Laughing Into 2011?

“For tonight is New Year’s Eve
Uncork your spirits and welcome it in
Who knows what it’s got up its sleeve
Can’t wait for it all to begin
Stand by the girl with the purple balloon
The look in her eyes just lights up the room
In the corner of her smile
She’ll be seeing you soon
Under a mistletoe moon…”
Al Stewart, from “Laughing into 1939”

This morning I was up at 6:15 to get on the step machine and do my almost daily morning workout.  I hooked up the I-pod to the headphones and…nothing.  I must have left it on, the battery was drained.  Irritated (but already exercising) I had to grab a CD and put it in my disc player instead.  I looked at the stack of CDs, not in their cases, used in recent weeks as background music to my work out, and choose Al Stewart’s Life Between the Wars.

Al Stewart is one of my favorite song writers.   Though best known for his hits “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat,” he’s got a passion for history and his songs explore personalities and events throughout time — from Helen of Troy to Josephine Baker and even Warren G. Harding.  Given that I find interwar Europe a fascinating bit of history, it’s no surprise this is one of my favorite CDs.   How many artists out there put out a CD that mentions Dorothy Parker, Hedy Lamarr, Hoagy Carmichael, Beiderbecke, Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge, Lawrence of Arabia, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, Paul Gervaise, Zelda Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Coco Chanel, Wallis Simpson, Stalin, Kamenez, Zinoviev, and Bukharin.  He has a song about Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, and the CD captures images between the war from the Versailles negotiations to the Spanish civil war, as well as culture (literature, art, film) and everyday life.

So, I settled in to my workout, enjoying the music and songs, amazed that themes that seem so “intellectual” actually can make melodic, enjoyable tunes, I got caught up in the music until near the end of the work out when “Laughing into 1939” came on.   It’s the last song on the CD with lyrics (the disc ends with an instrumental ‘The Black Danube,’) ending the era between the wars on New Years Eve, 1938.

The music is haunting and melancholy, even though the song is about celebration and parties.  The mental image I get is of large parties in Paris, Berlin and London, with people laughing and enjoying themselves, oblivious to the horror that will be unleashed in the year whose start they are celebrating.   The juxtaposition between the dark music and lyrics depicting celebration has always made that a powerful piece for me.  There has always been something tragic about the interwar period, an era so full of life and experimentation, yet doomed to end in destruction and holocaust.

Today the song was even more powerful, especially as the line quoted above, “tonight is New Years eve…” played.  Tonight is New Years eve!    We’re entering a new year with hopes, expectations, and perhaps even some resolutions.  Like the Europeans in 1939, we’re hoping the economy improves and life gets a bit more normal.   Few people from Berlin to London wanted war in 1939, and the hope was that the Great War of 1914-18 had convinced leader and citizen alike of the folly of armed conflict in Europe.

It hadn’t.   An Austrian born corporal in the German army, temporarily blinded by a British gas attack, went into a rage as he heard of the German surrender.  He vowed to go into politics and redo the war, this time not making the mistakes that doomed Germany in 1914.  He did the Blitzkrieg into France right this time, and then would turn on Russia, following closely the Ludendorf plan of WWI to gain Lebensraum for Germany.   But on December 31, 1938 there was still hope that Adolf Hitler was like a Bismarck, simply wanting equality for Germany on the European stage, undoing the injustices done to Germany by the post-war Treaty of Versailles.   So most people believed there was cause for hope and celebration, as Europe went ‘laughing into 1939.’

No one expects all out war in 2011.   But there are dangers.   The Mideast peace remains precarious and incomplete.  Dangers from Iran, North Korea and of course terrorist groups like al qaeda linger.  Terrorism is probably the most dangerous uncertainty.   We know they are willing to sacrifice anything to try to damage the West, but we don’t know if and when they’ll be able to strike again.   The world can change in a minute.

One can imagine other nightmares.   What would happen if the dollar’s value collapsed, or if unrest in the Mideast caused a massive spike in oil prices?   Will 2011 be a calm year of recovery and continued efforts to solve global problems, or will the uncertainties and imbalances in world affairs lead this to be remembered in a light akin to 1939 — a year when the old order shattered?

I wasn’t planning to blog about this today; I was thinking of something a bit lighter, either a mocking of Tucker Carlson’s call to execute Michael Vick, or perhaps a reflection on the first decade of the new century, which ended a year ago.  But thanks to my last minute choice of background music this morning, images of life between the wars put me in a different mood.   One song, “When Lindy Comes to Town,” captures the belief that the world “had grown no bigger than a pocket handkerchief.

Everyday is better than the day before it
If I see a rain cloud I will just ignore it
Everybody says it will get much better yet
It’s 1927 and my whole life lies ahead!

Listening to that I thought of the bubble economies and optimism we had until recently.  The era between the wars was vibrant, yet doomed.  Is that our fate as well?

