Soldier On

By Greg Olear


“And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”

—President Barack Obama, December 2, 2009


History, as the old saw has it, is written by the victors.

Had the South prevailed in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln—who suspended habeus corpus, jailed dissenting journalists, and pursued a military strategy based on attrition, maximizing casualties on both sides, all to bring to heel those states who had legally declared their independence—might well be viewed as a dictator on par with Hitler or Stalin, and Ulysses S. Grant a war criminal. Instead, their visages adorn our currency, and the widely held, albeit bogus, view of that internacine conflict is that it was fought to free the slaves. Thus Lincoln is honored, disingenuously, as a champion of blacks.

In truth, war is never the clear-cut Good versus Evil described by St. John the Evangelist and George W. Bush. Consider the Second World War. The prevailing mythology is that the U.S. entered the fray to save the Jews and prevent a Nazi takeover of the world. So fanatical is this belief that to suggest otherwise amounts to heresy.

In Human Smoke, his brilliant pacifist’s history of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, Nicholson Baker suggests otherwise. I bought and read Baker’s book last spring, because the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a liberal whose columns I agree with most of the time, slammed it with such vitriol.

In a March 31, 2008, column entitled “Yes, It Was a Good War,” Cohen (who, incidentally, supported enthusiastically our ill-advised foray into Iraq) begins by lauding Baker as “a supremely talented novelist”—in other words, a guy who has no truck with actual non-made-up events—before pronouncing Human Smoke “dead wrong and very odd,” and concluding thus: “World War II was fought for several reasons but above all—and proudly—because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.”

Cohen dismisses Baker’s thesis with derision: “Is any war, outside of direct self-defense, worth fighting? Baker suggests that even World War II was not—that the Jews perished anyway and that the war consumed more lives than anyone could have imagined and that, somehow, pacifism would have worked its magic.”

At times, his arguments have all the complexity of a four-year-old’s. Were the pacifists right?  Cohen replies, “No, they were not.”

Well, OK then.

Based on Cohen’s column, I expected Human Smoke to be a long treatise in defense of pacifism—the make-love-not-war ruminations of a bleeding-heart novelist on his high horse. Not so. Baker tells his story in short blurbs, most no longer than a page, that encapsulate primary sources. These are presented as dispassionately as possible. For example:

Winston Churchill wrote Joseph Stalin a letter. It was July 28, 1941…Churchill assured Stalin that England would do all it could do to help Russia. “A terrible winter of bombing lies before Germany,” he wrote. “No one has yet had what they are going to get.”

Human Smoke is 474 pages long. 472 of those pages consist of these short blurbs. Only on the last two pages does Baker editorialize, but by then his point—which has eluded Cohen, who almost certainly did not read the entire book—has been made:

War is hell. All war, without exception.


It was a similar visceral reaction in an otherwise staid newspaper that drew me to The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Nazi opus that is, in many ways, a fiction companion piece to Human Smoke. In this case, it was Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times—with whom, like Cohen, I generally agree—throwing the proverbial tomatoes.

(Originally published in French as Les Bienveielles, The Kindly Ones won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in France three years ago. HarperCollins reportedly paid seven figures for the English-language rights, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. The English translation, by Charlotte Mandell, came out earlier this year, to decidely mixed reviews.)

“The novel’s gushing fans,” Kakutani writes, “seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” The Kindly Ones, she avers, is “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent” and “reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.”

And the kicker: “Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, after repeated viewings of The Night Porter and The Damned.”

In other words, Kakutani hated the book. Which, perversely, only piqued my interest. If not Höss by way of Patrick Bateman, I was expecting a bloated epic in the vein of Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, a brutal work of questionable quality that was nevertheless lauded in the land which apotheosized Jerry Lewis. What I found instead was something altogether different: challenging, depressing, overwhelming, but riveting—and not at all pointless.

In one respect, Kakutani is bang-on: this is not pleasant stuff. You don’t want to bring The Kindly Ones to the beach. You don’t want to suggest it for your book club. You probably don’t want to read it at all. There is so much grisly material here that even if you excise the hundreds of pages concerning the Jews, you’d still walk away shaking your head. The experience of a German officer in Stalingrad alone is a horror show. As the novelist Michael Korda, a Littell admirer, wrote on The Daily Beast: “This is the real thing, a journey into the belly of the beast, a chance to live through the doings of mankind at its worst, a book that is relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope in that it tries to show us in every unforgiving detail what we least want to see, and which never once lets the reader, or the Germans, off the hook. You want to read about Hell, here it is.”

