Sunday, April 08, 2007

WHAT‘S A WEHRMACHT TO DO?

Bernd von Loringhoven died last week. He was a Baron and he served in the Cold-War Wehrmacht (the good one, our side, etc.) and in that resurrected Wehrmacht he rose to the rank of Lieutenant General. He lived in interesting times.

His most interesting historical experiences might have been those that took place in the Spring of 1945, in Berlin, in a certain bunker. Assigned to the staff of General Guderian, he stayed on when that immensely capable, no-nonsense officer was replaced at the Fuhrer’s order by the less-competent, more ‘loyal’ General Krebs. Thus, as a staff major Loringhoven was in the bunker almost to the end. He left because he told the demented Unitary Leader that he wanted to go and fight at the front (which by then was not much more than a couple-three blocks away), and the Ur/Uber/Haupt-Deciderer was overcome with patriotic and soldierly bonhomie, dismissing him with – may we say? – a blessing. With Russians everywhere, the major was able to surrender to Anglo-British forces by following the undying American adage to Go West. Where would they be without us, those Europeans?

It was how he got into the Army that is of relevance to Us today. In 1933, having studied law, he was confronted with the new Reich requirement that all lawyers be members of the Nazi Party. “I had studied law, but the profession was being taken over by the Nazis. The Wehrmacht seemed an honorable career.”

One’s first impulses upon reading this are sympathy and respect: here’s a man who at the outset of adulthood found himself in a nation that was rapidly sliding into organized barbarity and rather than cooperate by participating, he sought a more rigorous but honorable path: he joined the Army. Where, after all, can the good and upright citizen find a refuge from the ‘filth’ of sleaze and corruption and self-debasement if not in the military? We Americans of all peoples should understand that: who can forget the Reagan-era anointing of the military as not only representing the best that was in the American ethos and character, but actually embodying that ‘best’ in a way that no mere American ‘civilian’ can? Nobody did it like the military: efficient, upright, clear of eye and soul and skin. Midwest farmboys and even the average Mormon teen made great poster-children for the military in those years: crew-cut, blue-eyed, clean-shaven, respectful, obedient, patriotic.

But the ‘Army’ that the decent and estimable Loringhoven joined was a particular one in a particular time and place: the German Wehrmacht of 1933. No matter how well its capable officers and non-coms executed their duties, that army was morally doomed, and doubly so. It served the purposes of a violent, aggressive government debauched by an antihuman ideology and an intransigent moral pride of purpose and utterly removed from the essential Truth of humanity as the West had only recently managed to formulate and achieve that Truth. And on top of that it followed orders that not only made it refrain from ‘defending the defenseless’ (Douglas MacArthur’s clarion phrase to describe the purpose of a Western military) but actually made it assist in the destruction of the defenseless.

It is a truism that after the war that army claimed it ‘was only following orders’, which is what armies do. It is also a truism that in a state run by civilians the army must accede to the orders of the civilians. Of course Germany of that era was not governed by ‘civilians’, nor by its People: it was run by the Party of the Twelve Years, under the rule of its absolute Leader. But that was then and that was there. Here and now there are indeed ‘civilians’ in charge, although the degree of their integrity and maturity is open to question.

But whether or not an army follows its orders, whether or not it is ‘loyal’ to its governmental masters, is not the core reality that We must consider. Rather, We must contemplate the profound consequences flowing from a military that continues to contort itself ‘by any means necessary’ so as to continue following orders. If waging lengthy war, and a not particularly successful war, places stress on a military and its individual members, what further awefullness rushes in when the war is immoral? When the activities required to prosecute the war are immoral? When they create a profound revulsion within the individual soldier? When they don’t?

