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Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Moon is Down: "Flies Conquer the Flypaper"

The book of Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. I thought of that while Larry and I listened to a book on CD during our recent trip to Texas and back. In fact, we listened to the short book twice. It's a work by John Steinbeck, The Moon is Down, published during the height of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Europe. Telling the story of a small conquered town invaded and occupied to provide its coal to the Third Reich, Steinbeck illustrates the the indomitable spirit of man. It becomes clear as the tale progresses that the German soldiers will never conquer the spirit of the people. The book became a significant contribution to the Allied propaganda campaign, so successful that, in Fascist Italy, mere possession of Steinbeck's work was a crime punishable by death.

The setting is a coal mining town on the coast with an escape route to England. While Steinbeck never identifies the town,
it's clearly coastal France. The main characters are the mayor of the small town, Mayor Orden, his friend Dr. Winter the country physician, and the leader of the German invasion force, Col. Lanser. (You can read the book online here.)  I won't describe the plot; you can read the story for yourself. But the theme of the book is clear -- a free people can never be conquered indefinitely. The conqueror is ultimately "the fly who conquers the flypaper," bogged down in a hopeless morass. The obedience of the occupied people is cold and sullen. They resist in subtle ways. Machinery at the mine breaks, avalanches fall on the railroad tracks, the generator providing electricity to the headquarters is sabotaged. The conquerors retaliate, but their reprisals only strengthen the resolve of the people to resist. The book ends with Socrates' prophecy before his death:

The picture painted by Steinbeck is a familiar one. Consider every war involving an invasion and occupation. Consider our own invasion of Iraq. The neo-conservatives presented a picture of a people welcoming us with open arms, eager for western democracy. Did it turn out to be true? Hardly. What did we accomplish in Iraq? We removed a tyrant and the country has only avoided civil war by our continued presence. Our complete withdrawal will very likely leave the country with another dictator, one even less friendly to America. Meanwhile, Christians, who were unmolested under the former tyrant, have almost disappeared from Iraq, victims of Islamic threats, intimidation, and murder. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, has been demolished. The New York Times  recently quoted a United Nations' report that stated, "The consequences of this flight [from Islamic violence] may be the end of Christianity in Iraq."

Maybe it's time for our political leaders to recognize the reality that every imperial government has ended up as "flies conquering flypaper." We have over 600 bases in foreign countries and territories. The founders would be shocked! Thomas Jefferson would be outraged:
I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe. Their political interests are entirely distinct from ours. Their mutual jealousies, their balance of power, their complicated alliances, their forms and principles of government, are all foreign to us. They are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people."  --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1823. ME: 15:436 
For more Jeffersonian wisdom on foreign entanglements go here.

I think Steinbeck's The Moon is Down should be on the mandatory reading list of every politician.  They should also read the opinions of the founders on the dangers of foreign entanglements. It also wouldn't hurt to ponder the end result of the Roman Empire, the fall of Napoleon, the collapse of the British Empire, the short life of the Third Reich, and our own experience in VietNam before we try to capture "200 miles of new flypaper." Steinbeck's story is a parable for all nations with the delusion of creating a world utopia, even a world "safe for democracy." As Ecclesiastes there is nothing new under the sun. Will we ever learn?

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