Leadership and Courage
When Mitzi and I were in Ireland a few years ago, one of the places we visited was Kinsale, a town on the south Irish coast. We did a tour of the town, which was highly recommended and we both found it fascinating. A part of the tour focused on the sinking of the Lusitania, which took place just off the coast from Kinsale. Our guide, Barry Moloney, recommended Erik Laron's Dead Wake as one of the best accounts of the event.
After the tour, we popped into a local book shop and, naturally, I found a copy of Larson's book and bought it. I read it in the evenings before I went to bed, finally finishing it on the flight home. I loved it.
Larson writes historical nonfiction almost as though it were a novel. It's meticulously researched and documented, but the narrative moves swiftly and keeps your attention.
The Splendid and the Vile is about Churchill's first year as Prime Minister, from May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941. "This was the year in which Churchill became Churchill, the cigar-smoking bulldog we all think we know, when he made his greatest speeches and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like."
I read The Splendid and the Vile in the early part of the pandemic, as America was trying to come to grips with an enemy that was to take over 600,000 American lives, a number that is still growing. In some ways, it was a very difficult read. American political discourse has become saturated in right-wing Republican demagoguery with the advent of Donald Trump's presidency. The contrast between genuine leadership in a time of incredible crisis and the incomprehensible exhibition of incompetence and bad faith we witnessed daily was viscerally painful to experience.
Like many human qualities, leadership is a talent, but it can also be learned. In my navy career, I witnessed many types of leadership, none of which I would call truly great; but some clearly good and others almost criminally bad. Of the good ones, I would say that it was clear that they at least understood the value of good leadership, and they tried to live up to that value. The worst ones were selfish men, with no clue about the value of leadership, understanding only the exercise of authority.
I see that today, in Florida's adolescent governor, Ron DeSantis. A petty man, ambitious, suspicious, choleric and vain, he runs our state as a platform for his political ambitions. Throughout the pandemic, he's exhibited what I believe can reasonably be described as a depraved indifference to the health and safety of his citizens. To be sure, he has embraced getting seniors vaccinated. They were his largest voting demographic in his narrow victory in 2018. Were it not for them, he'd be a forgotten minor congressman from an insignificant Florida district, who appeared on Fox News a lot.
But today it appears he's decided that the best way he can serve his citizens is to not do everything within his authority to safeguard their health and safety, by ruling out non-pharmacological interventions like mask mandates. A simple, low-cost public health measure that attenuates the spread of the pathogen, reduces the number of new cases and the burdens on the hospital and health care systems, and ultimately saves lives.
Floridians have died, and will continue to die, in greater numbers than would otherwise be the case because a demagogue has decided that it is in his selfish political interest to appear as some kind of stalwart defender of individual liberty. The freedom to not wear a cloth face covering.
DeSantis is supported in this effort by a Republican Party of Florida that has ruled the state for more than two decades. Florida has become a political monoculture, where one-party rule has erased the concept of accountability. That's a topic for a different post. It's relevance here is the vocal affirmation of the governor's malfeasance by elected officials, and the absence of any criticism by Republicans of stature in private life.
Authoritarian regimes of any stripe, be they fascist or communist, would admire and envy this level of party discipline.
The Larson book I've most recently finished is In the Garden of Beasts. The book is about William Dodd, the United States Ambassador to Germany at the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, a job no traditional diplomat wanted.
"Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin. They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their first year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler’s ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain."
This is a story that was completely unfamiliar to me, and a fascinating one. It would be too difficult to summarize the book in this blog post, suffice to say that I strongly commend it to your attention. It's worthwhile and rewarding reading.
That said, what kind of unites both Churchill and Dodd was the clarity of their vision. Both were deeply flawed men, as all men are. But at their core, they had a profound and steadfast sense of what civilized behavior was, the value of the rule of law. One that at least illuminated the grotesque outlines of what was taking hold in Germany in the 1930s.
