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Kristallnacht at Seventy-five

Monday, November 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — of fire and light ]
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Since Zen tweeted a link to my own Armistice Day, Veterans Day post from last year and posted his own The Vietnam War at Fifty today, I’d going to skip back a day or two in my own calendar this time, and commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which fell on the night of November 9/10, 1938.

I believe this is a photo of the Hannover synagogue burning:

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I don’t know how we even begin to think about this.

George Steiner famously said “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning” — and also observed, “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason” — and Adorno: “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”.

Contemplating that photo of the burning of the Hannover synagogue, then, I am thrown back on a story told of the rabbi — a disciple of Rabbi Gershon — who came to visit the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, and to whom that great master first revealed his spiritual station:

In the night the rabbi found no sleep. It seemed to him as if here and now the wonder of the far and the wonder of the near must flow together. In the middle of the night the command came to him, soundless and without form. He arose and went. Then he was already in the other chamber and saw: The chamber was filled with flames up to the height of a man. They rose dull and sombre, as if they were consuming something heavy, hidden. No smoke ascended from the fire, and all the furniture remained uninjured. But in the middle of the fire stood the master with uplifted forehead and closed eyes.

The rabbi saw further that a division had taken place in the fire which gave birth to a light, and the light was like a ceiling over the flames. The light was twofold. Underneath it was bluish and belonged to the fire, but above the light was white and unmoving and extended from around the head of the master unto the walls. The bluish light was the throne of the white, the white rested on it as on a throne. The colours of the bluish light changed incessantly, at times to black and at times to a red wave. But the light above never changed, it always remained white. . Now the bluish light became wholly fire, and the fire’s consuming became its consuming. But the white light that rested on it did not consume and had no community with the flame.

The rabbi saw that the head of the master stood entirely in the white light. The flames which leaped upward on the body of the master turned to light, and every little while the amount of light increased. At last all the fire became light. The blue light began to penetrate into the white, but every wave that penetrated itself became white and unchanging. The rabbi saw that the master stood entirely in white light. But over his head there rested a hidden light that was free of all earthly aspects and only in secret revealed to the beholder.

It was thus that the Baal Shem Tov become known to the wider world.

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If I might draw the moral here, suiting my tale (quoted from Martin Buber‘s The Legend of the Baal-Shem) to the occasion — there is fire that destroys, and there is light indestructible.

We choose, always we choose.

Moral Degeneration in the Crucible of War

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

 

The recent post on Is 4GW Dead? stirred a great deal of interest, so I would like to extend the discussion on a point that that is critical not only for those who have responsibility for conducting military campaigns, but for statecraft and policy as well.

One of more important tenets of 4GW was the importance of “the moral level of war”, drawn from Colonel John Boyd’s thinking on the strategic impact of a combatant’s behavior, immoral  or exemplary, on all observers – belligerents, civilian noncombatants, neutral third parties, the media, the combatant’s own soldiers and citizens back home. Here is Boyd:

Morally our adversaries isolate themselves when they visibly improve their well being to the detriment of others (allies, the uncommitted), by violating codes of conduct or behavior patterns that they profess to uphold or others expect them to uphold.

· Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are what we are and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards we are expected to uphold.

In a Reader’s Digest version of Boyd,  heroic, noble and magnanimous  behavior is admirable and attractive while hypocrisy, cruelty and cowardice are repulsive and antagonizing characteristics. While the former won’t guarantee your victory and the latter, unfortunately, won’t ensure your defeat, they will be a significant factor in ameliorating or generating friction.  The impression given by an army impacts the will of the enemy to fight, the morale and discipline of the soldiers, the restiveness of the civilians, the loyalty of allies and the goodwill of neighbors.

Boyd developed his thinking about the moral level of war in Patterns of Conflict  all the way up to grand strategy and above. The rub about the moral level  is that war is a crucible that puts every “cultural code” or “standard” to the test, as well as the character of the men fighting it and their leaders upon whom great responsibility rests.  Even with the best of intentions in policy and careful generalship in the field, the horrors of war can erode moral fiber and military discipline in an army, in a company or in the heart of one man. Nor does every army begin with good intentions and effective discipline – some fighting forces are scarcely to be regarded as “armies” at all while others embrace the darkness as a matter of policy.