Which begs the question: why would I—why would anyone—want to read about Hell?

To make sure it never happens again.

“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Maximilien Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones, insists at the end of the prologue. And while most of us are not matricidal former Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrers with a taste for sisterly sodomy, the guy has a point. Littell’s book couldn’t be more timely. In the two weeks it took me this summer to complete this leviathon of a novel—983 pages, tiny margins, small type, no paragraph breaks for quotes, and enough verifiable horrors to make the Saw franchise seem like an episode of Barney—President Obama declassified documents confirming what most of us already knew: despite assertions to the contrary by former president George W. Bush, the United States was engaging in torture.

Never mind who was right and who was wrong. The supposed Land of the Free was capturing people, holding them without trial, and torturing them, on the pretext of national security—just as the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. It’s hard not to read The Kindly Ones as a cautionary tale.

And now, ominously, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has announced a plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. I trust Obama’s judgment, and I believe that he understands the consequences of sending soldiers in harm’s way more completely than his predecessor could ever hope to. If he believes that the defense of the United States mandates that many troops fighting half a world away, I might arrive at the same conclusion myself, knowing what Obama knows.

But after reading Baker and Littell, I’m not so sure.


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GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

42 responses to “Soldier On”

  1. I wish I was smart enough to know how to comment on this other than to say: “War is bad. Except when it isn’t, isn’t it?”

    But I enjoyed reading it and now can feel a little smarter by referring people to this piece and be able to say: “Well, my friend Greg says…”

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, K-Dub. I don’t think anyone is really smart enough to get all of this…and that’s the problem. Pacifism is almost counterintuitive, but Baker’s thesis is very well presented.

  2. Darian Arky says:

    I think if the South had won the Civil War, it would have been (as Lee hoped) the result of a decision on the part of the North that the war simply wasn’t worth fighting anymore, because the cost was too high and the objective in dispute. Lee’s 1863 campaign of invasion failed to yield that result, with Gettysburg being the tipping point.

    Given the industrial and military capacities of the South, however, it’s highly unlikely that any scenario of a Confederate victory would have included anything like what happened to the South on the way to losing (i.e., Sherman’s march through Georgia) and the catastrophic consequences that followed.

    Sure, maybe Washington itself would have been bombarded. New York City could have suffered from greater chaos and rioting. Lincoln and Grant would almost certainly have been castigated for losing the war; but nothing like Reconstruction for the North would have ensued — and certainly nothing like the Nurnberg Trials would have resulted.

    It’s therefore quite a stretch to imagine either man winding up as vilified as Hitler under any circumstances. (At worst, Jefferson Davis was regarded as a failure. Lee’s reputation certainly didn’t suffer.) I don’t think you can crosswire WWII and the Civil War that way.

    Also, if the Civil War wasn’t ultimately fought over the issue of slavery — which had dominated national politics for several decades before the war — what was it about? States rights? To do what? To continue the practice of slavery, of course. As James McPherson convincingly argues, while ending slavery was not the major theme at the war’s outset, Lincoln knew it had to become the nobler aim when war weariness threatened to lead to the kind of defeat that truly loomed for the North — the very defeat Lee was hoping to achieve when he crossed into Pennsylvania.

    Of course, Lincoln wasn’t the last president to cast America’s war aims in terms of a higher purpose to win public support…

    • Greg Olear says:

      A good analysis, Darian.

      The South may have seceded to preserve slavery, but the North retaliated to preserve the Union — illegally. Whatever his intentions (and I maintain he was a pragmatist at best), Lincoln’s actions were despotic, in that he sought to impose his will on people who did not want to be ruled by him, whereas Davis was merely the only leader of a failed state. Not the same dynamic. Maybe Hitler and Stalin is too much of a stretch, but if the CSA had been allowed to survive, in the manner Lee hoped for, Lincoln would certainly be on par with, say, George III or the tsars of Russia.

      My overall point is that Lincoln is pretty much unassailable in this country, but his conduct during the war was, at best, sketchy.

      As an aside (and you probably know this already): Fernando Wood, then the mayor of New York City, wanted to secede from the Union and establish NYC as a free city — like Venice used to be. When Lincoln tried to conscript soldiers from New York, of course, there was mass rioting, and the North had to look elsewhere for men.

