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  • Who Says Russia Can’t Beat Napoleon?

    Posted on November 16th, 2011 Helian No comments

    The Edinburgh Review, that’s who.  The liberal Edinburgh was one of the two great British political and literary journals of the first half of the 19th century.  It’s conservative counterpart was the Quarterly Review, which enjoyed its heyday at about the same time.  An article in the April, 1810 issue reviewed a Letter on the French Government that had just been published by an anonymous “American recently returned from Europe.”   Unfortunately, we still don’t know who he was, but we gather from his letter that he was an anglophile, highly educated, and very well informed about the financial arrangements of the Napoleonic government in France.  The Letter deals mostly with taxation and the other sources of revenue of France at the time, and includes estimates of the total income and disbursements of the Empire, the amount spent on the military, etc.

    The British reviewer, also anonymous as usual at the time, threw in some interesting speculations of his own regarding the current political and military situation, likely reflecting the journal’s editorial point of view.  It will be recalled that in 1810 Napoleon was at the zenith of his triumphant career, with an army of around 800,000 veterans.  His power on the ground in Europe seemed unchallengable, at least as far as liberal opinion in Great Britain was concerned.  The reviewer’s comments about Napoleon and France have an uncanny similarity to some of the “informed commentary” about Hitler and Germany that was appearing on both sides of the Atlantic after his stunning victories in 1940 and 1941.  They also reveal, yet again, the pitfalls of attempting to predict even the immediate future.  Political pundits take note.

    Then, as in 1940, victory created a deceptive aura of invincibility.  In both cases, Russia appeared to pose the only remaining credible challenge to the power of the autocrats on the European continent, and in both cases a remarkably large number of “well-informed” commentators dismissed her with a wave of the hand.  Here’s what the Edinburgh’s reviewer had to say about her:

    The states that border upon France are ruled either by the kinsmen, or by the vassals of Bonaparte; – all but the Spanish chiefs, who have only a little hour to strut and fret.  The more remote empire of Russia is still in peace; and in peace she must remain, or be crushed without mercy, and without hope of restoration, for she seemed powerful only by the prudent reserve of Catherine.  The succeeding governments, less sagacious, have experimentally shown us how much we overvalued the resources of that country.

    Of course, we know in retrospect that both Napoleon and Hitler had a disastrous penchant for undervaluing the “resources of that country.”  Both of them found it rather more difficult to “crush her without mercy” than they had expected.  The rest of the reviewer’s comments about how to deal with the “hopeless” superiority of Bonaparte seem hopelessly naive to those of us who know “the rest of the story.”  They are, however, interesting by virtue of their striking similarity to the advice of a class of writers that we now refer to as “appeasers.”  In both cases, the proposed “solution” to the problem was to avoid offending the triumphant dictator.  Here is what the Edinburgh’s man had to say:

    We do think, then, that there is no chance of our being able to crush the power of France by direct hostility and aggression; but still we are of opinion, that, by skilful and cautious policy, we may reasonably hope to disable it.  This, however, we must do by gradual and cautious means; …we ought not to disturb the quiet of the Continent.  Every agitation that we can now excite there, is a fresh advantage to our enemy; …We should rather endeavour to keep the states of Europe so completely tranquil, that he shall have no cause or excuse for war – no resistance to fear, no plots to punish.  If we could but behold the French forces inactive, we might hope to behold them subdued. …”What then?”  it may be said – Are we to congratulate ourselves on the helplessness of all the states that might make head against France?  Certainly; – if we are convinced, as it appears we should be, that nothing can be expected from their exertions, while every thing may be hoped from their repose.

    Just as the appeasers of a later day, the reviewer’s sanguine hope was that, if England just stopped provoking the boogeyman, he would eventually go away.  His people, informed of their folly by the burgeoning power of modern means of communication, would become restive, and his army would just “melt away”:

    While the war continues, and especially while it is possible to impute its continuance to the restless hostility of England, the vanity and impetuosity of the French people may second the ambition of their ruler; but if they be ever allowed to settle into the habits and enjoyments of peace, all the natural interests and reflections which are generated by the very structure of modern society, will expand with tenfold vigour, and oppose a most formidable resistance to the tyranny which would again repress them for the purpose of its own extension.

    Napoleon’s mighty army would simply fall apart of its own accord,

    …degenerating, by disuse, toward the level of a new and inexpert militia.

    Of course, as we now know, Napoleon’s mighty army, and later Hitler’s, did not “degenerate by disuse.”  Rather, their “degeneration” resulted from their attempts to “crush without mercy” a foe both they and the respective “experts” of the day had underestimated.

    I suspect that the pundits of our own day will have no more luck in their attempts to predict the future than those of earlier ages.  However, the psychological type of the appeaser is as familiar today as it was in 1810 or 1940, as is that of their more bellicose and militant counterparts, who once wrote for the Quarterly Review.  In fact, neither type has had much success in predicting events.  It’s a great deal easier to predict how they will react to those events when they happen, though.

