With Apologies to Carl Sandburg

This “Suppose they gave a war” quote really came into its own during the Vietnam War, serving as the title of a silly movie and an anti-war song by the rock-group Solid State. As near as I can tell, neither the song nor the movie give any credit to Carl Sandburg, who included the line in his poem, "The People, Yes," published in 1936.

In the poem, a little girl attends a military parade and asks her father who the people are marching down the street. "They're soldiers," her father replied. "What are soldiers?" The father tells her that soldiers go out and kill other people during a war. The girl responds, "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come." I have heard a more personal story about the quote. Suposedly Sandburg was talking to one of his daughters about the American Civil War, and that she asked him, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" A sort of mythology surrounds Sandburg's life, so take everything you read about him with a grain of salt. 

Poets are generally inward-looking, subjective people who do not listen very well. For all anyone knows, the little girl did not like talking about war of any kind and actually asked him, "What if you gave a poetry-reading and nobody came?" to tune him out and perhaps hint that he should change the subject; but Sandburg did not like inattentive children and ignored her.

Like most people, the little girl had heard all her young life that war is a bad thing, so when Sandburg started talking about it, she knew to stop listening. Why talk about war, since no one seems to know how to keep it from happening? Even grown-ups tune out subjects or events that challenge them and make them think. The capacity in our society for reasoned analysis is greatly exaggerated. When unpleasant subjects get too close, we brush them off.

It's possible Sandburg made the whole thing up, that he never took his daughter to a military parade, and that she never made a comment about not going to war. Children do not think much, to start with. The mostly parrot what their parents tell them, or what bits and pieces they pick up from the TV, or from other children. They seldom ask "what-if" questions. Their little brains don't work like that.

Sandburg's "what-if" question concerning war sounds like an inward poet messing around with the realities of life. No President in his right mind, no matter how big a peacenik he is, would ever say, "If there's a war, let's not show up for it." He could smirk and quote former First-Lady Nancy Reagan, "Just say no." Carl Sandburg himself might question a President's sanity, if he took Sandburg seriously. In the wider public, on the other hand, the quote already has street-cred. It suggests, If we could only take down the weapons-industry and its congressional sponsors, and de-activate a few under-employed generals, there wouldn't be any wars.

The wider public hears poets everyday--rock-musician poets, rappers, religious poets, and poetic comedians on the TV. For many Americans, poets have greater street-cred than the Congress itself has. The public's rationale for this stupidity has to be "If we're wrong, we can just blame the poets." They don't really think anything through.

In that light, I remember a remarkable episode of COPS: the police in a city were following up on a report of a stolen car. They stopped a young black man and asked him for his name. He gave the police a false name. His mother soon appeared on the scene to scold him before the police took him to the station. As if to explain his actions, he began to chant his favorite rap song, as if that explained everything.

I remember also something similar that happened during my college years: some friends borrowed a classmate's car and brought it back with scrapes on it. Rather than apologize to the owner, they recited a Firesign-Theatre skit, as if that freed them from responsibility.

Most people unconsciously let the cultural and moral tilt of the nation give them their talking-points. The tilt imposes a negative frame of reference for some topics. When confronted with an off-color subject, people let a sub-conscious dogmatism tune it  out. The procedure doesn't even require volitional thinking. Social-training does it for us. Social-training allows us to avoid dealing with the realities of human-kind or the logic of geo-politics. Just blame someone and forget about it.

Americans live in a mentally challenging time. The information channels are engorged with information of all kinds: so we have to consciously select subjects to study. We simply lack the time to sift through it all. Subjects that challenge our view, like war, we release them from concentrated analysis. I am not criticizing the practical reality of it. Our lives move forward in real time. We comprehend what we need to function, and let the rest of it go by.

Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians express the attitude of most people in their song from 1988, “What I Am”: “I'm not aware of too many things, I know what I know, if you know what I mean.” Push people beyond that, and they will push back with slogans and aphorisms.

Nevertheless, the British writer Aldous Huxley expresses his reservations about social-training in his 1932 novel, titled Brave new World. No one in England had seen anything like Brave New World, which presented social-training in the guise of futuristic science-fiction. The futuristic society employs technology to condition people with a Pavlovian edge, rife with subliminal self-censorship.