      I wonder if the country would be better now had the Civil War not been fought. The South would eventually have abandoned slavery on its own, many lives would have not been lost, the energies wasted on the war could have been spent elsewhere….and George W. Bush would never have been president.

      • Darian Arky says:

        I agree: No Appomattox, no Lincoln Memorial, no penny.

        There are all sorts of alternate histories out there (from Kantor to Turtledove) about what might have happened if the South had won. But what you’re suggesting — contemplating an unfought Civil War — is an interesting option. I guess the most widespread postulation is that slavery would have eventually ended of its own accord because of its inefficiencies. But just when “eventually” would have come about and what some of the other implications might have been are nicely discussed in this review:


        And, I think both the author of the book, “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War,” and its reviewer are touching on some other very interesting points in the broader discussion of the war’s aims and consequences.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Fascinating stuff — thanks for the link. I think slavery would have ended in the 1880s, as it did in Cuba and Brazil…combination of politics, economics, and the fact that the rest of the civilized world looked upon slavery as morally atrocious.

          It’s also interesting to think about the “states rights” argument often bandied about my the right…states have not had rights in any meaningful way since 1860. They can design their driver’s licenses and decide how much is the maximum interest rate of credit cards, but anything big, the feds control.

  3. A guy I know, back when we were sophomores in college, once wrote a paper whose thesis was simple: “The only thing Hitler did wrong was lose.” Now of course, that was stated sensationally, but he meant it as a corroboration of Churchill. He was not, of course, endorsing genocide or imperialism or the Reich; rather his point was that, if Hitler had won, if Germany had won, he might well be considered a global hero. I was about to say “unthinkably,” but science fiction’s alternate histories have taught us nothing if not that so many tiny little events–our capture of an Enigma machine, the race to nuclear weaponry–could have turned out with a different outcome that, combined, could have drastically changed the course of the war.

    It is interesting to follow the course of the past several years of war and its heroes and villains. Pretty much the only way the campaign in Iraq was successful was in its removal of Saddam Hussein from power, but if you look at the overall struggle, the so-called War on Terror . . . I mean, there should be two sides, right? All conflict must have opposing forces. But if the opposing forces are George W. Bush on one hand and Osama bin Laden on the other, there is, simply, no clearly and unadulteratedly righteous side; at this point, on a global scale, bin Laden may in fact have more people aligned with him and his perspective than Bush ever had an approval rating.

    Which is not to say that bin Laden’s means justify his ends, of course. Just that when the only choices were “with us” or “against us,” it’s generally required to side with whomever is offering that choice at the moment. Because they probably have guns, and them’s fightin’ words.

    To the victors go the spoils, and to the spoiled go the victories. It’s so rarely about right and wrong and so much more often about who has the best marketing.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Excellent points, Will.

      One thing Human Smoke makes abundantly clear is that Churchill was a monster. For all his charisma and witty one-liners, his reckless actions led to millions of unnecessary deaths and suffering. Gandhi said something along the lines of, “Hitler and Churchill are the same; it is only a matter of degree.”

      FDR fares slightly better, but the United States was hardly guiltless with respect to the genocide. The immigration act in 1924 severely restricted the ability of Eastern European Jews to flee to this country in advance of the Nazis, and there are many tragic stories of ships full of Jewish refugees in American harbors being turned away. Throw in the Japanese-American internment camps and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and WWII is hardly the feel-good war history tends to view it as.

      (One person who comes off presciently in the book, surprisingly, is Herbert Hoover. Smart guy, and a pacifist.)

      Re: the marketing. You’re right. Are a bunch of subliterate dudes in caves half a world away really that much of a treat to us? Aren’t we better off spending the money on better defense systems and health care and the CDC?

    • Darian Arky says:

      Had I been your classmate’s professor, I think I might have written in rather large red letters across the first page, “Please define ‘wrong’ so I can decide whether you’ve earned a D or an F,” because there is far more to qualitative reasoning about good governance and morality than attributing all that is finally consequential to “winning” or “losing”. Let’s leave that to sportswriters.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Timely piece for me Greg, as ‘The Kindly Ones’ has just found its way to my bedside table.

