Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Death of People


Townhall features an interview with Victor Davis Hanson, whom it describes as "a renowned conservative scholar of ancient history and military affairs."

He starts off by offering some candid observations on WWI:

If one were to look at the nature of German aggression in Europe, the nature of German colonies overseas, or what the German agenda was, it seems to me that it was very different than the liberal tradition in France and England that prevailed. It's a tragedy that it had to end in a war like that, but given the superiority of the German Wehrmacht in 1914, I don't know any other way how anybody would have stopped it.
The Wehrmacht didn't exist in 1914. I'm nitpicking, I know, but a renowned scholar of military affairs should probably know better than to use this term.

He goes on to explain the cause and effect of the Great War in terms that anybody can understand:
The ambitions of the German Kaiser were so ambitious, I don't know how anybody could have done anything other than what they did. They would have either had to appease them or capitulate. It was a tragedy. But I do think there was a qualitative difference in the fact that the Allies won.
Hanson is nothing if not judicious, so his daring theory that it actually made a difference who won WWI should not be taken as mere grandstanding. Indeed, we may be on the verge of an entirely new conception of armed struggle in the 20th century.

What does it take to develop a historical perspective like Hanson's, you ask?
I think it takes a half century.... It takes the death of people, and that's usually 50 years.
This is what gives Hanson liberty to compare the Iraq War favorably with America's past missteps:
I'm not saying it was a blunder, but you could easily have used that terminology when we armed the Soviet Union and it killed 30 million of its own people to stop Hitler.
I must say, I've never heard it phrased quite that way before.

Hanson goes on to observe that the Sherman tank was not all it might've been, as though this "blunder" were comparable in scale to a war that was launched against no identifiable enemy for no coherent reason, and has dragged on for six years without any clear definition of victory, let alone any clear evidence of it.

But perhaps I'm being too harsh. The thing about Iraq is, all that's required for it to be successful is for everything to turn out well, so maybe we should just stop worrying about it.
[I]f we stay and we are successful in creating a constitutional government, then you can see that that would be an amazing achievement. It would not only make Saddam Hussein's Iraq an ally rather than an enemy that attacked its neighbors, but it would have a very deleterious effect on Iran.
If that's all we wanted, it sounds as though we never should've turned against Saddam in the first place.

Kidding aside, there's a point at which Hanson's nonsense stops being amusing, no matter how morbid your sense of humor may be. Get a load of this:
As far as the losses, I don't quite understand it. I don't like to be heartless, but in six years we've lost about the same amount of soldiers we lost in two or three days in a major campaign in World War II.
I can actually explain the concern over these losses (which we'll pretend for a moment don't include Iraqis): A bunch of people are upset because people they love have died; the rest of us feel bad for them. It's really not that fucking complicated.

Hanson adds insult to injury by claiming that these deaths are somehow comparable to peacetime accidents:
I think in the eight years of the Clinton administration we lost over 7,000 dead in accidents.
He's wrong, needless to say. But he'd be just as wrong even if he were right; 7000 accidental deaths under Clinton couldn't justify these deaths to any sane person, let alone lessen their devastating impact on survivors. Quite the opposite, in fact.

What makes this ghoulish lie even more offensive is that we know Hanson won't change his tune if American fatalities in Iraq officially reach the phony Clintonian milestone of 7000; if that sad day ever comes, he'll still be marveling that we've dared to go "into the heart of the Caliphate" (yes, that's an actual quote), and insisting that it'll all seem worthwhile once "the death of people" allows the correct historical perspective to emerge at last.

UPDATE: A commenter notes that Hanson may have been using "Wehrmacht" generically in reference to the German army, navy, air force, and intelligence service of 1914, rather than to the 1935-1945 entity the world has come to know and love. The possibility had occurred to me, and I stand by my belief that "a renowned scholar of military affairs should probably know better than to use this term."

