Saturday, January 14, 2012


January 14, 2012:

In the London Review of Books for 15 December I came across a review of a new book by the English historian Norman Davies, who specializes in large volumes (this one is over 800 pages) covering big swaths of history. It's called Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe. And I just finished writing a piece for Military History about Yugoslavia in World War II. Then there's the Historical Atlas of the Celtic World, another random pluck from my library, which is full of maps of countries you never heard of: the Kingdom of Brittany, the Duchy of Brittany, Galatia, Pannonia, and on and on. So I keep running into countries that no longer exist. Yugoslavia is only the latest example. Created in 1921 by the great powers at the Paris peace talks after World War I, Yugoslavia was a forced merger of Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia, with Montenegro thrown in for good luck. The first assassination came a year later, the second in 1928, and during World War II the country barely contained a civil war that raged at the same time, between Serbs and Croats, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Nazis and Communists. It's an open question which killed the most people, whether it was the Croatian Nazis, who massacred Eastern Orthodox Serbs in huge numbers, or the German Nazis, who killed ten civilians every time a German soldier was ambushed, or the Partisans, led by Marshal Tito. Whichever it was, more than a million people died. What the great powers ignored--this is what great powers do, ignore realities--was the history of the Balkans, where the various religious and national groups have always hated each other. The Balkans have seen dozens of kingdoms, republics, and mini-empires vanish.

Mini-empires, like the Serbian empire, and major empires, like the Ottoman, the British, the French empire under Napoleon. They all come, they all go. What makes us think the United States is immune? We are a military power, but so was the Roman Empire, the overwhelming military power in ancient times, with huge effective fighting forces; but its army could not save it. Corruption, greed, the lust for power--they are human universals, appearing everywhere we appear. Men of large fortunes crop up, as Montesquieu said, they soon begin to think they may be happy and glorious by oppressing their fellow citizens, that they may raise themselves to grandeur on the ruins of their country. Last night at dinner an old friend of ours said that within a generation we may see a revolution in the United States. If we do, the nation may break up. It will be, perhaps, like India and Pakistan in 1947, a vast migration, hundreds of thousands of people killed, as Muslims fled to the latter and Hindus to the former. Examples of nations breaking up are legion. Where will our populations flee? Quiet migrations go on all the time here. Half the people I know are in exile from the Midwest, including my wife.

We are not an exception in the long history of the world, we are no better than other countries, we harbor the same weaknesses, the same unthinking arrogance, the same kinds of hatreds. Our educational levels are sinking well below the standards set in a good part of the rest of the world; the level of our income inequality, which is a reliable predictor of unrest, is much higher than in Europe and even some Third World countries. Half the polity seems to think that science, which has given this same polity an amazing lifestyle, is "merely theory," and it has become impossible to tell the public the truth about anything. Meanwhile we continue to entertain ourselves to death.

This is a note my readers have heard from me before. But I cannot help it. I am an old man, and it is very painful to watch my country deteriorate before my eyes. I read somewhere recently that the chief environmental scientist at NASA thinks the Keystone pipeline that has been proposed to run from Canada through Nebraska to refineries in Texas would be the tipping point. If we start refining the dirty crude that comes from tar sands, we can say adios to the planet. But name an oil executive that has the interests of the planet, rather than those of his corporation, at heart. Is there one? Are there actual patriots out there? Is civic virtue completely dead? Congressional corruption has become, not a crime committed only by a few, but a necessity for all; they cannot escape it; they have to raise campaign money, very large sums of it, and that by itself is enough to destroy the country.

The republic is dead, long live the oligarchy. Jefferson thought we should have a revolution every generation, and he has a point. The United States may have had its day. It needs to be rethought, from the bottom up. The fire next time, said James Baldwin. Think about what we have come to: a corporate raider is one of the leading candidates to run the country. Who can take pride in such a situation? And there's no Teddy Roosevelt to come riding in on his horse and save us.