Monday, December 22, 2014

Starship Troopers and the Allure of Fascism





This article first appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission.

At first blush Starship Troopers appears to have only a superficial connection with World War II. In the 1997 film, transports carry elite troops across long distances to a hostile shore, where the troops clamber into landing craft that carry them into battle against an enemy who neither gives quarter nor surrenders. That sounds like the  U.S. Marine invasions of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. But Starship Troopers is set in the late 23rd century. The hostile shore is an enemy planet. And the enemy  are gigantic bugs.
             
However Starship Troopers contains many elements that smack strongly of fascism, the dominant Axis ideology. The very first scene shows hundreds of Mobile Infantry—the starship troopers—at attention in a stance identical to SS troopers at the Nuremberg rallies. Their uniforms closely resemble those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Much of the rhetoric sounds fascist, as when Sky Marshal Diennes (Bruce Gray) stands at a lectern in a scene that looks very much like Hitler addressing the Reichstag, and declares war on the Arachnids (the bugs) to an enthusiastic crowd: “We must…ensure that human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always!
             
Starship Troopers appears redolent of fascism because director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier consciously set out to make a film about fascism. The idea originated with Neumeier, who had co-written Verhoeven’s earlier RoboCop (1987). Told by “liberal friends” that RoboCop was “fascist,” Neumeier reflected that action films are inherently fascist, so why not make one that made the connection explicit? The concept appealed to Verhoeven, perhaps because he had spent his early childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland. And Starship Troopers made a good vehicle for such an effort, based as it was upon a 1959 Robert Heinlein novel widely regarded as crypto-fascist.
            
 The first shot in Starship Troopers is a visual quote from Triumph of the Will, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda masterpiece. A subsequent sequence introducing the main characters—Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards), and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyers)—on their last day of high school also introduces the basic philosophy of their world. “This year in history, we talked about the failure of democracy….,” teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) says. “We talked about the veterans, how they took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.” Disillusionment with democracy was one of the main attributes of fascism. In the film, only military veterans may vote: they are citizens, while non-veterans are merely “civilians.” Military service has so thoroughly indoctrinated the veterans that, for all practical purposes, the world government is a one-party police state.
           
The high school chums soon enlist, and when war with the Arachnids breaks out, they are in the thick of the fight. Rasczak, who has re-entered active duty, serves as the  platoon  leader of Mobile Infantrymen Rico and Flores, while overhead Ibañez pilots a starship . Rico, Flores, and Ibañez are gorgeous—the 23rd century equivalent of the ideal Aryan youth—and they enthusiastically embrace a worldview that accepts, indeed celebrates, life as violent struggle—another core fascism principle. Moreover, the protagonists willingly subordinate their individual identities to the State, another fascist tenet. As Italian dictator Benito Mussolini said, “There is no concept of the State which is not fundamentally a concept of life.”

The film also makes clear that the State controls the media. Frequent clips from the “Federal Network” supply exposition for the story, and illustrate how the society works. For example, in a triumph of order over the discredited liberal “coddling” of criminals, a man is accused of murder in the morning, convicted that afternoon, and executed—live on television—that evening. One could multiply the parallels between fascism and Starship Troopers almost indefinitely.
             
Verhoeven and Neumeier deliberately crafted Starship Troopers to make its worldview seem appealing. “I wanted to do something more than just a movie about giant bugs,” Verhoeven said in an interview. “I tried to seduce the audience to join [Starship Troopers’] society, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?’” Some critics who got the satirical point nevertheless worried that a younger audience would not—that naïve viewers would embrace this fascist world, much as those of similar age did in the 1930s. Indeed, the film’s success in depicting the the allure of fascism is what makes it an aid to understanding World War II, for we have long been so appalled by fascism that it is difficult to see the mass appeal it once possessed.
             
