Greatness Agenda

In the Global Culture War, People and Paintings Are Both at Risk

Like Otto von Bismarck’s original Kulturkampf, it is a struggle over whose values, beliefs, and practices will prevail.

In John Frankenheimer’s 1964 World War II drama, “The Train,” an art-loving Nazi colonel strips a French museum of its treasured paintings. To the dismay of the museum’s curator, the colonel has the paintings crated up and loaded aboard a train bound for Germany. The curator appeals to the Resistance for help, but with the Allied armies advancing on Paris, the local Resistance leader is reluctant to risk any of his few remaining men in a quixotic bid to stop the train and save its priceless contents from le boche.

Spoiler alert: The bad guys lose. Through sabotage, trickery, courage, and luck, the Resistance foils the Nazi scheme, at the sacrifice of many lives. Defeated, the colonel declines the chance to get away. Staying behind as his command joins a retreating German column, he confronts his antagonist and goads the man into cutting him down with a burst of submachine gun fire.

The film’s last scene has the camera cutting back and forth between the crates—full of works by Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Lautrec, etc.—and the corpses of French hostages gunned down by the Nazis in a final act of spite. Frankenheimer seems to be asking us, “Was it worth it?”

Although the Nazis looted a great many works of art during the war, the story “The Train” tells is fictional. Not so with another World War II film from two years later. Based on the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, “Is Paris Burning?” tells the true story of how German General Dietrich von Choltitz disobeyed Adolf Hitler’s command that he destroy Paris rather than surrender it intact to the Allies. The film shows German soldiers setting demolition charges on the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, and other cultural sites around the city, but thanks to Choltitz, the Resistance, the Free French Army, and the Allied high command, those charges never went off.

Now let’s consider a rather different story from a third World War II film, “The Counterfeit Traitor” from 1962. Based on the experiences of Swedish-American businessman, Erick Erickson, it tells how Erickson was blackmailed by Allied intelligence into pretending Nazi sympathies so as to gain access to German military and industrial secrets. 

In the film, the self-centered Erickson is amazed to find that one of his German contacts is spying on the Nazis, not for personal gain or self-protection, but for conscience’s sake.

Hitler “is the Anti-Christ,” she explains to him, “and I am a Christian. If I do not oppose him, my religion becomes a mockery.” But as civilian casualties pile up from the Allied air raids her information helps to guide, she begins to have second thoughts. Deciding she cannot serve a good end by evil means, she breaks off her espionage activities.

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The troubled woman watches as a funeral procession for a child killed in the bombing comes out of her church. Then she goes in, prays for a while in the pews, and, kneeling at the confessional, presses a button to summon a priest from the rectory.

Unfortunately, she has already come to the government’s attention, and two Gestapo agents are watching her. Sending his partner to delay the priest, one of them slips unseen into the confessional and sits down behind the screen.

The woman crosses herself and says, “I confess to Almighty God and to you, Father, that I have sinned. It’s been two weeks since my last confession. 

“I don’t know how to begin, Father. I’ve never confessed this before. I have been responsible for death and destruction, Father.”

“Tell me about it, my child,” the agent says, and when she hesitates: “Don’t be afraid, child. Tell me.”

“I gave information, and because of it, a city was bombed.”

The agent’s eyes widen, and he asks, “From whom did you obtain this information?”

Perplexed by this unpastoral question, she peers through the screen and, too late, sees that her “confessor” is wearing a business suit. The next we see of her, she is facing a firing squad.

These three movies were brought to mind by the recent dispute between American Greatness writers Pedro Gonzalez and Dennis Saffran. The question at issue was Donald Trump’s threat that if our country’s enemies in the Islamic Republic killed any more Americans, our retaliation might include attacks on Iranian cultural sites. Saffran rightly mocked the “pearl-clutching” the president’s threat induced among his leftist critics, and he made the unarguable point that in matters of war, “people are more important than paintings.” 

