobody will shoot us like they shot great-great-grand-uncle. We remember our ancestral injustice and carry it like a banner of protection. It isn’t a very roomy cloak, but we’ll be grateful for it when we see the ones without it being shot in the streets, or strangled. We remember our roots, then get too entangled in them to see out. We forget that our root ball connects to a tree, or a water source, or even the soil. It’s just us, underground, blind to what we’re perpetuating.

Autumn Leaves

poppies-and-autumn-leaves_3249105I feel closer to my father in early November than at any other time of the year. It was then, in late autumn – when the fallen leaves lay in deep mats, or raked into towering piles in the parks and yards of Montreal, following the first killing frosts, and just before everything would be blanketed in the silent, white shroud of the Canadian winter – when he would open up about the War.

My father rarely spoke of his experiences as a tail gunner in a Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber during the Second World War. I had grown up seeing his photos, dashing and handsome in his RCAF uniform, tucked discretely in a corner of the downstairs family room. It was a memory my father honoured – an experience central to who he was, and who he became – but it was a part of his life that he rarely chose to revisit, despite my curiosity. “It was a long time ago,” he would say as he brushed my questions aside. “It was another lifetime.”

Yet, at this time of the year, as daylight hours grew short, and the cool breath of autumn turned to a chill that stripped the last leaves from the maples in our back yard, his memories of that other life came back to him. Perhaps it was the poppy on his lapel – we all wore poppies in early November – that jogged his memory, recalling the faces and voices of the comrades and friends he had left in the Commonwealth war cemeteries in Europe. Maybe it was the old soldiers, some bearing the scars of Vimy Ridge, Passchendale, the Somme, who still distributed the red poppies at kiosks at the local grocery store, or on the sidewalks Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

I felt an intimate bond with my father as he would take me into his confidence. I learned of the terror he felt as his aircraft threaded its way through the blossoms of flak blooming all around; I learned about the sang-froid masking despair with which he and his fellow aircrew toasted the memories of lost comrades on return to their base at Wratting Common; I learned the names Mark Goldwater and Robert Tait Roth. He told me about the night his aircraft went down over Witten, in the Ruhr Valley, about his wounds, his capture, and confinement in a German prison camp. He spoke of duty, of terror, and of the guilt he carried for participating in the slaughter of civilians.

My father was a good man – honourable, charitable, committed to social justice, kind, and gentle. He was the kind of person  I have always aspired to be, though I well know that I have always fallen short of the mark. I could not, however, imagine him as a soldier, an airman huddled behind four .50 calibre machine guns in a Lancaster’s tail turret, and it was in interrogating the disconnect between the father I knew, the steel-eyed young man in his RCAF portraits, and the frightened teenager on his POW index card, that I felt closer to him than I could ever have thought possible.

Although he wore a poppy every November and attended Remembrance Day services at the Cenotaph in Dominion Square every year, my father’s wartime service was rarely a significant component of his public persona. He never joined the Royal Canadian Legion, and never sat at a table distributing poppies. Yet I know that the War was never far from his thoughts. It was only after he visited Europe with my mother, for the first time in 45 years, following his retirement in 1995 that he began to revisit that other life more consistently and more often.

They had visited his old bomber base in Cambridgeshire, and traveled to the Ruhr Valley in Germany. As his closest friends from the old neighbourhood in Montreal – Bill Maulton, Si Yasin, Bill Charad – each died in the following years, my father began to speak more frequently of the War. When my mother, the love of his life, died of cancer in the winter of 2006, he found fellowship and, I think, solace in the company of the old soldiers at the Veterans Centre in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. From then until the last months of his life, he dropped in several time each week to work out in the gym, drink coffee, and chat with his new comrades.

I had the privilege to meet them when my partner and I visited my home in the fall of 2010. They were extraordinary gentlemen. Henry had been a C-47 Dakota pilot flying supply missions from bases in India over “the Hump” of the Himalayas into Burma. Mo, 94 years old when I met him, had been General Bernard Montgomery’s driver in Europe. They laughed, joked, told stories of courage, terror, and ribald adventures. They were fascinating, charming and, like my father, noble. They were all strong, confident, and distinguished old men who, in their 80s and 90s, had retained or rediscovered the vigour of young men. Yet I could not then imagine them as young men any more than I could imagine the veterans of Hill 70, Cambrai, and Amiens who had distributed poppies in my youth as young men.

