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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Bret Stephens in WSJ Opinion Journal: Just Like Stalingrad

"If you have no idea where you stand in relation to certain objects, then an elephant may seem as small as a fly and a fly may seem as large as an elephant."
According to Sidney Blumenthal, a onetime adviser to president Bill Clinton who now writes a column for Britain's Guardian newspaper, President Bush today runs "what is in effect a gulag," stretching "from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantanamo to secret CIA prisons around the world." Mr. Blumenthal says "there has been nothing like this system since the fall of the Soviet Union."

In another column, Mr. Blumenthal compares the April death toll for American soldiers in Iraq to the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Mr. Bush's "splendid little war," he writes, "has entered a Stalingrad-like phase of urban siege and house-to-house combat."

The factual bases for these claims are, first, that the U.S. holds some 10,000 "enemy combatants" prisoner; and second, that 122 U.S. soldiers were killed in action in April.

As I write, I have before me a copy of "The Black Book of Communism," which relates that on "1 January 1940 some 1,670,000 prisoners were being held in the 53 groups of corrective work camps and 425 collective work colonies. In addition, the prisons held 200,000 people awaiting trial or a transfer to camp. Finally, the NKVD komandatury were in charge of approximately 1.2 million 'specially displaced people.' "

As for Stalingrad, German deaths between Jan. 10 and Feb. 2, 1943, numbered 100,000, according to British historian John Keegan. And those were just the final agonizing days of a battle that had raged since the previous August.

Mr. Blumenthal is not alone. Al Gore last month accused Mr. Bush of creating "more anger and righteous indignation against us as Americans than any leader of our country in the 228 years of our existence as a nation." Every single column written by the New York Times' Paul Krugman is an anti-Bush screed; apparently, there isn't anything else worth writing about. A bumper sticker I saw the other day in Manhattan reads: "If you aren't outraged, you're not paying attention."

There are two explanations for all this. One is that Mr. Bush really is as bad as Sid, Al and Paul say: the dumbest, most feckless, most fanatical, most incompetent and most calamitous president the nation has ever known. A second is that Sid, Al and Paul are insane. . . .

So here is one aspect of this insanity: no sense of proportion. For Mr. Blumenthal, Fallujah isn't merely like Stalingrad. It may as well be Stalingrad, just as Guantanamo may as well be Lefertovo and Abu Ghraib may as well be Buchenwald, and Mr. Bush may as well be Hitler and Hoover combined, and Iraq may as well be Vietnam and Bill Clinton may as well be Franklin Roosevelt.

The absence of proportion stems, in turn, from a problem of perspective. If you have no idea where you stand in relation to certain objects, then an elephant may seem as small as a fly and a fly may seem as large as an elephant. Similarly, Mr. Blumenthal can compare the American detention infrastructure to the Gulag archipelago only if he has no concept of the actual size of things. And he can have no concept of the size of things because he neither knows enough about them nor where he stands in relation to them. What is the vantage point from which Mr. Blumenthal observes the world? It is one where Fallujah is "Stalingrad-like." How does one manage to see the world this way? By standing too close to Fallujah and too far from Stalingrad. By being consumed by the present. By losing not just the sense, but the possibility, of judgment.

Read it all.