I will be laughing into 2011, fully expecting this year to be one of progress.   We’re planning another travel course to Italy, maybe getting geothermal energy for the house, and dealing with the constant job of raising children.   But there is a whiff of discontentment and anxiety in the air.  Was it just coincidence that my I-pod battery was dead and I grabbed this CD on New Years eve?  Is it a warning?   Will the dangers and dilemmas of recent years come to a head in 2011, and put us on a dark path, at least for awhile?   Probably not, but…

“Out onto the balcony
Come the King and the Queen
And the crowd go wild
He’s a little bit nervous
But that’s just fine
And they’re laughing, laughing into 1939…”

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  1. #1 by Black Flag on December 31, 2010 - 16:35

    No one expects all out war in 2011.

    I’m not sure where you are – but there is an “all out war” going on right now- I’m not sure what degree you think “war” is fought. Perhaps to you, unless they use nukes, it ain’t really a war.

    Terrorism is probably the most dangerous uncertainty.

    Nonsense.

    Terrorism is a tactic, not a group.

    It is typically the only tactic available to a weak power in defiance against a superior power or a hegemony, but hegemonic and inferior powers all use terror as a tactic in some degree or another.

    If the Iraqis/Afghans had Abrams M-1 tanks, attack helicopters, air superiority fighters, drones, and aircraft carriers, they would use them.

    But they don’t.

    They only have their bodies as weapons delivery systems. So that is what they use.

    If you do not want to be under threat of human weapons systems, do not threaten them with mechanical weapons systems.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on December 31, 2010 - 18:00

    Terrorism is, indeed a strategy, defined by the state department as: “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” The US considers military personnel not engaged in combat as “non-combattants,” hence the asterix.

    In general, terrorism usually refers to non-state actors or organizations engaging in violence for some cause they deem worthy of war. The fact they do not have a state is irrelevant to them, because violence under the guise of national sovereignty is often done for causes they consider less just than their own (and states have a strong motivation to make it seem that terrorism as violence is evil, while state violence is legitimate — but in the era of globalization, that distinction is destined to be blurred).

    But you write “nonsense” without explaining why terrorism isn’t the biggest threat. A state like North Korea may start a war, but is very unlikely to. The government there is an organized criminal gang dealing in illicit arms sales, and making out well with that. They are protected by sovereignty, and a war would make their entire existence impossible. For any territorial state the prospect of a reaction against their territory makes war something that can be deterred, especially now that economic relations are becoming more important than military power.

    A group like al qaeda, diffuse and occupying no specific territorial unit, is harder to retaliate against, and thus harder to deter. Moreover, the damage they do is not the point — al qaeda did very little damage to the US on 9-11, the US did far more to Iraq and Afghanistan in just a tiny portion of its wars there. The damage done by al qaeda can be seen in the way it got the US to react in a manner which undermined its power and economic stability. The decline in US relative power was hastened considerably by the choices made out of fear of terrorism (or by those wanting to use terrorism to rationalize an attempt to project power). The “cheap credit” monetary policy after 9-11 halted what should have been a healthy recession in 2001-02, and ignited the housing bubble, which led to a host of financial problems. The real threat of terrorism is the dangerous series of events it can unleash. One of the first terrorist acts of the 20th century showed that — the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

  3. #3 by Black Flag on December 31, 2010 - 18:57

    Sorry for a long post, but you raise a number of details that require a response.

    Terrorism is, indeed a strategy, defined by the state department as: “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” The US considers military personnel not engaged in combat as “non-combattants,” hence the asterix.

    “Terrorism is a pejorative term.

    It is a word with intrinsically negative connotations that is generally applied to one’s enemies and opponents, or to those with whom one disagrees and would otherwise prefer to ignore. (…) Hence the decision to call someone or label some organization ‘terrorist’ becomes almost unavoidably subjective, depending largely on whether one sympathizes with or opposes the person/group/cause concerned

    The rise of the Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) at least one side is something other than a military force organized and operating under the control of a national government.

    To distinguish 4GW from insurgency, though, the non-state actor must have a goal other than simply taking control of the State. The goal, typically, is the de-legitimization of the State.

    The 4GW warrior is out to prove that the State cannot fulfill its most basic promise -security- thus, proves the State cannot fulfill anything.

    As important as finding and destroying the actual combatants, for example, is drying up the bases of popular support that allow them to recruit for, plan, and execute their attacks.

    Thus, the paradox – being seen as too successful militarily will create a backlash, making the opponent’s other elements of 4GW more effective. As the hegemony, your victories have no gain – who expects to cheer for Goliath as he slaughters the little people? Your losses are massively multi-dimensional – it destroys the infallibility and illusion of invincibility of the hegemony.

    William Lind says:

    The distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.

    Wiki:
    Clausewitz’s trinitarian model of war (a term of van Creveld’s) distinguishes between the affairs of the population, the army, and the government.