In terms of warfare, let us define “moral degeneration” as a degraded state of moral decline where a belligerent has effectively abandoned the operational and tactical restraints on conduct mandated by the Laws of War (i.e. war crimes are SOP) and in some instances, the vestiges of civilization.

A textbook example of this kind of moral degeneration came to light a few weeks ago when a jihadi lunatic in Syria, a rebel commander Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the name of “Abu Sakkar”, cut out the heart of a (presumably) dead government soldier and ate it on video. Charles Cameron expounded at length upon this minor atrocity here. I am not, to say the least, a fan of radical, revolutionary, transnational Sunni Islamism but I cannot honestly say that its proponents like Abul Mawdudi , Sayid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and their ilk ever openly advocated cannibalism. It is much more likely that Mr. al-Hamad’s behavior is explained by the ferocity of the civil war in Syria eroding customary norms of the combatants than  it is by Islamist ideology.

Moral degeneration in war seems to spring from two directions:

a) As a calculated act of Policy, from the top down, enforced by the leadership by military discipline and bureaucratic control.

b) As a spontaneous reaction by soldiers or fighters, appearing from the bottom up, without orders and frequently, in spite of them, possibly due to a breakdown in the chain of command, an erosion of discipline or sheer mutiny for the age-old purpose of reprisal, pillage and rapine.

The first category often occur with war as a convenient cover rather than a cause of grave crimes against humanity that leaders and  ideologues had long wished to carry out. The Armenian Genocide, as John Keegan wrote, belongs properly to the history of Ottoman imperial policy than it did WWI; in truth, the Genocide was the greatest and worst in a long succession of vicious pogroms that the Ottomans had launched against their Armenian Christian subjects during the reign of Abdul Hamid and the Young Turks. The Holocaust (which had some inspiration in Hitler’s mind, from the fate of the Armenians) was more closely tied to the evolution of  Nazi war policy but once Operation Barbarossa opened up the vast spaces of Soviet Eurasia, “the East” in Nazi parlance, the war itself increasingly took a backseat to expediting Hitler and Himmler’s ghastly and murderous racial priorities. This is a pattern of a priori planning, an escalating ideological radicalization of society that tends to be present with most of the large scale democides and genocides. It is the organizational powers of  coercion utilized by the state, or a mobilized faction of , it that makes the enormous scale of death possible, not the war.

What is different and also dangerous about moral degeneration from the bottom-up, is that it is cultural evolution driven by the psychological effects of extreme violence at work and, unlike an act of policy, more likely to be diffused widely across society as a permanent change for the worse. Too many German soldiers in WWI, former peasants and artisans and boys from middle-class families, returned from the Western Front morally coarsened and addicted to the adrenalin rush of combat and became in succession Freikorps paramilitaries, Communist streetfighters, Nazi Stormtroopers and SS men. The World War also gave Russia the men of the Cheka, the Red terror and the first Gulags on the Bolshevik Left and brutal and mad warlords on the White Right.

In more recent two decades, the break-up of Yugoslavia unleashed atavistic passions of ethnic hatred and atrocity, while organized society in Western African states and central Africa broke down entirely in transnational regional civil wars with unrestrained massacres and mass rape. As a result, there is little that is political but much that is primeval, at this juncture, to explain Joseph Kony’s motivations; he resembles nothing so much as a 21st century Kurtz. Mexico too is degenerating from the escalating violence of cartel insurgency and narco-cultas – there is not much tactical or strategic value in pagan death cults or human sacrifice but it is spreading:

