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Strong Leadership - The State of the World in 2007
Dean Borok

I call my girlfriend Magpie because she is smart, built for action and she regards me with the experienced eye of a cynic. She is always prepared to turn a situation to her profit.
Image of De Gaulle broadcasting from London in 1943

She frequently admonishes me, “You are not in the mainstream,” and, indeed, I’m not. I believe in a republic of independent thinkers. That’s an easy thing to do when you’re sitting at an outdoor café lushing it up at Happy Hour, though a ride on the subway, with its population of thoroughly put-upon commuters, quickly disabuses you of the concept that people are going to educate themselves enough to arrive at their own conclusions on the issues of the day. They have got enough on their plate with kids, car payments and misbegotten careers that they fundamentally hate. That is why they allow their opinions to be formed by the reactionary class, who is paid by the big money to hammer away at themes of self-reliance in order to keep tax rates low.

One of the big issues of the Republican Party in recent years has been France and the French, who had the audacity a generation ago to elect the Socialists to power, which the American ruling class took as a direct slap in the face. Tough shit, Sherlock. The French voted themselves a 35-hour week, five weeks’ vacation and various other plums, which they paid for by taxing big corporations. Never mind that these corporations, which are huge even by American standards, were able to pay and still keep functioning, mainly because they are so effectively operating as multinationals.

Strictly speaking, none of this was any of America’s business. Still, the Republicans kept hammering away at the French on a daily basis to ensure that the workforce here would not be contaminated by any of these foreign concepts. This hectoring reached a point of frenzy in the build-up to the Iraq war as the French tried to mount a campaign against the invasion of that country which, in retrospect, was a very shitty idea, not because of the morality of it but because of the reality of it.

I’m not here to cop a plea for the people of Iraq, but because as a concept the war has been demonstrated to be an opium dream that has cost our country dearly in terms of resources and manpower. Not that those resources would not have been wasted on some other indulgence due to the arrogance and vapid reasoning of our increasingly redundant ruling class.

“Strong leadership,” as it’s currently perceived, is a black hole into which we are all being sucked because the main proponents of it are all Republicans, who have a demonstrably feeble grasp of reality, or those Democrats who are pandering to the current trend. There are no strong leaders who can point to a demonstrable record of public achievement, or even of having been demonstrably correct in their theory. Maybe Hillary Clinton, who has been hammering away for a generation on the theme of a national medical plan, an idea whose time has finally reached its maturity despite all efforts to derail it. When you consider that one-seventh of our economy is devoted to health care and one seventh of the country is still not covered, it makes you wonder where all that loot is going. In a word, it’s going into the pockets of the insurance combines, and they are among the prime motivators of all the anti-French hysteria, considering that the French did away with all that stealing a long time ago.

Lately, though, since the election of Nicholas Sarkozy, the center-right candidate for the French presidency, the continual anti-French whirlwind of invective has somewhat abated. Sarkozy is the Great White Hope of anti-Socialist sentiment in this country, though the hopes of the neo-capitalists may yet be dashed on the rocks of French public opinion, which may be reluctant to give up its “acquis,” or previously acquired social benefits, to suit the interests of the multinationals. As they have proven repeatedly throughout history, the French are not timid about massively pouring into the streets to put a halt to what they perceive as savage forms of neo-capitalist backsliding. Sarkozy has already conceded that some areas of policy are off-limits to his program of reform. When the full extent of Sarkozy’s exceptions becomes evident, the streets may yet again be full, not of Frenchmen but of bow tied American neo-conservatives, and the gutters of America may yet again flow with French wine.

What of it? Sarkozy’s personal style may at first glance seem to represent some similarities to Italy’s kleptocratic former leader, Silvio Berlusconi, but the historical record argues against his toeing the American line. Sarkozy claims to be the continuation, though much-diluted, of the tradition of Charles de Gaulle who, even in vastly more reduced circumstances, represented the interests of France against a much more preponderant America power.

Anybody who has lived with a woman for any length of time knows the extreme lengths she will go to in order to get a man under her thumb. Screaming fits, nagging, insults are all par for the course in subjugating a man. On the national level we have our party of nags, the Republicans, who have come to dominate our national life by much those same techniques of hectoring by use of a right-wing press that keeps the national level at a fever pitch. Unfortunately, we have no vigorous left-wing press to rebut the agents of reaction. There’s nobody to tell Rupert Murdoch to shut up, so the point of view he promotes is pretty much accepted as the official line which Democrats are loathe to step on for fear of being represented as unpatriotic traitors. As a consequence, the present day insanity of the Iraq war and the 50-year embargo of Cuba continue unabated and uncontested.

They sell us social concepts the way advertising sells us soap, with sound bites and repetitive reinforcement until we are conditioned to think of the Democrats as overly pliable and irresolute, and themselves as firm and unyielding. Of course, the actual product falls well short of its advance promotion. The present Republican leadership consists of Bush and Giuliani, who are completely bogus, and John McCain, who may or may not have leadership standing, depending on how one interprets his conduct leading up to and including his captivity by the North Vietnamese.

I’m not here to debate John McCain’s acceptability as a national leader, except to repeat whit I have read, that he was reportedly cautioned by his commanding officer (“warned” is too strong a word since McCain’s father was commander of the Sixth Fleet, and one does not “warn” the son of an admiral) not to perform “Top Gun” flying tricks with his F-16 while flying above Vietnamese rocket emplacements, which might result in getting shot down. Also, there are stories that the Vietnamese, eager to get rid of this hot potato of an admiral’s son, repeatedly begged him to leave the Hanoi Hilton and go home, which he resolutely refused to consider. You can’t read into the heart of another man but you can speculate about what future political ambitions entertained McCain’s mind during those hundreds and thousands of miserable nights in that cell that he inhabited with such insistence.

