Backtalk, January 9, 2009

Silent Night

I always think that European history is a lie that Americans agree on! And I am always amused at the way in which Americans “hijack” part of our history, distort it, and incorporate it into their own national myths. There was indeed a Christmas truce in 1914. British and German soldiers did indeed sing carols to each other on the night of the 24th and did indeed climb out of their trenches the next morning to talk and smoke together, but much of the rest is legend! Essentially, a lot of soldiers wrote afterwards not about they had seen or taken part in but about things they had been told happened elsewhere along the line. The football match, for example, seems to be complete fiction. Equally, there was no French participation, not because the French didn’t want to take part, but because the event happened way to the north of where the French army was. As for Hitler’s claims in Mein Kampf, they too are probably fiction, manufactured for his political purposes of the moment.

I suspect that Professor Weintraub may well have been fooled by some of those accounts as well. Anyone who knows anything about the levels of foreign language knowledge in Europe in 1914 would be suspicious of the chocolate cake note, for example. The chances that anyone in the German trenches would have had such a perfect command of English as to write it are almost zero, and if it were written in German, the chances that anyone on the British side would have been able to understand it are also more or less zero.

The film, of course, is a parable, not a documentary, and the French were included in it in order to get French government subsidies. If you bear that in mind, all will be well. But I always worry when I see people like Mr. Henderson who seem to take all this as established historical fact.

~ Michael Kenny

David R. Henderson replies:

Some of Mr. Kenny’s points are well-taken. As many of the critics of the book pointed out, Weintraub interweaves truth and fiction. I thought I had been careful enough to separate them and simply report the factual parts, but I may have erred. Also, as Mr. Kenny points out, Stanley Weintraub may have erred.

I do take issue, though, with four other claims that Mr. Kenny made.

First, I don’t find it at all strange that a German would know English enough to write the note. Many people are unaware of this, but there was a tremendous degree of what is now called “globalization” in Europe at the time. Many of the German soldiers had been cab drivers and waiters in London before the war, and it seems quite reasonable that some of them would have learned English.

Second, he’s right to point out that the movie, Joyeux Noël, was a parable, something that I certainly did not deny.

Third, I’m sure that Hitler did make many things up — start with his outrageous claim that Jews were behind so much of what was wrong with the world — but the idea that this man who made war on many nations would have been proud of a military medal he received certainly doesn’t seem unlikely.

Fourth and finally, how exactly did I incorporate European history into my own national American myth? I didn’t even mention the role of Americans. As I’m sure Mr. Kenny is aware, the U.S. government did not enter the war until April 1917, well after the events I described took place. Or is Mr. Kenny claiming that because these things happened in Europe, we Americans shouldn’t write about them? I believe that anyone in the world should be free to write on anything he wants to, even if those things did not happen in his country.

The Ponzi Scheme Presidency

When you say: “Madoff, by his own accounting, squandered perhaps $50 billion of other people’s money,” this is not entirely correct. He used the inflow of money to pay returns of 10-15 percent annually to current investors. I’ll bet a lot of the people that were with him for many years would have received multiples of their investment returned. As an example, 12 percent roughly doubles itself in six years, and many investors were with him for decades. A 24-year investor would have received four times his principle back in returns (not compounded), but lost his principle. Even a six-year investor would have done well — certainly better than a holder of shares in Lehman Brothers or Washington Mutual, or many many other “legitimate” “investments.”

Come to think of it, a very high proportion of our “investments” could be characterized as Ponzi schemes — depending on the future to pay for the present. I’m not in love with Bernie, but references to him in the press seem to have reached the “Madoff-mania” stage.

As to the references in the article about body counts, it was really easy during the Vietnam War. The official propaganda figures seem to have been arrived at by taking U.S. casualties and multiplying by 10 to obtain enemy losses.

~ Robert Borland

Rationalizing Gaza

Dear Justin,

You wrote how Obama’s silence means that his foreign policy will be the same as our current one.

Well, you may be right. But it is fair to imagine what would have happen if McCain were the president-elect.

I already see McCain, Lieberman, and his advisers all over the news screaming that Bush does not support Israel enough. Look at the Senate; there they are not silent.

Obama’s silence is very new. What the Lobby wants us to believe is that it is a very simple problem of evil terrorists against civilization. Silence means at least that it is a more complex problem. And this is a change.

~ Yves de Montaudouin

Millions for Defense

I hope this great piece by Jerry Salyer represents just the initial salvo by this gentleman in a war against military waste and fraud on Although I detect a bit of tongue-in-cheek here, there is a great tradition of buying off your adversaries –industry hiring hackers to identify security holes and plug them, the U.S. financing the “Sons of Iraq,” etc. Paying the pirates to protect shipping in their area (even lavishly paying them) would be so much more cost-effective than sending in carrier groups or conducting expeditionary incursions to root out pirate bases. Not to mention investing billions in the vain hope of “fixing” Somalia itself.

Now this is the kind of thinking the Obama administration-in-waiting needs, not the hopeless, recycled, Clintonista neoliberalism we’re getting.

~ Brian Schuck

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