On the Whistle-Stop Tour the Action is at the Caboose

As I posted again and again and again on the bizarre and sublimated love affair of Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, Jr., and in the interest of being fair and balanced, and because I’m a prurient ass hole, I have no choice but to post on this photo:

G8 Summit, President Obama and Brazilian Junior Delegate Mayora Taveres, 10 July 2009

Forget about all that stuff about how photos lie and what the video shows. Liberals need to offer a full-throated defense of the President in this situation. So, in the President’s defense, I offer that that is a hot piece of ass! And this is not just any piece of ass we are talking about here: this is Brazilian ass. I mean, a piece of Argentinean ass was enough to suck out the brain of Mark Sanford, leaving him a drooling, misty-eyed, blubbering microcephalic. So long as President Obama refrains from inflicting upon us tales of a fuchsia dress circa 2014, whatever (could “junior delegates” be the new interns?).

More impressive than President Obama is that dastardly, self-satisfied look on the face of President Nicolas Sarkozy, European Mephistopheles standing next to the virtuous, but naïve — especially in the mechanics of love — American, pleased with his handy bit of work in tempting the America naïf with the fruits of colonial adolescence. I don’t think President Sarkozy is so much admiring this Brazilian can, as looking at President Obama, enjoying a moment of male recognition, reveling in the fall of one of his fellows.

How do you pick a title for a post like this. I don’t know which political-strategic-cum-sexual pun to go with: interceptor missiles, emissions, some play on G8, what?

Advertisements

The Final French First World War Veteran

Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran of the First World War

The obituary this week in The Economist is Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran of the First World War. He was born in Italy on 7 December 1897 and enlisted in the French army at the age of 16. He died on 12 March 2008, age 110. The Economist chooses the theme of memory and — strangely more significant — the forgotten for its elegy (“Obituary: Lazare Ponticelli,” 19 March 2008):

Mr. Ponticelli wanted none of that: no procession, no racket, pas de tapage important. He was grateful for his belated Légion d’Honneur, which he kept with his other medals in a shoe-box. But he was keenly aware that he drew such attention only because he was the last.

What had become of the others? The stretcher-bearers in the Argonne, for example, who had told him they didn’t dare leave the trench for fear of German fire. The man he had heard from no-man’s land, caught in the barbed wire and with his leg severed, screaming to be rescued, until Mr. Ponticelli ran out to him with wire-cutters and dragged him back to the lines. The German soldier he tripped over in the dark, already wounded and expecting to be killed, who mutely held up his fingers to show him that he had two children. The comrades who helped him, because he could not read or write, to keep in touch by letter with the milkmaid he had met before the war. Or the four colleagues who held him down when, after the battle of Pal Piccolo, the army surgeon gouged out of his cheek a piece of shrapnel already lodged in gangrene.

With each new round of shelling, he said, they all expected the worst. They would reassure each other by saying, “If I die, you’ll remember me, won’t you?” Mr. Ponticelli felt he had a duty to try, but struggled. These were mes camarades, les gars, un type: faces, not names. And as he faded, even those faces lost their last hold on the living.

Increasingly, however, people wanted to talk to him about the war. He always courteously obliged them, though by the end his thin, scratchy voice came out in gasps. It was as important to him as it was to them to underscore the horror and futility of it. More than anything, he was appalled that he had been made to fire on people he didn’t know and to whom he, too, was a stranger. These were fathers of children. He had no quarrel with them. C’est complètement idiot la guerre. His Italian Alpine regiment had once stopped firing for three weeks on the Austrians, whose language many of them spoke; they had swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and taken pictures of each other. To the end of his life, Mr. Ponticelli showed no interest in labelling anyone his enemy. He said he did not understand why on earth he, or they, had been fighting.

On March 17th he had his wish, or most of it: a state funeral for all the poilus at Les Invalides, and then a simple family burial. The government badly wanted this last foot-soldier to be memorialised; but he preferred to be uncelebrated and ordinary, even in some sense forgotten, and thus the more symbolic of all the rest.

The passing of the last French veteran of the First World War is most significant in that the French are considered the most outstanding participant, as both victim and hero, of that war, perhaps the most outstanding war in modern history. As the New York Times obituary notes (Martin, Douglas, “Lazare Ponticelli, France’s Last Veteran of World War I, Is Dead at 110,” 13 March 2008), the passing of the last German veteran of the war, Erich Kästner, on 1 January 2008 went unobserved. There is no honor in villainy, even when it’s as inadvertent as the corresponding heroism.

Americans like to ridicule the French for their recent military fortunes. “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is the phrase. It’s always easy for the young to get the better of the old. By the time the First World War came about, France was a country in the full of relative decline. By the time it faced the blitzkrieg, it was a nation exhausted.

