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April 3, 2007

The Generals' "Opera"

Roy Meachum

The Maryland Ensemble Theatre's current production captures the fears I have for these United States. "The Threepenny Opera" reflected Germany in the period after World War I.

As I wrote for Friday's TheTentacle.Com, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill created a society made up of "singularly odious beggars and sexual prostitutes, known as whores. No characters on the stage, as characters, present any redeeming traits."

That's how the opera's authors viewed life under the Weimar Republic, when people were forced to haul wheelbarrows loaded with money to buy a single loaf of bread. Decent women and girls felt desperate enough to sell their bodies. Why not? Hope had vanished along with jobs and savings accounts.

It was a dog-eat-dog existence that brought out the worst in humanity, including prejudice, bigotry and persecutions of minorities, which encompassed everyone else. Foreigners were the scapegoats. Jews found themselves rejected as outsiders and after centuries of contributing to the nation's distinguished reputation, especially in science.

It's commonly accepted in academic circles that these conditions were responsible for the rise of Adolph Hitler. The Nazi nightmare focused on Jews for betraying the Imperial Army, although they enlisted in far greater number than their percentage in the population. The Communists shared the blame, along with anyone who doubted the nation's destiny to rule the entire world.

Of course, the generals and field marshals cheered the back-stab sentiment along; it excused them for their failures, chief of which was the widely accepted belief, at the war's outset, that they and their soldiers were invincible. Divine Right was on their side: the army's belt buckles said "Gott mitt uns" (God (is) With Us).

The 1918 collapse was not limited to the military forces; it destroyed the rationalization that formed the foundation for life under the recently created Germany Empire. The Prussian king had become emperor (Kaiser) less than 50 years before. The coronation ensued after the battlefield defeats of Austria and France, Germany's only rivals in continental Europe. Both victories were speedy.

In other words, people had cause to believe their race was superior as they departed - cheering - to fight World War I. Entire schools enlisted.

Going into Iraq four years ago, Americans shared a very similar opinion of themselves. Despite Korea's stalemate and the hurried evacuation of Vietnam, there was widespread belief that no power on earth or people could stand up to the United States. Iraqis' darker color and different religion helped boost the national feeling of superiority.

As the Germans in 1914, Americans went to war in 2003 convinced total surrender would follow the U.S. Air Force's demonstration designed to generate "shock and awe." When that didn't happen, the low casualties and speed of the drive to take Baghdad compensated. Saddam Hussein's capture a few months later put the icing on the victors' cake. That was national self-delusion.

When the president put on a Navy flyer's jack that May, stood on an aircraft carrier's deck, and pronounced victory, there were approximately 150 casualties, including the invasion's contributions. Since then more than 3000 men and women have been forced to render the final sacrifice.

If the present "surge" strategy fails to yield victory, as most expert opinion makers expect, how will Washington (and the generals) rationalize the defeat. They will not admit they misjudged the enemy and his will to fight.

Most likely they will blame the war's opponents, in both parties, and argue the generals never really had a chance. The reasoning goes: "If we had provided them what they wanted and asked for..."

We know better. When probed by reporter's questions at innumerable press conferences, the military brass stated bravely they didn't need more troops. Their words resounded with the politicians' mantra: We have what we need. They didn't.

What happens next in Iraq matters to fewer and fewer people; check the war's daily stories in the newspapers. The Baghdad dateline on combat news has all but vanished from the front page. Five American deaths in a single day wound up deep within most papers.

Washington has become the principal arena for a war that has been reduced to words and partisan slurs (while young men and women, by the score, along with thousands of Iraqis, keep on dying).

While governmental leaders fiddle and fudge over Iraq, they share the front page with homebuyers whose ruinous interest rates could force families out on the street. We also read seemingly innumerable stories about corruption, public and corporate. Many of the public sector crimes were committed with governmental help, we are told.

More and more, from the general populace we hear of babies and small children killed at the hands of adults who are literally murdering future generations. Investigating reporters have unearthed details of individuals within the medical system who are careless, at least, and possibly criminal in handling the ill and infirm. Walter Reed was but a recent example.

Sex and mores have descended to the point they reach proportions not known since the 18th century, which triggered the Victorian-era repressions. And there's the nub of the issue.

Are we in for the general hopelessness of the Weimar period, when "The Threepenny Opera" first saw the lights of stage? Some of the conditions are evident, especially the false bravado of generals who cared more for their professional careers than the nation's general welfare.

The very air in 2007 breeds cynicism that begets beggars living off the efforts of others and prostitutes selling out honesty and integrity for profits.

We could be on the verge of the society created as semi-fictional by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Under these circumstances, it could happen.

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