History, Tragedy and Farce
by Stephen Schwartz
In the most notorious of all misattributions by a modern intellectual, Karl Marx wrote in his polemic of 1852, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Unfortunately, attempts to confirm that Hegel produced such a "remark" have failed. The thought originated with Marx, not with his philosophical forerunner.
Nevertheless, while most of Marxian socialism today is discredited, its pioneer's insight about history seems more appropriate than ever. History indeed is repeating itself, as American and other Western elites and publics call for abandonment of military commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
This is how contemporary history has produced echoes so frequent and loud that we might say history is "stammering."
The first world war was brought about coldly and heedlessly by the dominant imperial powers of the day, which sought to restrict each other's grasp on the world. Britain, France, and Russia, made anxious by German economic expansion and prosperity on the continent, sought to limit the German-Austrian thrust southward and eastward. Germany and its allies attempted to break the then-existing British monopoly on naval power. In the aftermath of the war, Russia lay in the hands of revolutionary communism, Germany was prostrate and menaced both by the Russian example and by the cruel exactions of the Versailles treaty, and France was underpopulated and disillusioned with its military forces, which a century before had been led by Bonaparte and transformed much of the world.
The "great war" generated considerable rational opposition from those who perceived clearly that it had been fabricated and would accomplish nothing positive for the planet or its peoples. But German imperialism then reconstituted itself in a feral, visceral, and brutalizing metastasis, as National Socialism. Rather than fight the British and French to maintain its position in European trade and to strengthen its overseas colonies, as the imperial German regime had done in the first war, Hitler sought to transform Europe itself into a system of German colonial possessions. During the first world war Germany retained enough of its parliamentary institutions to make the organization of antiwar protests relatively easy. But the Nazi regime embodied an "open, terroristic dictatorship" that indoctrinated its citizens in repudiation of freedom, democracy, and individual choice, while stigmatizing minorities as worthy of genocide.
And yet, in the late 1930s, many people in the U.S. and France, most notably, looked at the inevitable approach of German aggression in the context of the first world war. To these "isolationists" and "defeatists," Germany in 1939 was no worse than Germany in 1914. But those who could not distinguish between the conservative nationalists ruling the German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the nihilistic mass-murderers at the commanding heights of Nazi Germany were, to paraphrase Trotsky, destined to be crushed under the steel treads of Nazi tanks. France fell to German invasion mainly because of antiwar propaganda. The U.S. turned away from isolationism definitively, only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In the 1960s, the U.S. became entangled in an imprudent and oblivious military confrontation in Indochina. As during the first world war, numerous people, young and old, and this time forming an effective majority, opposed the American combat in Vietnam, and forced an end to it. The war had taken almost 60,000 American lives, with 300,000 U.S. personnel injured. American prestige was dealt a major blow; American self-confidence began a long, slow collapse; American decline had, it may be argued, begun. And without American troops capable of preventing it, Indochina became the scene of a dreadful humanitarian crisis, with wholesale flight from Vietnam and mass murder in Cambodia.
Still, America remained the global symbol of freedom and opposition to oppression. In 1992, after Yugoslavia had fallen apart, a ferocious Serbian assault struck the previously-obscure territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The Bosnians – Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and Jews united by a desire to live together, rather than by Islamist jihadism – asked America to help, not by sending troops, but by allowing Bosnia to acquire weapons to defend itself. But the invertebrate attitude of James Baker and other U.S. politicians blocked President George H.W. Bush from taking action against the Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milošević. Fear of another Vietnam reinforced American passivity over Bosnia when President Bill Clinton took office. The British and French, meanwhile, sided with Serbia – as they had in the first world war. U.S. force was not brought openly to bear on behalf of Bosnia-Hercegovina until the massacre of 8,000 Muslim males at Srebrenica in 1995, during which Dutch "peace-keepers" assisted the Serbs or simply stood aside and let Satan's work be carried out.
In an intersection of events that few Bosnian Muslims believe was coincidental, Clinton acted when Croatian and Bosnian forces had the Serb interlopers on the run, seemingly to prevent a Bosnian victory. In the Dayton accords, Serbian criminality was rewarded and the partition of Bosnia was made permanent; a partition still in place today, 16 years later.