Perhaps it was easy too for the United States to roll Germany because by the time we showed up on the scene French and German casualties had already passed a million on each side. Total U.S. casualties in that war were 117,000 — less than were killed among the French in some single running battles. The French suffered 161,000 killed between February and December 1916 at the Battle of Verdun; 50,000 killed in action between July and November 1916 during the Somme offensive; and 95,000 casualties (killed and wounded) between July and August at the Second Battle of the Marne.

When you consider that in the Twentieth Century France sustained 2,262,000 killed blunting the German onslaught, compared to 409,000 for the United States — a fifth the French number — our boasts seem pretty hollow. G.I. Joe looks a little Johnny Come Lately. We installed the keystone and take credit for the entire arc. But the big wheel keeps on turning and the United States is no longer a young country. Our day to be elbowed aside by a young upstart is in the works already and our dotage will be similarly unhonored by youth.

Interesting Politicians

Following on K.’s most recent post (“Musical Offering: Introducing France’s Future First Lady,” 13 January 2008), I have been stewing over Matthew Yglesias’s dinging of the prudery and narrow-mindedness of U.S. politics (“A Different World,” TheAtlantic.com, 9 January 2008):

French President Nicholas Sarkozy got divorced early in his term, is dating a supermodel and his son’s writing songs for radical French rappers. Not only does American politics seem remarkably focused on relatively unimportant personal trivia, but our politicians don’t even have interesting trivia.

Some Other Books that Bush Should Read

The White House press office and has periodically made it known what books the President is reading. On a few occasions even the President himself has staged a mini publicity stunt to show off the same, for instance when he very deliberately paraded around with a copy of Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias to demonstrate his low opinion of the press or Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command to signal to the military that the administration wasn’t about to be pushed around by a bunch of generals with their dictates of military requirement.

I am currently reading Adam Zamoyski’s Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that a work was not written with an eye to current events. And sometimes they are. Robert Massie has specifically said that he wrote Dreadnought, his book about how the naval arms race between Britain and Germany precipitated the First World War, in part to illustrate the dangers of the Regan nuclear arms buildup.

When I read passages like the following, it is hard not to think that Mr. Zamoyski doesn’t have a certain contemporary swashbuckling world leader in mind. With the La Grande Armée fully ensconced in Moscow, harried by marauding Cossacks, Napoleon contemplates his next move:

Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong, and that Caulaincourt had been right all along. But he did not like to admit it. And he recoiled from the only logical next step, which was to withdraw. He liked neither the idea of retreat, which went against his instincts, nor the implications of such a withdrawal on the political climate in Europe. He also had an extraordinary capacity for making himself believe something just be decreeing it to be true. “In many circumstances, to wish something and believe it were for him one and the same thing,” in the words of General Bourienne. So he hung on, believing that Alexander’s nerve would break or that his own proverbial luck would come up with something.

He had studied the weather charts, which told him that it did not get really cold until the beginning of December, so he did not feel any sense of urgency. What he did not realize, in common with many who do not know those climates, was just how sudden and savage changes of temperature can be, and how temperature is only one factor, which along with wind, water and terrain can turn nature into a viciously powerful opponent.

The unusually fine weather at the beginning of October contributed to his complacency. He teased Caulaincourt, accusing him of peddling stories about the Russian winter invented to “frighten children.” “Caulaincourt thinks he’s frozen already,” he quipped. He kept on saying that it was warmer than Fontainebleau at that time of year, and dismissed suggestions that the army provide itself with gloves and items of warm clothing. …

With every day Napoleon spent in Moscow, the harder it was to leave without loss of face, and the usually decisive Emperor became immobilized by the need to choose between an unappealing range of options on the one hand, and a stubborn belief in his lucky star on the other. He fell into the trap of thinking that by delaying a decision he was leaving his options open. In fact, he only really had one option, and he was reducing the chances of its success with every day he delayed. (pp. 351-352)

For the outcome of this story, one need only consult Charles Minard’s famous chart portraying the destruction of the French Army. Substitute a few terms and this sounds strikingly like the current situation of the United States in the Middle East. For those of you who object to the comparison in the first sentence of the excerpt, “Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong,” I ask, do you really think that CIA director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group that the “instability” in Iraq seems “irreversible” and that he could not “point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around,” (Woodward, Bob, “CIA Said Instability Seemed ‘Irreversible’,” Washington Post, 12 July 2007, p. A1) but that he has been telling the President in his daily briefings that everything is coming up roses? President Bush has been told the situation in Iraq, and in some dark corner of his mind he knows what it is — altogether too often one can see this in his broken, impromptu remarks to the press where his pleading, too strident by half tone seems addressed as much to himself as anyone else in the room. He just doesn’t have the strength of mind — and that is what it takes — to come to terms with the truth.