Worse, when many of the younger troops have been raised in a Flattened ethos where ‘judging’ immorality – except for the ever-handy ‘sex offender’ – is considered inappropriate and even meaningless? The past decades’ of not being ‘judgmental’ and of ‘making room’ for this, that, and the other thing have somehow effectively removed the basis for any boundaries upon the government’s acting evilly. But because there is a ‘soul’ in the human being – regardless of what ‘elite’ and ‘correct’ American thought might otherwise hold nowadays; and because there is a moral frontier on the far side of which no amount of good intention can redeem an evil act - regardless of what many fundamentalistic preachers might think; and because there is a fundamental human-ness within each and all humans – regardless of uniform or ‘orders’ – that cannot be escaped … because of those unspinnable realities (‘Realities- - capital ‘R’, might not be out of place now) our soldiery now bear monstrous burdens.

We look back on a young von Loringhoven, and on hundreds of thousands like him, who in that era and that place, seeking to invest their life in some decent and successful enterprise, turned to the Wehrmacht not only for employment but also for fulfillment. And yet – no matter how faithful and rigorous their efforts, in life or in death – the sum total of their achievement is tainted for the rest of human history by the Cause to whose ‘orders’ they remained obedient.

Could they do otherwise? Not realistically so. But so what? That fact hardly dents the monstrous moral futility of their lives, the moral derangement that could not have simply ‘gone away’ on May 9, 1945 when Germany surrendered. The individuals, and the Wehrmacht as an organization, were not only individually and organizationally maimed, but morally infected and corrupted. Monstrously so.

It was Germany’s blessing – the old French ‘blessure’ might better express it – that she was so thoroughly defeated. Those who sought to acknowledge the massive monstrousness of the Twelve Years in order to repair and redeem the damage could do so with the guarded approval of a common, popular opinion that could not deny what had happened to Germany and – to some extent anyway – what Germany had done.

It is not probable that America will experience such a ‘blessure’ (although it cannot be ruled out). We did not receive such an unmistakable revelation in Vietnam, and as a result the back&forth as to that war’s ‘meaning’ has continued, its only ‘redemption’ being the shallow but brassy Reaganite restoration of public esteem for things military and a spate of cheap action flicks where ‘we win’ (and those ubiquitous black flags). But there can be no doubt that this society will eventually have to re-embrace dozens of thousands of individual soldiers who were caught in the hot, soul-deforming toils of this invasion and its consequences, and that this nation will for a long generation to come be protected by a military officered and led by those who traversed the dark, hot paths of a moral hell. Those are journeys that not even angels make without loss and wound.

The JAGs have come in for more than a drubbing on this site, since their entire operation was fundamentally deformed long before it was then placed in the service of The Twelve Years and the Unitarium. History will hold Us all responsible for the recent comments of one Mr. Dell’Orto, Pentagon spokesman, about the military commissions/tribunals: the rules (inter alia: defense lawyers cannot reveal classified information in their client’s defense until the government/prosecutor approves; suspects will only get summaries of evidence against them – in effect, the government controls the evidence if not also the defense counsel) will “afford all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples” (www.truthout.org/docs_2006/011807R.shtml).

This pious blather, wrapping these monstrous wolfish ‘trials’ in the angelic garb of the best that Western Justice and jurisprudence has laboriously managed to achieve, cannot simply be indulged as public-relations boilerplate. It constitutes treachery – purposeful, conscious treachery against Truth, against Justice, against the very best of the Western and the American traditions. It is also pretty standard military ‘justice’ procedure, and has been for quite a long time. And it’s being done on Our dime and in Our name. Can a people be ‘civilized’ without a soul? What sort of hollow ‘civilization’ might that be?

Doesn’t History even now hold them at arm’s length: all those eager and not-bestial German youth who once marched off to war? All those German citizens who minded their business and just tried to get by? What will history say of Us? The Deciderer, with the self-protecting shrewdness usually seen in profoundly criminal or addictive personalities, has already asserted that only ‘history’ can judge him, that only ‘God’ can judge him, thereby effectively removing his actions from any more immediate consequences (those large and loud beliefs notwithstanding, he nonetheless bent nearer to earth and insured his own legal safety by having many of his actions declared retroactively ‘legal’ in the same Act that established the military commissions).

