Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Earth Never Stands Still:

Yesterday, apparently, President Obama began to give hints that he might consider taking “none of the above” as his approach to America's latest quagmire in Afghanistan. Forgive me if I'm not too hopeful. I believe that Obama is smart enough to grasp that America's confused love affair with its abusive husband, Aggressive War, is not going to be ended easily and without more therapeutic intervention than one President can offer. If Obama were willing to take one for the team and have a single term in office he could get up tomorrow and explain directly to a sobbing populace that war is never going to change, and never going to be able to make us happy, and never going to stop killing people, and never stop destroying. In real speak: that the only way to get out of Afghanistan is to...well...leave. We can achieve nothing there in the long or the short term and that we could better use the money at home. Then he would just do it, and devil take the hindmost. Of course it would be bad for his electoral prospects in 2012. No one ever likes the friend who steps forward and explains that the relationship is not working out. And it might be bad for the Democratic Party who will be blamed for being so weak and faithless and not having the will to win. But it wouldn't be a bad bargain with history or with the American people (or, if we are counting them, the Afghan people).

I don't really expect that level of self sacrifice from Obama. No one gets to the White House without an extra-ordinary sense of their own importance in the scheme of things. And Obama and a democratic president are important in the scheme of things. There are so many big and little fires to put out. So much work to be done. But life by life and death by death? If that's in the accounting I'm not sure that being the man to end two wars wouldn't outweigh those imagined future goods.

But what I think doesn't really matter—what Obama thinks is what is important. And here its clear that none of us, certainly not our leaders, can escape the myopia induced by the narrow focus of the day to day decisions. In The Day The Earth Stood Still Hollywood proposed a situation in which a direct and apparent threat to humanity—in the form of the end of electrical and other power—would bring about a changed consciousness that would enable political actors to transcend petty differences of viewpoint (language, culture, history, politics, interest). The other thing that forced local actors to think beyond petty local considerations was the immediacy, the primacy, of the threat.

War, as it turns out, is not such a threat. And neither is mass death. The everyday, grinding, political realities of the big board and negotiations among “important” political figures always take precedence over the little lives and the petty suffering of ordinary civilians and soldiers. This is nowhere more clear than in reading the account of the intersection between an “important” war and an important plague—World War I and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. It turns out to be the case that despite a massive, short, sharp, crisis of international proportions and gruesome local fall out that the war machine kept grinding on. The political necessities of winning the war far exceeded the ability of any of its participants to call even a truce to consider whether in the light of the crisis among civilians and troops perhaps war itself was not a viable activity?

To give you a sense of the scope of the crisis:

“In four years, three months, and five days, World War I claimed some ten million lives. In ten months, Spanish influenza killed between twenty-one and forty million people.” (Influenza 1918:204)

Second, the nature of the deaths:

“Men were choking to death, gagging on the bloody regurgitations of their fluid-filled lungs. Faces turned grey, purple, then brown. Labored breathing produced a weird, duck-like quack...the blood of the dying soldier was black and gummy, as viscous as tar...The pain began behind the eyes, spread to the ears, the neck, the spine, and the legs. A soaring fever, chills, and delirium made for a painful, mind numbing, ordeal...”

“Doctors often could not diagnose the mysterious disease, let alone cure it. The first cases at Camp Devens were treated as cerebrospinal meningitis; the illness was simply too explosive, and too violent, for “flu.” From all over the world—Australia, Russia, India, South America—reports were coming in of weird, sinister complications. Influenza patients were developing cataracts, vertigo, enlarged spleens, gangrene of the sexual organs. Purple blisters appeared on blue, oxygen-starved skin. Some autopsies revealed the cause of death as asphyxia of the alveoli: bloody lungs had literally suffocated from lack of oxygen. There were other findings too, pathologic findings never before associated with influenza: leucopenia—where the blood becomes deficient in white cells; deafness; blindness; and coma.” (Influenza 1918:50)

Thirdly: the location and demographic scope of the deaths. Its not surprising that the fact that men were dying in record numbers in the field should escape attention or concern. Once in the field soldiers are merely numbers, after all. But the deaths from Influenza on the various home fronts and around the world were of an entirely different order. Whole families died, and within days of catching the disease. Towns closed down to all "outsiders" and people still died--because their postal clerks delivered mail and the disease on their rounds. Pregnant women died, by the score. People died so rapidly that theft of coffins became common—even after they'd been used. Young people could be married the morning and dead at night. It was impossible to dig private graves in many cases. Bodies were described as “stacked like cordwood.”

This was all happening in a time of war—and not just in a time of war, but because of the war. The draft, the movement of young men and women from the hinterland to the city/camp/port--the close quarters of military life, and the places where military life crossed the civilian world (railways, ports, restaurants, military celebrations, public weddings, public funerals) were all locations where the disease throve and spread.

Eventually the reality of the death toll in the US among soldiers crashed right into the needs of the Allied War Machine:

“Now, an invisible enemy—the shadowy Spanish Lady—was proving deadlier even that Erich von Ludendorff's dogged German legions. In one week in the Argonne alone, sixteen thousand American soldiers had come down with influenza, joining the seventy thousand already sick. German troops, decimated by influenza's spring wave, seemed, for the moment, immune to this more lethal, fall strain, a strain which was devastating Pershing's fresh American divisions. Still, Marshal Foch continued to pressure Pershing. More doughboys were needed. Only fresh, energetic American troops could smash through the Hindenburg Line and secure an Allied victory. Pershing cabled Washington: “Influenza exists in epidemic form amongst our troops. Request fifteen thousand members of Army Nurse Corps. RUSH RUSH RUSH.” Then he cabled for more men. But this time, Pershing's plea hit a stone wall.”