  • George Orwell and the Pacifists

    Posted on November 12th, 2011 Helian No comments

    Orwell despised pacifism, and wrote some very interesting critiques of pacifist ideology during World War II.  On reading them, one notes a striking similarity between the pacifist ideology of Orwell’s time and the different variants thereof that existed in the United States during the Vietnam era and thereafter.  A particularly interesting example appeared in the US literary and political journal Partisan Review entitled A Controversy.  The piece included an attack on Orwell and elaboration of their own ideas by several pacifists, and Orwell’s reply.  The bit by the pacifists actually amounts to an excellent piece of self-analysis.  The reply exposes the gross self-deception that has always been inherent in pacifist thought, and points out the equally obvious fact that pacifists during wartime are, objectively, enemy collaborators in whatever country they happen to be active.

    A remarkable similarity between the Vietnam-era pacifists and those of Orwell’s day is their tendency, against all odds, to perceive their own side as the moral equivalent of the enemy.  Occasionally their own side is recognized as an outgroup, as for example by Jane Fonda who struck a heroic pose on a Communist anti-aircraft gun as her countrymen fought them further south.  By that time Gulag Archipelago had been published, and a torrent of details was available about the mass slaughter, misery and torture that was a common feature of Communist regimes.  As for Orwell’s British pacifists, the murderous nature of Hitler’s regime was already abundantly clear by 1940.  It didn’t matter.  In both cases, the facts were simply ignored.   D.S. Savage, one of the pacifists writing against Orwell in the Partisan Review, provides us with what could well be described as a self-caricature:

    It is fashionable nowadays to equate Fascism with Germany. We must fight Fascism, therefore we must fight Germany. Answer: Fascism is not a force confined to any one nation. We can just as soon get it here as anywhere else. The characteristic markings of Fascism are: curtailment of individual and minority liberties; abolition of private life and private values and substitution of State life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevalence of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendencies of present-day Britain. The pacifist opposes every one of these, and might therefore be called the only genuine opponent of Fascism.

    Don’t let us be misled by names. Fascism is quite capable of calling itself democracy or even Socialism. It’s the reality under the name that matters. War demands totalitarian organisation of society. Germany organised herself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.

    …we regard the war as a disaster to humanity. Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?

    …and so on from one of Hitlers most valuable “useful idiots.”  The striking similarity between these puerile arguments, as transparently specious to Orwell then as they are to us now, and those of the Vietnam-era pacifists must be apparent to anyone who lived through those times.  Orwell points out the disconnect with reality, seemingly obvious to any child, in his rebuttal:

    Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, “he that is not with me is against me”. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr. Savage remarks that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British’.” But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of feedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.

    If Mr. Savage and others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.

    I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself.

    As one who listened to the chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho chi Minh, NLF is going to win” back in the Vietnam era, I know exactly what Orwell is talking about. As students of the Civil War will know, there were pacifists in those days with precisely similar arguments. Just as Orwell’s pacifists were objectively pro-Nazi and tended to sympathize with the Nazis, and the Vietnam-era pacifists were objectively pro-Communist, and tended to sympathize with the Communists, the Civil War pacifists were objectively pro-slavery, and tended to sympathize with the slavers.

    In a word, when it comes to pacifism, we have left the realm of rational argument. As Orwell points out, we are dealing with a psychological type, very similar across populations and across long stretches of time. The pacifist equates peace with “the Good,” and war with “evil.” Identification of “the Good” represents, not a logical, but an emotional process. If peace is “the Good,” one becomes “good” and defends “the Good” by supporting “peace,” regardless of any real situation or consequences, no matter how obvious to anyone whose mind has not been artificially closed in the same fashion.

    One should not become too smug in judging the pacifists. After all, we are all human, and we all have a similar tendency to form emotional attachments to “the Good,” whether it be pacifism or any other ideological tendency. As a Monday morning quarterback, it seems to me I can detect similar phenomena, associated with other “Goods,” going on in Orwell’s own mind. For him, socialism was “the Good,” so, for a long time, he had the fixed idea that Britain must try the highly dubious experiment of attempting a socialist revolution if she was to win the war. For him, the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was “the Good,” as well. After all, he had nearly been killed fighting for that side. As a result, one finds highly exaggerated predictions of the disastrous results that would “inevitably” follow because the Allies had allowed Franco to win. In retrospect, with Franco safely in the grave and Spain a democratic state, Orwell’s prediction that she would remain a totalitarian dictatorship until the fascists were overthrown by force didn’t exactly pan out.

    I have any number of similar emotional attachments of my own. Perhaps the example of a man as brilliant as Orwell will help me to detect and compensate for some of them. It would seem to me that it would behoove us all to make the attempt, assuming we really value the truth.

