A Lesson From Paris

I've already described my intellectual reaction to the attacks, and I think it’s worth adding that there’s nothing in Chevron’s post with which I disagree. But in reading Chevron’s most recent comments about the 7/7 attacks, I realized the clear differences in political attitudes across the pond. I had heard of those in Great Britain who used the London bombings to advance their isolationist and/or anti-Iraq cause. Yet I can’t think of a single elected official in America who has come anywhere near advocating an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, or any other similar appeasement strategy. Hell, I can’t think of any American political organization that’s calling for immediate withdrawl; Move On.org doesn’t even broach the subject. Even as the left-most hack in America vehemently maintains that invading Iraq in March of 2003 was a poor policy choice, he is also quick to add the disengagement from Iraq (let alone the Middle East) is not a feasible option.

What has struck me so clearly since pondering Chevron’s comments are the amazing similarities between the UK’s political fallout, and that of France during World War II. “Huh?” you say, “Tri-Cup, have you been taking your meds?” Bear with me on this one for a second. The subject of France has been percolating for me for a few days. First, there was the recent passing of Bastille Day, the annual festivities where French commemorate that famous event in 1789 when the peasants stormed the Bastille, shouting the everlasting revolutionary slogan “Nous sommes des énormes oiseaux!” Second, I’ve just finished reading a book that chronicled France under Nazi occupation. The similarities in political fallout are there.

As you are probably aware, France fell to the Nazis in an embarrassingly short six weeks. Despite their (admittedly quite stupid) military preparations for a German invasion along the Maginot Line, the French essentially hoped to appease the Germans in any way possible, hardly caring when Germany annexed Czech and Polish territory. Both Frenchmen and their leaders put so much hope into appeasement that when Germany invaded, the French essentially defeated themselves. Colonel Charly of the French Army was killed by his own men, for ordering them to fight. Soldiers melted into the countryside. In all, over 2 million French fighters were taken prisoner, a huge ratio when compared to the 90,000 troops killed by the Germans. France’s politicians were no better, burning most of the government’s documents in Paris (covering the city in black smoke) just six days after Germans entered French territory. The shock and humiliation spread quickly, and it was common to see “Betrayed, Not Beaten” on the backs of retreating military vehicles. The French were quick to blame their British Allies (many Frenchmen already distrusted the Brits), who they felt had alternatively (1) not appeased the Germans sufficiently, and oddly (2) not fought the German onslaught hard enough in the French countryside. Oddly, the French populace was initially quite welcoming to their German invaders (rather than, say, blame the Germans for the invasion), and German soldiers in Paris were initially treated as tourists, paying in the little sidewalk cafes. The French (and their ensuing Vichy government) spent the rest of the War trying to justify that they felt it would lend to their lack of resistance. Henri Frenay summarized the Vichy strategy thusly: “It was essential to be in the victor’s camp and for the moment they believed in a German victory.”

Now, in the case of London, there’s nothing for British officials to be embarrassed about; you can’t prevent every attack in a free society. But there is a sense of rage, and a sense of humiliation that follows when you feel that your safety has been compromised. Americans felt it on 9/11, but were able to generally steer the feelings in a positive direction: donating to victims, thanking first responders, volunteering for the armed forces, and toppling the Taliban in short order. Like France, however, many in the U.K. just seem to be directing the anger into their preexisting diatribes, namely anti-Americanism and anti-Bush rhetoric. This happened to some extent in America as well. Jerry Falwell used the tragedy to condemn gays (though he quickly apologized), and the administration’s Karen Hughes spun the attacks into her anti-abortion message. But, for the most part, Americans came together after the attacks, sensibly trying to smooth internal political divisions and to pursue terrorists. The net effect may have been to boost Bush’s (domestic) credibility, but that was hardly a concern; Bush is a lot less of a threat to any American than a fundamentalist. Perhaps Brits should take a cue from their American allies: try focusing your concern and anger at the tolerance of Madrassas in Pakistan, or at other Arabs praising the attacks.

I’m not trying to make the argument that America was able to channel its fear/anger into solely productive channels. Frankly, I think that much of the American energy that the attacks spawned was quashed, as government officials urged the public to more or less go about its business, or perhaps fulfill its patriotic duty by shopping; Americans were ready to sacrifice. I’m of the opinion that Americans would have fully supported a much larger scale invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and western Pakistan (which is part of the territory of a nuclear power in name only. Everyone seems to agree that the western sections are lawless, tribal areas that can function, de facto, as part of Afghanistan). You could certainly make the case that our invasion of Iraq was also a byproduct of 9/11 fear, and not perhaps the best use of American life and resources in pursuit of terrorism in 2003. Given current circumstances, though, I think that the consensus is that a rapid withdrawal would produce a lawless area perfect for spawning more terrorists.

But I do think that France's recent history vividly illustrates that dangers of defeatism, as well as the inability to come together fight a common, much more brutal enemy. Terrorist attacks should not be used an excuse to funnel new passion into preexisting hobby horses. As much as I don’t respect George Bush on many issues, he does have a fairly principled view against terrorism, and has directed the vast resources of the U.S. in pursuing that goal. I hope that Blair can sway public opinion back in his favor, or I'm afraid that his own principled stand may cost him his job, and that could be the first step to the U.K.'s own lasting sense of defeatism.


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