Published on Friday, September 1, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
Why We Fight: Rumsfeld Turns to France for Inspiration
by John Brown
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s August 29th speech at the 88th Annual American Legion National Convention in Salt Lake City received extensive media coverage. It was seen, rightly, as the first volley of a new administration offensive to make the Battle for Iraq -- considered by the President and his aides a key campaign in the so-called War on Terror -- acceptable to the American public, which is growing increasingly skeptical of Bush’s foreign military misadventures.
Commentators criticized the Secretary -- in his frenetic eagerness to make his case for war -- of making historical analogies that did not withstand the most rudimentary analysis. One pundit, Joseph A. Palermo, pointed out in the Huffington Post 30 reasons why the War on Terror was not, as Rumsfeld suggested, like World War II. Critics of Rumsfeld’s misuse of history, however, neglected to notice that the Secretary did not embellish his rhetoric with voices from America’s past conflicts, which certainly would not have been inappropriate in explaining why we must fight today.
Instead of using inspiring words of U.S. military heroes like Dwight D. Eisenhower or George S. Patton, the Secretary (who makes no secret of his German origins, although the Rumsfelds of Weyhe-Sudweyhe, as reported in 2003, no longer want to see him because of his hawkish views), quoted, of all people ... a Frenchman!
Hard to believe, but our old-Europe-bashing Secretary indeed cited a representative of the camembert nation that incessantly looks down on “cowboy” Bush, that opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and that now doesn’t provide enough troops in Lebanon. With millions of made-in-the-USA patriotic quotes readily available on the Internet, the only pearls of wisdom other than his own (and of a soldier who recently volunteered for a second tour in Iraq) Rummy could come up with in Salt Lake City were those of the early twentieth-century French politician Georges Clemenceau, who served as his country’s Prime Minister (and Minister of War) during World War I.
Rumsfeld didn’t even bother telling his audience Clemenceau’s first name or who he was. “You know, from experience personally,” Rumsfeld told the veterans, “that in every war there have been mistakes, setbacks, and casualties. War is, as Clemenceau said, ‘a series of catastrophes that result [sic] in victory.'” The Princeton-educated Rumsfeld deserves some non-snob credit by assuming that the vets knew who Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) was.
It’s not out of the question, however, that his speechwriters (who may have found the Clemenceau quote in right-wing war apologist Victor Davis Hanson’s September 16, 2004 National Review article, “See Ya, Iraq? Leaving Now Would Be a Disaster”) figured that some of Rummy’s listeners in Utah would assume Don was talking about baseball hero Roger Clemens.
Clemenceau, to be sure, is no Roger Clemens, but he’s not your typical pre-modern America-hater Frenchman either. Indeed, more than most among his generation in France, Clemenceau showed considerable interest in the United States. In 1865, as a war correspondent, he witnessed Grant’s entrance into Richmond. He then taught at a girls’ school in Stamford, Connecticut, and married one of his students, Mary Plummer, in 1869.
But Rumsfeld didn't exactly pick the world’s greatest admirer of the U.S. as intellectual ammunition for his condemnation of “the destructive view that America, not the enemy, but America, is the source of the world's troubles.“ While Clemenceau was influenced by Enlightenment values that the United States and France supposedly share, his four years in the New World by no means made him an unconditional advocate of the American way of life (he and his U.S. wife separated after seven years of marriage and three children).
Indeed, Clemenceau is well known for his observation that “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilization.” “Americans,” he also declared in a true Cartesian spirit, “have no capacity for abstract thought, and make bad coffee.” Not the kind of statement that can be used for a Starbucks ad in Paris. Or for a USA-all-the-way rah-rah speech by a U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Clemenceau was a key figure in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Concerned above all with French national interests and humiliating Germany, he did not see eye-to-eye with Woodrow Wilson, whose ideas for making the world safe for democracy (which have been compared to George W. Bush’s calls for democratization in the Middle East) Clemenceau found far too idealistic. “Mr. Wilson,” he said, “bores me with his Fourteen Points. Why, Almighty God has only Ten Commandments!”
A master of aphorisms, Clemenceau has a reputation for other pithy remarks, including the famous “[i]t is far easier to make war than to make peace.” Given the tragic situation in the world today caused by the failed foreign policy of the Bush administration, perhaps these are the words Mr. Rumsfeld should have used (even if originally uttered by a Frenchman!) if he truly wishes our small planet to be a safer place.
John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who practiced public diplomacy for over twenty years, now compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press Review," which can be obtained free at http://www.uscpublicdiplomacy.org/pdpr/ or by requesting it by e-mail to email@example.com