Some critics, indeed, mistook Starship Troopers as a celebration of fascism. In the DVD commentary Verhoeven and Neumeier seemed a bit surprised that anyone could believe such a thing. But they reserved their main scorn for TIME magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who concluded his review of Starship Troopers with the words: “[W]e’re looking at a happily fascist world. Maybe that’s the movie’s final, deadpan joke. Maybe it’s saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Or—best guess—maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don’t give a hoot about the movie’s scariest implications.” The filmmakers chuckled derisively at that because, of course, fascism was exactly the subject of the film. Moreover, they added, Schickel got its thesis exactly right: “War makes fascists of us all.” Thus, Starship Troopers does not just satirize fascism. It also warns about its continued allure in times of strife. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Hero's Adventure in Sands of Iwo Jima



This article originally appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with Permission

The next time you’re talking war movie trivia with friends, ask, “Who’s the hero in Sands of Iwo Jima?”  Almost inevitably, they will respond, “John Wayne.”  Or perhaps “Sergeant Stryker,” since that’s the name of the character that Wayne portrays.  But either way they will be wrong.  The hero is not Stryker, as one might expect because he is the film’s central figure.  It is instead the squad he leads into battle, and the story unfolds most richly when this is understood.  

In everyday terms, anyone potentially can behave “heroically” in the sense of behaving courageously.  But in mythic terms, “Hero” has a specific meaning.  It refers to the character in a story who undergoes an adventure in which he is challenged and changed, and from which he returns with a “boon”; that is to say, something of lasting value for himself or for others.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell set forth this definition in a classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 (the same year in which Sands of Iwo Jima debuted). Based on a study of cultures the world over, Campbell discovered that each had stories of a hero whose journey of adventure shared a common structure.

Although you may never have heard of Campbell’s book, you’ve surely seen its ideas on display, because when creating his Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), writer/producer George Lucas consciously drew upon them.   The Hero (Luke Skywalker) leaves the “ordinary world” of the planet Tatooine, enters the “special world” of the adventure, learns how to function in this special world, fights an adversary (the Empire), reaches a point of maximum peril (the loss of a hand and of his friend, Han Solo, in The Empire Strikes Back), and finally defeats his adversary and brings the boon of enduring peace to the galaxy in Return of the Jedi.  But although Campbell was the first to identify this structure, story-tellers have unconsciously used it for millennia.  So it was with Sands of Iwo Jima, written by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant, and directed by Alan Dwan.

As Campbell makes clear, the Hero’s journey invariably contains certain standard archetypes, chief among them the Mentor, who teaches the Hero how to operate in the special world of the adventure.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi.  In Sands of Iwo Jima it is Sergeant John M. Stryker.  Thus, the film opens in the “ordinary world” of a New Zealand training camp. The members of the squad—in mythic terms the Hero Team, because they embark on the adventure together—are the first to be introduced. Only then does Stryker appear.  His task is to prepare the Hero Team to enter the “special world” of combat.  He makes this plain when he and the squad first meet:  “If I can’t teach you one way, I’ll teach you another. But I’ll get the job done.”

Save for the two combat veterans in the squad, Stryker is not particularly well liked by the men.  Nor does he try to make himself likeable.  He even butt strokes PFC “Sky” Choynski (Hal Baylor), who cannot master the foot work involved with bayonet drill.  But true to his word, if Stryker can’t teach Choynski one way, he’ll teach him another, and later in the film he does so using the “Mexican Hat Dance” to give Choynski a sense of the rhythm and shifting of body weight involved.