Of Trump’s critics, Saffran asked:

Are those who are condemning his position as both barbaric and unprecedented suggesting that we did not target German cultural landmarks during World War II—or, worse, that we should not have targeted them but rather should have killed more civilians instead? . . . I have absolutely no problem with the killing of German civilians in World War II, even in cases where hindsight may see it as “unnecessary.” But I do have a problem with a mindset that is less offended by the killing of German, or Iranian, or any, civilians than by the destruction of cultural artifacts. 

Saffran plainly has no use for the idle poseurs of the Left, who like to pass judgment on those who won America’s wars even while enjoying the fruits of their victories. But in his retort to them, his phrase, “absolutely no problem,” appears to have struck Pedro Gonzalez as just a touch too nonchalant.

Rebuking such “scornful indifference” to Germany’s war dead, Gonzalez gives a moving account of the heroic role his wife’s great-grandfather Karl Berchim played in saving some German children during an Allied bombing raid, a deed that cost the man his life. Gonzalez dwells on the terrible price ordinary Germans paid for Hitler’s war, and he concludes with a few more slaps at his AG colleague:

The real cost of war is distorted by individuals like Saffran appealing to the spectacle of victory and the patriotic instinct. More often than not, the loudest battle cries come from the mouths of those who will never bear the burden of killing, or have the courage to look slaughter in the face for what it is, regardless of who is behind it. . . . That Saffran only speaks of the dead to spite them tells us that not even the dead have seen the end of war.

One wishes that both Saffran and Gonzalez had let their copy cool a bit before submitting it for publication. Then each might have found a way to make his point while showing due respect for Germany’s civilian casualties, in the first case, and for a colleague and comrade in the fight against today’s totalitarian Left, in the second.

Isn’t it obvious, after all, what Saffran was saying? Not that civilian lives mean nothing to him but rather that their loss means much more than the loss of cultural artifacts does. With a little time for reflection, he might have said, “I won’t second-guess the killing” rather than “I have absolutely no problem” with it. 

Gonzalez, for his part, could have argued his case in more general terms, without naming and shaming Saffran. It’s all for the best, however. If not for the inadvertent blemish in Saffran’s piece, we wouldn’t have seen Gonzalez’s response, and both articles are well worth reading.

Having cleared that up (you’re welcome, guys), let me proceed to my point, which is that the global war we face today puts everything—both civilian lives and cultural artifacts—at grave risk.

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This war is not properly called a “Global War on Terror.” I wish it were, because the reality of what we’re up against is far more terrifying than that. Islam is one of the world’s great religions, and it didn’t get that way by being what George W. Bush liked to call it: “a religion of peace,” hijacked on 9/11 by a few terrorist renegades. Before that dreadful day, I had never given the matter three minutes’ thought, and I doubt Bush had, either. I also doubt that he or any infidel understands Islam better than the men did who had been living and breathing it all their lives and had just killed 3,000 of us in a single morning.

I call the war a culture war because, like Otto von Bismarck’s original Kulturkampf, it is a struggle over whose values, beliefs, and practices will prevail. And it’s far worse than most culture wars, for while such wars waged domestically are largely a matter of polemics and politics, the global culture war is a shooting war, and it’s been one for a very long time.

It has been going on for centuries, ever since Mohammed marched on Mecca. Thus say students of Islam such as Ibn Warraq, Andrew Bostom, Raymond Ibrahim, and Robert Spencer. Uncounted thousands of lives over the years have been lost to it, and it may yet claim millions. We didn’t start the war, and we may never see its end. But we can’t wriggle out of it. We must fight and, please God, win. And, pace Saffran, we may find that in this war, paintings are sometimes more important than people.

That’s what those French Resistance fighters thought, anyway. Oh, I forgot, they were fictional. But when the Taliban demolished the Buddhas of Bamyan, I wondered: What would become of the world’s other cultural treasures should such people ever gain control over us?

Would any paintings at all survive? What are they worth to us? How many lives would it cost to keep the jihadists’ hands off the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa?

