24 Juni 2006

Inside Hermann's Head

The following, I realize, has been excerpted by numerous blogs over the past few years, but as one of the greatest expressions of pure, blunt cynicism of all time it never grows stale. Hermann Goering was the head of the Luftwaffe (air force) of the Third Reich and one of the most cunning Nazis. A flying ace during World War I, Goering had become addicted to painkillers, and by the eve of World War II had gained over 100 pounds and bought an enormous estate which he named Karinhall, after his Swedish wife. Goering took to wearing all kinds of outlandish outfits (though he was not a cross dresser, as urban legends would have it) and toting around a bejewelled sceptre. Unlike many others among the Nazi brass, Goering had not risen from complete obscurity and he never let the others forget it. Although his influence with Hitler gradually declined during the course of the war, Goering was nonetheless the ranking defendant at the first and most famous of the Nuremburg trials in 1946. Although convicted, Goerging cheated the hangman by ingesting a smuggled cyanide capsule. During the trial, he was interviewed by a Germanophone U.S. Army psychiatrist, Gustave Gilbert, who recalled the following conversation:

We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Granted, these interesting little historical factoids are litte more than that; certainly they're utterly irrelevant to any of our concerns today. Of course you can't wage war without Congress declaring it, and in this country it is the duty of every patriotic citizen to criticize the government.

22 Juni 2006

George Orwell, Genie

Ich muss euch warnen, diesen Schriftsteller halte ich fuer besonders klug und klarsichtig. Er sagte so viel ueber die Gesellschaft und die Politik vorher, dass es recht verwunderlich war. Er schaetzte vor allem die Wahrheit, gleich ob sie uns oder ihm Unbequemlichkeit bereitete. Am Ende des 2. Weltkrieges spuerte er eine Tatsache, die zu jener Zeit fast kein Mensch zugeben wollte: dass das ganze Konzept "Rache" eine Fata Morgana ist, eine Illusion, die eigentlich nie realisiert werden kann.

The Metric System

The other day I engaged in a conversation--well, to be honest, a recitation--that I have repeated more often than I can remember. It began when I lived in Germany several years ago. As an American, I quickly discovered that when talking to me most people tended to gravitate towards a select number of subjects, one of which invariably had to do with the old-fashioned Anglo-American system of weights and measurements. Why, ask the rationalistic, Cartesian-influenced Europeans, don't we Americans, in most respects purportedly so high-tech, bite the bullet and make the switch? The short answer, of course, is that as a superpower we don't have to; we are the 800-pound gorilla that gets fed whatever it wants (though nowadays the other gorillas are rapidly getting bigger too, while our gorilla is getting long in the tooth, but that's another tale).

To that extent, our critics have a valid point. However, what annoys me no end is the snide comment that usually follows--that the English system is "stupid" and "makes no sense" because it is so irregular, e.g., a mile comes to 5,280 feet, 16 inches equal one pound, 14 pounds equal one stone, and so on. In fact, the system is not at all stupid; moreover, it makes more sense than the metric system, albeit for its original users: people of ordinary intelligence who are both illiterate and innumerate, to wit, the English peasantry of the Middle Ages.

Suppose that you cannot read, write or cipher--meaning that you can neither recognize arabic numbers (1,2,3), nor manipulate them on paper to come up with 2 + 2 = 4. Yet you are possessed of a normal everyday vocabulary and intelligence. The metric system, had it existed (it did not come about, fittingly enough, until the rationalistic Enlightenment period centuries later) would have been beyond your ability: you would have to be able to understand decimals, base-ten, and the concept of zero. By contrast, intuitively you would be able to understand what half, a third, a quarter, a sixth, and an eighth of something are. Now notice how inches and feet work: 12 inches comprise one foot. The number 12 is evenly divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6--a total of four possibilities. In other words, 12 allows users to make "intuitive" or innumerate divisions without having to cipher. That's why 36 inches--not 35 or 33 or 40--equal one yard: 36 can be divided evenly by 2, 3 (making 3 feet), 4, 6, and 9!

