Myles Weber

Whose War Is This?

Midway through the film Spider-Man 2, the title character forsakes his calling as a superhero. When he subsequently witnesses the brutal mugging of a fellow nerd and hears police sirens whir in vain pursuit of violent criminals, Peter Parker simply carries on like any other self-involved twenty-something, though it pains him to know that innocents might suffer as a result of his blasé attitude. In one exceptional circumstance, though, he cannot resist interfering: a toddler is trapped in a burning building, and he braves the flames to rescue her. But he does not employ his arachnid powers to do so. In his intervention, he is courageous yet restrained, like U.N. peacekeeping forces. And, tellingly, a man dies in the fire as a result of our hero’s prudent decision not to commit himself too deeply to the resolution of other people’s crises.
     Considering the many months required to shoot and edit an effects-laden action film, I assume that the script for Spider-Man 2, released in the summer of 2004, was written prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the plot points noted above seem to allude to the potential geopolitical fall-out from that widely vilified campaign. A target of caustic media scorn, the movie’s hero had become so frustrated by the blowback from his vigilante efforts that he removed himself entirely from the crime-fighting arena. Imagine a world in which the security of threatened communities in the Balkans, Africa, and Asia were solely dependent on the resolve of the Danish military. That specter haunts the parabolic script of Spider-Man 2.
     A similar vision troubles Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2004. In this novel, the author imagines reliving his New Jersey childhood under vastly different circumstances. Once again the reader is reminded of the Iraq campaign. “KEEP AMERICA OUT OF THE JEWISH WAR” reads a lapel button worn by peace activists—in this case, Republican ones—at the 1940 national political convention in Philadelphia, where the surprise nomination from the floor of the handsome aviation hero and Nazi apologist Charles A. Lindbergh breaks a ballot deadlock among the delegates. “Your choice is simple,” the popular presidential nominee later declares on the campaign trail, referring to himself in third person: “It’s between Lindbergh and war.” In Roth’s speculative world, the American voters turn Franklin D. Roosevelt out of office, preferring instead a candidate who promises peace through isolation and appeasement.
     The novel’s main characters—the narrator, Philip, his older brother, Sandy, and their parents, Herman and Bess Roth—are variants of characters who appeared in Roth’s memoirs, The Facts (1988) and Patrimony (1991), and in the novel Operation Shylock (1993). They were renamed and fed through the fictional wringer in the Zuckerman novels as well. The middle-aged Philip, a former stamp collector and Roosevelt devotee in Patrimony, is here young Philip, already an avid philatelist but stunned by the usurpation of his Democratic hero by the “fascist dog” resident in the White House. The Roth family is augmented by an orphaned cousin, Alvin, who in a nice twist flees across the Canadian border so that he may fight in the war, and by Philip’s maternal aunt, who rather conveniently for the purposes of the plot marries a collaborator rabbi whose national profile is exploited by the Lindbergh administration.
     But plot is a secondary concern here. Indeed, by the end of the book you realize that the author has let drop a number of narrative balls, including that matter of brother Sandy’s determination to assimilate into Lindbergh’s goyish America. The book’s driving force is instead thematic, or what in this case may be perceived as significantly political. The Plot Against America is a cautionary tale about the loss of military will in the face of tyranny. Roth is not an obvious mouthpiece for such a message, particularly at a time when it serves to rebuke foreign and domestic critics of George W. Bush. The author of a ruthless satirical novel about the Nixon White House and, in the 1980s, a vocal critic of Reaganite philistinism, Roth has proudly declared that he comes from an entire clan of New Deal Democrats. This might at first explain the Rooseveltian loyalties of Roth’s parents in The Plot Against America, but the book has a conflicted subtext that speaks about our predicament today—a subtext that the Democratic bona fides in the author’s biography do not help to clarify.