In one scene, a young man joins a woman for an evening date, and they develop feelings for each other. Then, the man utters a presumed heresy. At that point, the woman's training takes over:

He began to talk a lot of incomprehensible and dangerous nonsense. The words seemed to touch a spring in her mind. . . . "I want to know what passion is," she heard him saying. "I want to feel something strongly."

"When the individual feels, the community reels," Lenina pronounced.

She responds so quickly, she must have a head full of similarly dismissive aphorisms, and she probably needs them, from time to time, to warn her boyfriend off his untogether trip. When he touches the “spring in her mind,” Lenina responds from years of social-training that began in childhood, even while she slept.

Critics call Huxley's genre of fiction “dystopian”—utopian in intention, but negative in its totality. Other writers have indulged in the same line of fiction. George Orwell published his own dystopian novel in 1948, titled 1984. By that time, critics had to accept the new genre, in spite of its peculiarly negative take on modern society.

1984 introduces the reader to Winston Smith, a sickly man nearing middle-age. Like the young man in Brave New World, Winston would like to meet a girl. He has, however, an almost paranoid sense of the trouble this basic act can cause him, namely that if he says something off-color, a girl could denounce him.

Social-training by the government has reached a level of terror that Huxley would never have dreamed of. It makes girls “swallowers of slogans and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.” Winston also fears the children of this futuristic society—“ungovernable little savages.” They do not “rebel against the discipline of the Party,” however. “All their ferocity was turned against enemies of the State,” such as “thought-criminals.”

It seems both authors hate social-training because it controls their thought processes and limits their imaginative powers. They really err on the side of paranoia, taking basic aspects of life in the human culture and makes a mountain out of a mole-hill. Both books depressed me when I read them for the first time, Their negativity challenged me to read them to the bitter end. At the same time, the books made me aware of social-training in every civilized country. We condition our citizens to think of themselves and behave in particular ways. The behaviors identify us as Americans, Britons, Germans, and so forth.

The 1960s TV show Secret Agent features social-training as an aspect of the life of a spy. The episode, “Colony Three,” sees secret-agent John Drake dispatched to a mock-up British village in far-away Siberia, complete with double-decker buses, book-shops, tea-shops, and proper English people speaking with that peculiar reserved politeness  bowler. The Soviets set up this English “colony” as a finishing-school for spies, a place to immerse Russians in every aspect of British culture before they get their first postings. English culture has many subtle characteristics, many unspoken do's and don'ts. A typical Russian may find it totally alien to his own upbringing. He must, in effect, develop a fail-safe English persona.

In America, we have two “colonies.” Each of our political parties trains its faithful with different philosophies and moral coordinates. Each side wants to impose its conditioning on the other. The collision of the two sets of reflexive slogans fuels the disunity more than reasoned analysis. In the future, one side or the other will make re-education of the losing side its top priority. Sounds a little like dictatorship, doesn't it, this effort to change each others' orientation to life. The sensible thing is to divide the nation, so that neither side can impose its views on the other.

Why should either Democrat or Republican bully the 49% who vote for the other party? The truth is, like the little girl in the Sandburg story, we do not think about the reasons we do it. We just act reflexively; but reflexive prejudice has to become conscious action if we want to save America from its unthinking tilt toward hostility.


VE Day, May 8, 2020, came and went on with hardly a squeak of rejoicing, and I didn't even put out my flags. My store-bought calendar makes no note about May 8th. Well, I'm sorry. I should have paid more attention to it, anyway.

My father's generation fought in World War II. They never talked about it when I was younger, but opened up more as they grew older and frail, as a sort of final testament of their lives. My father's brother Joe Bowers married Louise Morton in Columbus, Georgia. Louise's handsome brother Joe Morton lost life on D-Day, parachuting into Sainte-Mère Église, France. He is buried there.

Grandmother Bowers's sister Katherine married Cliff Averett in Columbus. They had a son Cliff who at eighteen served as a tail-gunner in a B-17. On New Year's Eve, 1944, his plane was shot down over over Hamburg, Germany. Cliff spent the remainder of the War in a POW camp.

Father married Mother after the War at Saint Philip's Church in Charleston SC. Father's best man was Curtis Jordan. Uncle Curtis served in the War as a B-17 pilot. Getting into his plane, day after day, and flying into enemy Flak and fighter planes was grueling, and at some point, he had had all he could take: “I'm not getting into that plane again,” he said. He did not care what the Air Force did to him. While he sat in a stockade, his crew went into action without him. His plane was shot down with the loss of all on board. If that was not bad enough, Curtis's brother Mulford “Mutt” Jordan went ashore at D-day and was killed in action.