    As for war and genocide, if only it were a matter of ‘not forgetting.’ You would think that after WW1 and WW2, the world and its people would have had their fill of bloodshed, but it doesn’t seem to work like that.
    I hear people say about the holocaust that it should serve as a reminder for it to never happen again, but that hasn’t happened. You just need to look at Rwanda or Cambodia or countless other places where genocide has occured to realise that history lessons in horror don’t stave off evil.

    God, Human beings can be such stupid assholes sometimes.

    • This semester, our freshman reading program used Night, and I designed some assignments around curriculum, and whether my students thought that schools emphasized the Holocaust too much to the degree that we will never forget the Holocaust but continue to ignore genocide where and when it occurs. Because it still is, every day.

      • Autumn says:

        An excellent assignment, Will. Bravo to you for thinking outside the curriculum.

        More educators–hell, more people in general–need to promote this “next step” in the lessons of the Holocaust.

        Never again doesn’t just apply to Jews. It should Never. Happen. Again. Anywhere.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Z: One of the many, many scary things in The Kindly Ones is Aue’s insistence that the Germans were merely using “the American model” in Europe — removing the indigenous peoples through slaughter and forced migration, and seizing their land and resources. (This happened in Australia and New Zealand, too, of course).

      It’s a difficult book, but there are so many great things about it — it’s not without flaws, but it’s a staggering accomplishment.

      W: Yes, there is plenty of bad stuff happening all over. Saddam and the Kurds, the Syrians. Sad.

  5. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thanks for this compelling post, Greg.

    Four years ago, I read HUMANITY: A MORAL HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Jonathan Glover. I think about it often. Glover digs into the greatest hits of the era—atomic bombing of Japan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Rwandan genocide, etc.—but also the situations in which the horror of war was avoided or resisted. His account of the Cuban Missile Crisis really affected me, as well as his discussion of those who intervened in the My Lai massacre (Vietnam) and the French citizens who hid Jewish adults and children (WWII).

    Despite the pages of nightmarish reading, I finished the book with hope. As human beings, we can choose to do things differently—we just don’t yet.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Ronlyn.

      There are a number of stories from WWI that reflect this — impromptu ceasefires on Christmas, soccer matches, and an unwritten rule that soldiers in the trenches only attacked at set times, to minimize/prevent casualties on the other side.

      I believe that humans are, in fact, good at heart — the aftermath of 9/11 in NY proved that to me — and that it’s a sort of bad inertia that ruins things.

      If every soldier on earth simply laid down his (or her) weapon, there would be no more war.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        I read about the WWI cease fires in Glover’s book. Felt betrayed that I didn’t learn that until my 30s. RE: laying down weapons…Every year, it gets even harder to listen to John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Re: humans good at heart. I agree. As a species, we forget that a lot.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        There was a time during the Bougainville war of secession that the Papua New Guinea Defense Forces (anti-secession) and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (the main secessionist group) took to issuing orders to their troops in plain language, on frequencies known to the other side. The intent, I’ve been told, was to make sure that each side knew where the other would be, so they could take pains not to go there.

        People do get sick of fighting — most especially the people who have to do it.

        I find this heartening. Now about the leaders . . . .

        • Greg Olear says:

          We can only hope that there is some universal tipping point, when the soldiers figure out that war is bad, and refuse to fight. But war has been a constant since the dawn of man, so it doesn’t seem likely, alas…

  6. Because I don’t feel qualified to really comment on what’s going on in Afghanistan, I’m going to just say 983 pages?!?! I definitely don’t think I could get through a book of that length, especially if it’s as grisly as you say (in fact, I was really scared away by the mention of sisterly sodomy). Sounds like torture to me. I bet the point hits home though.

    Also, I love the irony in that last paragraph about this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. I never supported our war efforts, but I feel the decision by Obama will have at least been a level-headed decision. I’m sure it’s not easy for him to go on National TV and say he’s going to send in more troops when it’s so clearly against what he had promised the people. I’m sure it’s not going to win him any brownie points come next election season.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Becca.

      Re: Littell. It’s so rough in patches that the sisterly sodomy is like A Year in Provence. You actually welcome it.

      Re: Obama. I think it’s one of these things: 1) He now knows more intelligence than he did while campaigning, and it’s clear to him that this really is the best and only way; 2) The military-industrial complex is making him do it. I hope that it’s the former; I really do.

