Colin Powell’s Disgrace

When it comes to projecting potential Presidential candidates for the Year 2000, no name is mentioned with more awe and reverence than that of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. He seems to have an impeccable war record, having served honorably in Viet Nam. He is a black man who rose through the ranks to the highest position in the military. He bears the glow of military victory (the preposterously one-sided Gulf War). The media– especially Time Magazine–write fawning, adoring pieces about him. If he does run, it will likely be as a Republican, and the Republicans expect that he will garner the largest percentage of black votes in the history of the party.

General Colin Powell is a coward and a moral disgrace.

Firstly, let’s please toss out the Gulf War. Iraq is a tiny little country with a population of about 14 million (20% of which are rebellious Kurds) in a remote part of the world that happens to have a lot of oil. You heard me right: Iraq has–count them–about 14 million people. The United States, at 260 million, is about 18 times as large. So we have a 800 pound gorilla taking on a 45 pound weakling. Time Magazine tries to make you think that Iraq is huge and powerful by using distorted maps that show the country almost encompassing the globe.

Saddam Hussein is a petty, tin-pot dictator who can’t even count on the unabridged support of his own armies. The U.S. victory over Iraq was a masterful exercise in public relations. Militarily, it was the most one-sided battle in modern history: more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died compared to about 50 Americans. I am not exaggerating. This was not a “war”– a war has to have at least one or two battles. Had Schwarzkopf, Powell and company lost, it would have been the most ridiculously unbelievable result in the history of the world. Even Goliath was only three times the size of David. So don’t tell me that Powell was courageous or extraordinarily clever or “ingenious”— please. All he had to do was tell his men to point their nose cones or turrets at Baghdad and count out the medals afterwards (more than one per combatant). One look at the $50 billion in hardware bearing down on them and the Iraqi’s fled. Yet, with overwhelming military, political, and economic superiority the U.S. didn’t even succeed in removing Hussein from power. Nor did they “restore” democracy to Kuwait (the same fat cats rule as before). Considering subsequent events, this was a colossal failure. It was a failure of will, a failure of intelligence, and a failure of diplomacy. Powell deserves credit for looking very nice in his uniform.

Then there was Bosnia.

I can’t, in this space, give you a detailed history of the Bosnian conflict (check the Globe & Mail, or the New York Times Review of Books for some excellent summaries), but this is essentially what happened: Bosnia and Serbia were the two largest components of the former Federation of Yugoslavia. They became separate nations when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the late 1980’s. Bosnia, comprised mostly of Muslims, but with a substantial population of ethnic Serbs, declared itself independent in April 1992, and was quickly recognized by the U.S. and other Western powers. War broke out and in the first six months, Serbia– please don’t call it a “Christian” nation–, with the aid of a rebel force comprised of Bosnian Serbs, and with overwhelming military superiority, seized 3/4 of Bosnia’s territory. Within those same six months, at least 20,000 Bosnian Muslims–men, women, children–were systematically exterminated. This was quickly termed “ethnic cleansing” by the Serbs themselves. Their intent was not only to conquer the territories of Bosnia, but to make it impossible for Bosnians to repopulate the area afterwards. The correct term was genocide. It was only the beginning.

It is well-documented (see the New York Times Review of Books , December 18, 1997) that George Bush and Colin “Neville Chamberlain” Powell were fully aware of the nature of this conflict by September 1991. The CIA (right, for a change) reported that Serbs were raping, beating, torturing, incarcerating and starving tens of thousands of Muslims, and that the Muslims, heavily out-gunned, were unable to resist. These reports were corroborated by reporters, U.N. officials, and aid workers. In other words, atrocities on a scale unseen since World War II were taking place in Bosnia while the Western Powers– which the U.S. tirelessly brags of leading– did nothing.

Actually, the U.S. did worse than nothing: they imposed an arms embargo on the entire region. This had the effect of preserving a huge military advantage for the aggressor, Serbia, and preventing a member nation of the U.N. from defending itself against massive, relentless terror. It was as if we had announced that to prevent the Nazi Holocaust, we should have prevented the Jews  and Nazis from getting any more weapons from us. There is good reason to believe that if the Western Powers had allowed Bosnia to arm itself, the conflict would have soon stale-mated and the world would have spared the hideous tragedy that followed instead.

It is important at this point to consider the two ghosts haunting U.S. foreign policy at this stage. They are the Holocaust (World War II) and the Viet Nam War. In the case of the former, the Western Nations waited too long before taking concerted action against Hitler, thereby allowing six million Jews to die in the concentration camps. The Western powers even refused to accept Jewish refugees from Germany in the early stages of the Holocaust, thereby proving, to Hitler’s satisfaction, that nobody wanted the Jews. After the war, the world collectively pledged to never again stand by and do nothing when confronted with such a monstrous evil.

In the case of Viet Nam, the U.S. embroiled itself in a war it could not win, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and paralyzing domestic conflict. After this war, the U.S. promised itself to never again get involved in a “quagmire”. Powell sees this failure as a lack of will on the part of the U.S. More sensible commentators observe that the U.S. intervened militarily on behalf of an unpopular, unelected, undemocratic government.