Henry, Mo, and my father – like Mark Goldwater, Robert Roth, the old soldiers of the Great War, and more than a hundred million soldiers and civilians who fell in the World Wars – are gone now. But this week, I think of my father and his comrades forever as young men, preserved in that moment of fear and resolve, as they faced the prospect of battle and, in many cases, the near-certainty of injury or death. I know they did it; I can’t imagine how they did it.

***

The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

I only attended a Remembrance Day service with my father once. It was a damp, grey Sunday morning and I was not in school. I stood there with him in Dominion Square, holding his strong hand, alongside the men of his generation, and the generation before, in a sea of poppies as the bugler sounded the “Last Post.” After two minutes of silence, the piper played the ancient air the “Floors o’ the Forest.” The wreaths had been laid, the guns had fired their salute, the poppies turned, and my father and I found the car and went for a thoughtful lunch.

We sat quietly at a table at Murray’s at the corner of Sherbrooke and Victoria, and the nice Scottish ladies brought us post-Thanksgiving turkey pie. Men of my father’s generation sat at neighbouring tables, some in groups, some alone, some with sons and daughters of about my age. I remember the silence; it was profound, respectful, and peaceful. We had apple pie for dessert; my father had coffee, and I had tea.

Finally, my father looked at me and said very softly, “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.”

It was not an unreasonable hope at the time. By then, Canada had not been to war in a generation. Since the Korean War, the young men and women of the Canadian Forces had only seen action wearing the blue berets of United Nations peacekeepers. Vietnam was then a tragic memory, and the Cold War was warming. Soviet troops were not yet in Afghanistan, the United States had not yet invaded Grenada or Panama, the Camp David Accords seemed to promise the real possibility of a permanent peace in the Middle East. Even media pundits opined that it looked like peace was “breaking out all over.”

My memory of that time seems unreal now; it is more like a dimly-recalled dream, or childhood fantasy. As we approach Remembrance day this year, it seems like Canada, the United States – indeed, the world – has been at war continuously since 1990… for almost a generation. It has not been one continuous war, of course, but many starting and ending and starting again… continuously. When there has been peace, it has been an uneasy peace; of a pause between rounds, as pugilists wipe the blood and sweat from their faces and prepare to enter the ring once again.

War has become so unexceptional that, when the United States, Canada, and their allies commit themselves to “combat operations” – a convenient euphemism that speaks of mechanical, bureaucratic efficiencies rather than blood, bodies, and horror – the questions most of us ask do not interrogate war itself, but how clean it will be, how much it will cost in dollars and cents, whether there will be boots on the ground. War itself is not the question, the ethics of killing are not up for debate; the question is whether we can get away with killing without having to face any serious consequences.

War has become normal; so much so that we almost expect young men and women to don their fatigues, to be ordered by old, powerful men to kill and, if necessary, to die. I was shocked when Corporal Nathan Cirillo was murdered while guarding the Cenotaph in Ottawa last month but, to my shame, I was not surprised. While it is still not clear, all of the pious rhetoric notwithstanding, whether this was a terrorist attack, violence – whether perpetrated by political extremists or legitimate governments – has become so mundane that it no longer surprises us. Not in the United States, and not even in Canada.

That sad, horrific, realization came to me as I prepared to begin my lecture at Rutgers University earlier this week. I looked out at a room full of inquisitive, motivated, idealistic college freshmen and sophomores, and my father’s words echoed  in my thoughts: “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.” That hope now seems unrealistic, even foolhardy.

I looked at Stephanie, a part-time soldier, like Cpl. Cirillo, who serves in the New Jersey National Guard. I have had guardsmen in my classes before, and I have seen many of them disappear from the classroom as they have been called up to duty. I looked at Hassan, with his passion for aircraft and flying, and wondered if, should it ever come to it, he might ever find himself on the firing line. I looked at Eric who, seeking me out during my office hours, off-handedly commented that he felt pressure to enter the service to pay for his education. That’s the pitch made by the signs and posters outside the recruiting office on Clinton Street.

I felt a chill in that brief moment as I imagined what it could have been like to stand before the college classes of 1914, 1917, 1939, and 1941, knowing that few of those hopeful, promising faces would return unscarred, if they returned at all. I thought of the plaques on the walls of Macdonald High School, and Concordia University, where I had been a student myself, solemnly listing the names of young men who lie at Vimy Ridge, Boulonge sur Mer, Ypres, Hong Kong, Dieppe, Normandy, and the Reichwald Forest.

I feel horror that “at the going down of the sun and in the morning” we have failed in our obligation to remember.

***

Georg Trakl

Georg Trakl

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

As part of my Act of Remembrance this year, I offer two poems, composed by poets on opposite side of the Great War.

