Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

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Quotes & Commentary #49: Orwell

Quotes & Commentary #49: Orwell

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized parties are at-bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

Yesterday I wrote an essay trying to answer this question: What’s the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? This is one of the oldest and most vexing questions of human existence; and there’s no way I’m going to crack this nut in one blog post. That’s why I’m writing another one.

As George Orwell points out, this question isn’t confined to any one sphere of our lives, but confronts us every day, in manifold and invisible ways. When we go to the grocery store, when we buy a shirt, when we download a song, when we get the latest model of smartphone, we are supporting business practices that are largely hidden from us, but which may be morally repulsive.

What is life like for the factory workers who made my computer? What are the conditions for the animals whose meat I eat? Where does the material from my jeans come from, how is it processed, who are the workers who make it? For all I know, I may be patronizing exploitative, abusive, oppressive, and otherwise unethical businesses—and, the more I consider it, the more it seems likely that I do.

Unethical business practices aside, there is the simple fact of inequality. On the left we spend a lot of time criticizing the vast wealth inequality that exists within the United States; and yet we do not often stop to realize how much wealthier are most of us than people elsewhere. Is the first situation unjust, and the second not? Is it right that some countries are wealthier than others? And if not, can we logically desire our present standard of life while maintaining our political ideals?

To the extent that opponents of inequality are immersed in a global economy—and we are, all of us—they are participating in a system whose consequences they find morally wrong. But how can you rebel against a global paradigm? You can try to minimize your damage. You can try to patronize businesses who have more humane business practices. You can become a vegan and buy second-hand clothes.

And yet, it is simply impossible—logistically, just from lack of time and resources—to be absolutely sure of the consequences of all your actions in a system so vast and so complex. It would be a full-time job to be a perfectly conscientious consumer. You can’t personally investigate each factory or tour each farm. You can’t know everything about the company you work for, the bank you store your money in, the supermarkets you buy your food from.

This is the enigma of being immersed in an ethically compromising system. To a certain extent, resist or not, you become complicit in a social system you did not design and whose consequences you don’t approve of. It is one of the tragic but unavoidable facts of human life that good people can still do bad things, simply by being immersed in a bad social system. An economy of saints can still sin.

In economics this has a technical name: the fallacy of composition. This is the fallacy of extrapolating from the qualities of the parts to the qualities of the whole. A nation full of penny-pinchers may still be in debt. A nation full of expert job-seekers may still have high unemployment. Morally, this means a nation of good people may yet do evil.

The question, for me, is this: Where do we draw the line separating the culpability of the individual from the culpability of the system? To illustrate this, let me take two extreme examples.

Since teaching, as a profession, tends to attract idealistic and left-wing people, I think many teachers, old and young, think that the educational system in the United States is deeply flawed. The standardized tests, the inequality between school districts, the way that we evaluate kids and impart knowledge—many aspects of the system seem unfair and ineffective.

And yet, I think very few people would condemn the teachers who continue to work within this system, even if the system tends to reproduce inequality. We naturally blame the policy-makers and not the teachers, who are only doing their best in compromising circumstances.

Take the opposite extreme: soldiers working in a concentration camp. Now, it is clear that these soldiers were not personally responsible for creating the camp, and were following the orders of their superiors. Like the teachers, they are immersed in a situation they did not design, in a system with morally reprehensible results. (Obviously, the results of a concentration camp are incomparably worse than even the most flawed school system.)

In this situation, I’d wager that most of us would maintain that the soldiers had some responsibility and, at the very least, some of the blame. That is, we do not simply blame the system, but blame the individuals who took part in it. The whole situation is so totally, fundamentally, indisputably unacceptable that there are no extenuating circumstances, no deferment of guilt.

Now, there is obviously a very big difference between a system that is (ostensibly at least) designed to reduce inequality and provide education, and a system that is designed to kill people by the thousands and millions. As a result, in both of these situations, the moral verdict seems relatively clear: the noble aims of the first system excuse its flaws, while the horrid aims of the second system condemn its participants.

The problem, for most of us, is that we so often find ourselves in between these two extremes (although, admittedly closer to the case of teachers than Nazi soldiers, I hope). But where exactly do we draw the line? Where does our responsibility—as participants in a system—begin? And in what circumstances are we morally excused by being immersed in a flawed system?

The more I think about it, the more I am led to the conclusion that being alive requires some ethical compromise. In this regard, I often think of something Joseph Campbell said: “You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.”

And this quote, I think, is where I have to stop for now, since it brings me to another Quotes & Commentary.

Quotes & Commentary #18: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #18: Shakespeare

The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst return to laughter.

—William Shakespeare, King Lear

This quote has been coming to my mind often, for the simple reason that, nowadays, it is a common joke to call something “the worst.” Saying this is inevitably ironic, if only because, as Shakespeare also pointed out in King Lear, “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”

As long as we have the presence of mind to call something “the worst,” chances are that things could get worse still. In the worst conceivable situation, I don’t think we would have the time, ability, or inclination to be wondering if things could go still more downhill.

All this sounds like a joke; but consider how often we give negative labels to things in our lives. As soon as you say, “I’ve had the worst day,” you begin, intentionally or not, to go through all the things that went wrong: the disappointments, the frustrations, the bad luck, and all the unpleasant moments.

To label something is to reduce a complex object to a supposedly essential quality. In the case of a negative label, whether it is an insult, a vulgarity, or “the worst,” we reduce a varied and textured experience to its most disagreeable elements, and use those elements to define the whole.

Even on the worst days, there are inevitably things that went well—things unnoticed, taken for granted, overlooked. Even in the worst situation you can find things to be thankful for. Nothing in the world is so simple as to be wholly bad or good; and even if there were such things, the badness or goodness would only be a result of our perspective, not inherent in the thing itself. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What is terrible to one may be beautiful to another; and reminding ourselves of this subjectivity is an excellent way to transcend the egotism of judgmental labeling.

But even if all this were untrue, if we found ourselves in a wholly bad situation, bad essentially and objectively, Shakespeare gives us another reason to be optimistic: there is no direction from the bottom but up. All change from the worst is good change.

Right now I am reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Erich Fromm. In that book the author relates how, once, while living in a concentration camp, he saw one of his fellow prisoners suffering from a terrible nightmare, writhing and moaning in his sleep. Fromm’s natural impulse was to wake the man; but then he reflected that any nightmare would be better than camp life. Thus there are even situations when a nightmare is a desirable change.

It is a story told and told again: about how someone “lost everything,” and after “they had nothing left to lose” they began to rebuild their lives. It is cliché nowadays, but clichés become clichéd for a reason. Most of the things we fear are associated with external things; we fear heartbreak, loneliness, failure, rejection, mediocrity, poverty, humiliation. All these, in one way or another, involve failing in the social world, economically, professionally, romantically, or otherwise.

But after all these external forms of validation are stripped away, you will find that you are no less a living, breathing person, a person of flesh and bone. And all those validations only have meaning in a certain social context, a context that is ultimately superficial and transitory. Thus you are reconnected with the basics of life; and in this state, because everything that could be done has been done to you, and you are nevertheless alive, there is nothing left to fear. Indeed, you may find yourself laughing. The values of society are rather amusing from the outside.