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Perhaps the moon is down in Iraq?

Early in World War II John Steinbeck, already a world-class novelist, penned an amazingly successful piece of propaganda that may hold lessons for us today as we struggle to understand an increasingly hostile world.

“The Moon Is Down,” is a brief, simple novel – a fable really - that was so inspiring to those under the heels of fascist dictators that it would bring a death sentence for simple possession in Italy and was banned in many occupied countries because it inspired underground movements. Today the words of some of the characters sound hauntingly like news stories out of Iraq.

It tells the story of a small village taken over by an occupying force that wants the coal mined in the village. The force is never identified as to nationality or political philosophy, though it was certainly easy enough to imagine this to be a Norwegian village and the occupiers German Nazis.

The truly extraordinary thing about this book, however, is that it is frequently told from the point of view of the invaders who are depicted as intelligent, though misguided, human beings. In short, they don’t fit the Nazi stereotype. Steinbeck, an avid patriot working for a precursor of the CIA, was attacked in this country for being soft on Nazis. His words rang true, however, in the occupied countries where those in the underground knew their enemy. The prevailing propaganda didn’t fit the enemy they observed – Steinbeck’s novel did and so was all the more powerful.

Even near the start, some of the occupiers with past experience of war, are worried.

Corell said, a little smugly, “We have defeated them.” . . .

[Lanser] said, “Defeat is a momentary thing. A defeat doesn’t last.”

Faced with increasing acts of what we would describe today as sabotage and terrorism – the killing of their soldiers – some of the occupiers search for solutions, but can’t find any.

Lanser stood up slowly and spoke as though to himself. “So it starts again. We will shoot this man and make twenty new enemies. It’s the only thing we know, the only thing we know.”

Later the invaders go through a “trial” before executing a local man who has killed a soldier. The local mayor tries to explain to the invaders, who had attacked without provocation, how they are seen by the populace.

“You killed six men when you came in. Under our law you are guilty of murder, all of you. Why do you go into this nonsense of law, Colonel? There is no law between you and us. This is war. Don’t you know you will have to kill all of us or we in time will kill all of you?”

And of course there were collaborators:

The men who had been traitors, who had helped the invaders – and many of them believed it was for a better state and an ideal way of life – found that the control they took was insecure, that the people they had known looked at them coldly and never spoke. . .

Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone among silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard for even a moment. . . . Their talk was of friends and relatives who loved them and their longings were for warmth and love, because a man can be a soldier for only so many hours a day and for only so many months in a year, and then he wants to be a man again, wants girls and drinks and music and laughter and ease . . .

“Well,” Tonder went on, “ I would like to get out of this god-forsaken hole!” . . .

The soldiers are concerned about how what is happening to them is being depicted in the media back home.

“That’s it.” Tonder said. “We don’t know. The reports – everything in hand. Conquered countries cheer our soldiers, cheer the new order.” . . .

Tonder said, “I mean this - we’ll be going home before long, won’t we?’

“Well, the reorganization will take some time,” Hunter said. “The new order can’t be put into effect in a day, can it?” . . .

“He’s making out his report. He’s asking for reinforcements,” said Loft. “It’s a bigger job than we thought.” . . .

“I said I don’t know. Look, Lieutenant, we’ve conquered half the world. We must police it for a while You know that.” . . .

And Tonder went on laughing. “Conquest after conquest, deeper and deeper into molasses.” His laughter choked him and he coughed into his handkerchief. “Maybe the Leader is crazy. Flies conquer the flypaper. Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!” His laughter was growing more hysterical now.

Steinbeck’s novel has been reprinted dozens of times and distributed in dozens of countries. It was distributed in China when it was occupied by the Japanese. It was even translated and distributed in Iran, though I have not heard that it ever went to Iraq.

So how is the situation in Iraq today different from that described in “The Moon is Down?” How is it the same? Read the book. Read the news. Answer those questions for yourself. Certainly there is not a simple one-to-one relationship. Nothing stays the same. Yes, history does repeat itself, but always with variations on a theme. The trick here is to pull out the underlying theme from half a century ago and learn from it.


I sent the preceding to The New Bedford Standard-Times today in the hope they'll use it on the editorial page. The idea isn't orginal. Bren, on a complete Steinbeck kick this summer, first brought the book to my attention. Then last week Don Douglas mentioned it, saying he had read a blog where the writer related the story to events of today. I asked him for the URL, but he went off camping over the holiday weekend and I pulled the book off the shelf, read it, and had developed my own ideas by the time Don sent me the URL for the other commentary. You can read it here.

Oh - and this just on (9/503) from Reuters. Sound familiar?

U.S. Troops Want Rumsfeld to Send Them Home
Fri September 05, 2003 10:34 AM ET
By Saul Hudson

TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) - If they had the chance, U.S. soldiers at a base in Iraq would have had one question for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- When are we going home?.

But Rumsfeld canceled a speech he was due to give on Friday to the troops at their base at the palace of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his hometown of Tikrit.

"I don't give a damn about Rumsfeld. All I give a damn about is going home," Specialist Rue Gretton said, humping packs of water bottles on his shoulders from a truck.

"The only thing his visit meant for us was we had to clean up a lot of mess to make the place look pretty. And he didn't even look at it anyway," Gretton said after soldiers swept the dusty streets around the complex of lakes and mansions.

They also erected a stage and set out chairs for a speech that Rumsfeld canceled due to a tight schedule. Instead, the Pentagon chief briefly thanked soldiers after a meeting with military leaders.

"It was good for morale," said Major Josslyn Alberle, a spokeswoman for the Fourth Infantry Division headquartered at the palace.

Sergeant Green, 40, did not think so.

"If I got to talk to Rumsfeld I'd tell him to give us a return date. We've been here six months and the rumor is we'll be here until at least March. This is totally, totally uncalled for," she said.

Green, who asked not to be identified by her first name, complained she would miss seeing her 16-year-old through her whole school year.


Rumsfeld has been criticized for sending too few troops to Iraq leaving them stretched thin on extended deployments trying to help rebuild the country and fight a guerrilla war. He has urged allies to supply some 15,000 additional troops and hopes training Iraqi forces will ease the burden on U.S. troops.

When the Armed Forces Network showed earlier footage of Rumsfeld saying that fresh U.S. troops were unnecessary in Iraq, soldiers at the base threw their hands in the air and shouted "No way" at the television.

"I ain't happy. No way am I happy seeing that," said Specialist Devon Pierce, whose wife was due to give birth to his first son in two weeks. "This tour is hard, real hard. It's too much. It should be six months."

Other soldiers said they could not complain openly about their long deployment for fear of being disciplined. Earlier this year, military leaders warned their troops they should not show disrespect for Rumsfeld after a rash of criticism from soldiers in Iraq appeared in the media.

Guerrillas regularly attack the palace complex with mortars and rockets. But soldiers acknowledged that with air-conditioned rooms and burgers and hot dogs in the mess hall they had it easier than many of the more than 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Many also said that while they wanted to be with their families at backyard barbecues or on trips to the baseball park, they knew what they signed up for by joining the army and were committed to stabilizing Iraq.

Posted by Greg Stone at September 3, 2003 09:31 PM

I'm so glad someone else has noticed these parallels! I'm not so alone anymore!

Posted by: Ian at September 6, 2003 02:32 AM

Fashion exists for women with no taste, etiquette for people with no breeding.

Posted by: Bauer Carolyn at February 27, 2004 06:05 PM
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