Understanding the Vichy Republicans

petain

Yesterday, I wrote that McConnell’s pre-emptive surrender on the Planned Parenthood defunding fight in order to maintain peace with the Democrats made him equivalent to a modern day Neville Chamberlain. With the news that McConnell is actively engaging Democrats in a joint effort to defeat the defunding fight and avoid the showdown, it is apparent that the more apt historical parallel is actually Philippe Pétain, leader of Vichy France in World War II. It’s helpful to understand why [mc_name name=’Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000355′ ] is the way he is and why he must be replaced as leader of the Republicans.

Perhaps no historical figure experienced a more total and complete fall from grace than Pétain. Pétain was perhaps the single most important French hero in the victory over the Germans in World War I. His steady leadership at the pivotal battle of Verdun and his calm hand in quelling the French army mutinies in 1917 were probably the single most important factors in the ultimate Entente victory over the Germans. In France, Pétain became a hero and celebrity akin to that of Eisenhower in post-World War II America, and like Eisenhower, his fame caused him to rise politically in France until the fateful eve of the German invasion in World War II.

Many of the things that made Pétain such a valuable and uniquely suited figure to the troop morale challenges of World War I made him a uniquely susceptible to the siren call of Nazi collaboration in World War II.

It is difficult to even come to terms with the scale of the slaughter that Pétain personally oversaw at Verdun. Much has been (rightfully) made of the bloodiness of the American Civil War, which saw approximately 600,000 soldiers fall over the course of a four-year campaign that stretched across a fairly large swath of America. Over a period of about ten months and in a space of a couple square miles at Verdun, a total of around 300,000 met their end in perhaps the bloodiest single battle in all of military history.

Pétain faced the unenviable task of asking – nay, requiring – over a hundred thousand men to throw themselves over the top of trenches into the maw of a mechanized death machine in a seemingly fruitless battle for territory that was meaningful only for the hastily dug holes in the earth the miserable men had put there. Pétain salvaged a seemingly hopeless situation at Verdun – and again in facing down the Mutinies of 1917 – through essentially humanitarian instincts – by ensuring that units were rapidly rotated in and out of the highest combat areas and that soldiers were given regular leave and improved conditions.

It’s easy to understand, in retrospect, how a man such as Pétain became what he ultimately became, as he gazed out day after day over the horror of the World War I battlefield. People who are unfamiliar with the history of World War I tend to treat the Germans under the Kaiser as roughly equivalent to the Germans under Hitler, at least from a moral standpoint.

The reality, of course, is that this was far from the truth. Definitely the Boches were probably less classically liberal and committed to democracy than the French and British they fought on the Western Front, but the fight against Prussian hegemony was not obviously a fight against immoral totalitarianism, as the fight against the Nazis was. World War I was much more a territorial dispute than a moral one – and one can well imagine Pétain staring out over the carnage day after day and becoming firmly convinced that the cost of human life he witnessed day after day was not worth the right of the French government to claim this territory, as opposed to the German one.

And as the glory of victory waned but the horror that pricked his heart at the treatment of his troops remained in the aftermath of Versailles, it’s easy to see that Pétain made two major mistakes when conflict with the Germans again became inevitable after the rise of Hitler. The first is that it seems that he did – or at least must have – mistakenly assumed that the enemy that knocked on France’s door in 1940 was the same as the enemy that knocked on their door in 1914 – less desirable than self rule, definitely, but not monstrous enough that it was worth the lives of several million French soldiers to resist them to the teeth. The second, and more important, is that he likely came to view that the lives of French soldiers were worth more than any mission they might be sacrificed in favor of.

And so Pétain found himself at the head of Vichy France, puppeting a collaborating government that ultimately participated right along with the Nazis in some of the worst atrocities of the war. And in Pétain’s personal writings and in his insistence in returning to France to face trial after the war, you can see a stubborn man who, for whatever his faults, believed to the very end that going along with the Nazis was the right thing for France, and for her soldiers in particular – a belief he would carry even after being convicted for treason, exiled, and hated by his countrymen after the war.

It’s easy to think that Mitch McConnell and [mc_name name=’Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001056′ ] are just evil or weak people, and perhaps there is some truth to that. But I think that ignores the conditions that led them to the place that they have come to the point where collaborating with the Democrats in order to save the government from shutdown over the butchers at Planned Parenthood makes sense. I think quite frankly that they have made the same mistakes that Pétain was guilty of.

The first is that they have underestimated the depravity of their enemy. The Democrats of 2015 are a different breed  from the Democrats of 1985 or even 1995, and what they want for the country is radically different and more dangerous. Working with them on reasonable compromises that are good for the country is no longer a viable option, but McConnell apparently doesn’t realize it.

Second, McConnell has come to view the preservation of literally all his troops as more important than any mission he might send them to, and thus he refuses to send them on any mission that involves any danger at all. This kind of shellshock is a fatal flaw in a leader and ensures total and repeated capitulation on every fight that the enemy might possibly force.

I don’t think Mitch McConnell started out his life or his career as a Senator wanting to make deals with Democrats to make sure Planned Parenthood kept getting tax dollars. But his fears have got the better of him and as long as he occupies the position he occupies, the GOP Senate will never fight but only run, and run away faster, and eventually it will actively work with Democrats in a futile attempt to avoid losing seats to them.

They’re the Vichy Republicans now. And until we get rid of them, we can’t organize a fight against the real enemy ourselves.