     A thread of anti-Semitism is woven into the most sincere anti-war rhetoric in the novel, and the horrific carnage that inevitably ensues in battle (cousin Alvin, for example, loses a leg serving with Canadian forces in Europe) is widely blamed not on the fascist regime but on pro-war Americans, including Roth’s father. Roth even includes an appalling Pim Fortuyn character, the vulgar columnist Walter Winchell, whose opportunistic campaign to unseat President Lindbergh, like Fortuyn’s run at the Dutch prime ministership in 2002, manages despite itself to issue valid warnings about an impending anti-democratic shift in the electorate. And like Fortuyn’s assassination, Winchell’s being gunned down on the campaign trail causes barely a ripple of concern among the placid majority.
     “People always ask what’s the message,” Roth complained in an early interview about the critical response to his work. “I think the worst books are the ones with messages. My fiction is about people in trouble.” Yet the author has experimented with message novels on and off for decades. In Operation Shylock, a narrator named Philip Roth confronts his double, the “ardent Diasporist” Philip Roth, whose attractively absurd political views the narrator and indeed the author himself flirt with. One could argue that the author’s relationship to the politically charged material in The Plot Against America is as slippery as his relationship to the views of his anti-Zionist namesake in the earlier novel, a character whom Roth likens to the mischievous Moishe Pipik figure from Yiddish folklore. The way the author has situated himself is indeed very odd for a partisan foe of the Republican Party. But it is, at the same time, in keeping with some of the personal reflections Roth has offered to journalists. In 1990, he spoke about the increasing sense of social isolation that he felt living in England part of each year. “He developed a distaste for what he saw as fashionable anti-American leftism,” Hermione Lee reported in the London newspaper The Independent on Sunday; “it felt to him un-self-critical and biased. And there seemed also to him, in public and in everyday social life, to be a considerable amount of anti-Semitism.” The Plot Against America reaffirms these sentiments.


      In the novel, Lindbergh’s success in the 1940 presidential election is extremely ominous for Roth and his Jewish family. The implications for the nation as a whole are less clear-cut. For that reason, Roth asks the reader to consider what can happen when a nation chooses not to oppose tyranny. The Plot Against America could therefore be placed in the same category as novels by authors as diverse as Philip K. Dick and Newt Gingrich that contemplate what our world would be like had Hitler triumphed. It is even more closely akin to Paul Fussell’s essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” in which the World War II veteran argues that hand-to-hand combat necessitated by an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have resulted in Guadalcanal-like carnage on a scale so vast that the limited, instantaneous obliteration of two Japanese cities seems like a blessing by comparison. Not surprisingly, this is a tough argument to sell to the squeamish public. How can the “what-if??” scenarios offered by Roth and Fussell possibly compete with the images of actual carnage available to military historians or, now, to Al-Jazeera, the BBC, and Michael Moore? How does one effectively dramatize the hypothetical suffering of Iraqi civilians who will not end up buried in mass graves in the coming decades thanks to an unpopular war? The salient point is this: Roth, in a novel published four weeks before a U.S. presidential election that was bound to turn on national defense issues, chose to draw the public’s attention to the mass atrocities that might have resulted from the deferment of a brutal military campaign.
     There are no systematic, government-sanctioned atrocities on the homefront in Roth’s novel. In The Facts, Roth documented his youthful concerns about “the gangs of lumpen kids” on the Jersey shore who one summer “stampeded along the boardwalk into Bradley Beach, hollering ‘Kikes! Dirty Jews!’ and beating up whoever hadn’t run for cover.” That actual pogrom from Roth’s childhood is roughly on par with the anti-Jewish acts imagined throughout most of The Plot Against America. The Jews of Newark are deeply loyal to America and therefore pose no immediate threat to the isolationists, who are not anti-Semitic to a genocidal degree. The gravest concern of Lindbergh Republicans is keeping America out of war—Roth allows them that much. The worst that befalls the American Jews en masse in Roth’s narrative is a coerced de-ghettoization designed—for the present, at least—to further assimilate, not annihilate, American Jewry. (The historical record shows that Lindbergh praised the positive influence on a society of a diluted Jewish presence.)