Mother's obstetrician was Peter Carl “Graff” Graffagnino, the son of Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans. Dr. Graff went ashore at Anzio Beachhead and came under fire from a German counter-attack led by General Kesselring. He was captured and spent the rest of the War in a POW camp. As a physician, he had his work cut out for him, treating injuries in the other POWs. After the War, Graff went through a nervous breakdown. Our families belonged to the Green Island Club in Columbus. It had a back-room bar that admitted only men. In that exclusive area, rife with confidences shared, the veterans no doubt expressed a bitter hatred of their former Axis foes.

Their histories have given me a lifelong interest in the War as an historical phenomenon, of mankind turned into a killing machine. I decided to track down the War's origins to its roots. Did it result from something luckless that lay in the historical preconditions? Did the poor judgment of the world's leaders lead to it? Those factors played a part, certainly. The world could have avoided the War if it had recognized sooner the threat posed by German leader Adolf Hitler. He had world conquest in his sights early on, fueled by a thirst for payback, to avenge Germany's defeat in the First War, and to dish out some punishment to the victors; but Hitler also understood, like any capable politician, that he could not reveal much of his true motivation to the public.


                                                           HITLER'S ACHIEVEMENTS

The world took a lot of duping before it understood his intentions. The leaders of the free-world nations had an onerous task, trying to predict how far Hitler would go before they had to respond to him with force. When they did not respond quickly enough, he got a head-start, and it led to a world war.

Hitler told one sincere-sounding falsehood after another, broke countless promises not to engage in belligerence, took advantage of everyone's goodwill, and never cared about the diplomatic fallout. If he defeated the other nations, he could rewrite the history books any way he wanted.

I remember a pre-War cartoon in the New Yorker. A woman asks her husband, “Who is this Hitler?” The leaders in the other nations could not figure him out. He wooed so many, offering other groups his friendship and cooperation, but he only took advantage of them. Here are a few of the unlucky duped:

  1. Otto Bauer and Karl Renner led the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Austria before the War. They promoted a Marxist agenda and supported Anschluss—union with Germany—proposed by the Nazis. Bauer, a Jew, died in exile in France in 1938. Both men showed a deplorable lack of judgment regarding the Anschluss.
  2. The sons of former Kaiser Wilhelm II joined the Nazi Party believing foolishly that the Nazis would restore the monarchy. Instead, Hitler used their royal connections to help him establish a power-base, then discarded the Kaiser-sons. They had to accept minor posts in the military.
  3. The Nazis promoted military parades and pageantry and completely fooled Germany's nationalist parties. The nationalists believed the Nazis would restore Germany's military, which they did, but the Nazis led the gullible military into a level of barbarism and cruelty unheard of since Caesar and Attlila the Hun, wrecking the army's reputation.
  4. “Freiheit und Brot!” (freedom and bread) served as the motto of the Nazis' nationwide newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. They basically stole a socialist slogan to use as their own. No wonder they fooled the voters. Nazi publications modernized the standards of fake news and gave it a level of credibility that deceived everyone. Their use of it serves as the standard for propagandists the world-over, even the US! In truth, the Nazis barely provided enough bread for their own people—much of it stolen from the countries they had conquered.
  5. The Nazis used its publications to brainwash the German people and to rob the Jews' of their humanity. Only an institutionally slanted press serving a one-party state could let them to do this. Contrary to what many say, the Nazis did not stir up latent anti-semitism in Germans. Pre-War Germans were no more anti-semitic than Americans.
  6. The Nazi aptitude for fake news frightens even contemporary Jews. No one knows the potential for defaming a whole class of people like the Jews. Women in particular reacted with visceral hatred to the images of Jewish child-molesters, date-rapists, and swindlers. Not too surprisingly, the main Nazi publisher, Julius Streicher, started as a pornographer. So he knew how to turn people on sexually, or with raw hatred. It really does not suit the public to read his publications, for the same reason that society discourages pornography, BDSM, dog-fighting, or bear-baiting—essentially to discourage exploitation and feeding a lust for cruelty.

