Christmas is a beautiful day and a powerful season, even when it descends into sentimentality. The Christmas Truce, observed on the Western front at the end of 1914, wherein German and French and British soldiers ceased fire on their own initiative and played football instead, is an all-time powerful true war story. But it took place at the same time as a little-known case of barbarism in the name of military discipline, one that preceded by a few months a case somewhat better known due to Paths of Glory, a based-on-a-true-story film that ought to be shown during every Christmas season.
You have perhaps seen the movie, an early Stanley Kubrick work starring Kirk Douglas in the role of a Bayard of the trenches, doing the best he can to protect his men from the meatgrinder tactics of armchair generals corrupt to the marrow.
I knew that Paths of Glory , made in the late 1950s and banned for many years in France, was based on a 1935 novel of the same title by Howard Cobb, but I was not aware until I looked him up on Wikipedia that he was an American writer who had grown up (expatriate parents) in Italy, joined the Canadian army in 1916, and fought in France. There is also Irvin S. Cobb, who also wrote a nonfiction Paths of Glory in 1915 about the war, which he was covering as a reporter. I. S. Cobb was to my knowledge the first American reporter to write about the legendary Harlem Hellfighters, the New York regiment that General Pershing assigned to the French army due to sensitivities among his own officers regarding Negro soldiers.
(Observe in passing that Wikipedia should be read with caution and you cannot rely on it covering current events, when you must go to the source and talk to him — or even her — and get the perp’s — or the snitch’s — own words. But okay, it is a useful gizmo and I even chip in (stingily) when they send out their annual appeal because, hey, the new media… )
To stay on point, however, the story is brilliantly told by Howard Cobb and Kubrick, using minimalist camera work, a totally brilliant performance by Douglas and also superb supporting performances by Adolphe Menjou and George Macready, in the roles of utter slime bags.
With the war of trenches on the Western front turning into a killing field as never seen before in warfare, there was a reluctance in both German and French ranks to charge into artillery fire to gain a few yards which would be lost as soon as the other side did the same. Conditions in the trenches led to mortality by diseases, malnutrition, and anguish. When they talk about World War I having been the suicide of the West, keep this history in mind.
Mutinies took place on the French side in the spring of 1917. They were significant, for unchecked they would have offered the Germans a gap that could have been decisive. There were essentially three ways of dealing with them: change strategy; discipline the troops with fierce punishments; hold the line but stop suicidal attacks and show the troops compassion.
The French were too exhausted (and set in their ways) to do anything along the lines of the first idea, at least until the arrival of General J. J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force. The third was, in fact, put in place by General Philippe Pétain, and worked, within inhumane limitations. But he was able to do this only after the second had been assayed. This was the policy of “pour l’example,” show-‘em-we-mean-it, as we would say.
There had been some resistance as early as December 1914, just prior to the Christmas truce, by French African troops whom the army was using as pure cannon fodder. The example here was ferocious, one out of every ten men among the units that retreated against their officers’ orders to stand and die. The mutiny on which Paths of Glory is based took place in 1915. Compared to the widespread rebellion on the Flanders front two years later, these two early cases remained isolated. The book and movie follow closely the facts in the later case, which involved such appalling generalship (including deliberate bombing of troops to make them move) that the officer responsible was relieved of his command and subjected to an official inquiry (but never put on trial). This occurred, however, only after the Corps commander, represented by a monster of cynicism portrayed by Menjou, rules arbitrary courts-martial must be held and their sentences carried out.
The Kirk Douglas character, Colonel Dax, does his best to protect his men, up to and including serving as their lawyer (as he is in civilian life) at a kangaroo trial. He refuses the promotion to general that the Corps commander subsequently offers him as a bribe.
In the wars of the Middle East, most of the sordid acts are committed by our enemies. The Persians sent children over minefields during the Iraq-Iran war on the 1980s, the Iraqis shot their reluctant soldiers en masse and the Ba’ath regime massacred entire population groups suspected of disloyalty; this also was the policy of the Alawite regime in Syria, then led by the current tyrant’s father Hafez al-Assad. All this is well known.
Our troops have done their best to follow rules of engagement that put them at mortal risk. This is also the policy of the Israel Defense Force, even though it knows the Arab forces deliberately set up their artillery in hospitals, apartment complexes, schools, to create the impression that Israel commits war crimes when it takes them out.
The reward of the Obama administration, in its waning days, to the Americans and Israelis who have fought with honor against barbarism, is a final gesture of betrayal and appeasement. On the eve of Hanukah, itself occurring on Christmas eve this year, the Obama administration in the person of its UN ambassador, Samantha Powers, refused to veto a Security Council resolution that says Israelis cannot live on their own land and should be viewed as international outlaws. For good measure, or maybe as a kind of sick humor, it adds that negotiations between them and the Palestinians, or rather their gangland bosses, must resume hastily.
Jed Babbin explained the full meaning of this ghastly act of perfidy in a fine article in this space yesterday; and you have to admire the courage and dignity of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who at the annual Hanukah Candle Lighting Ceremony just steps from the White House, made the best show of telling-truth-to-power in recent Washington history by sticking it squarely to the administration and its ridiculous representative to the event, a Treasury department official named Adam Szubin. After this sorry excuse for a public servant’s canned remarks about the “light” represented by the miracle of Hanukah, Rabbi Shemtov pointedly quoted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netenyahu to not despair of the darkness represented by the U.S.-supported Security Council vote.