     Atrocities in the novel are confined implicitly to the European and Asian countries whose occupation remains uncontested by American forces. The question therefore arises in the reader’s mind: would President Lindbergh’s foreign policy have been detrimental to the interests of the American people, as the narrator implies? Or might such a policy, regardless of its implications for others, have spared America considerable suffering and loss of life? In Roth’s 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson, there are some memorable verbal fisticuffs between Roth’s alter ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, and a character named Milton Appel, who is an obvious stand-in for the literary critic Irving Howe, who’d had some hostile things to say about Roth’s work. Ian Hamilton credited Roth in a 1985 interview with treating the Howe substitute quite fairly during the pair’s crucial scenes. “In their showdown telephone conversation one rather squirms for Zuckerman,” Hamilton remarked. “Of course you give the other guy the best lines,” Roth explained. “Otherwise it’s a mug’s game.” It is conceivable that Roth is using the same technique here. “This is not America’s war,” Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, the narrator’s quisling uncle, insists at a Lindbergh campaign rally. “This,” he tells the receptive crowd, “is Europe’s war.” In the debate over national security policy, Rabbi Bengelsdorf is given what is arguably the best line, though Roth clearly opposes the Rabbi’s views.
     Obviously, then, there are times when Roth subverts his main point by minimizing the consequences of appeasement. Or might Roth simply be experimenting once again with wildly divergent political views and inviting the reader to do the same? In the spirit of Operation Shylock, let me assume the Moishe Pipik voice myself and ask: if neutrality is an opportunistic self-protective stance taken at the expense of others, shouldn’t the United States adopt it as official policy whenever possible? After all, in the months before America’s entry into the Second World War, President Roosevelt chose to increase production of combat airplanes, advocated lifting the embargo on arms sales to Britain, and asked Congress to permit U.S. merchant ships to enter combat zones fully armed. In response, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
     By contrast, Roth’s President Lindbergh signs an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, guaranteeing peaceful relations between Germany and the United States. Days later, he reaches a similar accord with Japan. Neither France nor the neutral governments of Europe would have considered a complete capitulation of this kind dishonorable (for themselves), so why should Americans feel otherwise, as Roth clearly expects us to? The author does not follow the trajectory of principled isolationism very far into the 1940s. Consequently, insufficient attention is paid to the smarmy sense of moral rectitude that a neutral America might have acquired, à la Sweden.
     Of course, not all democratic nations can indulge in the luxury of neutrality, or there would be no democratic nations left. But why couldn’t the United States indulge itself, at least in this one instance? The result, Moishe Pipik would suggest, might have been a geopolitical stalemate like that achieved during the Cold War, with large Orwellian spheres—fascist in Europe and East Asia, vaguely nonaligned in North America—buffered by wide oceans. Decades later, fascism might have given way to neo-fascism; finally, the spent regimes would likely have been forced to embark on their own version of glasnost. Well—it’s possible, anyway.
     “How can this be happening in America?” Philip’s despairing father asks his wife about the offensive policies of the Lindbergh administration, which by the standards of occupied Europe are quite benign. “How can people like these be in charge of our country?” he cries. Part of Herman Roth’s shock apparently stems from the presumption that the United States should be more principled and uncompromising than, say, Switzerland and France. But should it? An unwillingness to compromise with tyranny can work to the extreme detriment of one’s own nation, as Americans today know only too well.
     Contemplating the historical situation, the Roth family is also paralyzed with fear about anti-Semitic legislation that President Lindbergh might soon propose under pressure from his German friends. From the vantage point of 1942, they imagine that two years down the road—“with Hitler’s swastika flying over London’s houses of Parliament” and “the Rising Sun flying over Sydney, New Delhi, and Peking”—the final onslaught against America’s four and a half million Jews might commence. This shows a considerable prescience on their part, considering that the outside world in 1942 knew of Kristallnacht but not of Auschwitz and the full range of German accomplishments in the realm of human extermination. To justify the Roth family’s concerns about their own survival, Roth reverses his initial premise involving semi-principled isolationism and instead creates a hideous dictator out of Burton K. Wheeler, a real-life Senator from Montana. By novel’s ends, the book’s thematic wheels have spun off their axles—but not before the isolationist forces have come together in the form of an anti-Semitic mob, headed by a Democrat.