Many adventures involve both a Mentor and a Shadow Mentor.  The latter tries to induce the Hero into embracing the dark side of the special world.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Shadow Mentor is Darth Vader. In Sands of Iwo Jima, Stryker represents both Mentor and Shadow Mentor.  Most of the squad see only the Mentor.  But one of them, PFC Peter Conway (John Agar) clearly perceives the Shadow Mentor, helped by the fact that he regards Stryker as the epitome of his own father, a flinty Marine colonel under whose command Stryker served on Guadalcanal.  Of his father, Conway speaks bitterly.  “I wasn’t tough enough for him. Too soft.  ‘No guts’ was the phrase he used. He wanted me to be like Stryker. . . . I bet they got along just fine.  Both with ramrods strapped on their backs. . . .They’re not going to strap one on mine.”  Conway views Stryker as the embodiment of man the violent animal as opposed to man the lover of life, family, and culture.
Conway encounters the Shadow Mentor most directly during the first night after the invasion of Tarawa.  This is the point of maximum peril for the Hero Team, for it has been assigned to hold a sector that ought to be defended by a force three times its size.  In the midst of this tense situation, Conway and Stryker hear the desperate cry of a wounded comrade.  Stryker refuses to help, saying that the cry may be a ruse and that an attempted rescue will give away the squad’s position.  To Conway this response is inhuman. “Sit here if you want,” he says, “I’m getting him. The only way you’ll stop me is to kill me.”  Stryker turns his rifle on Conway, his expression one of icy malevolence: “That’s just what I’ll do!”  Conway stays put.

Then, using Stryker’s trademark phrase, Conway steps forward to lead them. “All right, saddle up!” he growls. “Let’s get back in the war.” The squad has completed the Hero’s adventure.  But myth permits a nuanced reading of the film that leaves us wondering what individual journey Conway has completed.  Has he embraced Stryker as Mentor after all?  Or has he embraced the Shadow Mentor?  Perhaps, as Campbell once expressed it, Conway has “put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life” and has at last submitted “to the absolutely intolerable.”

Friday, June 06, 2014

D-Day Plus 70 Years

Origins:  Current Events in Historical Perspective, is a publication of the Ohio State University Department of History.  Here's the intro to the most recent piece, with a link to the complete article:


6/6/2014: Top Ten Origins: D-Day 70 Years Ago

By Greg Hope.  Greg is a U.S. Army captain who is doing his graduate work in preparation for his next assignment, as a military history instructor at West Point.


The Normandy Invasion (June 6, 1944) was the supreme joint effort of the Western Allies in Europe in World War II and remains today one of the best known campaigns of the war.

Code named Operation Overlord, it was a battle marked by its courage, meticulous planning and logistics, and audacious amphibious approach. It was also in many ways inevitable. Following Germany’s conquest of France in 1940 and declaration of war on the United States in 1941, a confrontation somewhere on the shores of Northern Europe became a waiting game, with only the date and location left to be answered.
On D-Day, over 125,000 British, American, and Canadian soldiers supported by more than five thousand ships and thirteen thousand aircraft landed in Normandy on five separate beaches in order to carve out a sixty-mile wide bridgehead. This foothold would be the launching point from which the liberation of France and Western Europe would proceed. Opposed by German units in strong defensive positions, the Allies suffered more than twelve thousand casualties on the first day of the invasion.

This year we mark the 70th Anniversary of Overlord. To commemorate the battle, Origins offers ten of the most important things to know about the invasion.


Full article

Monday, June 02, 2014

Casablanca and the Politics of Sacrifice




This article originally appeared in World War II magazine, vol. 29, no. 1 (May/June 2014):75-76. Reprinted with permission.

