The Pain in Spain: What They’re Saying Across the Pond

World War II bankrupted Britain, shamed France, and broke Germany in two. The United States remembers it as the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation,” which Washington just rewarded with an absurdly grand and generic memorial. America’s been battered plenty since VJ Day, but the nation’s can-do innocence never stays beaten down for long.

Europeans are not like us. In Spain, for example, which sat out WWII because it had run itself ragged fighting a civil war that would lead to nearly four decades of tyranny, a tragic sense of life is as basic to the culture as cafe con leche at breakfast.

In Madrid for a week, I followed the Abu Ghraib scandal in the papers and on CNN. It was a big story in the Spanish press, but not as big, probably, as the upcoming wedding of the royal prince to a commoner. CNN broadcast Donald Rumsfeld’s testimony to Congress and then repeated the highlights over and over, creating a numbing effect something like that of a tape loop in a video installation. CNN abstracted Rumsfeld, turning him into a jut-jawed automaton, endlessly insisting he could still do his job, still do his job.

In the States a partisan debate raged in the press over whether Rumsfeld should quit, be fired, or hang in there. A friend e-mailed me her letter to the Sun-Times canceling her subscription because that paper took Rumsfeld’s side. The Tribune stood by him too–failing to mention that until he became secretary of defense Rumsfeld sat on the Tribune Company’s board of directors.

A juicy tidbit like that loses its flavor halfway across the Atlantic. Europeans have their own issues. “Americans,” I exaggerated wildly to my friend Mariano, a journalist in Madrid, “think the Spaniards are cowards.” Mariano bristled. Al Qaeda bombed several Spanish commuter trains on March 11, killing almost 200 people, and three days later Spain voted out the government that had sent a thousand soldiers to Iraq. American columnists and cartoonists who’d snickered at France a year earlier had a field day with a nation turning tail.

Details never travel well. Spain’s tragic sense of life has been reinforced over the centuries by the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the loss of an empire. The “generation of ’98” holds talismanic status in Spanish history as the anguished cohort that saw Spain lose the last of its colonies to rough-and-ready America and hit rock bottom. Matters didn’t improve much in the 20th century, and as late as 1975 Franco’s courts sentenced five Basques convicted of terrorism to die by the garrote, a form of execution not too different from decapitation. After an international protest, they were shot to death instead.

Spaniards are still, and will always be, delightfully certain of their self-worth, and they like to think they’ve come a ways since Franco. Mariano explained to me that the civil war drilled into Spanish heads the lesson that war is not the answer, and that long before March 11 most Spaniards opposed sending troops to Iraq. Former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez wrote an essay in the Madrid daily El Pais last week arguing that Spain dodged a bullet. In the brief, chaotic interval between Spain’s massacre and its election, the ruling Popular Party spewed disinformation implicating the familiar Basque terrorist group ETA while denying mounting evidence that Muslim terrorists were actually responsible. Had the Spanish public been taken in and reelected the PP, Gonzalez observed, once the truth was clear Spain would have found itself in an “unimaginable” predicament–its government discredited but freshly returned to power.

Those were Spain’s details. Over in America, our journalists worried our own. They tried to locate the Abu Ghraib scandal, to weigh it against what Saddam Hussein used to do at the same prison and the beheading of Nicholas Berg and the cost of pulling out of Iraq, and to guess its effect on Bush’s reelection chances. The pundits remained stubborn: either invading Iraq remained the right thing to do or it had never been the right thing to do. Frank Rich wrote an interesting critique for last Sunday’s New York Times (it appeared the day before in the International Herald Tribune) noting Rumsfeld’s uncharacteristic failure at news management: “According to Rumsfeld’s own testimony to Congress, he was ‘surprised’ that lowly enlisted men could be ‘running around with digital cameras’ e-mailing grotesque snapshots all over the world.” Reading the American press, you wondered if it could possibly be true that Rumsfeld hadn’t seen those Abu Ghraib pictures until the day before he testified and had never read all the way through the Taguba report. You wondered if it would be worse for Bush if he fired him or kept him.

From Europe it was much easier to think about Abu Ghraib simply as tragedy. The Herald Tribune, which picks and chooses from its owner, the Times, ran an essay by novelist Luc Sante, who wrote that the “jaunty insouciance” of the Abu Ghraib guards reminded him of the “white people…laughing and pointing for the benefit of the camera” in old photos of American lynchings. Those pictures reminded the Spanish author Antonio Munoz Molina, writing in El Pais, of “young, strong, jolly” German soldiers having their way with naked Jews. “There are photos of German soldiers amusing themselves by yanking an old Jew by the nose or the beard, or racing them mounted like horses, or cramming sausages into their mouths, or making them sweep the street with toothbrushes.”

Foreign writers meditated. The Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman asked “Is torture ever justified?” in El Pais and, by way of getting to his answer that it is not, contemplated the proposition put to Alyosha Karamazov by his brother Ivan–would you allow one child to be tortured indefinitely if it guaranteed eternal happiness for all men? And French author Antoine Audouard concluded a gloomy piece carried by the Times and the Herald Tribune on the 50th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu by drawing a connection to Iraq:

“Can the echoes of the valley of Dien Bien Phu be heard in the streets of Falluja, at the prison of Abu Ghraib? Forty years ago, French friends of America tried to warn Washington about the pitfalls of Vietnam. The French themselves repeated their mistakes in Algeria.

