By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
I once had a landlord who had fought in the German army during the Second World War. He was careful with his stories, as you might imagine. I often wondered about him.
I have always remembered one thing he told me, though. And he said it with a bit of a shrug. The Germans were the best soldiers, he said. He stated this as a simple fact. As for their opponents, the Russians would fight like hell until they were finally killed. The British would fight like hell until they decided they were losing, then they would retreat in a disciplined way, to fight again some other day. The French never fought. As for the Americans — they would fight just a little, then run. He said this apologetically. He didn’t want to give offense.
That makes sense, however, given that this country was fielding an immature and inexperienced army. Most soldiers fresh from training can be expected to fight a little, then run; Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage about that phenomenon, and he was writing about the Civil War. One would hope that the Americans fought better as they fought more, and that their professional forces probably fought better from the beginning (those would be the Marines, and that would have been the Pacific theater).
Either way, though. From the vantagepoint of a German foot soldier, circa 1945, we Americans didn’t win that war because we were braver or stronger than any other people. We won that war because we had allies, first and foremost; then we won it because we were rich. We were rich in both men and resources.
We built more ships and more tanks and more planes than any other country could even dream about, and we had enough soldiers to use them all. One German panzer might have been worth ten American Shermans, but we had those ten Shermans to spare. And then — thanks mainly to some amazing scientists who had themselves come from Europe in refugee ships — we also built the bomb.
So take away our allies, take away our willingness to spend our money to benefit others, and finally, take away our respect for science itself. We are back to being the scared kids who fight a little, then run.
It’s hard to feel optimistic right now. I never imagined I would see federal troops in Portland, Oregon, shooting tear gas at its mayor. A president who floats the idea of delaying national elections and is busy defunding our postal system to ensure that the elections we have will be compromised. A prison system that locks someone up so he can’t write a book about politics. A governor suing the mayor of one of his state’s cities so she can’t enforce a public health measure. A foreign government openly trying to influence our elections, and our own government ignoring it.
I wish I were a Republican, so my horror at these events could have some meaning. But I’m not, so it doesn’t. (Sue Collins, are you there? Do you care? Can the state of Maine please put you out of your misery?)
What’s clear, though, is this: we aren’t the people we thought we were. We are not as smart, we are not as virtuous, and we are not as able to solve our own problems.
The question then becomes, what sort of people can we be in the future? That remains up to us. We have failed before and still succeeded. Because we embraced our allies, we embraced our own strengths, and we embraced our better angels. We can only succeed as good global citizens. There has never been any other route.
And let’s count our blessings. Think how close we came to never having to ask this question. Think how long we were floating with a carnival barker as our chief executive; how well the economy seemed to be doing under the money-glazed gaze of this sherbet salesman, how little we seemed to miss any sort of guiding hand, much less any sort of moral guidance. Mr. Trump nearly got away with it. That bluffer nearly played out his streak.
Thank god it’s just been Covid, and nothing too serious.
Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project. His most recent one is The Book of Order. They are available on Amazon.
Views expressed in columns and opinion pieces belong to the author and do not reflect those of InDepthNH.org.