     The world Roth initially offers, in the first three hundred pages of the book, is not a likely setting for genocide. Roth’s fictive America seems to have been inoculated against the more virulent strains of European anti-Semitism. “The Hitlerite plot against America must be stopped—and stopped by you!” Walter Winchell tells the nation at one point. But, in fact, the Hitlerite plot might have been averted simply by ducking and redirecting the Axis firepower toward less geographically favored nations. From an American point of view, wouldn’t ten or twenty million additional foreign deaths have been a fair price to pay to avert hundreds of thousands of American fatalities in the hellish combat zones remembered by Paul Fussell? This is how nearly every nation except America calculates its decision about whether to participate in a foreign military campaign or to stay at home. Perhaps the United States should finally adopt the same method of calculation, and not berate itself when it does.


     Novels and revisionist history books aside, the past is permanent. But we can change what lies ahead. It may be time, seriously, for America to ignore conventional wisdom and consider implementing a foreign policy even more unilateralist than the one George W. Bush has pursued, but of an appeasing, noninterventionist nature. “The one thing people love more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying,” the villainous Green Goblin warns Spider-Man in the first film of the series, from 2002. “In spite of everything you’ve done for them, eventually they will hate you,” he sneers. “Why bother?”
     Why bother, indeed? It may have required a detour into the voice of a Yiddish prankster to consider the benefits of committed neutrality toward Nazism. But the nature of the security threat faced by the Western democracies today is not really closely analogous to that of the 1940s, as opponents of the Iraq war were right to point out. It is therefore possible that America in the twenty-first century has greater latitude to pursue the benefits of selfish noninvolvement. By appearing to capitulate to world public opinion and cower before the Islamists, America might succeed in redirecting the terrorists’ fury at the offensively secular nations of Europe, with their geographic proximity, their restless Muslim youths, and their long histories of commercial and military intervention in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. What is the likelihood, after all, that the formal U.S.–Europe alliance, lingering unserviceably in the wake of the Cold War, will survive another decade of increasing tension and rivalry? We may have nothing to lose from a clean break but Old World ingratitude, as even the Bush-hating moguls of Hollywood seem to understand.
     My thinking is this: there were wise and principled objections raised to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but those were drowned out by the gleefully vituperative din of European elites sitting in condescending judgment of an American president who, seeking to dethrone a psycho-despot, was himself decreed to be the new Hitler with a Star of David where the swastika used to be. (“You’re a dictator,” Roth’s pro-appeasement brother screams at their interventionist father, “you’re a dictator worse than Hitler.”) Anti-war rhetoric based on an assumption of American villainy is polarizing and highly dangerous in the long run. And in the present circumstances it clouds any attempt to evaluate the actual merits and defects of the Bush administration and its foreign policies. Until the leaders of the major political parties in every Western nation can acknowledge, first, that there were also legitimate arguments in favor of military intervention in Iraq and, second, that whipping one’s populace into an anti-American frenzy is in the end not likely to serve the interests of Western survival, the world community will find itself heading into more crises of this kind—unless America simply removes military intervention from its list of foreign policy options, turns turtle, and hopes for the best.
     Reading Roth’s novel, I composed a hypothetical narrative of my own. In it, an American military campaign undertaken to rid a foreign nation of a murderous dictator results in loss of life for several thousand American troops, who are posthumously condemned as Zionists and war criminals by the Western elites. The fact that one of our greatest novelists published, in the fall of 2004, a book titled The Plot Against America suggests that he, too, now finds the scenario of a virulently anti-American world community both timely and disturbing.