    Van Creveld criticizes this philosophy as too narrow and state-focused, thus inapplicable to the study of those conflicts involving one or more non-state actors. Instead, he proposes five key issues of war:

    1. By whom war is fought — whether by states or by non-state actors
    2. What is war all about — the relationships between the actors, and between them and the non-combatants
    3. How war is fought — issues of strategy and tactics
    4. What war is fought for — whether to enhance national power, or as an end to itself
    5. Why war is fought — the motivations of the individual soldier.

    Creveld states that terrorism usually refers to non-state actors or organizations engaging in violence for some cause they deem worthy of war.

    The fact they do not have a state is irrelevant to them, because violence under the guise of national sovereignty is often done for causes they consider less just than their own (and states have a strong motivation to make it seem that terrorism as violence is evil, while state violence is legitimate — but in the era of globalization, that distinction is destined to be blurred).

    As such, terrorism in its many manifestations has always been a tactic of violence whether the actor is a centralization of violence, such as the State – or the non-state actor in a struggle against a hegemony.

    But you write “nonsense” without explaining why terrorism isn’t the biggest threat.

    I took your post as personal – what is 2011 going to do to me.

    Terrorism is about as likely to effect you as getting hit by lightening 5x in a row. Best worry about the quality of your car tires instead since you are more likely to die (1/200) in a car accident.

    4GW warfare is the most severe threat to the State since the beginning of armed struggles against and between the States. It attacks the heart of the State without providing a heart for the State to attack.

    The State has but one strategy – cause the 4GW warriors to coalesce into a State themselves.

    This was successful against the PLO – turning them into a government, which then could be attacked, manipulated and bribed by other States in the traditional manners of inter-State political influence. This is why Hezbollah has remained so much more successful – the avoidance of becoming a State actor.

    So as a threat, to you, it is irrelevant. The response by your own State to 4GW incursions is your biggest threat.

    Focusing on the 4GW threat (let’s call that “terrorism”) will necessarily detract such a focus from the consequences of the response to such a threat – in other words, by focusing on your fear of terrorism (highly improbable to actually involve you) you will accept massive loss of freedom (highly probable to effect and involve you).

    One of the first terrorist acts of the 20th century showed that — the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

    Boy, we could go on for hours about how NOT that was the trigger of WW1 ……

    I guess my point (and it is a current research and book I am writing):

    Hegemonic powers are the only action, all other actors react to the action of the hegemony. Therefore, it is up to the hegemony to define the action.

    As such, if there is a desire of peace, it must always come from the hegemony. The weaker power, should it unilaterally cease its attacks, is called a surrender.

    But if the hegemony unilaterally ceases its attacks, it is called a unilateral cease fire – and the first step to a negotiated peace.

    If one understands that in a 4GW battlefield, the weaker power will never surrender, then it is up solely to the hegemony to define whether they lose on the battle field or negotiate a peace.

    But in all cases, it is the hegemony that must act FIRST, and expect the weaker actors to REACT to the hegemony.

    Focusing on the actions of the weaker actors mistaken that they -and not the hegemony- must act first.

    I do not look at Hezbollah, or Al Qeada or any other group for an action.

    I look at the USA/Israel for their action, and then measure and expect a reaction from others.

    PS. Happy New Year

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on December 31, 2010 - 19:26

    I can only respond to one part due to time, and I’ll chose the last (except to note that I wasn’t thinking I could personally be a victim of terrorism, the odds are very much against that).

    On WWI – it’s pretty clear that a variety of factors such as yellow journalism, the end of colonial expansion, Germany’s rise, the problem of Alsace and Lorraine, the fact that “Realpolitik” replaced the Metternich system’s focus on diplomacy, and the competition between Austria and Russia to fill the power vacuum left by the slow collapse of the Ottoman Empire all made WWI a likelihood. These structural causes of the war mean it was very likely something would spark it.

    Yet the spark was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. That gave the Austrians the belief they could use this to hit Serbia and get the upper hand against Russia for control of the Balkans. A wiser German Kaiser might have realized how bad this could go, but Wilhelm II was impulsive and careless. But this led to things such as Russia’s partial mobilization to prepare to help Serbia (forcing France to as well, due to a secret treaty neither the Czar nor the French PM knew existed), fed into a growing public lust for war, and Ludendorf’s dreams of German “Lebensraum” — and excuse to launch the Schlieffen plan. I think this would have happened in some form anyway, but the way it happened was sparked by the assassination.

  5. #5 by Black Flag on December 31, 2010 - 22:00

    Scott,

    As I posted, this would be HOURS of dialogue….

    …but I do not agree that the assassination was significant. The fuse was set long, long before and Europe was doomed by the machinations of Churchill to plunge into a war of Empire vs. Nation States.

  6. #6 by Black Flag on December 31, 2010 - 22:03

    but I do not agree that the assassination was significant.

    Well, that as posted is not correct either – that is not quite my meaning. Obviously it was significant.

    It was not necessary – how about that?

    Another situation would have come along and excited the chain of events….

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