At the first Hanukah, the freedom fighting Maccabees kept the menorah candles lit despite a shortage of lighting oil when they liberated their temple and wanted to rededicate it; inspired, they went to throw the oppressive foreigners out of their land.
An additional punch was provided by Rabbi Shemtov when he noted that the quote came from P. M. Netanyahu’s time as Israel’s UN ambassador and was itself a reference to a story of faith and steadfastness told to him by Rabbi Schneersohn, who told him that when working in a place of darkness, he must counter it with light.
At the UN, this meant unrelenting truth telling against the constant Big Lie propagated by the welfare queens who make up the vast majority of UN bureaucrats and delegates. We — the U.S. — pay for this outrageous racquet of handouts and featherbeds.
There cannot be ranker hypocrisy, more stinking bad faith, more explicit and open call to mass murder than last week’s Security Council resolution. You have to ask yourself how this Samantha Powers person lives with herself. She writes a book, a few years back, on how a determined show of political-military spine by the Clinton administration could have prevented, or at least greatly mitigated, the catastrophe known as the Rwandan Genocide. But they averted their eyes. Miss Powers once made a big and high-minded deal of those who “avert their eyes.”
It suffices for good men to avert their eyes for evil to triumph. And mind you, evil continued to triumph for many years after the months-long mass murder of Rwanda’s Tutsi tribes because the killing spilled over into eastern Congo, which remains to this very day one of the earth’s regions of slaughter, rapine, resource-plunder.
Miss Powers was also, in the name of humanitarian intervention, one of the hawks on Libya, one of the Obama administration’s major foreign policy failures, wrecking a country, creating a North African base for al Qaeda and ISIS, destabilizing the entire Sahelian region. This meant war in Mali (still festering) and the Boko Haram terror in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. It meant refugees, starvation, disease.
Samantha Powers and Hillary Clinton and their boss the president went in with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British PM David Cameron on a humanitarian mission in Libya, and when the going got tough, they backed out and averted their eyes from what became a humanitarian catastrophe comparable to Syria’s, where they also averted their eyes.
They bravely concentrated their eyes and their ire on free and democratic Israel for eight years, culminating in this Security Council resolution that subverts everything the UN allegedly stands for, and averted their eyes from the options to decisively fight the savages who have brought about a refugee crisis that, additional to what it is doing to Africa and the Middle East, may bring to their knees European societies that somehow two world wars in 30 years did not finish off.
Congratulations, Miss Power! Who but a person like you and your band of compassionate realists in the White House would have the moral steel and strategic vision to plot a treacherous political and diplomatic attack on the only humane and democratic and free country in a region where, a few hundred miles away, an impotent U.S. — the world’s only superpower — stands by and watches as Arabs, backed by Russian air power and Persian special forces, demonstrate in complete brazenness, how they conceive of negotiations with people they hate and resent and envy and despise.
The amazing thing here is that it was possible to stop the serial genocides that have been taking place in Iraq and Syria and Africa during Barack Obama’s watch. Many people in this country, by no means all of them conservative opponents of the Obama administration like Jed Babbin, said so early and often.
This is apart from whether you feel the Bush administration blundered in its post-9/11 offensives — if you want, in its whole conception of what it labeled (clumsily) the “war on terror.” (It is a war against Islam — with Muslims as allies where possible, as enemies where not possible.) Leave aside the Big Think stuff. Where was Samantha Powers, where was Ben Rhodes, where was Adam Szubin, where was President Obama, when it was possible to use American air power against the Assad regime’s assets — presidential palace, airfields, the compounds where its nomenklatura lives in security and comfort and impunity (remember this is a regime formed and maintained by the Russians when they were called Soviets).
But why ask? We know where they were.
Ironically enough, the only consequence of the cynicism, the ineptitude, the catatonia in the face of evil, the backstabbing of allies — Jews and Christians and, yes, Muslims who counted on us — will be to further undermine the credibility of one of their preferred delusions of American liberals, the United Nations.
This could be the silver lining of the Obama administration’s final failure. Perhaps our new ambassador’s maiden speech at Turtle Bay will be a short one:
“Please advise your governments that these premises must be cleared in 30 days. The U.S. government will assist in relocating your staffs to Juba, South Sudan, a place more in keeping with the sort of problems you so selflessly have chosen to dedicate your careers to addressing. Those countries that are receiving various forms of aid and assistance from this organization should get in touch as quickly as possible with the American mission across the street to begin the process of negotiating bilateral aid agreements that, maybe, will serve your purposes, though we cannot guarantee you will like the new terms.”
The other silver lining is that after this eight-year demonstration of Democratic foreign policy’s greatest hits, it would seem American liberals themselves can sink no lower, and the whole country will see it.
It would seem. Well, Christmas and Hanukah coincide this year, commemorations of hope and dedications to freedom, so let’s assume while we can that we are right on that, and what would seem, will be.