…Our impression is that what is now taking place in Mexico has for some time gone way beyond secular and criminal (economic) activities as defined by traditional organized crime studies.3 In fact, the intensity of change may indeed be increasing. Not only have de facto politicalelements come to the fore-i.e., when a cartel takes over an entire city or town, they have no choice but to take over political functions formerly administered by the local government- but social (narcocultura) and religious/spiritual (narcocultos) characteristics are now making themselves more pronounced. What we are likely witnessing is Mexican society starting to not only unravel but to go to war with itself. The bonds and relationships that hold that society together are fraying, unraveling, and, in some instances, the polarity is reversing itself with trust being replaced by mistrust and suspicion. Traditional Mexican values and competing criminal value systems are engaged in a brutal contest over the ?hearts, minds, and souls‘ of its citizens in a street-by-street, block-by-block, and city-by-city war over the future social and political organization of Mexico. Environmental modification is taking place in some urban centers and rural outposts as deviant norms replace traditional ones and the younger generation fully accepts a criminal value system as their baseline of behavior because they have known no other. The continuing incidents of ever increasing barbarism-some would call this a manifestation of evil even if secularly motivated-and the growing popularity of a death cult are but two examples of this clash of values. Additionally, the early rise of what appears to be cartel holy warriors may now also be taking place. While extreme barbarism, death cults, and possibly now holy warriors found in the Mexican cartel wars are still somewhat the exception rather than the rule, each of these trends is extremely alarming, and will be touched upon in turn.

The crucible of war either tempers a people or it breaks them.

Some good news aka gospel

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the Greek word for gospel, euangelion, literally means good news — these news items from the last month or so are good ]
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Sources:

  • Times of Israel, Hard to deny a Holocaust your father saved Jews from
  • Ha’Aretz, In one hard-knock British city, a secret Muslim donor helps save a synagogue
  • Discovering a New Circle of Hell

    Monday, March 4th, 2013

    There is an understandable buzz when a historical event as well known and deeply investigated as  the Holocaust has suddenly been found to have been underestimated by an order of magnitude.

    From The New York Times:

    The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking 

    ….As early as 1933, at the start of Hitler’s reign, the Third Reich established about 110 camps specifically designed to imprison some 10,000 political opponents and others, the researchers found. As Germany invaded and began occupying European neighbors, the use of camps and ghettos was expanded to confine and sometimes kill not only Jews but also homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and many other ethnic groups in Eastern Europe. The camps and ghettos varied enormously in their mission, organization and size, depending on the Nazis’ needs, the researchers have found.

    The biggest site identified is the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, which held about 500,000 people at its height. But as few as a dozen prisoners worked at one of the smallest camps, the München-Schwabing site in Germany. Small groups of prisoners were sent there from the Dachau concentration camp under armed guard. They were reportedly whipped and ordered to do manual labor at the home of a fervent Nazi patron known as “Sister Pia,” cleaning her house, tending her garden and even building children’s toys for her.

    When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.

    The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.

    In Berlin alone, researchers have documented some 3,000 camps and so-called Jew houses, while Hamburg held 1,300 sites.

    ….The lead editors on the project, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites that they have identified as part of a multivolume encyclopedia

    Read the rest here.

    Perhaps some of you will recall the controversy in the late 1990’s surrounding the release of Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen where Goldhagen argued that Nazi genocide was only possible with the widespread complicity and often enthusiastic participation of “ordinary Germans” who were not themselves Gestapo agents or Nazi fanatics.  One of the primary charges against Goldhagen by academic historians was his generalizing indictment of a generation of Germans for Nazi policy that was, for all intents and purposes, officially a state secret.  After all, the closest thing to a “public” discussion in the Third Reich of the Final Solution was a terrifying speech by SS-Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler at the Posen Conference to an assembly of Gauleiters  and Reichsleiters who constituted the aristocracy of the Nazi Party.

    The sheer geographic density and social ubiquity of the Nazi machinery of repression and genocide documented by researchers severely undermines the critics of Goldhagen. While it is well documented that most Germans, unless they were political opponent or social misfits, did not personally feel the heavy hand of the Gestapo in the way Soviet citizens experienced the NKVD, Germans during the war years irrefutably lived cheek by jowl with the miserably wretched slaves of the Reich.

    Some of the shock produced by this investigation is due to an artificial “parsing of genocide” by historians into distinct categories of death-dealing instead of looking at Nazi democide as a whole cloth or continuum.