With ominous accuracy, Col. Dan Smith publishes an article entitled “The Tillman Affair and the Moral Decay of the Army: ‘Have You No Sense of Decency?’” (www.counterpunch.com/smith04042007.html). We can only thank him for it. There appear to be far more virulent, vicious, and destructive ‘indecencies’ going on in this country than the kind that lead on local TV news. He limns in awful detail, with crisp and clear military precision, just what is starting to happen – is indeed well-advanced. We have to hear it, We have to know it. We cannot hide from it. We must help our military recover from the consequences and We must help the world recover from our military. And there is no time to go shopping.

Stephen Greenblatt has a superb article (“Shakespeare and the Uses of Power”, www.nybooks.com/articles/20073) in ‘The New York Review of Books’ (Vol. 54, No. 6, April 12, 2007). Greenblatt deals with the Shakespearian conundrum: all the characters who actively grasp for power are too morally unfit to wield it and all those with a clear ethical vision seek to avoid or unburden themselves of power. It is this awareness, I think, that also informs the Founders almost two centuries later: wielding power is inherently a morally damaging enterprise, and nobody can be trusted to do it and remain ‘pure’; and everybody who wields it has to be checked-and-balanced, and watched carefully. And they were OK with that; the Constitutional government they devised put up enough speed-bumps and its machinery was clanky enough so that no ethically-deformed power-grabber could run away with the whole thing. And that was their practical response to the problem Shakespeare had perceived so acutely.

In a mass democracy this solution to this problem is itself problematical. Too many citizens will seek to shortcut or simplify their daily toils by investing their elected officials with a too-indulgent trust; and the Fundamentalistic soul actually conflates the government leadership with God’s Will itself.

In a technically-complex civilization, even the most alert of citizens cannot be expected to know enough to keep a successful eye on every matter of even major public import.

In a National Security State those government leaders will try to keep as much information as possible hidden; the active, alert, skeptical inquiring adult citizen will not be welcome – rather, the leaders prefer the easily-distracted, under-informed, uncertain, unripe citizen whose energies are squandered on matters not affecting the common weal but rather on matters affecting the textures of one’s comforts and private concerns.

And in a National Krime State, citizens are lulled into thinking that they are doing their bit by responding with approving outrage to any ‘criminal’ the government chooses to haul before them (the media eagerly providing lurid footage or innuendo), and thus the police power of the state, all ‘in a good cause’, is expanded until no private or interior space is safe from the power of the state. (As one Nazi governmental official, Robert Ley, put it in the 1937: When we are finished the only privacy the German citizen will have is when he is asleep.)

Lincoln spoke rightly and wisely when he reminded Congress and the citizens that “we cannot escape History”. I think he meant that in at least two senses: We cannot escape the judgment of History, and we cannot escape the consequences that inevitably flow from whatever actions we take to make or influence History, to respond to or to shape events. We cannot escape judgment and consequences.

What von Loringhoven felt when he realized that his treasured Wehrmacht was not only losing the war but also its soul, its integrity, its character, and that in consequence his entire life’s work was also losing its integrity and its character … what he and who knows how many other German military members felt when they realized THAT … is certainly a fit subject for Our contemplation today.

But unlike the Germans of The Twelve Years, We are still The People and this government – contrary to Cheney and Gonzales and Yoo and all the resurgent Confederate-worshippers and all the Fundamentalist gummint-worshippers and all the neocon empire-worshippers – is of Us and for Us and by Us, and through our faithful administration of our Constitutional principles a great good flows into History and into this world. Republican or Democrat, each of Us needs to shake off the Miasm of The Twelve Years (and in no small way the last thirty-five or so years) and People this Republic through an honest and mature public politics (not a contradiction in terms!).

There is far too much History ahead, and not very far ahead, for Us, to put off this process of public and political maturity any longer. In fact, since We have lost so much of our ‘common weal’ over the past decades, then this is a call to a resurrection of sorts, certainly of ‘a new birth of freedom’, but a ‘freedom’ that can only flow from a serious laying-ahold of Our own responsibilities.

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