The first time I saw Casablanca I was twenty years old, with a date on my arm and hope in my heart.  Unsurprisingly, I watched it through the lens of romance.  So too, for at least the first five viewings, should anyone watch this most beloved of American films.  The journey of its central character, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), from a deep bitterness about love at the beginning of Casablanca to a noble sacrifice of love at its end, is one of the most compelling plots in the history of cinema.  But after that, it is permissible to reflect on Casablanca’s \political content, just as film critics have been doing for over seventy years.
            If you have never seen Casablanca, then stop reading this column, get hold of the DVD, and return after you’ve watched it.  The rest of us may reflect on the film as it would have appeared to movie goers who saw it during its initial run.  Casablanca debuted at New York’s Hollywood Theater on Thanksgiving Day 1942, not quite a year after the United States entered World War II.  By February 1943 it was playing in over 200 theaters across the country.
            At one level, of course, Casablanca is indeed an extraordinary romance. It centers on Rick’s Café Americaine, whose clientele comes to drink, gamble, and attempt to buy and sell escape from Casablanca, in French Morocco, to Lisbon in neutral Portugal and departure to freedom in the New World.  (French Morocco was then under the control of Vichy France, the authoritarian, pro-German rump state established after France signed a humiliating armistice with Germany.)  Rick himself is hardened and bitter.  It transpires that Rick has come from Paris, where he loved and lost the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).  Then Ilsa suddenly appears in the company of her seeming new lover, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).  “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” Rick later glooms in a fog of liquor, “she walks into mine.”
            Laszlo is among those trying to escape to Lisbon, closely pursued by the menacing Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt).  In Casablanca Laszlo enjoys a fragile safety, because it is under the jurisdiction of Vichy France.  But Vichy is after all virtually a German satellite, and sooner or later Strasser will find a way to seize him.  Laszlo is saved only because Rick ultimately decides to discard his cynicism and, in an intricately planned gambit, ensure Laszlo’s escape.
            Few could miss Casablanca’s references to pre-war American foreign policy. Early in the film, Rick rebuffs an overture by the black marketeer Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) to go into business together.  “My dear Rick,” Ferrari chides, “when will you realize that in this world today isolationism is no longer a practical policy?”  Warned by the Vichy police prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) not to intervene on behalf of the weasel-like Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who is correctly suspected of murdering two German couriers carrying letters of transit—priceless to anyone seeking to flee Casablanca—Rick responds, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”  Renault observes, “A wise foreign policy.”
            Based upon those lines in the film, and its overall trajectory, some have theorized that Warner Brothers intended Casablanca as an argument in favor of American intervention in the war.  But that is an untenable interpretation.  Filming began only until May 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor, and when the cameras started rolling the script was still incomplete.  Working at white heat—screenwriter Howard Koch remembered feeling that “the camera was a monster devouring my pages faster than I could write them”—Koch scarcely had time to craft a subtle propaganda film.  And director Michael Curtiz scarcely had the intention:  he simply wanted to make a love story.
            But as an affirmation of America’s goal in going to war, which was nothing less than to save the world from evil,  Casablanca had real power.  It is established early on that Rick once waged his own war against evil, running guns into Ethiopia and fighting in the Spanish Civil War, acts redolent of America’s intervention against Imperial Germany in World War I.  But like America, Rick retreated into a disillusioned isolationism:  “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
            Yet despite Rick’s initial renunciation of  any intent to stick his neck out for Laszlo in Laszlo’s attempt to escape Strasser by flying to Lisbon with Ilsa (who turns out to be his wife),  by the end of the film Rick has done exactly that, notwithstanding the fact that Ilsa is the great love of his life.  “Welcome back to the fight,” Laszlo tells him.  “This time I know our side will win.”  To protect Laszlo and Ilsa from capture before the plane can lift off, Rick shoots Strasser.  Then, with the plane safely aloft, Rick—joined by Renault, who evidently has also recovered his idealism—walks off into the night to make his way to the Free French garrison at Brazzaville:  “Louis,” he says, in one of cinema’s great lines, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  The arc of the film, then, is an unmistakable journey from isolationism to intervention.
            But audiences would also have viewed Casablanca in more personal terms.  After explaining to Ilsa why he has decided that she should leave with Laszlo rather than remain with him, Rick continues, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”  Like Rick, millions of Americans were making a sacrifice on behalf of the greater good, either by leaving their loved ones to go to war or by watching their loved one depart.  And if by horrible chance the loved ones failed to re-unite, then, like Rick, they could yet console themselves with their own equivalent of Rick’s declaration to Ilsa:  “We’ll always have Paris.” 






Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Moral World of Twelve O'Clock High



This article originally appeared in World War II magazine, vol. 28, no. 6 (March/April 2014):75-76. Reprinted with permission. 



Twelve O’Clock High
, a justly celebrated film about the air war over Europe, shows barely any high-altitude violence. Even so, director Henry King and his actors expertly illuminate the complex burdens of commanding personnel engaged in the brutal grind of flying into combat repeatedly as the odds of survival shorten. The portrait they render of men under pressure achieves a timeless, unblinking clarity.

