Food (and Indigestion) for Thought

Yesterday evening I attended a presentation by an analyst from the George C. Marshall Foundation.  They’re the outfit that was (of course) named after General of the Army George C. Marshall — to date the only professional military officer to receive, deservedly, the Nobel Peace Prize — and the purpose of which, in addition to preserving the documentary legacy of the man, his times, and his activities, also is to perpetuate Marshall’s legacy of magnanimity, cooperation, and commitment to the practicalities of creating those domestic and international structures and systems which form the framework upon which peace can be built.

If this sounds a bit unusual for an outfit that is not only named for a life-long soldier, but to this day is headquartered at a military college (the Virginia Military Institute), you really ought to read a bit more about Marshall.  For an officer who was scrupulously non-political (at least in his dealings with his civilian masters in FDR’s White House and in Congress), he was acutely sensitive to the fundamental political nature of the American military.  Again, that’s not a contradiction.  FDR famously addressed everyone by his first name.  These days it’s become fashionable because it’s considered egalitarian; perhaps it is, when everyone calls everyone by his first name.  But of course no one called FDR “Franklin”; his assumption of the prerogative was therefore diminishing to the addressee.  It’s a gentler form of the same method vulgarly practiced by LBJ in appearing naked in front of men he wished to intimidate.  In any event, FDR tried that business on with Marshall, who replied, “It’s ‘General Marshall,’ Mr. President.”  Congress recognized in him someone who was so straightforward with it he could appear before a committee, explain what he needed, and he was accepted at his word.  Mostly.  Once a particular senator from Missouri who headed an eponymous committee to investigate fraud, waste, and abuse in the war effort got to poking around in areas that weren’t exactly public.  Marshall got wind of it and put the word out that Senator Truman was simply not to be told certain things.  But it was Marshall who realized, and was greatly concerned about, the disruptions to American civil society that threatened from a long war.  He understood that an American wartime military must be a political expression of its society.  This directionality of the relationship was in contrast to, for example, the Soviet Union or Germany, in which civil society (to the extent they even had any left) was an adjunct to, and formed by, the military.  It was Marshall who looked Winston Churchill in the face and told him, with respect to some cock-eyed proposal to invade Rhodes, “Not one American soldier is going to die on that goddam beach.”  And finally, it was Marshall who put his credibility behind the effort to re-build the societies destroyed by the war, in a way that hadn’t been tried after the first go-round.

Truman it was who described Marshall as “the great one” of his era.  When you look at his breadth of comprehension and his iron-clad character it’s hard to disagree much with that statement.

In any event, the topic of yesterday’s presentation was the Ukrainian situation and its implications for Europe and Europe’s relationship with the U.S.  The presenter is a German lawyer with a Ph.D. from Harvard, and extensive experience as a reporter/analyst not only in Europe but also in central Africa.  She was in Rwanda in 1994, within weeks after the genocide.  And so forth.  Very impressive C.V., all in all.  She’s now based in the foundation’s Berlin office.

Her take on the situation is that the Ukraine represents the gravest crisis for the West since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  Putin is trying to re-establish, not the Soviet Union, but rather the Soviet sphere of influence.  That effort is bound to de-stabilize not only the countries targeted (especially Belarus, Moldova, the Ukraine) but also Russia itself.  This is principally because, as she phrased it, other than a pile of cash, Russia’s not got any of the things needed to make the program work over time.  Once the cash is gone, and it will go (she didn’t mention the fracking revolution, but that technology may be the deadliest threat to Putin, even moreso than any nuclear deterrent), they’ve got nothing.  Their demographics are headed for societal implosion.  Their education system is awful.  Their economy is awful.  Their healthcare system is awful.  Their transportation system is awful.  Over everything lies the suffocating blanket of corruption.  And on and so forth.  For the long haul — she predicted “a generation” of turmoil in Eastern Europe — she was pretty sanguine.  Didn’t seem to think military action likely.  I wish I could join her in her optimism.  When someone is playing against long odds, as Putin is, the only way he wins the game is on a long shot.  With each gamble that doesn’t pan out, his objective motivation to double down increases because the aggregate odds against him increase with each lost bet.  There’s a reason, after all, why Germany’s and Japan’s losing phases of their wars got so vicious.

Another of the threads of her presentation, and of her responses to some specific questions afterwards, was the current state of the German-American relationship.  Once more, she had a fairly positive take on the connections at the policy-maker level, although she was pretty up-front that the NSA spying revelations had badly shaken people in Berlin.  She also shared something that I hadn’t thought of.  She allowed that a very great deal of “public” comment in newspapers and other mass media, including specifically the internet, is and is known to be bought-and-paid-for trolling.  Propaganda, in other words.  Beyond citing her connections inside German media she didn’t describe how this is known to be.  It certainly is possible; George Soros and his fellow left-extremists maintain several operations here in the U.S. who monitor various public-forum communications and regularly flood the waves, so to speak, with astroturf outrage.  The Occupy “movement” was little more than astroturf in the streets.  So it can be done.

One thing she also mentioned, and which got me to thinking (difficult, I know), was her observation that for many years America has been a foil for the streak of Romantic idealism that is so strong in German culture and politics.  Years ago while studying in Germany I took a lecture course in American colonial history.  The professor’s particular specialty was colonial New England history.  It was fascinating to see an outsider’s take on one’s own world.  One of the points he made, several times during the course, was the extent to which Puritan idealistic sensibilities still inform American society and especially its politics.  So when our presenter yesterday evening mentioned the repulsive aspects of the German view of America (as opposed to its simultaneous attractive aspects) as being rooted specifically in German idealism, the thought struck me that what you’ve got is competing idealistic sensibilities, and I wondered to what extent their incongruity traces back to the distinctions in the religious traditions that gave rise to them (Pietism on the one hand and Puritanism on the other).  I wonder if anyone’s ever looked at it from that angle, and if so what their conclusions were.  Sort of like neighboring families who’ve been picking at each other so long no one even remembers what it all started about, it would be amusing to tease out whether we’re grousing over two religious traditions that go back over 300 years.

I just wish I could feel as confident in the long-term future as she seems to.  My boys are 12, 10, and 8.  That “generation of turmoil” our presenter sees on the horizon will consume their childhoods and young adulthoods.  And it may consume them, depending on how badly the parties miscalculate.

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