Michael Oren, soon to be Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., is first and foremost an historian. But his academic and diplomatic/political lives come together in this short piece in the current New Republic on the erection of a memorial to World War I deserters at Ypres on the French-Belgian border. Yes, with the last of the WWI vets dying off, the Europeans are putting up a pole to honor those who refused to fight at all.
Oren goes through the logic and the absurdity of this. If World War I was an insane war, then the sane thing to do was not to fight. And most people came to view the war as just that, so deserters look good. As Oren points out,
In contrast to the United States, fortunate to have fought most of its wars overseas, Europe was host to two twentieth-century apocalypses that left it depopulated and permanently traumatized. Torn between ravaging communist and fascist tides, many on the continent came to see war as an inherently no-win, illegitimate endeavor. Consequently, desertion could be conceived as logical, even honorable–and not only from the killing fields of Ypres.
But this has now gone further, as evidenced in a number of European actions that seem to indicate that virtually all military acts are problematic (Oren lists failed peacekeeping on the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Gaza borders, and failure to fight the Taliban, as evidence, as well has Germany’s harboring of an American deserter from Afghanistan.) While American and European histories diverge over the violence known on our own shores, these ideas have a way of migrating. Oren closes his piece with the question: “It sounds far-fetched, but it is impossible not to wonder: Will visitors to Valley Forge someday see a single pole?”
Some additional reverberations: The current confrontation in Iran, and in my little blogging universe, the conversation around Roger Cohen. Cohen issued a small mea culpa in light of this week’s events: “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.” (Full article here.) Iran does indeed practice violence, and that was on display for all to see on Sunday. Cohen, the most European of the NYT columnists, seems to have been awoken from a daydream, perhaps because of some deeply ingrained aversion to any form of violence. Iran may as well be Israel now.
Okay, that was a cheap shot. But it brings us to reverberation no. 2, which is Israel. It’s hard to imagine the Israeli police responding to a democractic protest the way the Iranians have. Cohen would have to grant that. Israel does exercise violence, but its record against its own citizens is pretty darn clean. And, as I have often argued before, if a mass Palestinian non-violence movement arose, it would bring statehood quicker than all the armed intifadas in the world. Why? Because no one could argue with it. As a non-violent movement, it would take away any of the moral ambiguity that comes with violence, and that leads ultimately to societies erecting memorials to those who fled military service.
Final reverberation: I think that Oren is on to something important here. As Americans become more aware of human suffering, through the Internet and through travel to the developing world, I imagine we will take on some of the European sensibility towards violence. I see this phenomenon all the time among the college students I work with. Violence is problematic for them. But violence is also linked to forms of particular identity, because so many wars have been fought in the name of maintaining religious or ethnic or national purity. “Let’s all be humanists” is the motto of many today, and would seem to be the European slogan too. Our challenge is to develop a language for talking about difference that does not lead to violence. (On this score, Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference is the best book out there.)