American soldiers near Algiers in April 1944. via

Here’s a small homage to a category G. K. Chesterton and George Orwell popularized: the good bad book—basically, hokey but appealing. I propose classing certain other books as good good. They are both viscerally enjoyable and deeply serious, like an old-fashioned Sunday dinner with a roast and succotash and homemade wild blackberry pie and theological discussion, preliminary to a long, fierce, wily game of kick-the-can.

Alas, there don’t seem to be many books from recent decades that qualify, but I’ve made a few discoveries in recent years. One that my husband, Tom, cherishes in honor of his late father, a Navy officer in both World War II and the Korean War, is Rick Atkinson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning An Army at Dawn (Picador, 2002), about the Allied North Africa campaign in 1942 and 1943, beginning with the invasion named Operation Torch.

Atkinson’s is a truly winning account. He has a rare lust for the bare-naked truth with all of her cellulite, and he doesn’t care how much archival labor it takes to court her; most astonishingly, the courtship maintains an unbroken lyricism. The distinctly green hue of the American troops (some of them naively open poltroons, some with a gee-whiz enthusiasm for combat); our generals’ earnest bumbling in some cases and egomaniacal eccentricity in others; the patient contempt of British confederates, and our leadership’s slowness in accepting their good advice to invade Europe from the south first, through Italy, after the subjection of North Africa; the gratuitous, bloody resistance of the Vichy French; and everywhere the farce of new technology helpless under the boot of outdated logistics and tactics—whatever he’s writing about, Atkinson always picks the perfect politically incorrect fact (such as the V.D. infection rates according to American ethnic group) or the perfect tenacious image (such as troops bouncing to shore “like kangaroos” during a mechanically botched landing).

But when such books are about history, their greatest delight lies in their ability to suggest what people’s real preoccupations were and continue to be, beyond the clichés of that time and the present. Having fallen to sleep with the light on the night before and collapsed on open pages, mashing them into your pillow, you are now suddenly standing stock-still in the shower and muttering, “But we were always told that . . . ” Then you go back to the book, and then you go to the library—not the Internet, where points of view are marketed along with ads, and everything verges toward what we want to buy and believe.

What got me started this time was An Army at Dawn’s depiction of the Holocaust going forward in North Africa at the time of the invasion—speeding up, in fact:

After only 120 workers showed up [for a corvée], Axis troops rampaged through the streets and synagogues in various Jewish quarters [of Tunis], seizing hostages. A secret OSS assessment reported: “Equipped with tools and food by the Jewish community, 3,600 laborers were finally drafted.” Hundreds worked under Allied bombardment in Bizerte and at the Tunis airfield. . . .

[T]he Council of the Jewish Community was told that “as allies of the Anglo-Saxons,” Jews were expected to provide 20 million francs to cover bomb damage in Tunis. A rapacious Tunisian bank loaned the money at 8 percent interest. The Germans also began plundering Jewish gold, jewelry, and bank deposits.

All of that was over now. Atkinson narrates the Allied reconquest of Kairouan, another town in Tunisia:

Arabs stared impassively from shops in the labyrinthine souk, but French children handed sprays of pink mimosa to the liberators, and Jews wept with joy at being told they could remove their yellow stars. Tommies pinned the discarded stars to their own caps or handed out matches so the Jews could burn them.

It’s all extremely suggestive. My further research did tell me that the reaction of Muslim populations to German racial policies varied considerably: there was everything from heroic protection of Jews to cheerful spectatorship of their plight to active collaboration. But all of the books that didn’t sneer at Zionism in every other sentence acknowledge the role of broad, deep alienation of Muslims from Jews dating from the foundation of Islam in the seventh century. Even far from Palestine—where the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was a notorious ally of Hitler and, given more time, would have helped in a by-the-book extermination of recent Jewish refugees from Europe, earlier Zionist settlers, and original Jewish inhabitants alike—anti-Semitism was the norm.