    In the immediate aftermath of the war, there was little interest beyond the Nuremberg  Tribunal in delving into the depths of Nazi crimes. Reconstruction of Europe and “getting on with life” or the exigencies of the Cold War and the ominous threat of the Soviets took far greater precedence. Even among Holocaust survivors themselves, there was initially an effort to “move on” from the unimaginable, or to make a anguished pretense of so doing, as expressed in the critically acclaimed Rod Steiger film, The Pawnbroker. When historians began more serious examinations of Nazi crimes in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a tendency to separate the Holocaust from related or similar atrocities due in part to the overriding ideological emphasis the most extreme Nazis placed upon the total and absolute elimination of all Jews – every last one – at all costs,. Even over and above winning the war.

    However, that genocidal crusade by the SS against the Jews also facilitated the deaths of millions of others – including the Gypsies (marked for nearly complete extermination), the “useless eaters“, some 700,000 Serbs to please the Ustase puppet regime, political opponents who disappeared into the Night and Fog, and a vast democide of Slavic peoples to feed the Third Reich’s inexhaustible need for slave labor. Albert Speer wrote that Himmler coldly planned a further massive reduction of the Russian and Ukranian populations west of the Urals to build a post-war Nazi racial empire in vanquished Russia.

    The scale of murder by totalitarian governments in the 20th century approaches the mythic, a phenomena for which the Holocaust has become a totem.

    Yiddish humor, US Presidential Election

    Friday, August 24th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — Jewish Democrats suggest humorous barbs for Jewish Republicans to digest ]
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    As those who follow my strand of posts her on Zenpundit know by now, I’m not a great one for taking sides: I imagine very few bridge builders are, and my real interest is in building bridges.

    I am also, in general, interested in the ephemeral signals that go on between and within opposing camps — because they’ll often portray a different side of things from what’s in the official pronouncements.

    What I’m offering here, then, is a fleeting glimpse into some Jewish humor from the Democratic side of things:


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    — two “curses” from the from the Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews website.

    As wry humor, I’m okay with these. As embittered humor, not so much.

    And I don’t know the people who posted these “curses” — though I’m reasonably sure they didn’t intend them as actual, may G*d do this to you and I mean it, curses.

    Frankly, I’m interested in the religious content.

    **

    I’m interested in the jokes.

    I’m interested in the leaflets, the comments in the comment sections of websites — and in the winks, the nudges and the nods.

    I’m interested in the differences between “in-house” and “external” explanations of things, what the differences may actually mean, and what they may get interpreted to mean. I’m interested in the asides, the sneers and smears, the jokes, the ambiguous threats, the real hatreds, the moments of reflection, the metanoias, changes of heart, repentances.

    At times, the materials I run across are threatening, at times witty or droll, at times insightful, and at times completely unhinged from reality, but they usually have something to teach us about undercurrents — about the variousness of human thoughts and feelings.

    We humans are a strange lot, each one of us so singular that we have a hard time getting our heads around the differences between us — differences that can make all the difference between peace and war, life and death.

    **

    I’m not going to explain the jokes, but I am going to take just a quick look at their religious content.

    One of the qualities that is, IMO, most likeable about Jewish culture is that it delights in self-mockery. The New York Times journalist Michelle Goldberg tweeted a Jewish joke yesterday, to which I responded with a quote from Martin Luther:

    Now I don’t know about Michelle, but I didn’t intend my quote from Luther — “sin boldly” — as representing either my personal advice to the world at large, or Luther’s, except perhaps in a very limited sense such as the one Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered as his explanation of Luther’s meaning.

    Bonhoeffer’s question is the obvious one:

    Is this the proclamation of cheap grace, naked and unashamed, the carte blanche for sin, the end of all discipleship? Is this a blasphemous encouragement to sin boldly and rely on grace? Is there a more diabolical abuse of grace than to sin and rely on the grace which God has given?

    And his response?

    Take courage and confess your sin, says Luther, do no try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. You are a sinner, so be a sinner, and don’t try to become what you are not. Yes, and become a sinner again and again every day, and be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except to those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled by their daily faithlessness of sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ? Interpreted in this way, these words of Luther become a testimony to the costliness of grace, the only genuine kind of grace there is.

    **

    So no, I don’t think all religiously-themed tweeting and web-based cursing is to be taken literally.