Georg Trakl was a medic in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern front. In 1915, following the Battle of Grodek, Trakl was utterly overwhelmed by the number of horribly injured soldiers he had to treat, and sank into a deep depression. He committed suicide several weeks later. The translation of his poem “Grodek” is mine, followed by the original German.

Wilfred Owen enlisted in the British Army in 1915. He saw service in the trenches of northern France, and was killed in action at the Sambre-Oise Canal on the morning of 4 November 1918, almost exactly one week before the Armistice that ended the Great War.

Grodek
By Georg Trakl (translated by Matthew Friedman)

At nightfall the autumn woods
resonate with deadly weapons,
the golden plains and blue lakes,
unfurl about a darkening sun;
night embraces the dead and dying:
the wild lament of their shattered mouths.

But silence gathers in the pastures.
A red mist, where dwells an angry god,
gushes blood into the lunar chill,
opening all roads in black decay.

Under golden boughs of night and stars
the sister’s shadow flits through the silent grove
to greet the shades of heroes, their bleeding heads,
as the music of autumn flutes rises softly in the reeds.

O prouder sorrow! You shameless altars!
The searing flame of the imagination
nourishes an unthinkable agony:
the generations yet unborn.

***

Grodek
By Georg Trakl

Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düster hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt,
Das vergossne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunkeln Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

***

Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

***

Peace.

The Forever War

barack-obama-isis-speech-1

The President goes to war

Today, thirteen years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America is once again girding for war. “Once again” might not be quite the right phrase to use, since it suggests that we are on the cusp of a transition from a state of peace to a state of war, yet this country has not been at peace for more than a decade.

From the perspective of this day in 2014, President George W. Bush’s speech from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California on 1 May 2003 seems like a sick joke. For those too forgetful, or too young (like many of my students) to remember, the president strode heroically across the carrier’s flight deck from a Lockheed Viking ASW bomber, clad in a Navy flight suit, with his aviator’s helmet under his arm. Under a red-white-and-blue banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” the president announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” A few moments later, he added, “the war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless.”

He lied.

President Bush cheerfully lies to the American people

President Bush cheerfully lies to the American people

The proof is that, since 2004 the United States has lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq and 2,300 in Afghanistan, while perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians have lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands more have been maimed, dislocated, their lives destroyed. And all of this since President Bush claimed that the mission was accomplished.

So here we are, more than a decade later, with President Obama wearily announcing that, despite his predecessor’s speech, despite the promised US withdrawal, this country is committing itself once again – there’s that phrase! – to war, this time against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. For now, these will be air operations, deploying America’s vast resources of aircraft, drones and cruise missiles against the jihadists who have overrun much of Iraq. It does not mean that the United States will be sending troops in any number to the region to face off against the new enemy on the ground. At least that’s the story.

Because we – Americans, Canadians, Britons, whatever – like to remember history in terms of nice, discrete packages, where great empires rise and fall, where crises come and go, where wars begin and end, it’s the kind of story that we can believe. This time, the old song goes, won’t be like the last time. Indeed the last time,  and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, has faded into vague memories that flicker fitfully on movie screens to teach us moral lessons of courage, sacrifice, grief and pain.

We remember that the Second World War was the good war; the one where there was no moral messiness, where we (and, incidentally, our Soviet, French, British and Commonwealth allies) did the right thing and stood against the brutal butchers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We forget that we ended the war by incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians in places with names like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hamburg, and Dresden. We forget how greatly Nazi expansion benefitted from the Western democracies’ benevolent indifference to the goose-stepping legions that marched through Spain, Libya, Ethiopia, the Sudetenland, and Austria.

We remember the heroic hardships the American GIs, indeed soldiers from the whole free world, endured to defend South Korea from the violent embrace of the Hermit State and the Chinese Red Army’s surge across the icy Yalu River in 1950. We forget that Douglas MacArthur wanted to use this as a pretext to bring nuclear Armageddon to China, and that the war, more than a half-century later, is still not over, but remains suspended in the tense unreality of a permanent ceasefire without peace.

We remember the spectacular victory of Panama when, over the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s a quarter century ago, American soldiers stormed from their Blackhawk helicopters to restore order and democracy and, to the pounding beat of MTV music, bought a drug-dealing caricature of a banana republic dictator to justice. We forget that Manuel Noriega had been our agent, and that he acquired the cash he invested in the Columbian cocaine cartels working for the CIA. We forget the thousands of civilians who died in Panama City’s El Chorillo neighbourhood, and others like it.