This is why, more than 60 years after its 1949 premiere, military educators still employ Twelve O’Clock High to talk about leadership. These conversations usually address such practicalities as command style, but the film offers insights on many other levels. During two years as a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College, I showed my students—mostly colonels fresh from Afghanistan and Iraq— a key scene from the film in order to make them to think and talk about how the ethical reasoning in its imaginary world informs real-world officership.
           
Twelve O’Clock High begins with the fictional 918th Bomb Group returning from a disastrous raid against German submarine pens in St. Nazaire, only to have Bomber Command order a low-altitude run at the pens the very next day. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) protests to Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). “Those boys are flesh and blood. They’ll die for you but they gotta know they have a chance and they know they haven’t got one,” Davenport says. “They know a man’s chances run out in 15 missions. Somebody’s gotta give them a limit. A goal, some hope of living.” Savage reluctantly conveys Davenport’s misgivings to their superior, Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), who with Savage confronts Davenport, an otherwise unimpeachable officer.
           
Here is where the film’s moral world comes into focus. The three officers, in the company of other men of the 918th, discuss the deadly mission, whose heavy losses they trace to a navigational error. Davenport tries to shield the man who made that mistake, but the mission’s navigator, Lieutenant Zimmerman (Lee MacGregor), steps forward. He forthrightly explains how his errors brought the 918th late to the target and into German anti-aircraft gunners’ sights. As soon as Zimmerman is out of earshot, Pritchard pressures Davenport to relieve him. Davenport refuses. Pritchard relieves Davenport, ultimately replacing him with Savage. Within hours, Zimmerman, off-camera, commits suicide.

Monday, November 05, 2012

My Twinkie

Back in June the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College chose my book The Hard Hand of War as "the book of the conference," meaning that all participants were asked to read it and a round table was convened specifically to discuss it.  That was a real honor and one I much appreciated.

Recently CSPAN-3 aired the roundtable.  Panelists included Susannah Ural, Keith Bohannon, Megan Kate Nelson, Brooks Simpson, and myself.  The whole thing is a bit over an hour in length, but for my money the most delightful moment in it occurred when Megan  remarked that the book was almost twenty years old, was still a standard work on the subject, and that it was "unusual for a book to have that kind of shelf life. . . . It's like a Twinkie.  It's still fresh."  I've never considered Twinkies to be exactly fresh, but they are certainly timeless.  I'm confident that they will survive a nuclear conflict, global warming, or pretty much any other calamity.  So it was really a very nice compliment.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Society for Military History Has a Blog

The Society for Military History, the flagship organization for academic military history, has recently re-vamped its web site and added a group blog.  Contributors include Bob Bateman, Brett Holman, Jamel Ostwald, Brian Sandberg, and myself.  I also serve as the blog's administrator.

The blog will produce about ten posts per month:  on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays one week, then Tuesdays and Thursdays the next, then back to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  The emphasis is on items that showcase or comment upon academic military history.

Someone recently asked me if my participation on this blog meant the end of my efforts on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age.  Not at all.  The chief impediment to regular posts on BTOOTSA continues to be the sharply limited time available these days (thanks in part to a one-year old daughter) and my discouragement over continued security issues on the primary blog.  Someday I'd like to get these resolved.  But it hasn't been easy, and my intention all along has been to author the blog, not get heavily involved on the technical side.

In the meantime, though, I'll try to post on BTOOTSA more regularly.  And of course I'll be posting on the SMH blog twice a month.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Spirit of Independence

A guest post by COL (Ret.) Charles D. Allen.

I had expected a traditional 4th of July holiday with the trappings of local and national celebrations, fireworks, and displays of patriotism coupled with family events.  For many of us, the mid-week holiday extended the observance to the following weekend.
 
