Friday, January 20, 2012

World War Newt

Years ago Newt Gingrich stumbled on a pretty good idea: garnish any policy proposal with multiple historical analogies or references to significant events and hope that one resonates with the audience.

History moves us; it bestows on us the sense that the mundane moments we endure are part of an as-yet unperceived grand narrative. Newt's schtick is that he alone perceives this narrative, and it works for two reasons.

One, as I said in a piece at Vice:
We Americans don't read as much as we ought, and our self-consciousness about this tends to make us reflexively credit anyone who claims he does. Gingrich tendentiously delivers policy banalities while citing books he's read or written, and it's easy to think, "Ah, a learned observation." It's the political equivalent of going to someone's house, seeing his 2,000-book library, and feeling uncomfortable about correcting him, even if everything he says makes him sound like Cliff Clavin.
Two, critics and historians are busy people. They don't have time to correct Gingrich on every point, because corrections require examining his statement, then having to explain where he and history parted ways.

Gingrich himself games this process by invoking history constantly, as if in a kind of endless filibuster against an authentic record of America that he dearly hopes to eliminate through repetition. Not only does he throw facts at the American people to see which ones stick, he also throws so many at intellectuals that eventually their exhaustion, disgust or crowded schedules will permit him to get away with one. He did this again last night, at CNN's South Carolina Republican Debate.

To make another bog-standard "GOVERNMENT=INEFFICIENT!" argument, Newt referred to the dredging of the Port of Charleston, saying, "The Corps of Engineers takes eight years to study fixing the port. We won WWII in three and a half years. That’s ridiculous."

His statement is almost innocuous, and probably nobody else today will even bother with it. All the same, it's absurd to anybody who paid attention in an American history survey. It neither works economically nor militarily.

Consider: the Army Corps of Engineers would probably have more personnel to devote to impact studies if it weren't stretched thin by two wars over nearly a full decade, a decaying American infrastructure that's been essentially ignored for half a century and other ports soliciting dredging studies to bring their depth in line with the demands of the deeper-draught tankers coming through the expanded Panama Canal. More tellingly, they might also have a lot more personnel and funds to conduct faster studies if there were, as in WWII, over 10 million American men in uniform, drawing on funding from a marginal tax rate of 94% for people earning over $200,000 per year.

If Newt's analogy is, domestically, an example of anything, it's how a bunch of intransigent McCarthyite loons in Congress have used hysterical invocations of Stalinism to demonize a top marginal tax rate of 35%, large-scale public works and government-directed infrastructural improvements. Those things precede (or represent) big-government takeover, so when Newt complains that the Corps of Engineers takes forever to do something, he has only his friends to blame for limited personnel, budgetary resources or national public-opinion outcry.

Second, no part of the WWII analogy works. "We" didn't win WWII in 3.5 years. One really obvious, basic-math indicator is that the war lasted for over six years. Another is the fact that nations on the winning side had been fighting for those years without us; any claim that we won the war from 1942-1945 thus relies on a reading of history in which the contributions of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and others were absolutely null. The very existence of the British Empire — something difficult to overlook — renders Newt's example absolutely wrong.

Further, even granting Newt the extremely generous misinterpretation that the United States was the deciding factor in the war, he got his years wrong. American involvement in the war effectively started in 1940, in which the Destroyer-Bases deal began our one-sided arms support in the European conflict by giving Britain badly needed warships, and the Export Control Act set in motion the process of constricting Japanese access to needed materiel that resulted in outright embargo and then the attack on Pearl Harbor. Counting back to mid-1940, Newt's total of American committment has already risen to five full years.

Newt forgot two other things. First, many mainstream historians consider the Mukden Incident the start of WWII, which brings the opening of hostilities in the Pacific back to 1931. Second, if you've ever once listened to a neoconservative explain national security policy — especially jackals like Charles Krauthammer or Frank J. Gaffney — you've heard them shriek, "Munich! Munich! Munich!" In their interpretation, the existential threat Hitler posed transitioned from potential to active with the selling out of Czechoslovakia, in 1938. So, depending on which theater you're talking about, the United States started winning WWII either four or ten years after it began. Our ratio of Year's Fought to War's Duration doesn't look so hot.

Lastly, even a half-baked, half-sozzled history undergrad could make an excellent case for the war's reaching the beginning of its end by the time America finally schlepped its ass across its borders — like that same undergrad crossing the front-door rubicon on a weekend. In Europe, the Battle of Stalingrad initiated Germany's undoing; the ten fatal errors Hitler made in its pursuit sealed the Wehrmacht's fate in Europe before a single bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. In the Pacific, the war's end was probably written at its inception. Just as America lost in Vietnam and "lost" China to the forces of nationalism unleashed at Mukden, Japan would have lost its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere to the same, albeit not by 1945.

The idea of a nation the size of Japan controlling a nation the size of China was untenable from a resource standpoint even at the outset. Japan's need for ore and oil to continue the subjugation of Manchuria fed its expansion outward into East Asia. Yet, just as this expansion sought to feed a war on a Chinese front that increasingly sapped Japan's human and materiel resources and attention, it also awakened the nationalisms of each country it "liberated" from western imperialism. Japanese aggression created the same militant nationalism that not only grew into the People's Liberation Army but also the DPRK. No historian would be considered unreasonable for suggesting that the United States' military intervention merely accelerated both the inevitable centrifugal forces that would have torn apart Japan's empire and the inevitable centripetal forces that helped to create the nation states of Asia.

Given that his false analogy is wrong economically and militarily, it's lucky for Newt that he probably doesn't care about any of this. He's trolling history for applause lines. He's feeding red meat to the rah-rah types for whom it's not only self-evident that no positive war outcomes could have been generated by agents other than the United States, but that the expression "yeah, well we saved your ass in WWII" applies to every country and citizen on the planet.

This WWII stuff doesn't really matter, because it's just window-dressing for his point. Gingrich's great asset is that, while other candidates reiterate the same Reaganite bromides that "government isn't the solution, government is the problem," he can employ history to make the same shallow and fallacious point with something that smacks of sophistication, long-view wisdom and intellectual √©lan. The focus of his historical comments directs you away from the history — which is unequivocally wrong — and toward the contemporary menace he wants you to loathe. Newt is as unconcerned with The Greatest Generation as every other Republican who's tried to eliminate Social Security and Medicaid, but here he can use them as a shining antithesis of sclerotic, hydra-headed government meddling. Just forget that FDR guy and the New Deal — not to mention the anti-interventionist GOP of the period.

What Newt wants you to think is, "Wow, government interference has sure led this country astray! We used to win wars in less than a decade, and now it takes us nearly that long to complete an environmental impact study!" But here's where history is important, and where journalists and historians should seize it from him, to stop him from using it as a cudgel with which to beat his ideological foes, and instead dare to use it to thrash him instead. Because what the actual record of WWII makes you think is, "Newt Gingrich is terrible historian and a dishonest sack of shit."