    But I do find it interesting that Michelle jokes about kosher, and I joke about sinning boldly — and that the Yiddish humor displayed on the “curses” website includes references to the LDS practice of proxy baptism for the dead and an indication that it might be uncomfortable for those with strong anti-Muslim feelings to meet the generous hospitality that so often characterizes Muslim cultures.

    So let’s dig into those two themes in a little more depth.

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    Official Latter-day Saints doctrine teaches:

    Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5). Many people, however, have died without being baptized. Others were baptized without proper authority. Because God is merciful, He has prepared a way for all people to receive the blessings of baptism. By performing proxy baptisms in behalf of those who have died, Church members offer these blessings to deceased ancestors. Individuals can then choose to accept or reject what has been done in their behalf.

    And while the practice of baptizing the dead by proxy may seem strange to most Christians, the Latter-day Saints can point to I Corinthians 15.29:

    Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

    and I Peter 4.6 for precedent:

    For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

    Maybe so — but Saints Peter and Paul, though Jewish by birth, are now generally reckoned Christians, having accepted the belief that Jesus was the awaited Jewish Messiah, the Christ — so their epistles are not canonical texts for mainstream Judaism.

    **

    Feelings in the Jewish community can run pretty strongly on the issue of Mormon believers’ baptisms of Jewish believing dead:

    The wrongful baptism of Jewish dead, which disparages the memory of a deceased person is a brazen act which will obscure the historical record for future generations. It has been bitterly opposed by many Jews for a number of years. Others say they will never stop being Jews, simply because there is a paper saying they had been baptized, that the act of posthumous baptism is unimportant and should be ignored. We think this to be a narrow, parochial, and shallow view. We will continue opposing this wrongful act which assimilates our dead to the point where it will not be possible to know who was Jewish in their lifetimes.

    [ … ]

    A protest drive initiated by Jewish genealogists escalated it to a nationally publicized issue that was followed by public outcry. American Jewish leaders considered it an insult and a major setback for interfaith relations. They initiated discussions with the Mormon Church that culminated in a voluntary 1995 agreement by the Church to remove the inappropriate names. Activists continue to monitor Mormon baptismal lists, seeking removal of inappropriate entries.

    Indeed, in February of this year it was discovered that the Holocaust victim Anne Frank had been baptized by proxy — for what one researcher said was the ninth time.

    The Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel responded with passionate anger, and the Mormon Church with an apolpogy and a firm statement that the practice was prohibited.

    LDS spokesman Michael Purdy made it clear that the Church “is absolutely firm in its commitment to not accept the names of Holocaust victims for proxy baptism.”

    There are serious issues here: as humans, we can listen to one another with respect, and work them out.

    **

    Palestinian Muslim hospitality towards Jews?

    Miftah is an Ethiopian who visited some Palestinian shepherds in company with people sympathetic to the Palestinian cause:T

    he group I went with was a mostly Israeli – international activists’ group that accompanies shepherds in the village as they graze their herds. Since these shepherds face attacks from settlers and soldiers frequently, the purpose of the trip was to document and confront the settlers or soldiers if they try to harass the shepherds.

    These were people the Palestinians had reason to respect, Israelis and foreign activists sympathetic to their cause — but the degree of hospitality they were shown nicely illustrates the innate courtesy of so many pastoral peoples…

    As we were heading back from the hills to where our mini-van was, these shepherds we had met offered to take us home for some tea and coffee. Mind you, it’s the Ramadan fasting season and all of them were fasting. They would offer us water, coffee and bread even though the last meal they had was at dawn that morning and would not have any food or water until dusk that evening. In Ramadan, even people who don’t fast don’t eat in public or in front of people who fast. But out of true hospitality, they extended their “‘Mitzvah’ – their act of kindness” to us, as one of the Israeli activists put it

    **

    The story is an old one: the person of few possessions who will kill one of their handful of sheep to feed the passing stranger…

    In this second “curse” we glimpse the long tradition of hospitality to strangers without which the great trade routes of the ancient would would not have permitted China to supply Europe with silks, nor Roman jewelry to have found its way into Japanese tombs


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