Dodd was constrained from speaking out by the protocols of diplomatic relations while he was ambassador. He was also undermined and attacked by the career foreign service establishment in Washington. The Nazis were hostile to him as well. To have lived in Berlin in that time was profoundly frightening, at least as it became clear what it was becoming. When Dodd ultimately left his post, he was free to speak boldly about the looming danger of Nazi Germany, and he did so. Though, like Churchill in Britain, few heeded Dodd's warnings in America.
Dodd died in February 1940, before America's entry into the war, before Churchill became Prime Minister. Near the end of the book, Larson offers this quote, which I found deeply resonant and simultaneously chilling,
“But history,” wrote Dodd’s friend Claude Bowers, ambassador to Spain and later Chile, “will record that in a period when the forces of tyranny were mobilizing for the extermination of liberty and democracy everywhere, when a mistaken policy of ‘appeasement’ was stocking the arsenals of despotism, and when in many high social, and some political, circles, fascism was a fad and democracy anathema, he stood foursquare for our democratic way of life, fought the good fight and kept the faith, and when death touched him his flag was flying still.”
Today "the forces of tyranny are mobilizing for the extermination of liberty and democracy everywhere," and not by means of mandating public health measures. In some political circles, fascism is again a fad and democracy, to some, anathema.
Past is prologue. History doesn't repeat, but it often rhymes. We must believe what we see right before our very eyes.
We must look for leaders and condemn demagogues. We must summon courage and recognize it where it is shown.
Because everything hangs in the balance, and nothing is certain.
For many years, I've been worried that climate change, brought about by the unchecked emissions of CO2, would lead to the collapse of civilization. A "collapse of civilization" isn't the kind of thing you hear much about, unless you're a historian and you're studying other civilizations. To be sure, there are many people, some more credible than others, who have written in these terms about the climate emergency, but it doesn't get a lot of attention in the mainstream. Indeed, when it does receive attention, it is usually to downplay "alarmism" or "doom."
It's been the irrational response to our knowledge of the climate emergency that has compelled me to consider the possibility that we may lose this civilization. But it's been the pandemic, and the irrational response to it by one of two major parties in the United States, that has brought the subject front and center to my attention.
Sandwiched between these two currents, our irrational response to climate change and our irrational response to the pandemic, was the election of Donald Trump. The absurdity of that event compelled me to become actively engaged and more acutely aware of politics.
I have never been a great student of history. While I didn't hate the subject in school, and often found it kind of interesting, it never competed with things like science and math and all the amazing technological achievements that were taking place in the present. In somewhat more recent years, I've been interested in the history of science and engineering, while political history remained less appealing.
It was Ta-Nihsi Coates who recommended The Battle Cry of Freedom as a worthwhile history of the Civil War in a tweet from a few years ago, that stimulated my interest in history from the political point of view. What was remarkable about the experience of reading that book, apart from revealing to me my own astounding ignorance of the Civil War, was identifying many parallels with the present. Which brought home for me that the study of history can inform the present, much like when Churchill, echoing Santayana, said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
I must admit, this wasn't the first time this had been made plain to me. It was in the 90s, when I was taking the Naval War College's non-resident program in Norfolk, Virginia, when I learned how history informs the present. During the first part of the program, in the Strategy and Policy course, if I recall correctly, you read Thucydides, Clausewitz, and, most relevant at that time, this history of the first World War. At that time, we were confronting conflict and unrest in the Balkans, as well as the first Gulf War. It was clear that both matters were consequences, echoes, of the collapse of empires; Austro-Hungarian in one, Ottoman and, later, British and French in the other. I recall finding this fascinating at the time, joking in class that we ought to "bring back the Austro-Hungarian Empire!" But I was a commissioned officer on active duty, as well a husband and a father, and reading history couldn't compete with other welcome distractions in those days.
Retired now, worried about the future my grandchildren are about to inherit, I look to history more eagerly. I still read the history of science and technology, it's far less depressing than political history and equally as interesting. But political history is worthwhile as well.