This ethnic and religious hatred was much strengthened by envy of Jewish economic, cultural, and professional achievements, in the face of stark underdevelopment in Muslim communities, and so local attitudes were easy for the Nazis—whether they were outright occupiers or in control at one remove, as in the colonies ruled from Vichy—to manipulate. Both Muslim leaders and ordinary people tended to be happy with accommodations such as doubled wages, which must have contributed to their incautious lack of curiosity about the status in which Nazi “science” placed all Semites, including Arabs, and about the long-term future Hitler planned for subjugated races. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a sentiment sometimes openly voiced, prevailed in Muslim countries.

Before I read Atkinson, America’s scale-tipping role in the frustration of widespread Muslim hopes for a Jewish Holocaust didn’t occur to me when I thought about anti-Americanism prevailing across North Africa and the Middle East, with funding and propaganda from these regions pulsing through much of the Muslim world. (Our pundits delight in citing—often with made-up statistics—“moderate Islam” as the overwhelming norm that will inevitably win out, if only we ourselves stay open. This represents a fantasy, but how can anyone say otherwise and “take away people’s hope”?) Whatever else is wrong with our critical foreign relations, we are being blamed for the continued existence of Jews, whom we helped save within living memory.

Ineradicable ethnic, national, or religious hatred is fascism, the cause against which our country fought the Second World War. We don’t usefully elide the fact that in gaining that victory, we strengthened other fascist sentiments, in a different quarter but directed at the same main objects, and now directed at ourselves, too, as those objects’ protectors.

This should be the first and last consideration of our African and Middle Eastern policy, blocking us from our dearest blind alleys and our favorite obsessive-compulsive gambits. The thing about fascism is that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to break it down in its adherents’ minds; the wounds to identity are too deep and too central. It was unbearable to the Germans that they were proven by World War I to be a second-rate military and industrial power and the loyal dupes of a reckless leadership; there had to be a conspiracy—the famous Dolchstoss, or diplomatic betrayal of the winning army—and some group had to be behind that conspiracy. It has not been bearable to Muslims, with their claims to true religion and their past cultural, scientific, and military achievements, to find themselves on the margins of the modern world: politically and socially repressed, educationally deprived, economically stunted—with recent significant windfalls doing little for their worldwide reputation but creating images of playboy high living and architectural buffoonery.

One thing that must have pointed this up quite painfully was the shock of contact between Americans—who hadn’t been invaders in North Africa since they put down Barbary piracy in 1815—and the local populations in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia during World War II. (The British victory at El Alamein had already largely secured Egypt and the Middle East against the Nazis). These locals stole everything they could carry, destroying things of which they could carry only pieces; they stripped corpses even of their socks and underwear; they robbed graves. They might kill in response to any friendliness toward their women. They could earn the pity of a Yankee yokel for having no “bringing up”—and provided corroborating evidence in the form of filthy, untended children on view from the roads.

Americans, no strangers to ethnic and cultural clashes, had probably never had one on a large scale that was as bad as this. Their unmitigated scorn (Atkinson records some of their complaints and epithets—whew!) would have helped motivate—though of course it didn’t excuse—some crimes on their own part, such as the use of randomly spotted Arabs for target practice, sometimes resulting in casual murders.

It was a very bad scene, though more resented, of course, by the locals. It was their land being devastated, their collateral damage in the cause of frustrating perhaps their most powerful dream: of having the acutely embarrassing Jews out of the way for good and all, but not having to effect this removal themselves. On top of it all, they were treated as disgustingly hampering this self-evidently necessary reversal. They must remember, though we usually don’t. We tend not even to be aware of veteran Great-Uncle Bill’s impressions, as he’s probably ashamed to talk about them in the context of a war against fascism, and if not, we are ashamed to listen. In the same regions and all through the Middle East too, the British must have had similar experiences, and set off—and forgotten—somewhat similar reactions, though a long history of colonialism had probably taken the edge off long before.

For the existentially humiliated, someone else must be to blame, ideally the one who blocks the infantile fantasy of triumph and vindication. For Hitler and those like him, the educated Jew with his international viewpoint, who could refute them, explain what had in fact gone wrong in recent years, and make them look like fools, was in the way. (In Mein Kampf, the archetypal winner of such a debate takes on diabolical features and is an important bogeyman of anti-Semitism everywhere: the clever, cynical Jew.) Europeans and Jews have for centuries been in the way of Muslim self-esteem, but the Americans in North Africa were most conspicuously in the way of a “solution” that seemed just about to happen.

