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Drumming Tin

One could say that Oskar Matzerath refuses to grow up, but this would not be entirely correct.  He does not so much refuse to grow up as simply refuse to grow.  When he was three years old, he fell down a staircase leading into the basement of the family home, and his size or physical appearance wouldn't change for years.  His mental capabilities had already been completely developed on the day of his birth.  Now he is the odd man out, observing what goes on inside the madhouse that is life.  Oskar owns a drum, and whenever things go excessively mad he makes noise, protesting what he sees as wrong.  There is ample reason for protest in Danzig in the 1930s where Günter Grass's classic The Tin Drum is set.

This book, like many others by the same author, the 1999 Nobel Prize for literature winner, explores questions of correct behavior in a degrading society, of decisions to take in the face of danger, and of how to be true to oneself despite being surrounded by evil.  When the book was published in 1959, the second world war had ended a decade and a half earlier and was still on everybody's mind.  Germans, intellectuals as well as ordinary people, were trying to come to terms with their recent, very dark, past.  Grass had one of the loudest and certainly one of the most eloquent voices to address the past, inexorably morphing into the conscience of the nation, honestly and believably expressing collective guilt and shame.  Over the years, Grass has been the great German moralizer who never accepted excuses for behavioral lapses or misjudgments and who would relentlessly attack those hiding behind evasive defenses, those who did not live up to their dishonorable past.

These days, in a surprising turn of events, Grass himself is in the news for reprobate conduct.  His memoirs are fresh on the shelf.  In them, he concedes that, in 1944, he joined the Waffen SS, Hitler's elite combat force, which was responsible for unspeakable atrocities.  All over the German media, the ramifications of this admission are being analyzed, and the stark disparity between his words over five decades and his actions becomes evident.  While the decision itself, an unskeptical 17-year-old joining a criminal organization for a month or two, would not be worth mentioning for anyone else sixty years later, it becomes significant in light of the exemplary public persona that Grass has constructed.  His work will continue to shine but the man has fallen far short of his own ambition.

For all the buzz, another questions is even higher up of the list of medial concern in Germany.  Should German soldiers, as part of a UN security force based in southern Lebanon, be put in a situation where they might have to fire shots at Jews?  The holocaust is still the driving force in German foreign policy in the Middle East, and practical considerations pale in the light of guilt and memory.  Political questions often pose moral dilemmas.  And yet, the question is fallacious.  I would even go so far as to call it racist.  No one is concerned about firing shots at the Lebanese implying that they have less of a right to live than Israelis.

But maybe it is the question of a UN security force itself that is fallacious.  Peace will not come to the Middle East, it can only be created there, by the entities that keep, for more than 60 years now, shooting at each other and trying to impose their view on their opponent, or destroy it outright.

In this regard, the recent eruption of the Arab–Israeli conflict is a glimmer of hope, though not many have seen it as such.  Another war broke out, rockets were fired, infrastructure was destroyed and, inevitably, thousands of civilians lost their lives, loved one or worldly belongings.  Almost as suddenly and as surprisingly as the strife burned hot, it calmed down again and is now simmering at the usual intensity.  What caused this precipitous end?

Judging by the exulted claims televised by the Israeli government and by Hezballah, the war had two winners.  This is seemingly borne out by the situation on the ground.  Israel had indeed achieved its tactical goal of weakening Hezballah, debilitating their rocket launching installations, and demonstrating awe-inspiring military force up in the air.  Hezballah achieved its strategic goal of surviving the Israeli assault, of demonstrating rocket launching capabilities even after more than a month of continuous bombardments, and of showing the world the brutality of the Israeli military.

A war with two winners?  As Henryk Broder asked maliciously in Der Spiegel, why was it not continued if both sides were winning, presumably more with every passing day, final glory just a few shells away?  Why was the UN resolution accepted, and why did the truce hold?  Why did the arms fall silent from one moment to the next after a month of apocalyptic noise?  Could it be that this war had indeed two losers?

Hezballah suffered a devastating tactical defeat with a large part of its battle capabilities crippled, large swaths of the country in ruins, around a thousand Lebanese civilians dead and hundreds of thousands bleeding.  Israel, on the other hand, suffered a humiliating strategic loss.  It failed to annihilate the Army of God or eliminate its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.  It failed, even after five weeks of relentless bombing, to protect its territory from enemy fire.  The air raids, flown with what looked to the world like utter disregard for civilian lives, diminished global support for its campaign and are presumably driving the recruitment of new terrorists and potential martyrs.  (The shocking image of a precision bomb that struck dead center in the big red cross on the roof of an ambulance was recently published in Die Zeit.)

Henry Kissinger would have liked this war.  Both sides were losing.  But in contrast to other conflicts the world over, and here is where I see the shimmer of light, both parties recognized and admitted to themselves that they were losing.  Politics prevented them, and still prevents them, from saying so openly, but the quick acceptance of the UN-mediated ceasefire and the abrupt silence of the guns the exact minute that was stipulated in the resolution speak louder than any official voices could.  Nothing else could explain the rapid shift from what Le Temps of Geneva called "total war" to a tenuous armistice – more than anyone had hoped for even one short week ago.

No one had seen opportunities for peace amidst the violence of war because no one was seriously looking.  Everyone – pundits, politicians and pedestrians – was busy identifying the "root causes" of this conflict, as if a solution could be found in the past.  The heated and sometimes hysterical discussions of whether the origin of the bloodshed goes back four weeks or twenty-four years, four months or fourty years is entirely besides the point.  Each party can and will find arbitrary dates that will inevitably strengthen its claim to righteousness.  Why not go back 400 years or even 2400 years?  The Middle East will not rise from its state of permanent disaster this way.

While it is normally the past that holds the key to understanding and shaping the future, in the Middle East, a past that is impossible to untangle withholds the key to a peaceful future.  Instead of looking back in time for a date that conveniently supports one's claims, visionaries are needed who look ahead and concoct heterodox strategies, trying to marry creativity with audacity and good will.  Such luminaries are sadly missing.  Scott Adams, not a powerful politician but well versed in the department of creative audacity, made a point recently that could serve as an example of the sort of idea to shake up rigid pattern of thought.  An argument can not be settled as long as both sides want exactly the same thing.  I want the Sheba farms, no, I want the Sheba farms, no, I want the Sheba farms will get no one anywhere.  Distinctive prizes must be found for the clashing parties of the conflict.  Contrasting desires must be stirred.  The orthodox "land for peace" did not work too marvelously.  Adams suggests trading "pride for security".  While this might be a little tough to rationalize, it gets a thumbs-up for thinking outside the box.  At least someone is trying.

Unfortunately, none of the major political players, be it on the ground in the Middle East or up in the higher echelons of world power, has demonstrated the will to find a lasting cure for the uncontrolled chronic malaise.  Even when a dialog is started, fairness is missing, and games of favorites are being played.  All the while, bellicose demagogues and agitators keep drumming their cause, refusing to grow up and always marching on in naïve conviction of and obstinate insistence on their moral superiority but never arriving at a solution.  And Oskar, a tall man now but deprived of his drum, finds no audience in the jousting lands.

20 August 2006