Some time ago, I wrote about WW II as a collapse of civilization, and that it was only the reserves of wealth and civilization in the Americas, relatively untouched by the ravages of the war, that restored civilization, as imperfect as it may have been, in fairly short order. I felt, and still feel, that any collapse brought about by climate change will have no such advantage. Collapse will be global and complete, and recovery will be centuries in the making.
World War II has my attention these days, as it seems to be the most relevant antecedent that may inform our present. We studied WW II in Strategy and Policy as well, and my clearest recollection of that effort has to do with America's conflict with Japan. I'm not focused on that right now, though I suspect it may have some value in how we deal with China.
Today I'm focused on Germany, and the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Sadly, that remains with us today as well.
What's fascinating to me is that there were many people who clearly perceived the danger that Hitler posed, both within Germany and without. And there were many opportunities that, if action had been taken, would have altered the entire course of history. The question for me is, why were those who were able to perceive the danger also unable to compel action to address it?
What are the defects in our nature that impose these handicaps of blindness or paralysis, thus permitting catastrophe that might otherwise, at some cost, be avoided?
The book that has inflicted this bout of insomnia, I'd been lying awake thinking about this since about 0130 this morning, is Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. First, if you've not read anything by Erik Larson, pick anything he's done. The first book I read by him was Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. His work is meticulously researched, but his writing is amazing. He presents a narrative that reads more like a novel than a dry recitation of events.
In the Garden of Beasts deals with the appointment of university professor William Dodd to be be the U.S. ambassador to Germany, not long after Hitler became Chancellor, before the death of Hindenburg. The book is both exciting and chilling.
I'm also reading Churchill's The Gathering Storm, in parallel with Larson's book. It's a bit hard switching back and forth, the styles are vastly different. They don't cover the same events, though they do overlap. Larson't book is a smaller snapshot in time, focused on Germany, with some insight into what was going on in Washington. Churchill gives you his view of what was taking place in Germany and in Britain.
Another book that I'll recommend, though I've put it aside for the moment because I found it profoundly depressing, is Hitler's First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, by Peter Fritsch.
Much has been said of late that it is wrong and unfair to compare the Republican Party in America today with fascism or the National Socialist Workers Party.
The same forces, the same defects in human nature, that brought about the rise of the Nazis are at work in the Republican Party today. While Nazi's may have focused on "racial purity" as a national value to be achieved, to Republicans it is the purity of the American myth that must be preserved. There are other examples, and I'll return to this idea again, likely many times.
Let me also say that these "ideas" are, it seems to me, less aims and objectives to be achieved in themselves, though they are that; more importantly, they are a means to gather power, attract followers. Power is the aim, these themes are just the means.
There is an ugliness to our nature, a brutality. When I read in Beasts, about SA troopers leaving ranks to punch American tourists who didn't render the Hitler salute as their formations marched by, I thought of Trump's supporters at his rallies. Of the old man who left his seat to punch a protester as he was being escorted from the venue. People who have this desire to lash out, to punch people, to see people brutalized, welcome a leader who welcomes them. We see them in the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and others.
Our senior senator, Marco Rubio, an odious little man, has apparently offered some legislation about school curriculum on matters of race. Ostensibly to "protect" students from "racially hostile school environments" caused by critical race theory. When I lived at my condo, one of my neighbors was a young Black woman with a PhD in literature, a single mother, widow as it happens, living in St Johns County because she had young children and St Johns County had the best schools. Her middle schooler had never complained of racial harassment at school before. That is, not until the election of Donald Trump. She doesn't live in St Johns County anymore.
So I would encourage you to read some history. It's not "Nazism" or "fascism" per se that we need fear here, it's the ugliness of human nature that has found a welcome host in the body of the Republican Party.
The warnings are clear, and they are all around us. Whether or not we heed them in time will determine the future of all our children.
Civilization is balanced on a knife's edge. 2022 may well be the tipping point.