The argument was welcome, though, because it raises a question I hadn't considered: Even if we were to accept this (at best) idiosyncratic usage, would it really be accurate to speak unequivocally, as Hanson does, of "the superiority of the German Wehrmacht"?

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

The ambitions of the German Kaiser were so ambitious, I don't know how anybody could have done anything other than what they did.

Parody, no?

Phila said...

Parody, no?

I wish.

Anonymous said...

Not to pick a nit, but 'Wehrmacht' is a generic term for armed forces (as described in the Weimar constitution of 1919 eg) so Hanson's usage is correct.

Phila said...

Not to pick a nit, but 'Wehrmacht' is a generic term for armed forces (as described in the Weimar constitution of 1919 eg) so Hanson's usage is correct.

Yes, I've seen the Wikipedia listing too. But this isn't 1919; it's 2008. And just as we tend not to use the term shoah generically after the Holocaust, we tend not to use the term wehrmacht generically after World War II.

I didn't say Hanson was incorrect, in any case; I said that he should know better than to use the term, especially when addressing readers whom he can't reasonably expect to distinguish between the obscure generic term wehrmacht and the widely known official title Wehrmacht. Perhaps I should've said, "The Wehrmacht didn't exist as we commonly understand it." But my point is the same.

Anonymous said...

especially when addressing readers whom he can't reasonably expect to distinguish between the obscure generic term wehrmacht and the widely known official title Wehrmacht.

why should he distinguish between them? The 'Wehrmacht' under the Kaiser is the same entity as the 'Wehrmacht' of 1935 (the collective 'warmaking' power in Germany). Then as now, the term (a commonplace German noun) takes a capital letter in *all* instances, even when referring to the *US* armed forces today! There is no such thing as a wehrmacht without a capital 'W'. That's German for you.

see, eg:
www.zeit.de/1950/52/Waffen-statt-Luxus-in-USA

Phila said...

why should he distinguish between them?

Because there are real and important differences between the Imperial German Army circa 1914, the transitional army circa 1919, the Reichswehr circa 1921, and the Wehrmacht as it existed from 1935 to the end of the war. And using the term Wehrmacht as a catch-all blurs these distinctions without offering any advantage in return.

If you don't agree, fine. Regardless, I think you'll find that most military historians would agree with me, rather than with Hanson.

Anonymous said...

Because there are real and important differences between the Imperial German Army circa 1914, the transitional army circa 1919, the Reichswehr circa 1921, and the Wehrmacht as it existed from 1935 to the end of the war.

Of course there are but:

a.)none of them bear on Hanson's argument: in the given context he's clearly not discussing Nazis but the comprehensive warmaking power of Germany (which is why any such distinction diverts from his general point about communications & railroads etc. )

b.)'Wehrmacht' doesn't mean 'army', imperial transitional or otherwise. It means army, air force, navy AND intelligence services. There may be a colloquial association with Nazism (perhaps in the same way we associate umlauts with heavy metal music.) The "Nazi-only" usage is plainly incorrect.

Phila said...

There may be a colloquial association with Nazism

I think there's considerably more than a colloquial association. Consider these books, for instance...quite a number of which, you'll notice, are by military historians.

See also this page from the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Since your German's better than mine, you should have no trouble reading it.

But never mind all that. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Hanson isn't making one of his occasional timeline errors, and that he's justified in ignoring a "colloquial" usage that's been common since WWII and is widely accepted by historians in Germany and the USA. Bearing in mind that it's 2008, and that Hanson is speaking English to a nonspecialist audience, kindly tell me what he expresses with the word Wehrmacht that he couldn't have more accurately expressed with, say, "Imperial German Army"? Or "the Kaiser's Army"?

Phila said...

'Wehrmacht' doesn't mean 'army', imperial transitional or otherwise. It means army, air force, navy AND intelligence services.

All the more reason not to use it, then, since it's not obvious that German naval or air forces really were "superior" in 1914. (And German intelligence wasn't doing at all well that year.)

Michael said...

