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.)

In the you-heard-it-here-first department, this from The New Republic:

Who knows where this is leading. But how ironic it would be if an attempted demonstration of phantom support for Ahmadinejad wound up severely undermining the country’s clerical regime.

A very good piece by Elliot Abrams in today’s NYT, reminding us that Iran’s vote today ain’t exactly free. Which raises a question in my mind: Should we essentially be rooting for Ahmadinejad to win? Why? Well, Moussavi seems to have generated quite a lot of support among younger voters–people are even talking, Obama-like, of a “movement,” one which will stick around even if their man doesn’t win. What if that movement were robbed of victory? It calls to mind Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred”: Might it explode? Might it be better in the long run for the rest of us if the “reformers” in Iran have to work a little harder, and actually change things, rather than grant a cosmetic victory? (And, if you’re a real conspiracy-theorist, doesn’t the Iranian regime know this, and if so, wouldn’t they be willing to get out of the way of Moussavi’s victory in order to short-circuit greater change?)

I promise my blog isn’t devoted to Roger Cohen. As I’ve written previously, I genuinely like his writing–most of the time. But each of his columns in the last weeks about Iran and the Jews has been progressively more and more off-key. This morning, he blows it completely, in my view. Over the weekend, he relates, he went to Los Angeles at the invitation of Rabbi David Wolpe to meet L.A.’s large Persian-Jewish community. He writes:

Earlier, Sam Kermanian, a leader of the Iranian Jewish community, said I had been used, that Iran’s Jews are far worse off than they appear, and that my portrayal of them was pernicious as it “leads people to believe Israel’s enemies are not as real as you may think.” He called the mullahs brilliantly manipulative: “They know their abilities and limitations.”

On at least this last point I agree. Just how repressive life is for Iran’s Jews is impossible to know. Iran is an un-free society. But this much is clear: the hawks’ case against Iran depends on a vision of an apocalyptic regime — with no sense of its limitations — so frenziedly anti-Semitic that it would accept inevitable nuclear annihilation if it could destroy Israel first.

The presence of these Jews undermines that vision. It blunts the hawks’ case; hence the rage.

So he agrees that the Iranian leadership is manipulative, but then chalks it up to American/Jewsh apolocalypticism and neurosis? He goes on to talk about how pragmatic Iran has proven to be since the revolution, and how we can count on that pragmatism in the future. Roger, if we could count on level-headedness and pragmatism, how do you explain the presidency of George W. Bush? Just because people have shown–occasional–good sense in the past does not mean you should rely on that in the future. Here Reagan was right: If you’re going to trust, you also have to verify. The testimony of the Iranian Jews you met undermined Cohen’s argument, yet he didn’t draw any lessons from it.

Finally, in the last paragraph, he bought the anti-Israel view of Chas Freeman’s withdrawal, the refutation of which I showed in a previous post.

I really want Roger Cohen to be right. I don’t like the idea of a clash of civilizations, and I do believe that moderation is possible. But this column finally convinces me that when it comes to Iran, Roger Cohen is being played.

I read Roger Cohen’s columns on Iran’s Jews last week and this with interest, and fully expecting what evidently followed: A barrage of condemnation. I have liked Cohen for a long time. Like David Brooks, my other favorite NYT columnist, Cohen defies easy caricature. While one could write a Bob Herbert or Tom Friedman column with something of a Mad Lib, Cohen both espouses unconventional opinions and writes beautifully.

Yet whenever it comes to Israel (and now, by extension, Iran), many of my Jewish friends get the heebie jeebies about our fellow-MOT. Cohen argued that Iran’s Jews actually enjoy a good deal of freedom, that most of them don’t want to leave, that they were against the Israeli operation in Gaza. Yes, he admits, they face occasional trumped-up charges of conspiracy with the Zionist Entity. But, as he argues this morning in his rebuttal, this is within the context of something that is not a totalitarian state. Not a free state, but no Fourth Reich either.

I’m not ready to take sides here (I like Jeffrey Goldberg a lot too), and I am surely risking the opprobium of some of my friends and colleagues. But many of us strongly supported the election of Barack Obama, on the basis that he was smart and sophisticated, that he would not be the reductivist thinker that George Bush was. (Of course, many of my friends did so feeling that Bush had been the best friend Israel ever had. I demur.) Why do we want someone with supple thinking when it comes to health care, education, the environment, and foreign policy challenges in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, but not the Middle East? Let’s at least have a fully fleshed-out and informed coversation. Cohen has given one side. I’d like to hear the other.