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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Herman Melville, “Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile” (1855)

“In view of this battle one may well ask—What separates the enlightened man from the savage? Is civilization a thing distinct, or is it an advanced stage of barbarism?” (573)

After the failure of Pierre, or the Ambiguities, Herman Melville entered a troubled period in his life. Most of his works had been commercial failures. He faced depression and poverty. His family tried to get him appointed a consul without any luck. He published works in magazines over the next few years, including the serialization of Israel Potter and the works that would be included in the Piazza Tales. Melville, by the way, is 36 at this time. Melville was not a fan of Israel Potter and deemed it a money-making effort.

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The book is apparently based on a real story from a pamphlet that Melville acquired about a Revolutionary War soldier, captured at sea, and exiled to Europe for fifty years. The novel that results is full of clichés and dubious encounters. In the course of his travels Potter meets King George III, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones. Apparently some of these encounters were real, according to the original autobiography. Dramatized, they take on the character of American jingoism, hitting home—again and again—the belief that America was young, free, and practical while Europe was corrupted by excess, wealth, privilege, and aristocratic hierarchies. Just a few of these examples include Potter working for a knight who accepts that he will never get the American to address him as “Sir,” Benjamin Franklin praising Potter’s wisdom at not knowing what cologne is and reciting some of his maxims on thrift, and the King of England learning he will be unable to defeat the United States just by looking at the rebel Potter. Much of it seems wasted coming from the pen of Melville.

Potter engages in various schemes pushed forward by Franklin and Jones. He even serves under Jones for a while, giving the tale a some of the feel of the sea fiction that Melville is known for. Most of the later half of the novel is spent at sea, with Potter serving under Jones.Through this, he is able to play pivotal roles in the Revolution despite being far from the frontline battles that he started with (and even farther from the fields he left to engage the British at Bunker Hill). He even meets Ethan Allen during Allen’s imprisonment in England, which turns into another attempt by Melville to juxtapose the solidarity, patriotism, and equality of America with the pretension of England. The period after the Revolution is rushed. Most of Potter’s life is crammed into one chapter titled “Forty-Five Years.” He spends that wandering about London, pining for home and dwelling on the decadence of the world he was stuck in. “And so, Israel, now an old man, was bewitched by the mirage of vapors; he had dreamed himself home into the mists of the Housatonic mountains; the flat, apathetic, dead, London fog had not seemed from those agile mists, which goat-like, climbed the purple peaks, or in routed armies of phantoms, broke down, pell-mell, dispersed in flight upon the plain. . . . all kinds of labor were overstocked. Beggars, too, lighted on the walls like locusts.” (610) The first chapter foreshadows the mists of London as a sharp contrast to the mists of New England. Eventually he returns home to die.

One message is that Potter was able to sustain his American patriotism and, more importantly, his American identity remains despite his long period of exile. Melville is also revisiting some of his ideas from Omoo about the relationship between wandering and freedom. While Potter would was nothing better than to return home, making him quite different from the deserting soldiers who seem to not have a clear goal in their wanderings except to avoid cruel masters or poor conditions, he becomes a wanderer. His name is highlighted here. While born of Puritan stock and named out of Puritan religious commitments, he ends his life closer to the Wandering Jew (right from the text, page 610). Was it this wandering and rootlessness that was the true reason he was able to hold onto his Americanism. Had he been settled onto land, married into an English family, and raised English children would he have remained the patriot to his death? It does not seem likely to me. Is this a tragic component of American identity? They are constantly on the move, constantly discontent, but always longing for a home.

If this was the fate of Americans at the time of Melville’s writing, the entire world has been Americanized now. Not in the silly cultural symbols—indeed universal around the world now—but in the frustrating liquidity of life. The most tragic part of the tale comes when Potter returns to his beloved home to find everything different and decayed. It is not a Rip Van Winkle story. He does not return to a world of industry. He finds instead a burnt out homestead. “Ere long, on the mountain side, he passed into an ancient natural wood, which seemed some way familiar, and midway in it, paused to contemplate a strange mouldy pile, resting at one end against a sturdy beech. Though wherever touched by his staff, however lightly, this pile would crumble, yet here and there, even in powder, it preserved the exact look, each irregularly defined line, of what it has originally been.” (614) The conclusion is not how things have changed or how boldly America progressed. It was the much more pathetic “[f]ew things remain.” With this, Melville predicted the real horror of late capitalism’s endless projections into the future as it clamors for immortality. It can no longer leave much of value behind.