I took the opportunity to visit Mom and siblings in Cleveland and, as is my habit, I picked up an audiobook CD for the 600-mile roundtrip.  The selection this time was David Hackett Fischer’s award-winning Washington’s Crossing.  The book captured my attention so much that I drove straight through to my mother’s house.  The next two days were spent checking in with my mom and her cousin (among the last of that generation), watching my brother grill and spend time with his grandkids, and sharing late-night reminisces with my sisters. After a hearty Sunday breakfast (prepared by my brother), I hit the road having counted the weekend an American success.

I inserted the next CD and continued to listen to Fischer’s remarkable work.  The next chapter of the book recounted the attitudes and reactions of American colonials in New Jersey in the face of the occupation by British and Hessian troops. I then remembered seeing signs for Shanksville/Somerset PA on my outbound trip and felt compelled to visit the Flight 93 Memorial on the way home.  A quick check of the GPS gave directions and time to the site, so I departed from my normal route on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The park entrance is 3-1/2 miles from the Memorial Plaza and the road winds slowly to the impact site. From the parking lot, the quarter-mile walk begins with display boards that detail the events of the morning of September 11, 2001.  Most haunting are the faces on the placard, “The Crew and Passengers of Flight 93.” At the end of the walk are 40 marble panels inscribed with each name and the existence of an unborn child.

As I looked around the unfinished memorial and its landscape, it was clear that the unremarkable countryside belied the remarkable feat accomplished by the passengers who boarded the plane in Newark, New Jersey. Among the names on the display and marble panels were those of Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett and Todd Beamer who assumed leadership roles on the plane when the threat to the nation became clear. Tom on the phone told his wife, Deena, “We can’t wait…we’re going to do something.” Voice recordings captured the memorable words of Todd, who was about to lead the group: “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll!”
  
It is striking how this band of civilians embodied the same spirit of the New Jersey colonists in 1776. That spirit is captured in the third verse of “America the Beautiful”:

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life! 

This is important to remember each Independence Day—that our citizens are true heroes whom those in uniform have the honor to serve.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Military History Carnival #30

. . . is up and running at Cliopatria.

Israel and Iraq: The Wrong Question

ISRAEL AND IRAN:
EVERYONE IS ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION

by Garrett Jones

Garrett Jones is a retired operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. He spent extensive time in the Middle East and Africa and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.


On the 19th of February 2012, the New York Times had an interesting article pointing out the logistical and tactical problems the Israeli Air Force would encounter if it were to try to interdict the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. [1] The conclusion reached by the author was that the problems involved precluded Israel from making an attempt at derailing the Iranian nuclear program through conventional military means. While I largely concur with the logic in the article, I do not believe the Israelis ever have seriously considered a conventional military strike as an effective way of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The more
pertinent question is: Will nuclear weapons be used by Israel against Iran?

Since the beginning of Israel’s own nuclear weapons program, the Israeli doctrine on nuclear weapons has been to reserve the employment of nuclear weapons for attacks or potential dangers that threaten the existence of the Israeli state. This is best demonstrated by Israel’s reaction to Pakistan’s announcement that it had acquired nuclear weapons in 1998. While there was no celebration of the development of an “Islamic Bomb” in Israeli circles, nor was there any public talk of retaliation or military strikes. While Pakistan was not an ally or supporter of Israel, it also did not develop nuclear weapons with much regard to Israel at all.

The development of nuclear weapons was focused on the threat from India, not Israel. While key players in the Pakistani nuclear program may have taken steps to promote the spread of the “Islamic bomb” to other Middle East players, it has been the unwavering stand of the Government of Pakistan, and, more importantly, the Pakistani Army that nuclear weapons were for self-defense — “from India” being the unsaid but clearly understood source of any threat requiring the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons. This was the weapon system to prevent the neighboring Indian Army from simply overwhelming Pakistan with its superior size.

While both distance and the support of the U.S. for both Israel and Pakistan by the U.S. also mitigated the threat of Pakistani possession of nuclear in regard to Israel, it is clear that the Pakistani’s nuclear program simply did not rise to the level of an existential threat to the Israeli state. I do believe, however, that as an unintended consequence, the Pakistani nuclear program is the current greatest existential threat to Pakistan.

The possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands is of major interest to the United States, but such a development is a survival threat to India. While the Pakistani Army may publicly express concern about the U.S. staging a special operation mission to deprive them of their nuclear weapons should the command and control of Pakistani weapons be threatened, it is far more likely the Indian Army will be there long before the U.S. feels compelled to move. In view of the history of conflict between India and Pakistan, the addition of nuclear weapons to the mix means that the next conflict which is more than a border skirmish, is almost by definition an extinction event for Pakistan. It would hardly be rational for the Indians to leave a defeated enemy on its very border in possession of nuclear weapons in the wake of a serious bilateral military engagement. Pakistan cannot hope to be a victor in any prolonged military engagement against India. Pakistani’s nuclear weapons were meant to create a military stalemate with India. Stalemates are great as long as they work. Loose nukes in Pakistan are an Indian survival threat long before any U.S. targets are held at risk in such an ventuality. I fully expect to see India move to destroy the Pakistani nuclear program should any serious question of uncertainty over the control of Pakistani weapons arise.

Much the same view should be taken in regard to the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. The question is not whether Iran should be permitted by the West to develop nuclear weapons. The true question is whether Israel determines the Iranian possession of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to the Israeli state. If it does, Israel will employ its nuclear arsenal to end the threat. If it does not, there will be no overt military action. The logistical and tactical problems outlined in the New York Times article dictate the use of nuclear weapons. What would have required hundreds of aircraft to neutralize with conventional weapons can be done by a handful of aircraft employing nuclear weapons. A nuclear mission against Iran is well within the capability of the Israeli Air Force.

Unfortunately, such a mission seems to be outside the limits of imagination of the West’s current national leaders. There has been little discussion of such an occurrence in public circles and I believe that reflects a lack of thoughtful consideration of the possibility. I believe most observers expect a violent and prolonged reaction against Israeli interests, and by extension the interests of Israel’s allies such as the U.S., should Israel carry out a conventional military strike against Iran. I believe it would be fair to say that such a reaction to a conventional strike will pale in comparison to the uproar caused by a nuclear strike. I also believe such a development would completely reset the relationship and positions of all the players in the Middle East peace process in an unpredictable manner. The current stalemate and fossilization of positions would be swept aside, for better or worse.

The Israeli government will receive condemnation and hostility from the other players in the Middle East no matter what sort of military action it takes against Iran. By the same token, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. are likely to back any action Israel takes, if it is cast in the form of the preservation of the Jewish state. “Never again,” reflecting the unique history of the founding of the state of Israel in the wake of the Jewish holocaust after World War II, is probably the most powerful phrase in Israeli politics. It is a slogan which will unite all parts of the political spectrum in Israel and the supporters of the Jewish state internationally.

No private citizen is truly in a position to judge the rationality and the intentions of a government such as is now in control of Iran. The opacity of lines of responsibility and decision making processes in Iran make such a judgment properly within the purview of national intelligence organizations of the various sovereign governments. With that said, the public statements of the Iranian leadership lead me to believe that they will not be diverted from their goal of achieving nuclear weapons. The same public statements also do not engender much confidence in the rationality or judgment of Iran’s leadership.

The history of the Israeli state and its location in a sea of enemies has in an almost unique way trained the leaders of Israel to think the unthinkable. If Israel determines the Iranian nuclear program is in fact a threat to its very existence, then it will strike, and strike in such a manner as to be successful. This will require nuclear weapons. If Israel determines it can live with Iran as a nuclear state, then expect there to be no overt military action but a continuing series of low-level sabotage and covert intelligence actions.

I believe the West and the current U.S. administration are again engaged in a failure of imagination. I do not think the current crop of Western leaders fully understand that Israel may well believe itself to be facing an extinction threat. This may simply be because since the end of the Cold War those currently exercising power in the West have not been faced with such a dilemma. In a very real way, they may not have sufficient practice in both “thinking the unthinkable” and preparing for the consequences of the “unthinkable.”

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Notes

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/world/middleeast/
iran-raid-seen-as-complex-task-for-israeli-military.html?_r=2


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