Why the stone wall? Because the troop boats themselves were a vector for the illness--bringing it to the US, and then back to Europe:

Meanwhile “Cables from Brest, France, tersely accouned that American convoys were arriving with overwhelming numbers of sick and dead.” (Influenza 1918: 57) “On October 7, the Leviathan, America's mightiest transport, arrived in Brest with an equivalent number of hundred fell sick on the Leviathan after only a single day at sea...the number of sick swelled above two thousand...orderlies picked among the dying for the dead...when the vessel arrived in France 969 influenza victims were taken to Brest's already crammed hospitals. For two hundred doughboys, the Atlantic journey on America's mightiest troopship ended in a French cemetery in Labezellec...” (Influenza 1918: 98).

Back at home:

The Provost Marshall General of the Army, General Enoch Crowder, had spent much of the month of September charged with the onerous task of identifying and rounding up draft dodgers. Spanish influenza, however, soon eclipsed even the compelling, thorny issue of America's “slackers.” Nearly all army camps in the United States were under quarantine. Conditions in Europe were even worse. Only a few weeks earlier, the Chief Surgeon of the Port of New York had declared, “We can't stop this war on account of Spanish or any other kind of influenza.” He turned out to be wrong. Influenza now had higher priority than the war. On October 7, Crowder canceled the army's October draft for 142,000 new recruits. An additional draft of 78,000 men, scheduled for late October, was canceled as well.

But the War itself was at an inflection point:

President Woodrow Wilson faced a crucial and agonizing decision. On October 6, Max, Prince of Baden and Imperial Chancellor of Germany, had appealed to the President to begin negotiations for an armistice. Neither Marshal Foch nor General Pershing nor Wilson himself trusted the efficacy of Max's plea. Germany was in turmoil. Could an imperial ruler guarantee the response of the German people? Was it consistent or even correct for Wilson—democracy's most vocal and eloquent advocate—to deal with a government which was not a government of the people? Like Foch and Pershing, Wilson sensed only a decisive military victory was a truly secure one. On the other hand, the war was fueling the deadly pandemic. To consign fresh recruits to army camps or crowded troopships would mean sending thousands of men to their deaths. A few days earlier, Dr. Victor Heiser, an eminent sanitarian had stated, “It is more dangerous to be a soldier in the peaceful United States than to have been in the firing-line in France. Is there a military or other emergency that would justify so great a sacrifice of life?” The numbers were truly staggering. At U.S. Army camps, one in every four soldiers was sick. On the day Crowder canceled the October draft, 6, 139 more soldiers fell ill. In Hoboken, New Jersey, and other ports of embarkation for Europe, deaths from influenza-related pneumonia had reached a stunning 20 percent...

At 9:40 P.M. on Tuesday, October 8 [Wilson made the decision.]...Everything possible was being done to control the spread of the disease. “Despite all this,” [Army Chief of Staff Payton] March conceded, soldiers continued to get sick. “But,” he affirmed, “every such soldier who has died [on board ship] has just as surely played his part as his comrade who has died in France.” March continued: “In the face of the German Chancellor's appeal, think of the effect on a weakening enemy if they learned that American divisions and replacements were no longer reaching Pershing.” Every American who could bear arms must be shipped to Europe “as a show of strength.” “The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause,” the General concluded emphatically.

Years later, Paton March remembered: “President Wilson turned in his chair and gazed out the window. The sacrifice of the lives of all these fine Americans distressed him to the soul. He gave a faint sigh and nodded. Then his eyes twinkled and he said 'General, I wonder if you have heard this limerick: 'I had a little bird and its name was Enza...'” (ellipses in the original.)

Wilson made his decision. Shipments of troops to Europe would continue. March cabled Pershing: “If we are not stopped on account of influenza, which has passed the 200,000 mark, you will get replacements by 30 November.” (Influenza 1918: 102-104.)

Well, we “won” the First World War, so perhaps it was the right call? I can't say. I don't think its necessary to say. But essentially this is the decision that Obama and our Generals face right now. Not because of any pandemic, but because the stark choice always remains the same. Fight on with casualties abroad (among the fighters and the civilians in the war zone) and at home (among those neglected and impoverished by the war) in order to conclusively “win” a given war. Or shut down the war machine and tend to our own dead and dying at home.

Some wars are so necessary that we can't afford that choice. I don't think that WWI was that necessary—and I'm really sure that Afghanistan isn't. Sometimes the choice is so stark that it becomes obvious that we simply can't sustain the military losses. Again, Afghanistan isn't one of those wars. And neither is the obvious parallel to the 1918 pandemic: our broken health care system, our damaged economy, our dying ecology. There's really no clear gallows hanging nearby, no piled up American corpses at home or abroad so high and so vast as to make that choice stark enough for Obama and his advisors. And when there was such a gallows “concentrating his mind” Wilson found himself believing that the end justified the means or at least that we were too far gone—too many sunk costs—to count the cost further.

Hard to see how this ends well.

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