  7. Personally, I think Afghanistan is a lost war and that all the pacifists I’ve been watching on peace corner here will eventually demonize Obama the way Bush was demonized in protest signs. It’s inevitable, I think. It’s not a popular war and it’s not well understood even by those waging it. I also think its military strategies are as tangled and chaotic as a Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve.

    I enjoy such thought-provoking pieces on history and current events. Keep them coming. If I ever start teaching history again at the college here I would read them to the class and let students throw verbal haymakers over your words.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Nick. I forgot about your background in history…what was your focus?

      The one thing that can be said about Afghanistan is that, if the idea is to take it to Bin Laden, that’s where he is. As opposed to our misadventure in Iraq, which was dunderheaded from the get-go. I’m hoping the “surge” works like it did in Iraq, and we get the hell out of there in 18 months, like he said. That would also be in time for the mid-terms, no?

      • I focused on U.S. history, which as a historian once told me, “History is a sea of books. Learn to swim.” I still roam the local university and pluck books off shelves and skim them and read the introductions to see what theories are being presented on various topics.

        I’ve read history texts and dug into primary sources about and from every era in America’s brief history. In relation to your essay, though, I am reminded of corresponding with military historian John Keegan for a paper about him that I titled “Soldier’s Spell.”

        The idea was that like Keegan, even people who never go to war can be pulled in by the spell soldiers often fall into regarding war. Long story. That’s the super brief version.

        I just pick up one book by someone like Keegan or Ambrose and start reading. I’m pulled in, but then at the same time I am reminded that war is often unnecessary, and that leaders, even Obama, gives in to a form of soldier’s spell, and drags himself into that which he deemed so horrible, and is willing to throw men like pawns onto a stage where the expendable are covered in cheaply made U.S. flags. It’s all so cost effective… I’ll stop here. I’ll end up rambling and ranting for days.

        • Greg Olear says:

          The Soldier’s Spell. Makes total sense.

          It’s like when a bunch of guys get together and say, “Hey, let’s all piss off the side of the bridge together [or some such frat-boy thing],” and everyone does it, because of the peer pressure. Only it’s with guns, not urine.

        • It gets vastly more complicated because Keegan is a guy who has taught at West Point and other top military institutions. He’s truly a soldier without ever having fought in a war. I don’t think it’s peer pressure, unless war is some kind of peer pressure? But causes are usually resource driven, or the seeking of balances of power within regions, don’t you think?

          The spell is sad though. Sometimes the greatest of minds are caught up in it, and as Ambrose points out, those soldiers, who are let’s say common soldiers, could get blasted out of a plane or off a battlefield without ever firing a shot, thus leaving them never tested. It’s amazing who becomes the heroes of war. Usually the most unthinkable characters.

          I just deleted a bunch of my rambling. Really have to not let myself get all debate-sounding here… lol

        • Greg Olear says:

          No, no, don’t delete rambling!

          I think the spell is worse on people who have NOT fought in wars. Hawks in Congress tend to be non-veterans. If you’re among the wounded, you tend not to be so gung-ho.

          I read a book one time, the name escapes me, about apocalyptic-type scenarios…an earthquake almost destroyed Lisbon some 500 years ago, and some guy, a nobody, emerged from the rumble and just took over…he organized the survivors and basically fed the living, buried the dead. He was perfectly suited to the role, but you never would have known…and like Grant, he’d been a failure before and a failure after his moment in the sun.

          Finally, I think there is, more that a peer pressure, a cultural pressure to wage war, if you’re a man. Men in power don’t want to seem like wimps. The only explanation for our involvement in Vietnam that I’ve heard that makes any sense is, JFK, after being bested in Berlin by Krushchev (sp?), felt he had to show his mettle and prove he wasn’t a big pussy. Hence, troops to Saigon. Alas. And JFK was, on balance, much more cerebral than most presidents.

  8. D.R. Haney says:

    A few points:

    1. I wish I had your gift for this kind of commentary. Every time I’ve attempted a piece like it, I’ve quickly folded on recognizing how shoddy, superficial, and obvious it was.

    2. Your completion of The Kindly Ones is all the more remarkable for having shepherded two small children as you were reading, not to mention the labor that attends a soon-to-be-published novel. (I’m well versed in the latter.)

    3. Surely the French reaction to Kindly owes something to its apparent kinship to Sade, both in length and content. Sisterly sodomy? If that’s not Sadean, I don’t know what is.