It concerns me that Americans have to live with fake news and defamation of classes of people everyday, and no one does anything to discourage it, except to complain lamely of the cost to societal unity. The temper of the fake-news epidemic worries me more than the Covid-19 virus does. We have to reconsider the wisdom of remaining together as a nation. Disunity fuels imperceptibly the stress that we experience in our daily lives; so we have to let ourselves off the hook for whatever guilt we feel over splitting up; seek only corporate peace of mind among people who think like us to justify doing it, and rebuild as separate nations.


                                                   THE AUSTRIAN PLEBISCITE

By early 1938, the naive but well-intentioned Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg faced a supremely difficult challenge. Adolf Hitler had decided on an Anschluss—a uniting of Austria with Germany—by hook or crook. Austrians like Otto Bauer and Karl Renner lauded the idea, but Schuschnigg did not, even though he wanted to avoid antagonizing Hitler. So he announced that he would hold a “plebiscite,” to allow the Austrian public to decide.

Besides having a politician's instincts, Hitler also had pretty good field intelligence and knew the Austrian public did not want Nazi leadership, so he ordered his army to march into Austria and foil the plebiscite. Thus, Austrians never had a chance to vote—while the nations of Europe and America sat by and let it happen. They never raised a finger to help Austria. Nor did they help Czechoslovakia who faced the same ultimatum and annexation, the following year—again through a “negotiated” capitulation.

Hitler, all the time, assured everyone he had no territorial ambitions beyond uniting the German people. The Germans assure the Austrians, if they did not shoot at the invaders, the invaders would not shoot back. Everyone wanted so much to believe Hitler's promise. He ruthlessly took advantage of Austria's fatigue from the First War and exploited it to his advantage.

And then Hitler deceived the Germans themselves. They did not want to suffer through another war so soon—not after the bloodbath they endured during the first War. William Shirer, an American journalist stationed in Berlin at the time noted the public's concerns and made an entry about them in his Berlin Diary. Shirer's entry for August 31st reads:

Everybody against the war. People talking openly. How can a country go into a major war with the population so dead set against it? People also kicking about being kept in the dark.

The invasion of Poland began the very next day. Shirer mentions again the Germans'  negative feelings about it two days later on September 3:

In 1914, I believe the excitement in Berlin on the first day of the World War was tremendous. Today, no excitement, no hurrah, no cheering. . . . There is not even any hate for the French and British—despite Hitler's various proclamations to the people.

France and Britain held their breaths after the invasion of Poland. If only Hitler would change his mind, they could avoid the invasion of Poland turning into another world war. On September 5th, Shirer noted the Allied reluctance to engage Germany in his diary:

Very strange about that western front. . . . Not a single shot has been fired there yet. Indeed,one official told me that the German forces on the French border were broadcasting in French to the poilus (French soldiers): “We won't shoot if you don't.”

More less the same trick the Nazis employed against the Austrians. “Don't shoot at us, and we won't shoot back.” The Nazis took advantage of every nation's wish to co-exist in peace with its neighbors. Let the Allies cast the first stone! Let the sin of murder be on their heads! Chancellor Schuschnigg capitulated to the Nazis rather than risk a war with them. Now, the Allies appeared ready to do the same.

So deeply did the nations of Europe loathe the prospect of war—good, peace-loving, bourgeois types—they let Hitler get away with annexing another country just to avoid it. He was a fool to actually start the war. He could get nearly anything he wanted just with peaceful “negotiated” capitulations.

Not many Europeans go to church now, but they accept the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” as a cultural delimiter. It has a deep hold on us and keeps us from killing until we have no choice. The violation of the 6th Commandment means that we cross a threshold that costs us our peace of mind and pushes us to another level of worldliness. It marks a person, as God marked Cain for killing Abel. So we will typically tolerate a lot before we make up our minds to kill another person. We have to expect a late start to any effort to defend our lives and liberty.

You could ask, “What if they gave a war, and one side did not show up for it?” Do we let the other side win, so we don't have to kill anyone? Call it “capitulation with honor”? Do we let unthinking brutes led by a psychopath take over our country and enslave us? Where is the honor in that?

Archduke Otto von Habsburg, the oldest son of the last Habsburg emperor Charles I, recognized that Schuschnigg did not want a war with Germany. So he asked Schuschnigg to turn over the leadership of Austria to him and let him take responsibility for resisting the Germans. Unlike most people, Habsburg had read Mein Kampf and recognized what a risk Austria took with Hitler calling the shots. Basically the Nazis relied on the ignorance of their motives to keep their charade going.