My Lai

My Lai

We remember the horrors of Vietnam; we remember that it was a mistake, built on a lie, enabled by paranoid Cold War fantasies; we remember that we confronted the worst of American arrogance there, and hope that we came out better. Sometimes, we even remember the bodies of women, children, and the elderly at My Lai, cut down by fresh-faced American boys ordered to “waste ’em all.” But we forget that, after the boys came home, paid their penance, and were rehabilitated as heroes, the dying went on. We forget that our arrogance and our bombs brought the genocidal Khmer Rouge to power and helped bury the uncounted millions in Cambodia’s killing fields. We forget the Vietnamese refugees who, after we washed our hands of our defeat, sailed in boats swamped to the gunwales across the South China Sea by the millions, and drowned by the tens of thousands.

Above all, we forget that, in 1964, we were going to answer the fabricated provocation of the Tonkin Gulf, and achieve our noble aims – just as we will fifty years later – with airpower alone. We were going to secure the peace by pummeling the enemy into submission with F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, and B-52 Stratofortresses – America’s unbeatable advantage over the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. But 3,500 marines landed at Da Nang in the spring of 1965 to guard our bases, followed by thousands… then hundreds of thousands. Within four years, there were more than a half-million American soldiers and airmen “in country,” and the generals wanted yet more.

We remember the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that as if they are somehow separate from this time, as if all of our wars can be easily compartmentalized from all of their deaths and misery, as if this time won’t be like the last time. It will be different.

Mass Execution

Mass Execution

Like all of us, I have watched the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria with a combination of disbelief and horror. I have wept over the thousands displaced, raped, tortured, and butchered by the faceless black legions marching like the soot behind a flame across the map of Iraq and Syria. I shuddered in disgust as I forced myself to watch the videos of the beheadings and the mass executions, so I could bear witness to the atrocities of our historical epoch.

If I believed that evil was a living thing – a dark force with a positive, material existence in history – then I would believe that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, like the Nazis, slavers, and the US Army cavalrymen grinning and posing in that old photo over the mass grave at Wounded Knee before them, were it. But I know that nothing in history is ever that simple. The Islamic State’s soldiers are in the right as they understand it, they are fighting a holy, righteous crusade in the name of God, as they understand it. Mass murder is a moral act for them, just as it was for Paul Tibbets on that clear August morning, or for Richard the Lionheart as he entered the gates of Acre.

I can well understand the visceral desire, the demand for justice; for evil to be crushed and for us, under the banner of civilization, democracy, and all that is good and moral, to be the instrument of that justice. But then I have to ask where we Americans, or “Western Civilization” broadly – the butchers of millions, the slavers, the genocidal exterminators of the First Nations of the Americas – derive the authority to act in the name of all that is good and moral. How can a mass murderer be the judge and executioner of a mass murderer?

And haven’t we all been here before? Wasn’t the War on Terror supposed to defeat terrorism? President Bush declared war thirteen years ago promising to “wage this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” Invoking the divine, he was certain of victory: “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” What happened to that victory?

This was not to be just any war. It had specific goals, outlined in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. One of these was to “win the war of ideas and diminish the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change that lead people to embrace, rather than shun, terrorism.” Yet here we are, a decade later, and those conditions have not been diminished, but greatly enhanced. The black legions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have clearly not shunned terrorism and – let us be honest – they would not have had this startling success had people in Iraq, Syria, and around the world, not in their despair embraced the message. By its own standards the War on Terror, which has run longer than any war in our history, has been an abject failure, a disgrace, a bloody farce.

A Predator drone at work

A Predator drone at work

The invasions, the occupations, the suspension of civil liberties, the militarization of American life, the “targeted killings,” the drone strikes – none of these have brought security to America and the world, and none of these have diminished “the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change.” They have created and expanded them. The monster of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the monster created by war, and despair – our war. Here we are, thirteen years after it all began, and the President has committed us to reinforcing failure, to escalating the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. Maybe we should stop and think about this.

There is a great fallacy at work here – at the White House, in Congress, on the cable news talking-head shows, in social media, at the water-cooler – that the military option is the only option. “We have to do something,” we all piously intone, and that might well be true. But why does it seem reasonable to anyone that the escalation of a strategy that has not only failed, but has made things worse, is the only or even the best option? It’s like turning up the heat to save someone who is dying of thirst.

All consideration of what has to be done begins with dropping bombs and launching missiles, inevitably continues with “boots on the ground,” and ends – no, wait, it doesn’t end. This is the endless conflict. War is no longer our state of exception; it is our state of being.

“We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.”