Not to pick a nit, but 'Wehrmacht' is a generic term for armed forces (as described in the Weimar constitution of 1919 eg) so Hanson's usage is correct.

Then don't pick that nit. Because Reicheswehr was the term in effect from 1919 to 1935. The term Wehrmacht refers to a unified military command. During WWI, Germany had no unified military structure as it still consisted of the separate armies of the kingdoms that formed Germany, with Prussia fielding the largest component.

Anonymous said...

King Leopold of Belgium and the Dutch were model liberal colonists?

Phila said...

King Leopold of Belgium and the Dutch were model liberal colonists?

Heh. Maybe Hanson's thinking of more genteel endeavors, like the Voulet-Chanoine Mission.

the rev. paperboy said...

"What does it take to develop a historical perspective like Hanson's, you ask?"

Oh,oh,oh! I know! Repeated blows to the head and/or advanced syphillis, right?

Honestly, for someone who supposed to be such an expert on all things military and historical, Victor Davis Tiberius Ghengis Howdy Doody Hanson gets an awful lot wrong an awful lot of the time. Mostly through being awful and wrong.

Anonymous said...

The term Wehrmacht refers to a unified military command.
Sorry, as a matter of simple fact this is wrong . It's a generic noun meaning 'defense force' not a 'proper noun' nor a trademarked expression belonging to Amazon book club or wikipedia.
Because Reicheswehr was the term in effect from 1919 to 1935
'in effect' for whom? Again, the Reich[e]swehr isn't what Hanson is discussing, but the *total military force of Germany in 1914* in the most general sense as his context makes blindingly obvious (which is why we could also discuss an Anschluss, a Blitzkrieg, and a Führer beyond the narrow context of WWII)
I really can't understand why anyone (especially non-germans) would take exception to this more general and accurate usage. Maybe it's because all those books have been written with Wehrmacht in their title, we should restructure German vocabulary and grammar to reflect this regional preference? Maybe we should also spell 'Rösti' without the umlaut, lest easily-confused americans confuse the potato dish for the heavy metal act?

Phila said...

Again, the Reich[e]swehr isn't what Hanson is discussing, but the *total military force of Germany in 1914* in the most general sense as his context makes blindingly obvious

Once again: If that's what he's discussing, he's plainly wrong. The German navy wasn't superior to, say, the Royal Navy in 1914. The German air force wasn't superior in 1914, either. And the German intelligence service was a shambles. The only element of the German military you'll typically see described as "superior" - in certain senses - is the Army, the unusual characteristics of which Michael has noted.

You seem to think the term Wehrmacht is not only correct per se, but more correct than other terms Hanson could've used.

I think that's absurd. But if you want to tilt at that windmill, go right ahead. However, I suggest you start working on people and organizations a bit higher up. Even if you convert me, it's not going to make that much difference. It'd be much better if you could win over, say, the Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung. Or the Center for Holoocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, whose glossary defines the Wehrmacht as "the combined armed forces of Germany from 1935-1945." Perhaps you could start wasting their time, instead of mine?

Anonymous said...

Once again: If that's what he's discussing, he's plainly wrong.

That is exactly what he's discussing, and I'm happy to agree that he's wrong for all the reasons you mention and several more besides. Pity we wasted so much time quibbling over usage instead of coming to early agreement on issues of greater substance! How foolish of us!

You seem to think the term Wehrmacht is not only correct per se

There is no 'correct per se' usage of a common noun in a grammatically correct sentence. My interpretation of the term is "correct" because it's what Hanson intended & its what his audience (surely aware that nazis weren't around in 1914) is likely to understand. I assume Hanson used the word he intended. But I'm not a mindreader: are you?

Phila said...

My interpretation of the term is "correct" because it's what Hanson intended & its what his audience (surely aware that nazis weren't around in 1914) is likely to understand.