The Austrian Plebiscite Under Otto

How would Austria have fared under the 25-year-old Archduke? Otto said he wanted to resist the German Army, to keep it from illegally entering Austria. The army, under Otto's leadership, would have had government orders to defend the nation. Defense of the nation would give the army the legal sanction to kill the invaders.

The dialogue between the Austrian and German combatants could have followed this scenario:

German soldier: “Don't shoot us! We speak German, too.”

Austrian soldier: “We do speak German, but we don't want you here.”

G: “You need the Führer to lead you. He's Austrian, too.”

A: “But we like being Austrians. We don't want to become Germans.”

G: “We need open borders between our countries.”

A: “We believe good fences make the best neighbors.”

G: “Do you hate us? Is that your problem?”

A: “We like you better if you remain in your own country.”

G: “But as one country, we can be great.”

A: “We're as great as we want to be. You would only dominate us.”

G: “The Führer says that, since we are Germans, we should stick together.”

A: “We can't because your principles are different from ours.”

G: “Look, we don't want to start a war. You shouldn't want to, either.”

A: “So, stay on your side of the border.”

G: “But we're all Germans! We should be one people.”

A: “But we're not “one people”. We don't want to do things your way.”

The German army would have had Hitler's direct order to stage an invasion of Austria, if it did not comply to his terms. Germans are as argumentative as anyone, and stubbornly resist counter-arguments. It is interesting how the German speaker tries to undermine the idea of self-defense, using the guise of avoiding bloodshed. The German speakers says the occupation of Austria serves the best interests of Austria.

The German's use of unity-slogans only blurs the difference between unity and enforced togetherness. Imposing his will on Austria or instituting a state of consciousness on others with force does not create unity but intimidation. You signal the advent of a dictatorship, not a freedom-loving society. I can't say it more clearly than that.


                                                     THE AMERICAN PLEBISCITE

Someone in America must now step forward and offer the same neutral measures for determining America's future that Schuschnigg offered Austria. Such a procedure will do two things. It will allow Americans to resolve their disunity in a peaceful way. A plebiscite will also cause a reaction from the nation's political groups that will reveal a lot about who they really are, especially if they try to thwart the plebiscite,

Even if a majority votes by a few percentage points to remain one nation, that should not change the intent of the plebiscite, to allow a significant minority self-determination; but if America does not take this step but lets partisanship and disunity take their course, it faces the same consequences the Austrians faced, that the winners in the next election will deal with the losers in a more domineering stance, pushing punitive, government-enforced policies that will create a de facto one-party nation.

“Too bad!” the winners will sneer. “We won the election fair and square, so we control things, now. It's our way or the highway.” Don't fool yourselves! We don't have that bad, yet, but it is in the cards already. Do we really want to wait until the disunity degenerates into retaliatory strikes? All Americans will lose in that kind of scenario.

Politicians the world-over come from the same personality-cloth, whether they represent a free electorate or rule in a one-party state without elections. In either case, they prefer to stay in power. They will perform miracles to maintain their positions. No athlete on earth experiences a power-trip equal to that of a politician, nor feels defeat more deeply.

Losing is an absolute, whether it results in a free election, a popular revolt, or a military putsch. We must accept that politicians will act out with a territorial toughness to remain in office, fueled by an outlier egotism. No one else in the human culture has the drive or toughness to succeed in politics.

If Americans only knew how hard a politician has to work to get where he is, how long his workdays are, or how much hostility he may encounter, they would have more respect for the role of the politician, and they would also understand that he does not behave like normal people. He is driven and self-serving, and exploits ruthlessly everyone around him. A politician is nearly impossible to like up-close, but they have to behave abrasively and impatiently in they want to succeed. The most spoiled opera-diva has nothing to compare to a politician. Only worshipful, submissive workers can tolerate a work-environment like politics.

Hitler was not so great an outlier figure as Americans might wish to believe. Like Hitler, American politicians study their public performances obsessively. They might rhapsodize about empowering women, minorities, small businesses, or veterans, but re-election takes top priority. They contour every public statement around that.

I vote Republican, but I accept the analysis unequivocally. Politicians perform essential tasks that no one else in a constitutional government can. The public counts on them to move administrative affairs forward and guard the nation against war and natural disaster. Our politicians could fulfill their roles more effectively if they had a unified public behind them; but America does not have a unified public, at present, and again, only a division of the nation will allow us to recover it.