Fascism preys on the conscience of its opponents, their willingness to own up to self-interest and pragmatism, to make good their past wrongdoing, and to negotiate and compromise, often accepting an outsize share of responsibility. But none of this does any good. The fascist accepts concessions, and even outright handouts, with the truculence of a twenty-pound housecat. Only this? Only now? Well, I guess it’s an immediate reason for you to exist—but it’s nothing else. This was famously learned in the run-up to World War II, when everything from the payment of World War I reparations to the sovereignty of Germany’s neighbors came onto the table, only to be pocketed with a smirk.

The lesson is, sadly, not operative now in our dealings with the Muslim world. This has proven so even during the Arab Spring, which should tell us unmistakably that there is nothing we can do, or refrain from doing, to be reconciled with those who loathe us. We are accused, with complete justice, of the Crusades, and, with some justice, of cooperating in the awkward and dangerous redrawing of borders by European colonial powers, and of supporting tyrants amenable to our interests, and of recent, hamhanded military interventions, and of not holding Israel to a high enough standard on human rights—but none of these is the real issue. Otherwise, say, our comically patient, comically ganged-up-on efforts in Egypt would get us somewhere, whereas in reality any action on our part will cause us to be depicted as stooges of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood both. Yet any inaction will bring accusations that we are reneging on our enormous moral debts and in that way delivering the nation to destruction by wicked Zionists. The conspiracy industry runs on an inexhaustible hatred.

We for our part are quite docile in looking the other way, ignoring apocalyptically vicious Nazi envy even when the mask occasionally falls. When I lived in South Africa, I could not persuade the staff of the Quaker Peace Center to forego a junket to the 2001 Durban Racism Conference, which clearly was going to include a festival of genocide-minded anti-Semitism; nor would they later admit that their acquiescent attendance had been a bad idea. More recently, the liberal democracies allow themselves to be bamboozled by Muslim “Holocaust denial” (usually set out in a bully’s terms as “You make such a big deal of it! It wasn’t so bad!”), so that we treat Holocaust acknowledgment as a victory. The real problem, as abundantly documented, is anger at the Holocaust’s failure.

My father used to tell of a high school classmate in southwestern Ohio who was so excited to be riding his new motorcycle, and so fixated on the concept of motorcycle, that when he saw two headlights coming towards him in the dark, he assumed two motorcycles were approaching side by side and he could pass between them. Maybe he thought he would shout or wave happily to his fellow riders during this stunt, I don’t know, but it didn’t turn out that way.

This describes our foreign policy regarding the Muslim world. Our internal conflicts have been quite an easy ride, generally proving tractable relative to those of the past and of other parts of the world, and therefore satisfying to contemplate: Puritan and Quaker, Colonial and Royalist, North and South, native and immigrant, populist and elitist, black and white—pray God that the Republican and Democratic clash will turn out the same, but aren’t we in truth pretty confident it will? We’ve had our problems, occasionally terrible ones, but we’ve always muddled along and often drawn insight and dynamism from our differences. We deeply feel that these stories of our own must be edifying as we look ahead into the new century, use our power in the cause of peace, confront the challenges of a globalized world, and fulfill all the other aspirations that—it’s kind of disturbing when you think about it—are expressed as such gummy and flavorless pablum.

But from a vital piece of history that’s not commonly taught emerges a truth at war with our primordial optimism: Muslim regimes loathe us, centrally, for having done something self-preserving and altruistic at the same time—helping win World War II. What do we imagine we could do to mitigate their loathing?

Here’s one modest suggestion. Maybe certain careful negotiations, cooperation, and collaboration with Muslim countries may really appear to be in the national interest; and maybe some initiatives will work out in practice. But to see the goal as a moral one, justifying ourselves, demonstrating how nice we are, not stopping until we placate resentment, would mean setting off on a genuine fool’s errand. Unfortunately, many of us are already on that road.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 7, on page 30
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