I was once given a gift subscription to a weekly periodical – one that arrived on pulp paper rather than as an email – that aggregated the writings of prominent conservative opinion writers. That started arriving in my mailbox in early 1990, if my memory is accurate. Among other things, it provided my introduction to the late and deeply lamented Joseph Sobran.
Sobran was a standout among conservative columnists. He was his own man, ever willing to go where he pleased, without regard for the preponderance of opinion on the Right. Moreover, his writing was so perfectly lucid that when his case was sound – i.e., when he had his facts straight – it was irresistibly convincing. I could not read a Sobran column without being impressed by his clarity and forcefulness.
If you’re old enough to have lived through it and serious enough to have kept up with the news, you may recall a couple of things about the Year of Our Lord 1990:
- The U.S. had just completed the Reagan Era.
- George H. W. Bush was the president of these United States.
- Saddam Hussein, the strongman dictator of Iraq, was plotting the annexation of Kuwait.
- The strongman dictator of Panama, General Manuel Noriega, was being removed from his perch by American forces.
- The Iron Curtain and its manufacturer, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, were being dismantled by popular pressure, and would soon fall completely.
- Red China was tacitly dismantling its Communist economy in favor of “state capitalism,” which would coincidentally leave the Communist Party in complete political control.
- Francis Fukuyama would soon publish The End of History and The Last Man, a tome whose thesis would be hailed by the naïve and shortsighted of all political creeds.
If you would just squint with the light behind you, you could almost see Thomas Jefferson smiling down at us from heaven. “I told you!” he said to the spirits of George Mason and Patrick Henry. “The ball of liberty has rolled right around the globe.” And in that heady heyday of the Land of the Free, it was possible to believe it…for a while.
Joseph Sobran didn’t let his guard down. A lot of other conservative columnists did. The temptation was too strong for them. The forces of entrenched power and privilege were far from giving up. Perhaps the other luminaries of the Right should have known that; Sobran did.
When the drums began to beat over Iraq and Kuwait, Sobran was virtually alone on the Right in opposing the drive for war. “Has the Left given peace a bad name?” he wrote memorably. He took issue with the suggestion that any vital interest of the U.S. was at stake in that matter. Indeed, the U.S. didn’t – and still doesn’t – have any treaty obligations toward any Middle Eastern nation. But seldom can a lone voice deflect a nation from a drive toward war.
The Reagan years had seen little American involvement in armed conflict. Yes, there was Grenada. Yes, there was Libya. And yes, to this day there are opinion writers who dispute the necessity of both actions. But they were blessedly brief. The bloodshed was minimal.
But the Bush family was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the defense and intelligence sectors. Reagan’s notion that a military intervention should serve the vital interests of the United States was anathema to them. Pere et fils were united on that, and remain so.
I worked for a defense contractor back then. I hardly need tell you what the preponderance of opinion was about Operation Desert Storm. “Contracts! Jobs! Orders for more airplanes!”
Eisenhower told us. Joseph Sobran reminded us. We should have listened.
In the years before the First World War, the French military was under the supreme command of General Victor-Constant Michel. From what I’ve read, General Michel was a clear-sighted analyst and a sober military planner. He foresaw the Schlieffen Plan of a German invasion through the Low Countries, and was open about his reasons for predicting it. On the basis of his prognosis, he advocated a defense-oriented strategy for France hat would deter such an invasion.
But the attitude among other top French commanders was irremediably opposed to the Michel strategy. France had lost the War of 1870 in a most humiliating fashion. The German Empire had annexed the districts of Alsace and Lorraine as part of the price of peace. All the generals other than Michel were slavering for the chance to avenge themselves for their earlier defeat, and to take those lost provinces back. So Michel and his emphasis on a strong north-northeastern defensive position had to go.
In 1913 Michel was ousted as supreme commander. He was replaced by General Joseph Joffre, a notably offense-minded commander who saw things the way the rest of the commanders did. He had no respect for Michel’s analyses. He founded French war strategy on an all-out thrust into Alsace and Lorraine, with the intent of driving headlong into Germany and forcing the Empire to sue for peace.
But in those days before the mechanization of ground warfare, a serious analyst would have regarded a major thrust through Alsace and Lorraine from the French side as madness. Those provinces were about the best defensive ground in Europe. Indeed, that was a great part of the reason Germany wanted them, for France, despite its defeats in 1870 and 1814, was the most feared military power on the continent. For six centuries its forces had been well nigh unstoppable. The Metternich Plan that emerged from the Congress of Vienna was aimed directly if not exclusively at blunting French aggression.
In other words, the Joffre Plan was insanity on a stick, despite the enthusiasm for it among other French generals. What Michel foresaw came to pass almost exactly as he foresaw it. Yet it is Joffre who is well remembered to this day. General Michel has been reduced to a footnote. As Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, “To be right and overruled is not forgiven to persons in responsible positions.”
I hope it’s forgivable for opinion writers: both for those who were swept up by the tide of martial ardor and for those who resisted it.
The drums are beating once again. The political Establishment is nearly unanimous that the U.S. must fight for “Ukrainian integrity.” Those who dissent are routinely slandered as “pro-Putin.” Tucker Carlson, of all people, has been called a “Putin apologist.” Despite Russia’s superiority in men, material, and strategic position, Vladimir Putin’s clear commitment to victory, and the dubious ability of NATO to reverse the course of the war, the possibility of escalation to a nuclear level is waved aside as “fear-mongering.”
Joseph Sobran died in 2010, at age sixty-four. The wars and prospects for war in our time are no longer his concern. I hope soon to celebrate my seventy-first birthday. I hope to celebrate another. I wonder if I will.