Colin Powell and George Bush looked at Bosnia and saw the Holocaust but chose to report to the American people that they saw Viet Nam and chose to do nothing to stop the genocide. Bush hoped it would go away by itself before the elections of 1992. When candidate Clinton attacked Bush’s inaction, Colin Powell, in a major speech given during the election campaign (which Generals should stay out of), declared that he would never allow U.S. soldiers to be committed to another Viet Nam-like quagmire. So here we had a General telling elected politicians just what kind of war he might be willing to fight if asked. Just who is running the country here? Powell should have been dismissed immediately, like McArthur, but his personal popularity was such that politically it could not be done. And why was he popular? I don’t know. Would he have been so popular in a business suit instead of a uniform with lots of medals on it? How about a waist coat and top hat?

The point cannot be made forcefully enough: Colin Powell, along with George Bush and Lawrence Eagleburger, and other foreign policy advisors are personally responsible for a policy that resulted in massive genocide. They created this policy in direct opposition to their own staffers who knew what was going on. Several of them resigned in disgust. Some privately cheered Clinton when he spoke out against the inactivity.

You might argue that their policies merely reflected a consensus of the U.S. electorate. However, polls taken during the presidential election in 1992 showed an alarming (to Bush) tendency among voters to favor some kind of decisive action. The average voter wasn’t so stupid as to think that the world should stand by and watch thousands of innocent women and children murdered in cold blood. The average voter didn’t believe that Bosnia was an inexhaustible quagmire that could never be saved. So Bush and Powell were not being merely politically astute when they decided not to intervene: they were also cowards.

We all went to see Schindler’s List and we all tsk-tsked and wrung our hands and then breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that this movie exists and even won a few academy awards proves that our society knows evil when it sees it and is prepared to do the right thing! Well, this movie took no courage to make: in hindsight, we were all in the resistance. If Spielberg had had any guts he would have done a movie on Bosnia because, yes, we did stand by once again, wringing our hands and shaking our heads, and we let it happen when we could have prevented it. And while Christian talk shows and magazine are all abuzz with Paul Marshall’s book on the persecution of Christians around the world, no one weeps for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

It should be noted that Clinton’s performance on the issue was only marginally better. Once he was elected to office, he did everything he could to evade responsibility for his campaign promise to help the Bosnians. He sent William Christopher to Europe to get consent for military action but the Europeans were afraid of retaliation against the U.N. ground troops. This was convenient for Clinton because he could blame them, for a time, for his inactivity. The U.N. troops should have withdrawn immediately and air strikes should have commenced immediately. In the end, the Bosnian’s themselves rallied and took back some of the territory. By this time, the entire region was a cauldron of seething racial hatred.

Colin Powell’s actions during this crisis are morally indefensible and cowardly. I hope and pray that if he does choose to run for president, voters take a very close look at his performance and quickly relegate him to the dustbin of history where he belongs.

Our Obsession With “Feel-good” Confections

In 1965, many of us, or our parents, went to see their first Hollywood film, and it was “The Sound of Music”, a glossy, somewhat saccharine musical about how the Von Trapp family escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria. They adored this film so much that it probably did more than anything else to move the Christian Reformed Church to repeal its prohibition against the “worldly amusement” of cinema.

Now, if you are truly convinced that “The Sound of Music” is movie-making at its finest, nothing I can possibly say in the following paragraphs will move you from that opinion. I acknowledge the film’s technical merits. It is expensively filmed, beautifully staged, and the music is memorable and well-performed. Most people are aware of the conscious sentimentality, but don’t mind.

I’ve never liked “The Sound of Music” because I’ve always been uncomfortable with films that sentimentalize tragedy, and no tragedy was darker, or more compelling than the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Five to six million Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” were systematically exterminated by the Nazi regime. I do not deny that the Von Trapps have a story to tell, but I find it disconcerting to find them centre stage, in all their Aryan purity, in a film that barely acknowledges even the existence of the Jews. The world of the Von Trapps– white, rich Austrians– is pretty well the kind of world the Nazis envisioned, once they had carried out the final solution.

Consider the scene in which the father lines up the children with military precision, in perfect order from highest to smallest, to send them off to bed. Given the nature of Nazi Germany (and Austria), the Nazi’s obsessions with secondary racial characteristics and genetic purity, and Hitler’s passion for order and precision, this scene is either an obscene joke, or absolutely mindless film-making, completely at odds with its own subject. It deplores the Nazis as enemies of this nice Austrian family, while simultaneously inviting you to adore their physical grace, cleanliness, beauty, discipline, and racial purity. It has Dan Quayle’s “family values” in spades. Nobody swears or runs around indecently dressed or commits adultery. The children are obedient, the father is a powerful authority figure, and Maria, the on-again, off-again nun, is both pious and mischievous– an irresistible combination to many of us. In short, this film should offend nobody.

I was recently involved as an actor in a production of “Cabaret” by a local community Theatre group. (A movie version– which is not very similar to the stage version, but still interesting– was released several years ago and is readily available in video stores.) “Cabaret”, like “The Sound of Music”, is about individuals who come into conflict with the rising tide of Nazism. Both of them want you to know how awful the Nazis were. But it is the contrasts of these two works that is most illuminating.