I worry about music, too. Some Muslims hold that only vocal music is permissible, that instrumental music is forbidden. Would this put paid to the compositions of Mozart, Handel, Schubert, the “three-Bs” and the rest? Such music is, as the saying goes, “to die for.” Is it also music to kill for?

And if the classics seem too musty and high-brow for you, check out Mark Steyn’s take on this popular tune:

A few decades back, a young middle-class Egyptian spending some time in the U.S. had the misfortune to be invited to a dance one weekend and was horrified at what he witnessed: “The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips.”

Where was this den of debauchery? Studio 54 in the 1970s? Haight-Ashbury in the summer of love? No, the throbbing pulsating sewer of sin was Greeley, Colorado, in 1949. As it happens, Greeley, Colorado, in 1949 was a dry town. The dance was a church social. And the feverish music was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” as introduced by Esther Williams [and Ricardo Montalban] in “Neptune’s Daughter.” Revolted by the experience, Sayyid Qutb decided that America (and modernity in general) was an abomination, returned to Egypt, became the leading intellectual muscle in the Muslim Brotherhood, and set off a chain that led from Qutb to Zawahiri to bin Laden. . . .

I’m a reasonable chap, and I’d be willing to meet the Muslim Brotherhood chaps halfway on a lot of the peripheral stuff like beheadings, stonings, clitoridectomies and whatnot. But you’ll have to pry “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from my cold dead hands and my dancing naked legs. A world without “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” would be very cold indeed.

Here’s some more culture at risk. A few years ago, I came across some videos made by the girls of the Russian folk music group Beloe Zlato and was struck by how happy, carefree, even American they seemed, especially when giving little “flash mob” concerts in public places. This happened just as the girls of Germany, Sweden, Britain and elsewhere around Western Europe were learning that being in public means risking molestation, or worse, at the hands of young Muslim immigrants.

What about shuffle dancing? Or line dancing? How would the kids seen here fare under Islam? 

Yes, those people’s lives are more important than paintings. But they, no less than the paintings, are in the jihadist crosshairs. And while it’s true that (short of the resurrection) people, unlike mere things, can’t be brought back to life, mere things aren’t nothing. 

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Consider, for example, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. While they were standing, I hated them. To me, they looked as ugly as two giant smokestacks, a crass desecration of the beautiful New York skyline exemplified by the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. But when Islamic jihadists turned them into actual smokestacks and brought them crashing down, it wasn’t just the dead I mourned. I wanted those towers rebuilt, exactly as they were before, only with surface-to-air missile batteries on top.

There’s precedent for such a project. The Abbey of Monte Cassino, pulverized by Allied bombs in World War II, was restored after the war, and its basilica was reconsecrated in 1964. Dresden’s Frauenkirche, likewise flattened by Allied bombs, was rebuilt (with some American and British help) after a delay of many decades, and was reconsecrated 60 years after its destruction. 

On the other hand, there’s also precedent for the alternative chosen by New Yorkers in the present war. The ruins of England’s Coventry Cathedral, which was reduced to a gutted shell by the Luftwaffe in 1940, were preserved as a war memorial. A new (regrettably modern) cathedral stands alongside them, just as the 1,776-foot tall Freedom Tower stands next to the Twin Towers’ hallowed “footprints.” 

Whether for purposes of restoration or commemoration, those European rebuilding projects had the advantage of proceeding after their war was over. In the post-9/11 world, we have no such advantage and no good choices.

Suppose that when the Twin Towers fell, America on the very next day had dropped a stack of smart bombs on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and issued a three-word warning: “Next time, Mecca.”

Destroying the Dome of the Rock would have been a war crime, surely. But would it have resulted in fewer innocent lives lost than the course we have pursued instead? Probably not. Rather, it likely would have signaled “Game On” for the latent war that stares us in the face.

What’s certain is that many more deaths, and much more destruction, await us in the Global Culture War. Get ready for it.