The metric system makes higher mathematical calculations easier, because it does away with fractions. We found fractions difficult in grade-school math because they pre-date higher mathematics, which is rather ill-equipped to deal with them. If you are going to start multiplying and dividing, obviously decimals make more sense than fractions. But if you are just dividing something up among friends or associates--e.g., you take a third of the bushel, I'll take two thirds, each of you two gets one sixth apiece--then fractions are a lot less complicated. The same principle holds true with other English units of measure, too. One pound equals 16 ounces--16 can be divided evenly by 2, 4, and 8. If you try any of these commonplace divisions in the metric system, you end up with a recurring decimal, e.g., 3.3333~. Based as they are in units of 10, metric measurements can be divided evenly only by 2 and 5--two possibilities. When you've got calculators and the use of zero, as stated, that becomes much easier.

But, you retort, surely we don't live in that quaint medaeval world anymore, so why should we retain the old system? No reason--just the sheer weight of nearly 300,000,000 people's intransigence and inertia. Besides, Americans aren't as unfamilar with the metric system as most foreigners imagine. It's widely used by scientists and engineers. Sodas come in 2-liter bottles. Rifle and handgun ammunition are often (not always) metric: 9mm, 7.62mm, 5.55 mm. Photographers have long spoken of 35mm film and 50mm or 100mm lenses (only on very, very old cameras will you find lenses calibrated in inches). Our injections are in metric (50cc's, etc). Mechanics use metric wrenches on cars all the time. It's just that we don't want to use metric for everyday life: Americans don't want to re-learn their height, weight, commuting distance, etc., in metric. For those of you dreaming about a metric future, I suggest you try to persuade Jimmy Carter to run for President again. Having been a nuclear engineer before entering either peanut farming or politics, he tried to phase out the old system with a plan called "Metric 2000"--the U.S. was supposed to switch over by then. I can recall textbooks in my K-8 school gradually inserting metric measurements in parentheses. It all ended in 1981, when Reagan ended the program by Executive Order. Consensus among scientists and others interested in this matter holds that the chances of America adopting metrics wholesale are slim at best, and virtually nil so long as a Republican administration occupies the White House.

20 Juni 2006

Death figures

Those who oppose the current debacle in Iraq frequently bewail the general public's inability to appreciate the waste in lives and treasure, the carnage and suffering that always accompany any kind of military operation (all right, war). Unfortunately for the war's opponents, the costs of the war--as staggering as they appear in print, e.g., $10 billion per month--simply don't have much of an impact on our economy, the size of which has passed the $11.75 trillion mark. (I can remember when a measly $5 trillion seemed vast.) This assessment of the war's impact may sound brutal but must be recognized. While it is true that, pace Eisenhower, each piece of equipment could fund so many schools and so on, the fact remains that, viewed historically, military spending as a percentage both of the overall federal budget and of the gross national product is not all that high. The effect of military spending has to be gauged in proportion to the overall economy, not on the gross amount expended. Similarly, although every life lost in Iraq is, arguably, a crime, the war simply has not "come home" in any meaningful sense--we have lost 2500 service members in three years, and that's out of a population of nearly 300,000,000 people.

To put all of this in better perspective, German and Austrian history proves quite instructive, and also goes a long way towards explaining why the Germans, contrary to the absurdly outdated stereotypes still current, haven't been in any hurry to fight. Let's have some fun with statistics from World War I:

1. Austria-Hungary had 8,000,000 men and 100,000 women in uniform. This amounted to 1/3 of the total male population. In the U.S. today that would be analogous to having approximately 40,000,000 men in uniform. Our present-day Army has well under a million, even with the National Guard--and, bear in mind, our economy is much, much larger. Germany, out of a population of fewer than 60,000,000, had 11,000,000 in uniforms--actually a smaller proportion than Austria-Hungary.

2. Deaths: Austria-Hungary lost 1 million men; 1.69 million were captured or MIA (missing in action). Moreover, since a good percentage of those in uniform, even then, were in admin or support, one's chances of surviving actual combat were pretty abysmal. So imagine that the United States, in today's Iraq war, over the last three years had lost 4,000,000 and that the Iraqis had captured (farcical notion, eh?) another 6,000,000.

3. By contrast, the total number of all combat deaths suffered by the U.S. in all twentieth-century wars--World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Gulf War I and Operation Iraqi Freedom (just for nomenclature's sake) is somewhere around 700,000.