The assumption that Hanson meant to use the term generically is polite, but little more than that; he's famous for anachronisms and errors of exactly this sort. The assumption that his readership - at Townhall.com, of all benighted places - will understand him is equally polite, and far more likely to be incorrect.

In any case, twitting me for posing as a mindreader while making gratuitous assumptions about Hanson's online readership is a bit much, especially given the daft things he says elsewhere in the interview (to say nothing of his columns and his books). Some people would argue that his career demonstrates the credulity and ignorance of his readership. Without going that far, I wouldn't take their understanding of anything for granted.

As for your explanation of how language works in a world where historical context is irrelevant, thanks so much. Again, I'm claiming that Hanson should know better than to use a term that historians and laypeople normally use to refer to "the combined armed forces of Germany from 1935-1945." I continue to stand by that belief.

That said, I've asked an actual WWI historian, who knows far more than either of us about this matter, to set me straight once and for all. She's not the type to tell me I'm right when I'm wrong. If she does think I'm wrong, you have my word that I'll post a second update with a retraction. If she doesn't, I won't. Either way, the debate will be over for me at that point. I have nothing more to say about this in the meantime.

Anonymous said...

kei to yuri send:
"Wehrmacht" = "warmaking or the means of or people who make war," in a lawyer's eyes maybe; the thing about this that experienced internet pedants like us have no excuse ignoring is that knowledge in any field is not just what makes sense to you as you make it up and pull it out of yer ass. Once historians start work and establish usage, you either show you know the usage, or you don't; you're not really allowed to make up stretched words that arguably works as part of an excuse that you're as good as people who have actually properly studied. And it certainly looks like, while that word can be arguably usable sort of kinda, Victor Davis Mmbop was throwing it around carelessly. First of all, why use a German word at all? Was it yet another example of deliberately and needlessly using German words to make them sound more sinister? Secondly, the German warmaking capacity as a whole was not superior to that of the various empires ranged against the Kaiser. The German navy (see how we say "navy" and not "kriegsmarine" or some such quatsch?) was laughably inferior, deeply embarassing, and unforgivably weak, where it existed; it was almost totally wiped out in one huge British air raid. The Kaiser was hardly ambitious, certainly not in a world more or less completely divided up amongst his enemies, and Europe would've been better had he won. The German army -- just the army -- was far superior, was the only group innovating new attacks including tres sneaky feints that trapped and slaughtered unsupported penetrations, and certainly would have won had America not been drawn in. Certainly in a kind of objective sense it "deserved" to win. It is very easy to see what Victor David Mmbop is really implying and it is hard to see how any serious historian can imagine that a German imperialist is somehow infinitely worse than the British who forced Indians to lick blood off stones before blasting them or the French who tried to reconquer Vietnam hill by hill after spouting all that anti-Nazi rubbish about liberte.
For a real smackdown of oldboy VD we must as always defer to the man who sold us on the V-22 Osprey, that's how good he is, While War Nerd Gary Brecher. Brecher hates VD with the heat of a thousand suns, as should all sensible, moral and well-informed people.

Phila said...

Anon,

Got my answer, and there will be no retraction. I stand behind what I wrote in this post, period.

Phila said...

First of all, why use a German word at all?

Beats me. I think it's either pedantry gone awry, or a slip of the tongue. To be fair to Hanson, it was an interview, not a book, and it could've been the first word that popped into his head. On the other hand, he's gotten details like these wrong before with far less excuse. So who knows?

Europe would've been better had he won.

I don't know that I agree (or more to the point, I don't know how I could agree, given how speculative this claim is). But putting that aside, if you've looked at Hanson's book about how teh good guys almost always win wars (the name of which I forget), you can see how he'd be inclined to see a German victory as a triumph of Culture over (relative) barbarism; after all, they were Western, and they won. QED!

Anonymous said...

Got my answer, and there will be no retraction.

Great, but we aren't disagreeing on any issue an 'expert opinion' would address. Grammatically and conceptually the term stands on its own. "The Wehrmacht didn't exist in 1914" is incorrect in the same way as "the chair didn't exist in 1914". I think you understand this now, so I also consider our friendly discussion settled.