    4. Your remarks about Lincoln had me vividly hearing John Wilkes Booth as he was about to leap to the stage of the Ford Theater: “Sic semper tyrranis!” In fact, in Booth’s final days, as his pursuers were closing in on him, he was baffled that hadn’t been hailed as a hero. As for Grant, even his advocates recognized his tactics as monstrous. Is it coincidence that his presidency was one of the two most corrupt in American history? (Only Warren G. Harding has received a lower mark than Grant by historians; the jury, as far as I know, hasn’t returned a unanimous verdict in the matter of W.)

    5. I view war as, alas, inescapable. New ideas inevitably conflict with old ideas, and there’s a battle, sometimes protracted and never fully resolved, as to which will prevail. Death is literal in the case of military action, but there’s also the psychic death that accompanies cultural renovation. Outmoded economies are destroyed, which leads to diaspora and weakened faith and family ties and so on, but the outrage is less because the destruction is bloodless. But I’m not expressing myself well, lacking the time to make a more persuasive argument. I’m experiencing war even now, pressed between my desire to comment and responsibility. But if, in sorting my through my thoughts at this moment, a new perception come potentially come of it, only to be abandoned short of the mark because of time, couldn’t that be counted a casualty? I’d like to think so.

    • Greg Olear says:

      1. Thanks, Duke. I don’t know why the two books go together in my mind, but they do, like bookends.

      2. Full disclosure: I was able to score a copy of The Kindly Ones gratis, as we share a publisher. I was curious about it, but fully expecting to hate it. Here is how Motoko Rich explained it in the NYT:

      “The Kindly Ones,” the 983-page novel by Jonathan Littell that went on sale on Tuesday, is a fictionalized memoir of a remorseless former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage and most likely kills his mother and stepfather. Oh, and it’s been translated from the French.

      An American guy, writing in French? Shudder to think. As I said, I was expecting to hate it, and to find him the epitome of pretention, but lo, I was blown away. I felt like I “got” what he was talking about (i.e., that it was a critique of the US right now). And it’s incredibly well done. And you know how people say BFL is densely packed with stuff? This thing is like whatever tiny particle the universe was before the Big Bang. The breadth and scope…staggering. Enviable.

      3. There is something Sadean about it, yes, although I don’t think Sade had much of a point beyond shock. Nor was he a particularly compelling writer.

      4. The whole John Wilkes Booth thing is fascinating. It’s the modern-day equivalent of, say, Joseph Fiennes killing the president (great actor, but his brother is more famous and perhaps more talented). I read that Grant was actually squeamish about blood, and that he had migraines and trouble sleeping for the rest of his life because of his conduct in the war…although his administration was corrupt, he himself wasn’t, and contemporaries — like Mark Twain — adored him. He went broke when his son lost his money to a swindler on Wall Street, a Bernie Madoff of the day, and he wound up writing his memoirs as he was dying of cancer. The sale of the memoirs paid for his wife to live after his death. And supposedly, the memoirs are quite good…some day I’ll get to them. Oh, and you forgot Buchanan on the list of worst presidents. Fillmore sucked, too.

      5. You’re probably right; it probably is. And there are times when you must fight — if your homeland is being invaded, for example. But it seems to me that a lot of the warfare that is happening is avoidable. The Baker book is really good, and easy to read (as opposed to the Littell)…you should check it out.


  9. How odd that this piece should come up, just as I was thinking about the ANZAC spirit, and how we hold the British (the organisers of Gallipoli) responsible for the slaughter there just as much as the Turks.

    Then there’s the wholesale massacre of the Somme to consider.

    There’s a very bleak Far Side comic of a bunch of generals sitting around a table looking downcast, except for one who is cheerfully saying ‘But what if everybody came?’

    As always, Greg, you raise the bar a little higher.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, man.

      And it’s not odd…just more SSE.

      The Brits are also responsible for the borders in the Middle East. And the propping up of the Saudi royal family? That was FDR.

      But the soldiers, at least, are soldiers. When Churchill decided to starve out the Germans, it wasn’t the soldiers who suffered the most. That man has a lot of blood on his hands.