Strong leadership. What yardstick might one use to measure such an elastic concept? It’s tempting to return to our much reviled sometimes allies, the French, and the original progenitor of their current political dynasty, Charles de Gaulle. Maybe by shining a light on the salient points of his career we might be able to divine a clearer definition of that much-overused slogan.

De Gaulle, the son of a schoolmaster, graduated from St. Cyr, France’s West Point. In 1912 he was attached to an infantry company commanded by Colonel Philippe Pétain, whose military career had been frozen in suspended animation for questioning the official military doctrine of the day. Pétain believed that the official doctrine of aggressive attack was wasteful in light of the overwhelming effectiveness of modern weaponry and adhered to a strategy of static defense, using artillery and machine guns to soften up an area before moving up ground troops.

As a young officer de Gaulle considered this cautionary approach too timid and argued for a more aggressive approach to warfare. When World War I broke out, de Gaulle immediately put his aggressive theory of attack into practice and was gravely wounded. After spending several months in hospital, he was sent back to the front, where he was captured by the Germans, and he spent the next three years in captivity, attempting escape on three different occasions. Each time he was recaptured and punished. He did not see France again until 1918, when prisoners were exchanged as part of the general armistice.

By this time the pendulum of military doctrine had swung in the direction of Pétain. After the horrendous losses of manpower suffered by France in World War I, opinion had swung in favor of static warfare. Pétain, whose career had hung in abeyance for so many years due to his reluctance to needlessly waste lives in suicidal waves of attack, was credited for breaking the back of the Germans at the Battle of Verdun and was promoted to the rank of Marshal, and he was idolized and adored throughout France.

De Gaulle, who was demoralized and filled with remorse for having passed most of the war in captivity, returned to active service in the army and was immediately adopted as a protégé by his former commander, Pétain, who assigned him as an instructor at the War College in Paris. De Gaulle also ghostwrote speeches and articles for use by Pétain.

This favoritism shown to de Gaulle by Pétain provoked jealousy among other military officers. In addition, de Gaulle’s stiff and formal military bearing, entering a class of officers with white gloves and bearing a sword, did not mark him as a “people person.” In addition, de Gaulle insisted upon promulgating his own concept of military strategy involving the use of mobile tank divisions supported by air power.

The French military establishment considered him to be a lunatic and an abomination much the way American strategists persecuted General Billy Mitchell for insisting that the day would eventually come when an aircraft would be able to sink a battleship.

The Germans, however paid close attention to de Gaulle’s treatises on military strategy, and when Hitler assumed power he ordered the formation of three Panzer tank divisions, soon to be followed by five more, all supported by air power!

The French insisted on adhering to their strategy of static defense and built a line of seemingly impregnable fortresses and fortified trenches along their border with Germany, called the “Maginot Line” after the Minister of Defense. Hitler’s Panzer divisions circumvented the line by driving through the Ardennes forest, which the French considered impenetrable, and quickly entered France. It was only at this time, with the Germans already conquering French soil, that the French command conceded the soundness of his thinking and awarded de Gaulle a tank division, various odds-and-ends of armored vehicles, to meet the superbly equipped Panzer divisions supported by Stuka divebombers.

It was no contest, but de Gaulle was brought into the war cabinet of Prime Minister Reynaud, where he was to meet British Prime Minister Churchill in the last days before the collapse of France. Churchill was so impressed by de Gaulle’s military bearing and resolve to fight on that, as the French government was forced to leave Paris for Bordeaux, from whence they would plead with the Germans for an armistice, the British leader sent an RAF plane to bring de Gaulle to London to form a government-in-exile even as the French government, now headed by none other than Pétain, prostrated itself before Hitler.

Immediately upon landing in London, de Gaulle met the same day with Churchill and that evening went on BBC Radio to exhort the people of France to resist the German invaders. He invited the overseas French who inhabited its worldwide empire to come to London to unite under his symbol, the Cross of Lorraine, and fight side-by-side with the British to crush Germany.

The Pétain government, which would later install itself in the resort town of Vichy, immediately cashiered de Gaulle from the military, revoked his French citizenship and sentenced him to death in absentia. (After the war Pétain was convicted of treason and died in prison.)

Nevertheless, de Gaulle, exiled, broke and stateless, rallied around his person, in which he audaciously embodied the honor and legitimacy of the French nation, all the disparate elements of the French empire, and at war’s end was able to march under the Arc de Triomphe in a victory procession as head of state. After the war he retired to his modest country house in Colombey-Deux-Eglises until 1958, when France, once again shattered by the colonial conflict in Algeria and itself on the verge of civil war, pleaded for him to assume the reins of power once more, which he consented to do only after the political establishment agreed to the rewriting of the constitution investing all the power of the state in his office.

As president of France, he ended the Algerian war on terms extremely advantageous to French interests and streamlined the French economy, guaranteeing the country’s continuance as an economic powerhouse.

Now, THAT’S what I call strong leadership, not no Mission Accomplished bullshit or giving little speeches like Giuliani, or falling into captivity because of horsing around with your jet fighter and then refusing to leave!

We fortunately don’t need this kind of leadership because life in this country is good thanks to the industriousness of its working population. But it’s instructive to know the difference. So the next time some moron gives a speech invoking “strong leadership” the readers of this article (all two of you) will not get sucked into the “mainstream” of imbecilic superficiality.

© Dean Borok June 2007

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