The tanks of August

Most people born before 1950 remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news on August 13, 1961, that the Russians and East Germans were building a wall in the heart of Berlin. Similarly, most people born before 1957 or so remember their personal circumstances on August 22, 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to snuff out the Prague Spring. That’s in addition to the November 1956 crushing of the Hungarian uprising and assorted interventions on various scales in East Germany and Poland, during the years when Eastern Europe was part of the Soviet empire.

In fact, pretty much anyone born before 1970 remembers hearing, seeing and reading about Russian tank columns rolling into somewhere or other, whether in August or some other month. Clear-headed folk over a hundred years old might even remember the mega-August of 1914, when all the Great Powers of Europe invaded each other. But that’s all history. Since the last major invasion of the Soviet era — of Afghanistan in December 1979, which turned out to be rather ill-fated — the USSR has crumbled and disappeared, to be replaced by a supposedly new and democratic Russia. Mind you, the (mostly late and/or displaced) inhabitants of Chechnya might not be entirely convinced that the tanks have been beaten into tractors — but then nobody in the West really cared very much what they thought.

This background helps explain why the war in Georgia has had such a disparate impact on different types of people: a) for the older generation, who so vividly remember the Cold War highlights noted above, there has been an extraordinary sensation of déjà vu; b) for many people of all ages, but especially younger ones who signed on to the post-Cold War triumphalist dogma about the inexorable global move toward democracy, the rule of law and market economics, the entire crisis and war makes no sense – hence the tendency to put the primary blame on the adventurous and hot-headed Georgians; c) for most people across the world, the war is simply a tiresome distraction from the main current event in their media-driven, celeb-oriented existence, namely the grand circus of the Beijing Olympics and the dozens of human interest stories generated by, from and around it. The blanket coverage of Phelps and lesser humans leaves them very little time for geo-politics, and no patience at all for a war in some neglected backwater of the globe. And those not glued to the TV are sunning themselves on the beach because, after all, it’s August…

Anyway, people might well ask themselves, how serious can the whole thing be if the leader of the Free World continued cavorting with American swimmers and gymnasts in Beijing, only finding something substantive to say about Georgia four days into the crisis. By that time, Vladimir Putin – the man into whose eyes the oafish George Bush famously claimed to have looked and got “a sense of his soul,” of a man “very straightforward and trustworthy” – had returned from Beijing to Moscow to take direct control of events and continue running rings round his hapless American counterpart and the impotent European Union.

It will take a long time for the full impact to sink in and for policy to change. But change it must, so change it will – because the Russians must once again be contained, at least until the price of oil sinks low enough to end their phoney boom and, ideally, until their demographic implosion terminates their status as a Great Power. People will have to get used to the idea that the world is not going to be a friendly and pleasant place over the next few years, even if they had deludedly thought it was going to be.

But for Americans, from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, there should really have been nothing surprising about the last week’s events. ‘Marching through Georgia’ was a hit song composed in 1865, to celebrate General William Tecumseh Sherman’s extraordinary Savannah Campaign of late 1864 – known to history as ‘the March to the Sea’ and characterised by state-sanctioned ruthlessness and brutality toward the indigenous population of (Confederate) Georgia. Wikipedia’s take on it describes how ‘Sherman therefore applied the principles of scorched earth, ordering his troops to burn crops, kill livestock, consume supplies, and destroy civilian infrastructure along their path. This policy is often considered a component strategy of total war.’ Putin may not have seen Gone With the Wind but, having read War and Peace, he certainly knows a thing or two about scorched earth – one of the more notable inventions of Tsarist Russia, adopted and refined by the Yankees.

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