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Apr 17, 2004 8:51 am

The Moon is Down, Again!

Art, films and literature often offer insights which help to explain human situations perhaps better than does history. This Easter season, “The Passion of the Christ” provided us an example of the way in which imperial occupiers, and some of their Quislings, treated dissidents.

My favorite, however, on the integral interaction between occupiers and those being occupied, is John Steinbeck’s 1942 book, The Moon is Down, shortly thereafter made into a film starring Cedric Hardwicke, Lee J. Cobb and Henry Travers. I first saw the film in the 1950s. Since the Vietnam era it has been little shown, if at all.

It is a story about the German invasion of a small town in Norway in 1940, and the developing reactions of the inhabitants as the Nazis seek to insure that the mine nearby continues to send coal to the Third Reich's war machine.

Readers this year may be tempted to replace the term “Norway” with “Iraq,” “coal” with “oil,” and “Germany” with the phrase “Coalition.”

The story even has a “fifth column” Ahmed Chalabi like character, who sets up the town for an easy occupation, imagining he will be dearly beloved by the people.

The central confrontation, however, is between Mayor Orden, and the German officer in command, Col. Lanser, a Wehrmacht veteran of occupied Belgium over two decades earlier, who urges cooperation rather than violence, which will lead, he warns, inevitably to more violence on the part of the Germans.

Woven through all of this are the increasingly violent acts of “the People.” Early on, Lanser’s mind wanders back to a friendly, little, old, gray-haired Belgian lady who killed 12 Germans with a 12 inch hat pin, before she was caught and shot. He still retains the hat pin at home.

Of course, the violence begins at once, and the Germans retaliate on a much larger scale on the Norwegian people. At the same time, many of the German troops, yearning to go home and for some companionship, begin to develop various symptoms of psychological stress.

The Germans, like imperial conquerors back to the Romans and beyond, seek to legitimatize their occupation in the eyes of the people. They understand that Quislings won’t work in the long run. John Lukacs devoted a large part of his book, The Last European War: September, 1939 - December, 1941, (1976) to demonstrating how they failed in a attempt to establish legitimacy over the nations of occupied Europe.

“Legitimacy,” to paraphrase, Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Ah, there’s the rub!” Incidentally, the movie version of the book opens with a quote from Roosevelt about the example of the resistance of Norway explaining the meaning of W.W.II.

At the end, the Quisling, having obtained authority from the Nazi command in Oslo, orders Col. Lanser to execute the old Mayor and the town doctor, if the people begin to use the dynamite, dropped by parachute by British airplanes, to destroy the mine. As the explosions begin, the two are executed as the Mayor repeats an old speech he used many years before, the last words of Socrates to the Athenian people.

It is clear the occupiers, despised by the people, are in for a long and bloody time ahead.

In a New York Times (4/11/04) op-ed piece, “Nasty, Brutish and Short,” Thomas Friedman, mentions the word “legitimacy” four times, and flip-flops on whether it can be bought with cash or compelled with force, before finally concluding that the U.S. cannot do so, and that with all of the retaliatory killing, “we have a staggering legitimacy deficit.”

I wonder if legitimacy is something you can have in gradations as he suggests? Either one is a bastard, or one is not!

As reported in The Telegraph (4/11/2004) among our major partner in the so-called Coalition, the British, senior officers, speaking anonymously, have already expressed a growing sense of"unease and frustration," about American tactics in the occupation. Part of the problem, a British officer said, is that Americans tend to see the Iraqis as “untermenschen,” the term for “sub-humans,” -- Jews, Slavs and Gypsies --used by Hitler in Mein Kampf.

"The US troops view things in very simplistic terms. It seems hard for them to reconcile subtleties between who supports what and who doesn't in Iraq. It's easier for their soldiers to group all Iraqis as the bad guys. As far as they are concerned Iraq is bandit country and everybody is out to kill them."

British rules of warfare allow troops to open fire only when attacked, and to use the minimum force necessary, and at identified targets, not a massive use of firepower in urban areas, as do the Israelis on the Palestinians, and now American troops on the Iraqis.

In short, The Moon is Down, again.

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