History had repeated itself as tragedy. As in France at the beginning of the second world war, when the populace remained so traumatized by the war a generation past that it failed to defend itself against Germany, so in the U.S. during the Bosnian war, public opinion had been so conditioned by the humiliation of Vietnam that rescue of the Bosnians was impossible, and the option was even denigrated candidly. When the Kosovo war came in 1998, America acted speedily, for a reason few of its citizens understood: NATO and Europe were more afraid of a massive Albanian immigrant wave pouring into Greece and Italy than they had ever been worried about the suffering of the Bosnians. George H.W. Bush had indicated this during his term, when he described Kosovo as the "red line" that Milošević would not be allowed to cross. And so it was: Clinton quickly assisted the Kosovar Albanians in a manner denied the Bosnians.
But most importantly, and seldom said, neither of the NATO interventions in the Balkans produced a "Vietnam." American soldiers have yet to lose their lives to jihadism in either country.
Now, history is again repeating itself, as farce. Stung by the evocation of a Vietnam disaster about which the overwhelming majority of young Americans know little, Republican and Democratic politicians have legitimized the same isolationism that nearly kept the U.S. out of the second world war and delayed aid to the Bosnians. President Barack Obama has acceded, if in a limited manner, to the demands of politicians and a poorly-informed public opinion, and has promised a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014.
This farce is bound to also encompass tragedy. When the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban will reestablish its dictatorship, and Islamist radicals in Pakistan will be stimulated to replace the failing state in Islamabad with a similar extremist regime. Millions of Pakistanis will leave their country – secular and moderate Muslims will go to India, Shias to Iran, those with relatives in the UK and U.S. to the Pakistani diaspora. Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalists will launch renewed campaigns to infiltrate and control Muslims in India and Bangladesh. And the new, expanded Taliban will be a nuclear power.
Above all, it is grimly farcical to see how shy the U.S. President has become about the exercise of American military force, and how easily the administration has convinced itself of the existence of an imaginary "moderate Taliban" with whom a "peace agreement" may be signed. A "peace agreement" had been signed when Saigon fell in 1975. A hasty withdrawal from South Asia now will once more weaken, rather than strengthening, America. The most farcical element in this ill-wrought comedy consists in the belief of the isolationists that American military abdication will reinforce American political stature. It will not; it may deliver a death blow to American influence all over the world.
Along with the multi-act, multi-actor farce played out in Washington over South Asia, a similar, if newer and more grotesque performance has begun over Libya. The isolationists on both sides of the congressional aisle would allow that country to stay in the hands of its deranged misruler, Mu'ammar al-Ghadhdhafi, on various empty and heartless pretexts. The Libyan resistance, like the Bosnians before them, has not asked for American or other foreign troops to risk their lives on the ground in North Africa. They have asked merely for diplomatic recognition and technical assistance. But the Republican and Democratic "antiwar" alliance appears ready to deny the Libyan freedom-fighters even those forms of aid.
Western media cynically describe their audiences as "war weary" in Libya, where no American or other forces have been lost. If the Western public is "war weary" it is because it has been conditioned by mendacious propaganda as the French public was in 1940; by constant reference to Vietnam as the French were subjected to continuous summoning up of the ghosts of Verdun. A British commander now complains that his country's forces could "crack under the strain" of the Libyan commitment. Italy, well-known for its lack of martial constancy, demands an end to military assistance to the Libyans.
James Joyce's fictional Stephen Dedalus, in Ulysses, described history as "a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." The repetition of history as tragedy and farce has given the current historical moment the atmosphere of a nightmare, filled with fragments of the past, some immediately recognizable, some clouded by the passage of time. If the West betrays the Libyan resistance, history will reproduce not only the voyeuristic international insouciance at the pain and horror of the Bosnian war, but the similar, knowing indifference, and deliberate "non-intervention," in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39, the 75th anniversary of which will come in mid-July. "Neutrality" was immoral in Spain, in Europe from 1939 to 1945, in Indochina, in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Iraq, and is no less so in Afghanistan and Libya. But the "nightmare, stammering confusion" – as William Butler Yeats described the writing of Ezra Pound – into which the world has plunged once again, draws humanity ever deeper into debasement, with little hope of redemption in sight.