January 4, 2007 [LINK / comment]

Tobruk and Churchill, 1942

Influenced by romanticized movie portrayals of World War II, we often forget that there was a lot of political bickering going on at the time, and even some cases of disloyalty. It is useful to compare the current situation in Washington with the political spat in Great Britain after Rommel's Afrika Korps overran the port city of Tobruk in June 1942. This came on the heels of the fall of Singapore and Hong Kong to Japanese invaders, when all seemed lost. In Great Britain, many politicians used the Tobruk debacle to submit a motion to censure Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose popularity was never very high. As Churchill wrote of this episode in his Memoirs of the Second World War,

The debate was opened by Sir John Wardlaw-Milne in an able speech in which he posed the main issue. This motion was "not an attack upon officers in the field. It is a definite attack upon the central direction here in London..."

Where have we heard a phrase like that before? "We support the troops, but not the war." Hmmm... No doubt, Sir Wardlaw-Milne garnered broad popular acclaim at the time for his political grandstanding, but alas, his name has been forgotten in the dustbin of history. Another MP angrily denounced what he saw as Churchill's failure to take responsibility for strategic mistakes, going so far as to compare the loyalty bestowed upon Churchill to the Nazis' insistence that "The Fuehrer is always right." (Can you imagine?) Yet another MP cited the sarcastic quip "that if Rommel had been in the British Army he would have been a sergeant." Clearly, there was a strong current of defeatism, but Churchill stood his ground and eloquently rebutted all of the charges in Parliament. Ultimately, the House of Commons realized that their nation's survival depended upon national unity and voted overwhelmingly against the motion of censure, 475 to 25.

So, is the lesson for us that such political backbiting on the home front is not necessarily fatal for a country engaged in mortal combat with a dangerous foe, or that crassly opportunistic politicians generally wise up and act in defense of the national interest when the moment of truth comes? I'll leave that for you to decide...

Death toll: over 3,000

It has been reported that the number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq climbed above the 3,000 mark in the past week, and some commentators have made the irrelevant comparison to the number killed in the 9/11 attacks. Thus far, the Pentagon has released the names of 2,955 armed service personnel who gave their lives in Iraq. The difference is due to the fallen soldiers whose names have not yet been released because the next of kin have not yet been located, as explained at globalsecurity.org. Maintaining communications between military personnel and their families is not as easy as you might think, and that happens to be one of the many vital but little-known functions of the American Red Cross.