  • Of the Naval Treaty of 1922 and Novel Trends in British America Bashing

    Posted on June 15th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The BP debacle has spawned some previously untapped new variants of America bashing in the UK. Not that the British were remarkably behindhand in piling on during the worst of the latest climax in European anti-Americanism that reached its peak several years ago. It was so much the more surprising to learn in an article by Peter Hitchens that appeared on the website of the Daily Mail that his countrymen have been “fawning” on the United States. Of course, the citizens of our mother country are noted for their reserve, but I have visited many British websites and forums in recent years, and never discovered anything that it would ever occur to me to describe as “fawning.” Be that as it may, the Brits, like most Europeans, have remarkably thin skins. They have been dishing out abuse to America with the best of them for years, but, as their response to criticism over the BP affair demonstrates, they can’t take it.

    Hitchens’ whining piece complaining about our “hostility” because our President dares to criticize a British company for unleashing the greatest environmental disaster in our history is a case in point. The author wears his paranoia on his sleeve. For example,

    Americans may say they love our accents (I have been accused of sounding like Princess Di’) but the more thoughtful ones resent and rather dislike us as a nation and a people, as friends of mine have found out by being on the edge of conversations where Americans assumed no Englishmen were listening.

    Perhaps it’s just that the “thoughtful” among my fellow countrymen have been hiding their opinions from me as well all these years, but I can honestly say that I can’t recall a single conversation in which the English were singled out for resentment and dislike, unless Hitchens is referring to George III. On the contrary, other than the occasional Irish Catholic with romantic notions about the IRA, Americans who pay any attention to the English at all tend to be Anglophiles.

    Other than that, the article is filled with the usual bitching and moaning about America that we have long been accustomed to. There is one novelty that I haven’t seen elsewhere, perhaps because it is too far-fetched even for most Europeans. Quoting Hitchens,

    It was American pressure that forced us out of the first rank of naval powers in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which led to our defeat at Singapore 20 years later.

    I had to laugh out loud when I read that bit. It assumes the reader is completely ignorant of the relevant history. In the first place, the treaty didn’t force Britain “out of the first rank of naval powers.” It established a ratio of 5-5-3 in fighting ships among the treaty powers England, the United States, and Japan, respectively. The British and U.S. navies were the most powerful in the world at the time. How, then, did the treaty force Britain “out of the first rank of naval powers?” In fact, the Naval Treaty of 1922 was one of the greatest triumphs of common sense over fear and hysteria in the annals of international relations. It ended a nascent arms race and was of great benefit to all the signatories, and not least to the British. At the time the Conference was called, the pound sterling was at its lowest point, British citizens were paying crippling taxes, and England was facing another period of naval expansion they could ill afford, forced on them by the building programs of the United States and Japan.

    They owed the United States a massive debt, and every penny they paid would have directly benefited our building program. On paper, at least, we had already passed Britain in naval strength, and our superiority was only likely to increase. Recall that when countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and even Denmark had challenged British sea power in the past, it had led to war with an England which felt her life menaced by rival naval powers. In fact, war with the United States was seriously contemplated at the time by many Englishmen as the only alternative to a ruined England and a disintegrated Empire.

    In the upshot, the British delegates were delighted by the agreement, as well they should have been. A crippling arms race was avoided, and taxes were lowered. The treaty was of such obvious advantage to England that the prevailing sentiment in the US media was that we had been hoodwinked. They had good reason to feel that way. In 1920 the United States already had an advantage over England in tonnage of capital ships of 1,117, 850 to 808,200. Our advantage in battle guns was 340 to 284. As provided by the treaty, tonnages were reduced to 525,850, 558,950, and 301,320 for the United States, Great Britain and Japan, respectively, giving a slight advantage to the British. The very real and serious potential causes for war among the signatories were removed for many years into the future.

    As for the treaty causing the British defeat at Singapore 20 years later, that claim has to take the cake for the most ludicrous of all the ludicrous charges directed against us from Europe in recent years. How, exactly, would crippling her economy by charging ahead with the building of a fleet of obsolete battleships have helped the British 20 years later? As anyone who knows anything about her situation in the years immediately preceding World War II is aware, the economic burden of rearmament in the face of the German threat was painful enough for her to bear as it was. The cost of maintaining a massive navy in an arms race with Japan and the United States for the preceding 20 years would have made it well nigh impossible. When war did come, Japanese airpower made short work of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, the two battleships that actually were on hand to defend Singapore. In the fighting that followed, a superior British force was defeated by a Japanese army perilously short of supplies in one of the greatest stains on the proud tradition of British arms ever recorded. We Americans don’t blame the Bladensburg Races on anything but the cowardice of our troops and the ineptitude of our commanders. I suggest that the British consider the possibility that they may bear some responsibility for their own abject defeats as well.

    Well, we did have a difficult adolescence, and perhaps one can’t blame our dear old mother country for occasionally being a bit testy with us. The next time Hitchens directs his poison pen our way, however, he would probably do well to pick a more convincing grievance than the Naval Treaty of 1922.