So even though many of us are outraged at the goings-on in Gitmo (I can't say that I'm losing a lot of sleep over that one, though), Abu Gharaib and Iraq generally, the sober truth is that Bush has had a pretty free hand because he has managed to do it without adversely affecting or intruding upon the lives of the average American except with respect to rising fuel costs, which in all truth are not entirely his doing anyway. [The effects on our civil liberties are a separate issue; here I'm speaking to the military impact only.] To those of you who consider our country so militarized--and, I might add, das schliesst meine deutschen Freunde ein--bear in mind that our military simply doesn't consume all that much of the overall national treasure, relatively speaking. Certainly in a Utopia it would be nice if we could redirect every penny spent on bombs, etc., to health care and schools, but if you dwell in the real world that is tantamount to saying it would be nice if nobody every laid a hand on another ever again, if nobody suffered and death always came peacefully in one's bed at 98 surrounded by four generations of loved ones, and so on. Think of North Korea. With an economy smaller than that of many U.S. counties, they field an army of well over a million men, and their leader wallows in a level of decadent luxury that makes the day-to-day existence of Bush and most well-to-do Americans look positively middle class.

Quite decidely, by underscoring these discrepancies, I do not necessarily favor the current war or the thinking behind it, but a sense of proportion is necessary to understand why so many otherwise plausible arguments fall on deaf ears.

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Lest any of you rush to judgment, labeling me yet another pointy-headed Bush-bashing liberal intellectual, know this: I voted for Reagan in 1984 and Bush the Elder in 1988. Despite the deluge of so-called "Gipperporn" two years ago, I still don't regret the first of these choices. Reagan had his faults, and his second term descended into sleaze, but I still believe that Reagan himself was a fundamentally decent human being, with leadership instincts and at least a modicum of substance. I don't subscribe to the conservatives' assertion--based on the recent publication of Reagan's voluminous lifelong correspondence--that the Gipper was a true intellectual. Yet he certainly harbored clear ideas and stood for some principles, like it or not. Bush the Elder, conversely, eventually revealed himself as something entirely different (a craven opportunist and faux-redneck) from what he had been originally (an establishmentarian Wall Streeter), and it was in 1992 that my own views, those of a conservative Gen-X voter, began to shift.

But as to Junior, well, there's another kettle of flounder. Inter alia I cannot grasp how a country of people still so enthralled by (or in thrall to) the Puritan work ethic that they brag constantly about how hard (vs. how well) they work can enthusiastically support a trust-fund lad who drank, snorted and idled until he reached forty. Raising this point is not a matter of polemics, but rather one of record. It's utterly unprecedented; we've elected scions (the Roosevelts, and perhaps JFK) and at least one complete drunk (Andrew Johnson), but never a reprobate scion. Think about it: say what you will about Clinton and Carter--or about Reagan, Nixon and even Bush the Elder--all of them genuinely worked hard as hell their whole adult lives and, yes, earned everything they got. And as for the Roosevelts and JFK, they lay under a great deal of familial pressure to perform. FDR had been a mediocrity, true, but a responsible one, and in any event as president he rose magnificently to the occasion, in marked contrast to what we see today.

As I develop this blog I will try to expound on my reasons, but so much has already been said that I wonder whether I can add much. So for now, we gaze at the counter and wonder what will happen. Should you feel tempted to despair, remember, Leningrad held out for 900 days, never capitulating, with a lifeline consisting of nothing more than a bridge across a frozen lake. Truly inspiring. Of course, about a million people died of infectious disease and sheer starvation, and by 1944 there wasn't a dog, cat, squirrel, chipmunk or rat anywhere to be seen.

19 Juni 2006


Perhaps this is a tad far afield for a Germanist, but any good historian should take note of seminal events in his own country. Today is celebrated in the South, particularly Texas, I think, as "Juneteenth," because in 1865 communications were so slow that it was only on this date that emancipated slaves got word of the good news, months afterwards.

Vielleicht liegt dieses Thema ausserhalb der Kompetenz eines germanistischen Historikers, aber ich glaube, es ziemt jeden guten Historiker, wichtige Ereignisse in seinem eigenen Land auch zu bemerken. Heute feiert man in Texas den "Juneteenth" ("June (nine)teenth", den 19. Juni) als den Befreiungstag. Obwohl die US-Regierung die Sklaverei eigentlich im April 1865 abgeschaffen hatte, war das damalige Kommunikationsmittel so langsam, dass die Schwarzen in Texas erst im Juni herausfanden, dass sie freie Menschen sowie Staatsbuerger waren. Das war selbstverstaendlich fuer sie nur ein kleiner Schritt, denn ihre Rechte und ihre Freiheit waren im Alltag stark beschraenkt.