“No man can climb out beyond the limitations of his own character”
- John, Viscount Morley
Being sort of squeamish and abhorring violence, I’m not a fan of war movies, but one of my favorite movies, oddly enough, is The Big Red One, the 1980 Sam Fuller WWII epic. Being a lowly private in the Army, stationed in southern Germany in 1980, our movie theater was located across a parking lot, behind my barracks. My kaserne, perched atop a picturesque southern mountaintop, was a vintage German army post and the Germans built their posts in a consistent, orderly fashion, with the companies neatly arranged around a parade field in the center and all the lesser support facilities beyond that tight circle.
There wasn’t much to do on small kasernes, like the one I was at, but being a little country girl, I found everything new and interesting. I could imagine I was Heidi in the Alps (well, okay, the Swabian Alps), following the footpath down the mountain to the town proper or let my imagination run wild, gazing out the large window at the end of the female hallway, where a view to rival the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, greeted me each morning. My view, a lovely old monastery perched upon another mountaintop in the distance, fueled my ever-fluttering flights of fancy. Of course, I took several trips to that old monastery to explore it close-up.
Now, having a movie theater within walking distance seemed a luxury to me, because the nearest movie theater, where I grew-up in the mountains of PA, was 10 miles away. I would always ask a few of the guys to go to the movies with me and first we’d go to the snack bar, next to the movie theater, for ice cream, because I loved eating my vanilla ice cream first. These uncomplaining young men, in gentlemanly fashion, usually insisted on buying my ice cream too.
I met many wonderful young men in that unit and as an aside to this tale, gentlemen were still in plentiful supply in the US Army in those days. Back to my story, the only drawback to our movie theater was the same movie played for weeks on end, until something new arrived from the States. I watched The Big Red One over and over and each time I came away remembering some new details I had missed before.
JK sent me a link to a fascinating WWII story, The Battle for Castle Itter, which reminded me of a line from The Big Red One, that has stuck with me all these years. I’ve spent decades thinking about war and wondering if this endless cycle of human behavior can ever change. I’ve wondered if we’re destined to continually build up human societies, only to demolish them through corruption and then outside conquest. I’ve wondered, as the line in The Big Red One, will we ever find a time when, “der krieg ist vorbei.“
The almost farcical nature of the characters and events in the battle for Castle Itter provides a quirky, yet almost emblematic view of how in the unlikely circumstance of fighting for their lives, this castle’s curious mix of inhabitants, like people everywhere, can put aside national and personal loyalties, to unite in moments, because not much else mattered, except surviving.
The story centers on VIP French prisoners, whom the SS kept imprisoned in Castle Itter during WWII. As the Americans advanced across Europe in the waning days of the war, a young American first lieutenant, John C. “Jack” Lee, Jr., made the mistake of volunteering to go secure the castle, after a surrendering German major arrived to tell the advancing Americans about the VIP prisoners held prisoner in nearby Castle Itter. The young American officer sets off with 8 volunteers, plus 5 soldiers from the African-American Company, along with the surrendering German major and a truckload of his German soldiers. The French VIPs, upon seeing their small rescue force, were unimpressed that such a paltry band of soldiers was sent to rescue their grand personages. But quickly the scene changed as the castle fell under attack from SS troops. The squabbling French VIPs (which included two French generals, who despised each other) and the surrendering Germans all turned to the young American lieutenant to take charge of their castle defense. To get the full impact of the absurdity of the events, read the full story of the battle for Castle Itter (here’s the link again).
In history, certain moments in time become the leitmotif, that subsequent generations warn us identify a bellwether event. Glenn Beck, aside from drawing complex charts, in which he connects the dots, in ever-widening and distant circles, prognosticates often about what he refers to as “the Archduke Ferdinand moment”, harkening back to the assassination of the Austrian heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Serbia, which led to the outbreak of World War I. History doesn’t replay like watching old reruns on TV, it’s more nuanced and runs along in patterns that require looking at human history from a wider perspective than awaiting a single, harbinger of doom event.
Times do change and while history is replete with enough strange coincidences to give one pause, it seems more useful to step back and take a big picture view of history, if seeking a more useful predictive model. As events in the world overtake our national security folks in the Obama administration’s collective strategic-thinking ability, America seems adrift in the world. America, with President Obama, leading us from behind, forces his national security team to play defense (rather poorly), reacting in ever-disjointed fits and starts. The US flails about, wantonly widening the decades old strategic-vacuum the US fell into when the infamous “end of history’ mentality took hold after the Soviet Union imploded and we sat on our laurels just floating along in a dangerous world, believing we could bail water faster than anyone else in the world, safe and insulated from the geopolitical waves around the globe. Sadly, our lifeboat went to sea without strategic life-vests, part of the new fly-by-the-seat-of-our pants, not so grand strategy. The always erudite and eloquent, G. Murphy Donovan (here), assessed the Obama administration’s policy,The Brennan Doctrine:
“There is no evidence that the Brennan doctrine supports prudent near or long-term strategy. Strategic appeasement has now produced a generation of catamite tacticians, leaders that assume a defensive crouch after each indignity, hoping that the next atrocity will not hurt as much as the last.”
