Just Like Stalingrad:
If Bush is another Hitler, what words are left to describe Hitler?
According to Sidney Blumenthal, a onetime adviser to president Bill Clinton who now writes a column for Britain's Guardian newspaper, President Bush today runs "what is in effect a gulag," stretching "from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantanamo to secret CIA prisons around the world." Mr. Blumenthal says "there has been nothing like this system since the fall of the Soviet Union."
In another column, Mr. Blumenthal compares the April death toll for American soldiers in Iraq to the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Mr. Bush's "splendid little war," he writes, "has entered a Stalingrad-like phase of urban siege and house-to-house combat."
The factual bases for these claims are, first, that the U.S. holds some 10,000 "enemy combatants" prisoner; and second, that 122 U.S. soldiers were killed in action in April.
As I write, I have before me a copy of "The Black Book of Communism," which relates that on "1 January 1940 some 1,670,000 prisoners were being held in the 53 groups of corrective work camps and 425 collective work colonies. In addition, the prisons held 200,000 people awaiting trial or a transfer to camp. Finally, the NKVD komandatury were in charge of approximately 1.2 million 'specially displaced people.' "
As for Stalingrad, German deaths between Jan. 10 and Feb. 2, 1943, numbered 100,000, according to British historian John Keegan. And those were just the final agonizing days of a battle that had raged since the previous August.
Mr. Blumenthal is not alone. Al Gore last month accused Mr. Bush of creating "more anger and righteous indignation against us as Americans than any leader of our country in the 228 years of our existence as a nation." Every single column written by the New York Times' Paul Krugman is an anti-Bush screed; apparently, there isn't anything else worth writing about. A bumper sticker I saw the other day in Manhattan reads: "If you aren't outraged, you're not paying attention."
There are two explanations for all this. One is that Mr. Bush really is as bad as Sid, Al and Paul say: the dumbest, most feckless, most fanatical, most incompetent and most calamitous president the nation has ever known. A second is that Sid, Al and Paul are insane.
The best test of the first argument is the state of the nation Mr. Bush leads. In the first quarter of 2004, the U.S. economy grew by an annualized 4.4%. By contrast, the 12-nation eurozone grew by 1.3%--and that's their highest growth rate in three years. In the U.S., unemployment hovers around 5.6%. In the eurozone, it is 8.8%. In a recent column, Mr. Krugman wrote that the U.S. economic figures aren't quite as good as they seem. But even granting that, the Bush economy is manifestly healthy by historical and current international standards.
There is the situation in Iraq, where the U.S. has lost about 800 soldiers in action over the course of more than a year, as well as several thousand Iraqis. The fact that events have not gone well over the past two months is somehow taken as proof that they've gone disastrously. Yet in the run-up to the war, the German Foreign Ministry was issuing predictions of about two million Iraqi deaths, making the actual Iraqi death a very small percentage of that anticipated total. As for the American rate, the U.S. lost more than 6,000 soldiers in Vietnam in 1966, the year U.S. troop strength there was comparable to what it is now in Iraq. That's about nine times as many fatalities as the U.S. has so far sustained in Iraq.
There is the charge that, under Bush, the United States has qualified for most-hated-nation status. Maybe so. But it is not entirely clear why this should be so decisive in measuring the accomplishments or failures of the administration. President Reagan was also unpopular internationally back in his day. Nor is Israel an especially popular country. But that's no argument for Israel to measure itself according to what Jordanians or Egyptians think of it.
The point here is not that Mr. Bush has a flawless or even a good record or that his critics don't have their points. The point is that, at this stage in his presidency, Mr. Bush cannot credibly be described as some kind of world-historical disaster on a par with James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, nor can he credibly be accused of the things of which he is accused.
This brings us to our second hypothesis, which is that his critics are insane.
This is an easier case to make. Mr. Blumenthal, for instance, is the man who described Bill Clinton's presidency as the most consequential, the most inspiring and the most moral of the 20th century, only possibly excepting FDR's. Mr. Krugman spent his first couple of years as a columnist writing tirades about how the U.S. economy was on the point of Argentina-style collapse.
What makes these arguments insane--I use the word advisedly--isn't that they don't contain some possible germ of truth. One can argue that Mr. Clinton was a reasonably good president. And one can argue that Bush economic policy has not been a success. But you have to be insane to argue that Mr. Clinton was FDR incarnate, and you have to be insane to argue Mr. Bush has brought the U.S. to its lowest economic point since 1932. This style of hyperbole is a symptom of madness, because it displays such palpable disconnect from observable reality.
If you have to go looking for outrage, the outrage probably isn't there. That which is truly outrageous tends to have the quality of obviousness.
So here is one aspect of this insanity: no sense of proportion. For Mr. Blumenthal, Fallujah isn't merely like Stalingrad. It may as well be Stalingrad, just as Guantanamo may as well be Lefertovo and Abu Ghraib may as well be Buchenwald, and Mr. Bush may as well be Hitler and Hoover combined, and Iraq may as well be Vietnam and Bill Clinton may as well be Franklin Roosevelt.
The absence of proportion stems, in turn, from a problem of perspective. If you have no idea where you stand in relation to certain objects, then an elephant may seem as small as a fly and a fly may seem as large as an elephant. Similarly, Mr. Blumenthal can compare the American detention infrastructure to the Gulag archipelago only if he has no concept of the actual size of things. And he can have no concept of the size of things because he neither knows enough about them nor where he stands in relation to them. What is the vantage point from which Mr. Blumenthal observes the world? It is one where Fallujah is "Stalingrad-like." How does one manage to see the world this way? By standing too close to Fallujah and too far from Stalingrad. By being consumed by the present. By losing not just the sense, but the possibility, of judgment.
Care for language is more than a concern for purity. When one describes President Bush as a fascist, what words remain for real fascists? When one describes Fallujah as Stalingrad-like, how can we express, in the words that remain to the language, what Stalingrad was like?
George Orwell wrote that the English language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." In taking care with language, we take care of ourselves.
Mr. Stephens is editor of the Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
"If Bush is another Hitler, what words are left to describe Hitler?"
In today's Wall Street Journal online edition, Bret Stephens asks a question that, were this world (or at least its' media) sane, wouldn't even need to be asked. Yet it does, and should be shouted from the proverbial rooftop. In case you are unable to access it, I have reprinted it in its' entirety below.