“In Iraq every day even the best of intentions are cruelly put to test by the miseries and sorrows of war. As the promoters of a modern, ‘clean’ war would have it, torture, humiliation, rapes, the killing of innocents, useless destruction are now avoidable.

“But to go to war is to go to the bottom of the pit: What if those tragedies are not ‘collateral damage’ but war itself, the essence of war?”

The anniversary of Dien Bien Phu was barely noticed in America. What was that to us (except the gateway into the last war in which we lost our innocence)? We had Brown v. Board of Education to think about instead.

Toni Morrison, in Madrid promoting her latest book, showed up in El Pais condemning “the Iraq disaster, its prefabricated lies and their consequences.” But she’s one of us. And papers from Britain, which, as they say, also has a dog in this fight, were ready to rip Big Brother and their own government too. “The invasion of Iraq may well come to be seen as the apogee of the idea of the ‘moral virtue of the west,'” wrote Martin Jacques in the Guardian. “One year of occupation has already profoundly eroded that claim.” (A former editor of Marxism Today, Jacques had put Europe on notice two years ago that it was “sliding into a new abyss.”) Boris Johnson, a member of parliament who’d originally supported the war, took it back. His piece in the Daily Telegraph asked, “Is there not a time when we have to admit, in all intellectual honesty, that our positions have been overwhelmed by countervailing data? How on Earth can we now defend what seems–admittedly at some distance–to be a total bloody shambles?”

But the writing that caught my eye in Spain was oddly gentle. Writers in the enviable position of being able to say, “So sad you didn’t listen to us, but c’est la vie,” can hardly be anything but kind.

Now That’s What You Call Positive Spin

Here’s the voice of a paper strutting its stuff: “Since the drums first beat for war in Iraq the Mirror has led the way in reflecting the public’s unease,” London’s Daily Mirror boasted last Saturday. “We questioned every facet of the desire for war from the outset.”

How right we were, said the Mirror. And how pathetic that Colin Powell, “who testified before the UN to the existence of WMD, is still in power.” That “arch warmonger” Donald Rumsfeld “refuses to stand down.” That despite mounting pressure that the British government “should come clean,” Prime Minister Blair “refuses to apologise.”

The Mirror pledged, “We will continue to question and probe. Our readers would accept nothing less.”

You know what they say about the best defense? The front page of the Mirror admitted in the biggest and blackest imaginable type, “SORRY…WE WERE HOAXED.” The occasion for the Mirror’s fierce pronouncements was its admission that it had published fake photos of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners and the editor had been forced to resign.

Valerie Plame Won’t Think This Is Funny

From CNN’s Crossfire, May 14:

Paul Begala: “The CIA says there is a high probability that [Nicholas] Berg’s murderer was Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who’s been linked to Al Qaeda. Back in March, NBC News reported that on three separate occasions in 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration passed up chances to kill Zarqawi and destroy his camp in Iraq. NBC’s report stated–quote–‘Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam Hussein.’

“Zarqawi was operating in a part of Iraq that Saddam did not control but his mere presence in the country was used to justify Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And so Zarqawi was allowed to live. And now he has committed the most savage murder imaginable.”

Robert Novak: “You know, there are no sources cited in the NBC report, except former Clinton administration National Security Council officials. That looks to me like part of this massive attack to say that we fought the war well on terrorism and you guys didn’t. You know, Paul, as well as I do, it’s all politics.”

Begala: “That’s factually inaccurate, Bob. Let me read to you from the report. ‘Military officials insist.'”

Novak: “What are their names?”

Begala: “Jim Miklaszewski filed that report for NBC.”

Novak: “What are their names?”

Begala: “He covers the Pentagon. He’s a solid reporter, Bob. I believe Mr. Miklaszewski.”

Novak: “No names.”

It’s inspiring to see an old hand like Bob Novak reiterate the fundamental importance of naming sources.

News Bites

Carol Kleiman, author of the Tribune’s Worklife column, tells me Cheryl Reed is a “magnificent writer” and that she was happy to give Reed’s new book, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, a mention on May 3. “Reed wrote her book ‘to understand whether becoming a nun is a viable option for contemporary women…'” Kleiman said in Worklife. “Reed, a Chicago journalist, adds: ‘While I still question whether I, and most spiritual women I know, could live religious life as it’s currently interpreted, I am glad that such communities exist.'”

To be precise, Reed is a Sun-Times journalist. But she wasn’t, Kleiman tells me, when she was writing her book. Why not mention it anyway? “I didn’t even think about it.”

Came back from vacation and found copies of the May 6 RedEye and Red Streak lying on my desk. Noted the same cast-of-Friends photo blanketing the covers of both papers, the difference being Red Streak’s listless “GOODBYE” and RedEye’s sassier “So over.” Knew I was expected to say something pithy about this dull coincidence but had no idea what.

On September 12 I wrote a column on how Seventh Circuit appellate judge Richard Posner butted into a case involving a couple of Chicago journalists in order to deliver a landmark opinion that the legal protection known as reporter’s privilege doesn’t exist in federal courts. If you’d like to know more about the ways of this highly influential judge who doesn’t believe in knocking, I recommend Steve Bogira’s Courtside column this week.