Everything old is new again

I am a huge Georgette Heyer fan. I consider her one of the most amusing, sophisticated novel writers ever, and think it’s a shame that she got labeled as a pure romance writer, a genre that puts her in the “I browse that section wearing sunglasses and a scarf” category of books at any Barnes & Noble. In fact, her historical novels, written about the years between 1775 (or so) and 1820 (or so) are examples of meticulous historical research. In her own times, she was recognized as one of the people in England most knowledgeable about the Regency period and, by extension, about the Napoleonic wars that served as a 22 year background to that era.

A side note here: Although the historical distance makes it a bit hard to tell, England’s stand against Napoleon was incredibly important, not just for England’s control of trade and Empire building (which was a selfish reason for England to stay in the world), but for Europe’s freedom. While Napoleon definitely had good points (he broke open the ghettos that confined European Jews), he was also a megalomaniac who was trying to establish a new Napoleon-controlled Empire stretching from Spain to Russia. It would have been a police state as surely as any other “empire by conquest” and his defeat was, overall, a good thing. Now back to Georgette Heyer….

One of Heyer’s books, A Civil Contract, is a romance that has as its backdrop England during the last year of the Napoleonic war, from his imprisonment at Elba to his ultimate defeat at Waterloo.  As the book nears its end, Heyer discusses the Duke of Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon in the weeks immediately before Waterloo, and, more interestingly, the attitudes prevailing in London at the time amongst high society, the politicos (with both the liberal Whig views and the conservative Tory views on display), and the mercantile class.  Even then, it seems, liberals were anti-War!

Read this lengthy passage about the fatigue and disinterest that set in amongst large swaths of the population during a long war, as well as the anti-War party’s longing for defeat at any cost, and see if it doesn’t ring a bell.  (Adam is the book’s lead male character, and he is an ex-Army officer who had fought under Wellington in earlier campaigns.):

[H]is brief sojourn in London had made him realize that between the soldier and the civilian there was a gulf too wide to be bridged.  It had been no hardship to cut his visit [to London] short.  The [social] season was in full swing; the looming struggle across the Channel seemed to be of no more importance to the ton [England's high society] than a threatened scandal, and was less discussed.  To a man who had spent nearly all his adult life in hard campaigning it was incomprehensible that people should care so little that they could go on dancing, flirting, and planning entertainments to eclipse those given by their social rivals when the fate of Europe was in the balance.  But England had been at war for twenty-two years, and the English had grown accustomed to this state, accepting it in much the same spirit as they accepted a London fog, or a wet summer.  In political circles and in the City [the merchant class] a different and more serious point of view might be taken, but amongst the vast majority of the population only such families as had a son or a brother in the Army regarded the renewal of hostilities as anything more than an inevitable and foreseeable bore.  Except that Napoleon had not abdicated in March of 1802, it was the Peace of Amiens all over again.  It was disagreeable, because taxes would remain high, and one would once more be unable to enjoy foreign travel; but it was not disastrous, because whatever he might do on the Continent Napoleon would not overrun Great Britain.  Life would go on, in fact, just as it had for as long as most people could remember.

To Adam, who, until so recently, had had no other real object than to defeat Napoleon’s troops, such apathy was as nauseating as it was extraordinary.

I don’t know why, but having just read Heyer’s words, the following comment at the Commentary Blog (h/t Danny Lemieux) put me in mind of the above passage about European malaise when it comes to self-preservation.  The two things are not the same, of course, since the Commentary post, by Peter Wehner, focuses, not on England during the Napoleonic era, but on the European and Leftist attitude about Bush’s failed multilateralism (even when evidence shows she’s been multilateral), or their complaints that she’s insisting on help, rather than functioning unilaterally.  There’s something about the damned if you do, damned if you don’t tone, the carping, and the general inability to recognize real danger, however, that seem sunchanged after two centuries:

Last week I was in London attending a Global Leadership Forum, sponsored by the Royal United Services Institute, the Princeton Project on National Security, Newsweek International, and Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP. The attendees–from both the United States and Europe–included academics, scholars, journalists, diplomatic advisers and others who inhabit the foreign policy world. The event was well-organized, the conversations wide-ranging, and there was a genuine effort to hear from a diversity of voices (hence my invitation). But there is no question that the dominant outlook of most of those in attendance was left-leaning, which itself made the trip illuminating.

I came away from the gathering (portions of which I missed) with several broad impressions. One was that multilateralism has become virtually an end in itself. What matters to many Europeans and liberal-leaning Americans is the process rather than the results. What almost never gets discussed is what happens when one’s desire for multilateralism collides with achieving a worthy end (for example, trying to stop genocide in Darfur or prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb). The child-like faith in multilateralism as the solution to all that ails the world would be touchingly innocent if it weren’t so terribly dangerous.

There were the predictable assertions made about how the United States, under George W. Bush, was “unilateralist” and that, in the words of one former Clinton Administration official, “multilateralism was a dirty word” in the Bush Administration. This charge is simplistic and demonstrably untrue–and one could cite as evidence everything from the lead up to the Iraq war (in which the United States went to the UN not once but twice, and gained unanimous approval of Resolution 1441); the war itself (which included support from the governments of Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, Norway, El Salvador and many other nations); the E3; the Quartet; the Six Party Talks; the Proliferation Security Initiative; a slew of free trade agreements; and more. In fact the Bush Administration was criticized by Democrats for being too multilateralist in their dealings with North Korea; it was said by John Kerry, among other liberals, that we should engage in bilateral talks with North Korea rather than rely on the Six Party Talks.

Another impression I had was that many (if not most) Europeans and American foreign policy experts are caught in a time warp, acting as if we are still in 2006. They simply want to wash their hands of Iraq. They hate the war, are seemingly impervious to the security and political progress we have seen in Iraq since last summer, and they want the next Administration to downplay Iraq as an issue, which they believe has “obsessed” the Bush presidency. What they don’t seem to understand is that ending U.S. involvement in the war won’t end the war. In fact, if Obama or Clinton follow up on their stated commitments, it is likely to trigger mass death and possibly genocide, revitalize al Qaeda, strengthen Iran, and further destabilize the region. The irony would be that the plans laid out by Democrats, if followed, would increase, not decrease, Iraq’s dominance of American foreign policy. An Iraq that is cracking up and caught in a death spiral is not something that even a President Obama or Clinton could ignore.

You can read the rest here.  I know the analogies aren’t at all perfect, but the miasma of defeatism and hostility seems to transcend time.

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  • Country Girl

    I too have been a G. Heyer fan but haven’t read her for years. This post gives me hope that we will manage once again without the “ton” to do the right thing for our country and indeed the world. Nice post.

  • Ymarsakar

    All politics are local and whether you are the ton or a regular folk, all that matters is whether you think the war will impact your life more than any other thing at the time.

    Americans believe that America won’t be invaded, as well, thus giving more priority to welfare, college tuition, and gasoline prices than warfare.

    This is the result of having war which has no price attached to it. The Democrats say that Iraq’s price is too high and thus it is unpopular and we should not support it.

    Actually, in reality, as the price of war goes up, the more support it is provided and the more popular it gets, so long as victories are provided to smooth the way. This is because as the price of war goes up, the priority starts to shift from having balls and party orgies in Hollywood to people’s self-preservation. Fear may make wise men fools, and it sure as heck won’t make Hollywood actors wise, but it at least will dispel the apathy even though it would and should cause a panic amongst the idiots at the top of the social heap.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Do you mean that the price of oil won’t come down if we admit defeat and go home?