Once historians start work and establish usage

What an unusual (deeply arrogant) view of language. American historians don't 'establish usage' of common German nouns. Nor do they set limits on how those borrowed words should be used in English.

First of all, why use a German word at all?

I suspect he used the German word because he was discussing Germany, and because "the Imperial German Army" is 6 syllables longer, and because he meant something more than the army as his context strongly indicates.

Anonymous said...

First of all, why use a German word at all?

Why do English speakers (like our gracious host) use the term 'Der Kulturkampf' in a general sense? 'Pedantry gone awry?'

Phila said...

Great, but we aren't disagreeing on any issue an 'expert opinion' would address.

Actually, we are. Though I hasten to add that I'm not really interested in agreeing or disagreeing with you. I'm interested in making sure that what I said about Hanson's usage is fair and accurate. Having spoken to an expert who assures me that it is, my interest in pursuing the matter is finished. For the last time, I stand by what I wrote, unequivocally. Nothing you've said here changes that, so please give it up.

In order to make it easier for you to let go, I'll reassure you that no one is attempting to change the German language, or forbid the generic use of Wehrmacht in all possible situations. Rather, people are claiming that Hanson, as a historian, should conform to the common usage within his goddamn field, where, as Wikipedia puts it, "the term Wehrmacht customarily refers to Germany's armed forces during the NSDAP era and World War II, both in German and English."

If you want to continue your crusade against historical orthodoxy, please do it elsewhere. Actually, let me soften that a bit: If you want to stay and bicker with kei and yuri, that's fine, as long as you understand that their opinions are their own. I'll be staying out of it.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Wikipedia & "Der Kulturkampf" ....I see that no modern usage of the term can be found there (after 'expert' friends, Wikipedia is my reference material of choice, especially to settle questions of "common knowledge" and linguistic orthodoxy.)

what's worse, der bestimmte Artikel suggests a proper noun has been smuggled past the borders and the academie anglaise- the horror!)

You are free to stand by your mistake. Extra points for persistence, so D+.

Phila said...

(after 'expert' friends, Wikipedia is my reference material of choice,

Again, my interest was in reassuring myself, not in impressing you. I don't do myself any favors by claiming to have "won" an argument about historical usage, if any historian can look at what I wrote and see that I'm wrong. That's what I wanted to avoid by consulting an expert (or, if you prefer, an "expert"). How you react to this is your own business, and you're of course free to be as scornful or sarcastic as you like.

And yes, Wikipedia's not authoritative, and its "facts" absolutely do need to be checked. However, in this case, having checked its facts, I find that it actually happens to be correct. Go figure.

As for "Der Kulturkampf," it's meant to be humorous, like most of my tags, and I make no claims for its historical accuracy (let alone its fairness). Please note, too, that unlike Hanson, I'm not a professional historian with a huge audience.

That said, we're not going to be moving the goalposts, no matter how disappointed you may be in my refusal to concede that you're right when you're not.

One more thing. The next (third?) time you decide to start an argument like this with me, please be so kind as to use some sort of recognizable pseudonym. It's polite, and it also avoids the confusion of having more than one "Anonymous" in a thread.

Anonymous said...

Please note, too, that unlike Hanson, I'm not a professional historian with a huge audience.

Nonsense! You have an audience of billions. And despite my sarcastic remark 'kulturkampf' is (like Wehrmacht) *not* a historical term, but a flexible expression that cutups like yourself and humorless corpses like VDH alike should borrow and use any way you please: figuratively, humorously, anachronistically, "unfairly" so long as the intended meaning is discernible to readers of good faith. And nothing screams 'bad faith' like a wikipedia-wielding pettifog.

.The next (third?) time you decide to start an argument like this with me

I didn't start anything. I hit some buttons and a factual error appeared on my computer screen. Where it remains. Pech!