A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part One, Ideologies and People at War

The circumstances of a man’s capture are more significant than this tone of voice in replying to the interrogating officers. It is to a prisoner’s interest to be cocky, after capture, for he is under the surveillance of his fellows and the governance of superiors whose Naziness is likely to be in proportion to their rank. The Geneva Convention was never drawn up to cover an ideological war; there is no inducement for the German prisoner who is democratic or just anti-war to let anyone know what is on his mind. Vanity also counts in the prisoner’s attitude. He likes to think of himself as a Teutonic heor even when he knows he has quit cold. (71)

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A historical analysis of the failures of political anarchism in the twentieth century needs to come to terms with the central events of that century: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Second World War. The horrors of ideologies at war, backed by triumphant and largely unquestioned state power is troubling to ponder. One thing that is clear from my reading of A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris, a collection of Liebling’s war correspondence published while the war was incomplete, if not undecided, is that the ideological nature of the war was comparatively weak among the largely working class soldiers. As the prisoner of war camps in France show, it is actually quite difficult to get people to kill and die for the state. Even prisoners required constant surveillance by superiors in order to enforce their commitment to the Nazi cause.

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The Road Back to Paris is divided into three parts (“The World Knocked Down,” “The World on One Knee,” and “The World Gets Up”). From these titles, the general narrative of the world parallels a general interpretation of the war as a catastrophe followed by a difficult and hard-won victory. What Liebling does not give us is a general military history of the conflict. His columns followed his life as a war correspondent, first in France and then after the fall of Paris in Britain and North Africa. He did cover D-Day and returned to Paris, but is documented in another collection of his war writings. As we recall from his other journalism, Liebling was very interested in how things worked at the vernacular level. His examinations of aspects of New York City are really at the gutter level and his findings about how cities actually work are striking. It is the same with his reading of the war, which he often covered from brothels, cafes, and prisoner of war camps.

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In the first part of the book, Liebling encounters numerous people who were not very interested in fighting. German leadership aside, it did not seem that there was anyone who was particularly interested in another war. Liebling reported that the English seemed to have found a “new form of patriotism” based on the principle of fighting a war without war. Of course, that was from the rather subdued period between the conquest of Poland and the conquest of France. Now I do not find his to be a compelling case for pacifism, nor am I very interested in debating the moral necessity (or not) of the Allied war effort, merely to point out that it took a violent autocracy to convince its people to fight and even then it was not an easy sale as the prisoner of war camps suggested.

We can also see from Liebling’s account that if the Second World War was a war of ideologies, no one seemed very sure of the ideology on their side.

Remoteness from the war affected everybody, but there were at least two groups in our country that tried consciously to minimize our danger. They were precisely these that had worked to the same end in France—a strong faction of men of wealth and the Community party. The money people wanted to prove fascism more efficient than democracy, the Communists that democracy offered no protection against fascism. A military victory for the democracies would shatter the pretensions of both. (120)

True enough, but in Liebling’s mind, democracy was a hard sale during those dark years of 1940 and 1941. Something Liebling did not take up (at least as far as I have read) is how much the values of democracy and equality would be both pushed to the limit and betrayed over the course of the war. As far as he got in this direction was his desire for an early start to American involvement because of the needs of governmental “war powers.”

After the fall of France, Liebling returned to the United States for a while where he signed up for the draft (he was still in his thirties although over weight). After this he returned to war correspondence for the New Yorker by sailing to England on a rather perilous trek amid German submarine warfare. In London, Liebling reported on how the impact of the war on people’s lives. One striking passage is about a young woman who had to get herself drunk everytime German bombers hit the city, leading to a perpetual cycle of hangover and drunken binges.

While Liebling did not have many encounters with soldiers, he did start the book with some anecdotes about American soldiers in North Africa. These soldiers were incredibly creative. One invented a new way of making coffee he was sure could have made him rich. They created their own cultural life and did what they could to make their relatively small world (for wars are fought by people largely ignorant of the battlefield) livable. The common soldier is not so unlike any of us, being pulled by forces rather outside of our control (capital, urban planning, institutional imperatives). What is not on their mind was the slugfest of ideologies that supposedly drove the war.

If these ideologies are often missing from the perspectives and experiences of the soldiers and citizens fighting the war, they still had an impact, as a conversation with a  Polish member of the government in exile who saw anything less than the dismemberment and total destruction of Germany as treason. Liebling’s friend responded to this understandable—if destructive and irrational—hatred with: “It was so disgusting, so human, so deplorable.” (155)

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Philip K. Dick, “The World Jones Made” (1956)

The World Jones Made is one of Philip K. Dick’s early novels, published in 1956.  As in many of his novels, The World Jones Made is set in a post-nuclear war Earth and the democracy has given way to a variant of authoritarianism.  Unlike the party tyrannies of 1984 or the emergence of a new imperial system as in many space operas, Dick is comfortable with his vision of the rise of a technocracy.  The story is made up of three interrelated subplots.  The first deals with the rise and dramatic collapse of Floyd Jones, a “precog” who can see into the future one year.  The second is a series of experiments in mutants (created in large quantities during the war and often used for entertainment) with the goal of adapting them to the Venetian atmosphere.  The final plot is the arrival to earth of the “Drifters,” which turns out to the pollen of a interstellar species, using the Earth as part of their reproductive cycle.  Jones attempts to use the arrival of the Drifters and his precognition to create  movement to cease political power from “Fedgov” (a world government).  The novel ends with the quarantine of Earth by Drifters, who look on humans as a virus to be avoided – essentially limiting humans to the Solar System.  Jones movement succeeds in pulling down Fedgov despite Jones’ death.  Jones’ main political enemy, Doug Cussick – an agent of Fedgov – is exiled to Venus.