The most obvious contrast is in outward style. Many Christians would not be comfortable attending a performance of “Cabaret”. Much of the action takes place inside the “Kit Kat Club”, a cabaret where prostitutes and dancing girls mingle with drunken sailors, homosexuals and libertines. The dancers gyrate and wiggle their rear-ends as an evil-grinned Emcee invites the audience to discard their inhibitions and forget all their problems. Characters cavort and carouse and explode into brawls.

Thus, the first contrast between these two productions, from Julie Andrew’s convent to Sally Bowles’ Kit Kat Klub, is shocking. In fact, Sally Bowles, the central character of “Cabaret”, makes her first appearance dressed as a nun, singing about her mother thinking she is living in a convent in the Southern part of France, instead of singing in a Berlin nightclub, “in a pair of lacy pants…” This is followed by a drunken brawl, the “kit kat girls” singing, stumbling, rolling over the floor on top of several bar patrons, and a song about picking someone up for casual sex, of various orientations.

The audience is initially fascinated—and repelled—so when a group of healthy, wholesome-looking, well-dressed men, women, and children come out into a “meadow” for a picnic and begin singing a charming German folk song, the audience’s first reaction is relief: finally, some normal, decent-looking people! The actors in this scene actually resemble, physically, the Von Trapp family as presented in “The Sound of Music”! The song is about nature, optimism and faith: “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. The audience is enraptured by the strength and sense of purpose expressed in the song, particularly in contrast to the brazen physical obscenity of the previous scenes.

A few scenes later, at a wedding, a similar group gathers to sing the same song. As they sing, a few Nazi arm-bands appear, then more, and more, until the entire chorus, stamping their feet and raising their arms in salute, have become a ferocious mob. Suddenly, the song is revealed for what, in fact, it has always been: a paean to Aryan purity and dominance. And a connection is drawn between the earlier “wholesome” ideal of beauty and racial purity, and the expansionist violence and viciousness of the Nazi regime. One realizes– maybe for the first time– that the Nazis did not recruit their members at gun point. They caught them in a web of high-minded visionary ideals and hopes and dreams, exploited the economic and moral collapse of post World War I Germany, and tapped into repressed but still potent nationalist instincts. “Cabaret” suggests that Nazism succeeded because it appealed to the same kind of emotions and ideas that most of us still share today.

“Cabaret” is not content with surfaces and pretty pictures. In fact, it draws a very unpretty picture of humanity, to reveal the corruption in the heart of German culture that gave rise to Nazi Germany, and the corruption within ourselves that could lead to the same consequences. Sally Bowles is so immersed in her own decadent, impulsive life-style that she is blind to the consequences of the political changes going on around her. “What does politics have to do with us?” she asks. The real Sally Bowles, upon whom the original story by Christopher Isherwood was based, died in a concentration camp.*

I was surprised by the number of Christians in the cast of “Cabaret”. I counted at least a dozen, many of whom arrived at Sunday rehearsals fresh from church or youth choir. We often talked about the meaning of the play, the significance of the moral debauchery in Germany in regard to the subsequent rise of Nazism, and the relevance of “Cabaret” to our own time and place. All of us were deeply committed to this production because it would remind the audience of the dangers of allowing a moral vacuum to exist in our society. All of us agreed that the vivid depiction of this moral collapse was necessary to make this point as real to the audience as possible.

The Christian community is frequently guilty of preferring bland entertainment like “The Sound of Music” to gutsy, authentic plays and films like “Cabaret”. Our community is notoriously fearful of the raw power of honest drama, strong language and images, and, sometimes, the power of truth. Is this a harmless matter of taste, or an important deficiency in Christian culture?

I have been thinking recently not only about the contrasts and comparisons between these films, but also about other incidents that resonate with these issues: a Christian Reformed Church sponsors a square dance; a Christian High School History teacher tells me he doesn’t have a television set in his house because all it shows is trash; a Christian High School English teacher shakes his head slowly as I ask if he is familiar with recent work by Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, or Gunter Grass. A Christian high school is incapable of finding a meaningful play to perform because the teachers fear that parents will be offended. We speak thousands and thousands of words about the errors of our culture, but we make little effort to speak the same language.

The future of the world may not depend on whether we prefer to watch “The Sound of Music” or “Cabaret”, but sometimes we must ask ourselves if our infatuation with feel-good confections, inoffensive literature and music, and “wholesome family values” is teaching us what we need to know about the dynamics of our own history and culture. When we, as parents, object to our children reading or performing plays that are contemporary and meaningful, are we condemning ourselves to even greater irrelevance? Does the world look for answers from people who object so strongly to the language of the streets that they never take the time to hear what the people of the streets are saying?

* Update, January 2004

Apparently the “real” Sally Bowles didn’t die in a concentration camp after all.  Her name was Jean Ross and she lived to a ripe old age in England.  She didn’t consider the portrait of herself in Isherwood’s story to be very flattering.

Copyright © 1998 Bill Van Dyk All rights reserved.