  10. Richard Cox says:

    I don’t really have the background or knowledge to comment on the conflict in Afghanistan, or history in general, but this piece did evoke in me the frustration I feel when I encounter misinformation. Humankind is so amazingly fortunate to be sentient, to possess the ability to accurately parse and store information, and yet we still often willingly delude ourselves from the truth. It might have been understandable before the written word or the printing press, but today there is simply no excuse. Although I will admit I automatically felt myself resist when you questioned anything about Lincoln. How could I not? In public school he was characterized as a demigod, and I never bothered to look into him much further (which is embarrassing).

    A friend of my father’s is a small-town guy who likes to forward annoying emails about typical conservative political whining. Which wouldn’t bother me so much if they weren’t chock full of misinformation–a five-minute visit to Snopes.com proves almost every single email wrong. But one yesterday about the Blair Holt gun registration bill really stuck in my craw, because embedded in the message was the line “VERIFIED – TRUE by snopes.com.” I found many of the claims in the email hard to believe, so I clicked the Snopes link to learn more, and it turned out I was right. THE EMAIL CONTAINED A LINK THAT PROVED MUCH OF ITS CONTENT WRONG. And of course the person who forwarded the message added their own editorial comment:

    “This is something to be aware of. Sounds like a systematic plan to strip away the freedoms of Americans. I for one am very leery of this administration. We need to PRAY. Have a great day!”

    It’s like we’re still in the trees, our knees quivering at the sight of a full moon.

    • Greg Olear says:

      An excellent, excellent point, Richard, and a frustrating one.

      The problem is that people believe what they want to believe, and those of your father’s friend’s mindset get their news from Fox and other “objective” sources, and never expose themselves to dissenting opinion…even if the “dissenting opinion” happens to be the truth.

      And it works the other way, too…there are plenty of liberals who only listen to Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. That’s one dangerous thing about getting news from the internet — you have the ability to tune out sources. To some people, Sarah Palin is the voice of reason. (I think I’ll add her book to the TNB “Best Fiction of 2009” list as a joke…)

      And now, if you excuse me, the moon is full, and I must hide myself…

  11. Tony Esposito says:

    A lot of excellent commentary on a complex issue, WWII in particular. But despite the “crazy, late-night side” of Churchill, Nicholson Baker also succinctly said, “What are you going to do when Europe is threatened by Hitler, this paranoid, dangerous person?” His book serves to dispel the winner’s version of the war and inject it with the politics and the personalities of that period, mostly by reading the archives of The New York Times, to create “something a little messier and less pat” than what we were taught. He thought the pacifist’s role was downplayed by the history books but he never said they were right.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Tony.

      Yes, you’re right, Baker does struggle with it…he cites Gandhi a lot, in particular what Gandhi would have done if he was under attack like the Poles were (his response — that they should all kill themselves — is unconvincing)…and there is ambiguity, but I feel like he ultimately sides with the pacifists. Perhaps he wrote the book to convince himself.

      One of the by-products of war is that the doves get shouted down by the hawks. (In the cabinet of W’s first term, it was Rumsfeld and Cheney yelling louder than Rice and Powell).

      The glamour of war, too, makes the pacifist stance so difficult…a quick glance at US presidents who were war heroes, off the top of my head: Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower. A big percentage. And plenty of others served with distinction. There is no glamour associated with pacifism…Ali is the only prominent name I can think of…we are trained to think that pacifists are wimps, alas.


  12. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Thanks for this excellent piece that offers some of the best commentary I’ve read anywhere on issues related to the U.S.’s latest doubling down on war. I had a pacifist reaction of disappointment at the President’s announcement, but this was soon followed by the cynical reasoning that the additional troops would afford Obama political capital and allow for left-leaning policy decisions down the road because 1) he made this promise while campaigning and 2) he’d silence critics calling him soft or vaguely unpatriotic (though silence also proved too grand a hope there). Still, I realized I’d essentially signed onto the marketing plan, as all this is rooted in, as you said, trusting his judgment, which I still do. But taking the long view of history, which even a commander-in-chief as sharp as Obama doesn’t really take, none of this looks good.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Nathaniel, for the kind words. And welcome aboard, by the way.

      I think Obama’s single greatest strength as a leader is his ability to take the long view. This helped him enormously during the campaign, and it has helped him in the first year as well. The guy doesn’t panic. And he must know this Afghanistan thing won’t be a popular decision, among his base or anywhere else really. Which suggests that he feels like it’s essential to our well-being…or that he’s a reluctant puppet. Again, I really hope the former is true.

