Wednesday, September 9, 2009

France and l'Esprit Militaire

I have been called out in an interblog dogfight. This blogger thinks France is unusually militaristic in its national celebrations. This one begs to differ, and asks for my opinion. I agree with the latter. Parades and symbols are not the whole story, however. The influence of the military is pervasive in the United States government. Grunstein mentions Powell and Eikenberry. I would point out that the current national security advisor, James Jones, is a former general as well (he speaks French, by the way).

American veneration of the military is more a matter of psyche than hardware, however. It's true that one doesn't often see armor rolling down Pennsylvania Ave. (although I believe there were tanks in the inauguration day parade, and I certainly recall the tanks tearing up the quiet streets of my hometown in N.J. in the 1950s on the Fourth of July). It's more common in America to lament ostentatiously the sacrifices of "our men and women in uniform" than to flex muscle Moscow-style.

We dote on this sort of poshlost, to borrow a word from Nabokov. It's actually rather convenient to place the accent on one's own sacrifice rather than on one's country's superior equipment. The equipment, if displayed, might actually get Americans to think, as they rarely do, of the sacrifices of those against whom it is deployed.

The Germans are facing this inconvenient aspect of warfare right now in the context of a national election. The large recent loss of civilian life in Afghanistan may have been due to an error or inadvertence by German soldiers. For Germans this has become an issue. But the collateral damage has barely been noticed in an America inured to incidents of this kind. For us the issue is framed in terms of whether the continued sacrifice of American lives is justified by any achievable American interest. The Afghans barely figure in the debate except as instruments. To my mind, that is the mark of a militarized culture: one that sees the landscape solely in terms of coordinate grids and numbered objectives rather than as the home of a people. (And yes, I know that Generals Petraeus and McChrystal are supposed to be soldiers of a different kind, who don't make this mistake. They have changed the instrumentation, yes, but have they really changed the score?)

The French may delude themselves in one way with their fighter jets spewing tricolore contrails as they swoop down over Paris on July 14; Americans suffer from a blindness of another sort entirely.

3 comments:

rd said...

I see no evidence whatsoever that "non-militarized" European nations are any better at seeing Afghanistan as the "home of a people" than the US is. Their primary focus is not the Afghanistanis but themselves: avoiding both sustaining casualties and inflicting casualties, even at the cost of surrendering the people they are supposed to protect to Taliban intimidation and violence. If you read accounts of the aftermath, the local Afghan governor's main complaint was the recent passivity of the Germans in dealing with rising Taliban infiltration, a reluctance to act themselves which may have led them to call in an American airstrike rather than send out their own land forces to recover the hijacked trucks. This determination to have clean hands at all costs is understandable in terms German history, but it doesn't have much to do with some kind of "non-militarized" cultural sensitivity.

Leo said...

rd,
your post is self contradictory:
"This determination to have clean hands at all costs is understandable in terms [of] German history" is the hallmark of a completely de-militarized culture.

Art,
your thesis, to which I subscribe, is exposed at length by Andrew Bacevich of Boston University. His latest book, The New American Militarism, starts with the following words:

"Today, as never in their history Americans are enthralled with military power.The global military supremacy that the United States presently enjoys...has become central to our national identity. More than America's matchless material abundance or even the effusions of its pop culture, the nation's arsenal of high-tech weaponry and the soldiers who employ that arsenal have come to signify who we are and what we stand for".

Just in case some readers here would discount him as just another effete,latte drinking East Coast intellectual, in a previous life he was a US Army Colonel in Viet Nam.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

And his son was killed in Iraq. Bacevich nevertheless opposed the war, quite eloquently. I admire his courage.