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William Marina: Iraq - The Moon Is Down, Again!

Iraq: The Moon Is Down, Again!

By William Marina
April 23, 2004

Art, films and literature often offer insights that help to explain human situations perhaps better than does history. My favorite book on the integral interaction between occupiers and those being occupied, is John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down (1942), shortly thereafter made into a film starring Cedric Hardwicke, Lee J. Cobb and Henry Travers. I first saw the film in the 1950s, but it is not shown these days.

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

Woven through the plot are the increasingly violent acts of “the people.” Early on, Lanser’s mind wanders back to a friendly, 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, sought to legitimatize their occupation in the eyes of the people. They understood that quislings wouldn’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 using the resistance of Norway to explain 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 op-ed piece (4/11/04), “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. He adds 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 an occupier, or one is not!

As reported in The London Telegraph, (4/11/2004) among our major partners 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.”

He continued: “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.


William Marina is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.

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