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Power and Ideology
The major ideology that took over Earth after the war was “Relativism.”  In theory any absolutism claim is grounds for arrest.  Even the expression of a preference for one composer could land someone in into forced labor camps.  In hopes of avoiding another war, the Fedgov imposed these laws.  “I suppose Relativism is cynical.  It surely isn’t idealistic.  It’s the result of being killed and injured and made poor and working hard for empty words.  It’s the outgrowth of generations of shouting slogans, marching with spades and guns, singing patriotic hymns, chanting, and saluting flags. . . . Jones can disagree with us.  Jones can believe anything he wants; he can believe the Earth is flat, that God is an onion, that babies are born in cellophane bags.  he can have any opinion he wants; but once he starts peddling it as Absolute Truth.” (33-34)  This ideology is threatened by someone likes Jones, who has absolute knowledge of the future.  It is for this reason that Cussick begins investigating him for making predictions about humanity’s future at a carnival.  In a liquid world, we can understand the attraction of “relativism.”  It was absolutists who become terrorists, crusaders, and blind patriots.  We know politicians are cynical and do not mean what they say.  We vote for them knowing that they will lie.  Their cynicism and relativism is already a part of the system of late capitalist democracy.  A politician or activist who seems to really believe what he says is a curiosity, not to be taken seriously and useful for entertainment.  What else can serve in a liquid world?  Where Dick is too optimistic is in his belief that this regimen of thought control would need to be imposed by the state.  Throughout the novel Jones’ activists hold up signs like: “Disband the Terrorist Thought-Control Secret Police-End Concentration Slave Labor Camps-Restore Freedom and Liberty.” (103)  Characters question Relativism throughout.  In the world we live in, Relativism has become dogma without any need for a state apparatus.  On some level we already know that absolute claims are dangerous.  It is easier to be flexible.

The problem with Relativism as enforced ideology or as a rational response to a liquid world is that it takes away the possibility of dreaming.  Dick speaks to this at a few moments in The World Jones Made.  “But the followers of Jones had not given up; they had a dream, a vision.  They were sure the Second Earth existed.  Somehow, somebody have contributed to keep it from them: there was a conspiracy going on.  It was Fedgov on Earth; Relativism was stifling them.  Beyond Earth, it was the drifters.  Once Fedgov was gone, once the drifters had been destroyed. . . the old story.  Green pastures, beyond the very next hill.” (104)

Precognition
Jones’ dilemma is that despite having the ability to look into the future for one year, he is utterly incapable of forestalling his death of controlling events.  There is a suggestion that Hitler was a “precog” and suffered from the same problem.  His predictions were accurate but not far-reaching enough to stop his downfall.  He goes to war envisioning success, but cannot see the failure around the corner.  By the time Jones sees his own death,  it is too late to change the course of events.  Dick also plays with the Calvinist question of free will.  If the future is known, changing or taking advantage of that future is not possible.

We are all precogs now.  Anyone who looks at growing inequality, environmental destruction, climate change, the murder of millions of animals a day, the destruction of fisheries, and the growing cynicism of our political systems sees disasters ahead.  Some of us might seek to profit from these disasters and a few might try to avert it.  The vast majority of us, no matter how clear the vision of the future is, move on with little real concern.  Like Jones, who knew he was fated for great things, we assume we are fated for destruction.  Like the Relativists argue, to speak harsh lessons of truth creates unnecessarily social disorder.  Much better to go quietly, in full respect of everyone’s opinions and odious actions.  Precognition gives warnings but it makes it impossible for us to arrest our future.  A much better approach is to ignore the warnings from the future and create the world we want today without abandon or reservation.

Dick gives us one area of hope at the end of the novel.  From a small settlement on Venus, a “civilization” is possible.  “But it was a good sight.  All of it: the fields, the animal sheds, the smoke-house, the silo, the main cabin, now a double-walled building with two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and indoor bathroom.  And already, Garry had located a substitute for wood-pulp; an abortive paper had been turned out, followed by primitive type.  It was only a question of time before their society became a civilization: a civilization, now, of nine individuals.”  (195)  Once we swallow our disgust of this new civilization being a replica of middle class America, we realize that it is the only hope that PKD gives us.  We do not have a frontier to retreat to.  We are instead Jones, realizing the end of our world and baffled that all of our knowledge has failed to forestall our doom.