The feverish war talk pouring forth from Washington and the cable networks this past year was inevitable, given 9/11. But lately, the relentless barrage of military enthusiasm has caused me to wonder: How did war itself — that is, killing, maiming, bombing and burning — come to be such a popular program in American political and media circles?
Logically, human beings ought to be terrified of war; after all, you or someone you know might die in one, or suffer a hideous wound, either as a combatant or an innocent bystander. Yet some in the Bush administration — not just the cynical political operatives who would count votes before they would count corpses — seem positively thrilled by the notion of smashing Iraq, and a lot of Iraqis, to pieces.
There being little opposition among elected politicians here at home to leveling Afghan villages and destroying Iraqi sewage plants, I had to look elsewhere for an explanation — to an interview I conducted last April with a German of Second World War vintage, Helmut Schmidt, who was West Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor from 1974 to 1982.
A venerable 83 years old when I met him in a midtown Manhattan hotel room, Mr. Schmidt seemed not to care much what American politicians thought of him any more, or European politicians for that matter, so I figured I’d come to the right place. His generation of Cold War leaders has passed from the public stage and he now spends his days as the elder statesman publisher of Die Zeit, the great Hamburg-based intellectual weekly.
The problem with all the self-righteous, post 9/11 saber rattling, Mr. Schmidt told me, was that the politicians doing the rattling literally don’t know what they’re talking about. “In none of the European capitals do you still have individuals who have lived through war as grown-up people, be it as soldiers, be it in concentration camps as prisoners, be it in the basements of cities where the bombs and the fire were falling from the sky,” he said. “They don’t know what war is. They haven’t experienced it. . . . Mr. Clinton hasn’t, Mr. Bush hasn’t. They don’t know what war means to people. And they are, therefore, more easily inclined to intervene by force, even under humanitarian auspices . . . without conceiving the loss of lives that any military intervention brings with it.”
In short, outside of some octogenarian Chinese Communists, world leaders are not sufficiently “afraid of war.”
Mr. Schmidt is most decidedly conscious of war’s destructive power, both as perpetrator and victim. He says that despite being told by his mother that he had a Jewish grandfather on his father’s side (this was hidden from the Nazi authorities for obvious reasons), he fought loyally — as a German, he insists, not a Nazi — for Hitler’s Wehrmacht. He served on the Eastern Front as a lieutenant in the anti-aircraft unit of a tank division and participated in the brutal siege of Leningrad and later the assault on Moscow. In his memoir, Men and Powers, he writes of his “profound horror at the dreadful screams of another soldier dying of a serious abdominal wound.”
While I’m not convinced of Mr. Schmidt’s “German” explanation for supporting Hitler’s enterprise (he did join Hitler Youth), his critique of warlike foreign policy goes well beyond a visceral rejection of violence. He objects in principle to what has recently been labeled the new American doctrine of pre-emptive war.
And his rationale for opposing the NATO attack on Serbia could just as well apply to George W. Bush’s push for war against Iraq. “To oppose it, you need not be a liberal; you only have to read the United Nations Charter to know that to use force against a state can only be legitimated under two premises: number one, if you had to defend your own country, which was not the case, or by a decision of the Security Council of the United Nations . . . And neither the Americans, nor NATO in the case of Serbia, have obeyed the Charter.”
For the Bushies, the UN is nothing more than a Third World debating society. So it almost seems quaint to hear Mr. Schmidt’s attachment to international law and to the old, pre-1991 idea of maintaining a balance of power. Mr. Schmidt refers with some irony to the “so-called Cold War” (he no doubt recalls the Korean War, as well as the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) but he categorically states that “during the Cold War, America would not have thrown bombs on Serbia.”
The man is no knee-jerk America-basher; he broke with his own party in 1983 by supporting deployment in West Germany of U.S. Pershing cruise missiles aimed at Moscow. But he is pointedly critical of the U.S. response to al-Qaeda’s kamikaze attack on the World Trade Center.
“America doesn’t understand any of Islam,” he said. As a European, Mr. Schmidt fears that turning “the fight against a relatively small faction of so-called Islamist terrorists” (he prefers the word “criminals”) into a confrontation with more than a billion Muslim believers “is a very dangerous trip.”
Europeans have a slightly better understanding of Islam — they know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, for example — because of the Muslim world’s proximity to Europe and the potential danger it poses. “They [Muslims] are not going to sail over the ocean, but it’s very easy to cross the Mediterranean. And if you’re coming by land, you need not cross any sea at all.”
U.S. ignorance and inconsistency in world affairs can be attributed to the indisputable fact that, unlike the era of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, “the general understanding of history in your country is rather on a low level, which does include the bulk of American politicians.” Mr. Schmidt blames “a mass society . . . educated by the television and Internet, no longer reading books.”
I asked Mr. Schmidt what he thought of the widespread American belief that the United States “defeated” the repressive Soviet system, rather than the Soviet Union collapsing from within. “That’s not really so important,” he replied curtly. “If you talk about history, then what comes to my mind is . . . 600 years of Ottoman [read Islamic] acquisition” in the Middle East and Europe, not to mention “twice trying to conquer Vienna and Austria.”
As for Soviet tyranny, Mr. Schmidt said it’s useful to recall that “Russia has never been a country in which human rights or democracy ever have played a great role, except in some leftist intellectuals’ minds.”
Returning to the topic of blood and iron, I tried unsuccessfully to get him to elaborate on his wartime experience on the Eastern Front. Not surprisingly, the German army veteran preferred to highlight an instance of German victimization — when he was on leave in Hamburg, by happenstance during the Allied firebombing in 1943.
This led directly back to the subject of Sept. 11. Two weeks before our interview, Mr. Schmidt said he was chatting with a U.S. maritime lawyer about the effects of 9/11 on the American psyche. “I asked him, ‘How long will it take until the American nation and the inhabitants of New York get over this overwhelming impact of Sept. 11?’ And his immediate answer was, ‘Never, never, never.’ And I said, ‘I really wonder. You had 3,000 people killed. I remember these three days in my own city of Hamburg, where 35,000 people were killed. It’s hardly being mentioned nowadays.'”
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.