In numerous past posts, I’ve bloviated on and on and on about this President’s dangerous lack of geopolitical acumen (here, here, here, here), an endless broken record playing the same old tune. To begin to understand history it starts from the little picture human building block – trust. Believe it, because it’s true! No matter how enlightened, how educated, how many fancy degrees and terminology you conjure up, at the end of the day, trust determines our fate, from the smallest human endeavor and interactions to the big picture moves by countries on the world stage. To repeat from my “B.H. Liddell Hart Echoes through time” post last year, (from his short book, “Why We Don’t Learn From History” – free download here):
“Civilization is built on the practice of keeping promises. It may not sound a high attainment, but if trust in its observance be shaken the whole structure cracks and sinks. Any constructive effort and all human relations – personal, political, and commercial – depend on being able to depend on promises.”
Over the weekend, while reading a favorite blog, Diplomad2.0, that’s a regular stop on my blogging routine, I found a link posted in the comments section, by Sundling, obviously an historically-inclined poster, that left me wondering why no one in my history classes had ever mentioned this brilliant paper before: “Fate of Empires and Search For Survival”, by Sir John Glubb. Published in 1976, this 26 page paper blasts away at studying history through a series of memorization of isolated, unconnected events or from a lopsided view from one country’s or time period’s perspective. Glubb implores us to step back and take a long view of history as a study of the human race. A short search of Sir John Glubb’s bio and you will find a man who traveled extensively, read extensively, and a man whose ideas moved beyond the island of his birth to encompass the world and humanity, in its entirety:
“To derive any useful instruction from history, it seems to me essential first of all to grasp the principle that history, to be meaningful, must be the history of the human race. For history is a continuous process, gradually developing, changing and turning back, but in general moving forward in a single mighty stream. Any useful lessons to be derived must be learned by the study of the whole flow of human development, not by the selection of short periods here and there in one country or another. Every age and culture is derived from its predecessors, adds some contribution of its own, and passes it on to its successors. If we boycott various periods of history, the origins of the new cultures which succeeded them cannot be explained.”
Glubb’s short paper breaks down the life of empires as falling into an amazingly similar pattern through history, which he divides into 5 distinct ages of an empire. The last age is the Age of Decadence, which he describes as :
“The Age of Decadence.
(e) Decadence is marked by:
An influx of foreigners
The Welfare State
A weakening of religion.
(f) Decadence is due to:
Too long a period of wealth and power
Love of money
The loss of a sense of duty.
(g) The life histories of great states are amazingly similar, and are due to internal factors.
(h) Their falls are diverse, because they are largely the result of external causes.”
For a fuller understanding of his views, read the short paper. I’m not Glenn Beck and I won’t pretend to be the harbinger of doom, but I must say, at the very least, this paper caused a few ripples of uneasiness as I digested Glubb’s analysis of the life cycle of empires, once again, published in 1976.
Watching the events in recent years play out, with American military adventurism, in pursuit of transplanting democracy in inhospitable arid desert sands during the Bush years, then moving to knee-jerk, reactionary gambits under Obama’s shaky trigger-finger, trying to force regime change on the cheap, with bluster and poorly applied military pressure, it’s clear to see that America desperately needs, if not a grand strategy, at least a coherent strategy. The Battle for Castle Itter serves as the perfect metaphor for how the world understands a calm, strong American taking charge of a dicey situation and even a passel of troublesome French notables, to include two generals, quickly fell into line and followed. A group of surrendering Nazis, likewise sized up their situation and cast their lot with the unflappable young American commander, who without hesitation led from the front. And at the end of day, sadly, 1st Lieutenant Lee, came from another American generation, far removed from the Choom-gang, drug haze of Obama’s youth.
The Battle for Castle Itter also shows how a whole bunch of competing interests can spin wildly out of control and create an international conflagration in moments and sadly we don’t have a calm, collected American commander to defend our castle. We’ve got, leading-from-behind Obama, war-protesting, medal-throwing John Kerry, yes-sir, yes-sir Chuck Hagel and drone kill champ Brennan, nudged by the likes of Samantha the genocide pixie, Susan the ever-faithful political handmaiden, and always hovering nearby, bossy-pants Valerie, keeping watch that none dare stray from her approved narrative (fabrications)…