Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Umnak Island, 31 October 1944

Our mountain is back in the twilight, but haloed with pink clouds. The swamp is yellow, as is fitting for Hallowe’en, and where the meandering streams shine in the light the water looks like ice. Perhaps it is ice, for the air is clear and cold and the ground crackly. Never was there a day more invigorating—or more wasted. For the radio has been full of Churchill’s speech predicting no end of the German war until next summer then another year and a half against Japan. And except for the Republican irreconcilables who believe the whole thing a Roosevelt-Churchill election frame-up, we are all blue. My main consolation is that in 1918 the Allied high command was planning its summer offensive for the next year and was incredibly surprised when the German’s folded. 

It seems to me that while the military leadership in this war has been on a higher caliber than last time out, the political-psychological offensive has been puerile. Last time we offered the Fourteen Points, which serve to split the German home front, whereas this time the cry is Unconditional Surrender, which can do nothing but force the Germans in cohesion.

The columnists keep saying that the German army has to be defeated in the field so that it cannot again tell the German people that it was stabbed in the back. This, it is argued, will break the power of the army. It seems to me that we are fighting more than the German army; we are fighting the entire German nation. And if we can cajole them into quitting, it doesn’t matter whether we do it by sheer force or by psychology. And if we intend to rely on the psychological effects of defeat to keep them down, we are not going to keep them down at all. If German militarism is to be repressed it can be done in any of three ways: (1) destroying Germany, (2) confronting Germany with such a preponderance  of military force that future aggression would be impossible, or (3) healing the economic wounds of the continent so that the main causes of wars are removed. Those are the main possibilities, and they remain the same whether Germany’s armies revolt or Germany’s home front collapses. Only if the Big three fail to agree on postwar policy will it be possible for Germany to try again. And if the Big Three fall out, one of them will inevitably try to build up Germany as a counterbalance against the others. If that happens, it won’t matter what caused the end of the last war. The problem will be what will start the next one. 

By all this I do not mean that I believe in “Compromise Peace.” Any peace which left the Jap navy afloat and in its own bases, or the German army intact behind its defenses, would very likely be brief. But if we can get the Germans to surrender in any form which allows us to get behind their lines it does not matter what the terms. For once behind the Siegfried Line, once in occupation of the German factories and laboratories, we can do whatever we decide with the country. And if it does not jibe with the terms of surrender, there are precedents to be found in our own history—our treaties with the Indians, with the South after the Civil War, with Spain, with Cuba, with Nicaragua. For, as Niccolo the Magnificent said, “Deceit in the conduct of a war is meritorious.”

Incidentally, Machiavelli has supplied me with the most logical answer for a question I have been asking ever since the stories of the Lublin extermination factory came out. [Lublin-Majdenek was a German death camp in Poland. Hundreds of thousands of primarily Polish Jews Russian prisoners of war, and Polish resisters were killed there. Russian soldiers liberated Majdanek on 24 July 1944.]  It seemed incredible to me that the Germans would not destroy such a place if it had, in fact, been used for the purposes we claim. But Machiavelli says:

Niccolo Machiavelli

“Two of the Roman colonies, Circes and Velitrae had revolted, hoping to be sustained by the Latins; but the defeat of these deprived them of that hope, and therefore a number of their citizens advised the sending of deputies to Rome to sue for peace and offer their submission to the Senate. The authors of the rebellion objected to this, fearing that all the punishment would fall upon their heads: and to put an end to all further discussions about peace they stirred up the multitude to take arms and make incursions into the Roman territory. And certainly, if anyone desires a people or a prince to abandon all idea of a peaceful settlement with another, then there is no more certain and effectual way than to make them commit some outrageous act against those with whom you wish to prevent them from making peace. For the fear of punishment which they are conscious of having deserved by that outrage will ever keep them from coming to terms…(Chapter 32, The Discourses).

The above business … is an attempt to express both a mood and an attitude. … Since starting this letter I have had a short bullsession with one of the fellows in the hut about the same question. He maintains that to win Unconditional Surrender is important because it will give us a moral right—the moral right of conquest—to impose whatever peace we feel just. Although we went round and round we could not agree. I could not see that the honorableness of a conqueror’s moral right to oppress was worth, say, the lives taken in a spring campaign: whereas he would not agree that if the Germans surrendered with conditions it would be just as much an acknowledgment of the loss of hope in eventual victory as if they had fought on to the last pitchfork and barehanded end through sheer despair. God but I’m glad that for me the problem is academic and the final decisions rest elsewhere.

Awhile back I believe I related to you the story of the cannibal chief who assured the American commander that the  Japs had had at least one woman in their military camp. Asked how he could be so sure, the chief said, “I ate her.” …Well Bennett Cerf has another cannibal story in the Saturday Review of Literature. A missionary had fallen into the hands of a band of cannibals. “Going to eat me, I take it,” said the missionary. “Yes,” replied the chief. “Don’t do it,” advised the missionary. “You wouldn’t like me.” He took out his pocket-knife, sliced a piece from the calf of his leg, and handed it to the chief. “Try it and see for yourself,” he urged. The chief took one bite, grunted, and spat. The missionary remained on the island fifty years. He had a cork leg.


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