      Best case is that the “surge” works, we get out of there in 18 months as promised, health care gets fixed somewhat, and the economy rebounds, all before ’12. Won War, Made Health Care Affordable, Fixed Economy…what will Palin run on? The validity of Obama’s birth certificate? A few breaks, and Obama runs the table like Reagan in ’84. (“Walter Mondale got three electoral votes. That’s only three more than I got, and I didn’t even run.” – Dennis Miller)

  13. Paul Clayton says:

    Good piece, Greg. I think there is something hardwired in us that craves a great adventure and it contributes to our enjoyment of wars, especially foreign ones. And having been involved in one, I know why they don’t draft forty and fifty year olds to fight them. (I still look back on some of the good times I had over there.) Remember the ‘end of history’ period, after the collapse of the wall and the Soviet Union? It was over, some said. Never be a war anymore. That didn’t last very long. I think they were, of course, partly right. There’ll probably, more than likely, hopefully, never be a war between modern states. Problem is, you have these tribal societies over in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other places, with very deeply held primitive religious beliefs about a god that compels and rewards them for killing people like you and me and everyone else on this site. Here we have ‘conflict resolution’ in the elementary school playgrounds, over there they’re teaching their kids to memorize the holy book, passage by passage, and how to pull a sharpened knife across the throat of a goat.

    I wish we could send a space ship to Mars, manned (and womanned) with folks from all of the major countries (sorry, minor countries, there’s just not enough room at this time). It would be a great distraction for us all here on earth, like reality TV, as we observe their heroics, their mundane jobs, their loves, their petty squabbles. It would be something that would serve as a substitute for the great adventure.

    But this problem we have here is not going to go away simply because we choose to ignore it. Not when we have open borders and weapons are so easily gotten. And let’s not even think the unthinkable, about the possibility of some cell of holier-than-thou motherfuckers getting their hands on a nuke.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Paul. Good points…and how cool that mission to Mars would be. Gene Roddenberry was on to something.

      And you’re right, of course, that the problem won’t go away because we ignore it, especially when we are the sole power in a position to intervene on behalf of those who are being oppressed. The nukes scare me — maybe they scare Obama, too, and that’s why he OK’ed this — but they don’t seem to scare the rest of the world all that much.

      Focusing our energies on alternate energy sources (which would make oil moot, destroying the enormous power those nations have overnight) and collecting loose nukes (which Bush all but ignored) should be our twin goals. Also, the CIA is in the habit of letting dangerous men (they are almost always men) into the country because they are “useful” as “sources.” This is more perilous than, say, strengthening our border with Mexico (if it were too strong, of course, undocumented workers would stop coming, and the economy of California would collapse, among other things).

  14. Marni Grossman says:

    I agree with Baker that WWII was not about saving Jews. As most Jews know, few people- even heads of state- gave a shit about us. There were quotas preventing us from emigrating. There were the Swiss, stealing our money and feigning neutrality. There was the US State Department- anti-Semitic to its core. WWII was never about us.

    That said, I’ve always felt that the war was worth fighting. Because even if it wasn’t about us, we needed it.

    My mother works at a Quaker school. Quakers, of course, are pacifists. And mostly, I admire them. I admire that, even. I didn’t believe in the Iraq war and am wary about the efficacy of the new Afghanistan troop surge. But sometimes- hell or not- war seems justified.

    Of course, I say this from the comfort of my bed, safe in the knowledge that there’s no draft and, as a woman, no one trusts me with guns anyway.

    • Greg Olear says:

      It’s a given that Hitler and the Nazis were monsters. In Littell’s book, Aue is gay, and, despite the fact that their leader wore that mustache and loved parades, the Nazis were not exactly tolerant of homosexuality, or just about everything else.

      But there were plenty of malefic consequences of WWII: the arbitrary borders drawn in the Middle East, the cause of quite a bit of fighting 50 years later; the enrichment of the Saudi royal family, and, by extension, the madrasses and Bin Laden; the abetting of Stalin and the Soviets, at least during the war; the destruction of so many old European cities; the Manhattan Project and the bombs; and, of course, the millions and millions of lives lost in horrible, horrible ways (the title, Human Smoke, is a quote from a Nazi officer who worked at Auschwitz, remarking on the smoke billowing from the gas chambers there).

      Was it worth it? There’s no way to know. You should read the Baker book, though, Marni…it’s quite good, and I’d be curious to hear what you thought.


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