Spicer, Hitler, and sarin

Note the chyron.
Note the chyron.


Insensitive. Incoherent. Blundering. Tone deaf. Morally incomprehensible. Historically illiterate.

All of these are ways we can describe White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments Tuesday in which he declared Syrian Pres. Bashar Assad actions worse than Hitler since:

You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.

s604x0_HitlerwarnSpicer has been pilloried, and rightly so, for apparently forgetting that Hitler was more than happy to use chemical weapons, just to exterminate concentrate camp (which Spicer stumblingly referred to as “Holocaust centers”) inmates in the millions.

But here’s another inconvenient historical truth that Spicer clearly didn’t know but that deserves highlighting: Sarin gas, the nerve agent dropped by Assad’s forces on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province, was first developed in 1938 by German scientists working for the chemical giant IG Farben.

As historian Richard Evans notes in the final volume of his magisterial trilogy on the rise and ultimate defeat of the Third Reich, the compound was named in honor of its discoverers: Schrader, Ambros, Ritter, and von der Linde. In mid-1939 the formula for sarin was turned over to the chemical warfare section of the Wehrmacht’s weapons office, which ordered mass production for wartime use.

While it is true that Hitler never ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Allies on the Western Front (chemical agents, though not nerve gas, was used in several battles against Soviet forces on the Eastern Front), sarin and other nerve gases were manufactured at factories which used concentration camp prisoners as slave laborers. Prisoners were also used to test the effectiveness of the agents.

Otto Ambros, one of the developers of sarin, went on to become the Nazis’ chief chemical weapons expert. He was convicted at the Nuremberg tribunals for experimenting on concentration camp inmates and overseeing one of the factories at the Auschwitz complex.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison. After his release from prison in 1952 he worked as a consultant for several American chemical companies, including R.W. Grace and Dow Chemical.

Oh yeah. He also consulted for the U.S. Army Chemical Corps.

The War Prayer

US cruise missiles launched against Syria/DoD photo
US cruise missiles launched against Syria/DoD photo


By Mark Twain¹:

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!

Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation:

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think. “God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard the words ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

¹Twain wrote this prose poem in 1905, it is believed in response to the Spanish-Amerian war and the counterinsurgency war waged by the United States in the Philippines. But it remained unpublished until 1923, thirteen years after Twain’s death.

Signals matter

Victim of Syrian gas attack/Hindustan Times photo
Victim of Syrian gas attack/Hindustan Times photo


On Tuesday the Syrian government gassed its own citizens, dropping nerve agent on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province. The death toll is still being figured, but dozens, including many children, are among the casualties.

Four days earlier, on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this, in response to a question as to whether the Trump administration considered Bashar Assad the legitimate president of Syria:

Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.

When pressed about what the Trump administration sees as the endgame for Assad in Syria, and reminded that Assad is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Spicer had this to say:

 I think we believe there’s a need to deescalate violence and to have a political process through which Syrians will decide their own political future consistent with the principles that have been enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.  But there’s a bit of — as I mentioned just a second ago, there’s a bit of reality on the ground in terms of what the options are.

The day before, on Thursday, discussing Trump administration policy toward Syria, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters:

You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.

Fast forward to yesterday and the horrific images of dead children and crippled survivors gasping feebly for breath, all the victims of the Assad regime’s brutality.

In response, the President Trump blamed … Barack Obama.

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

It’s true. In 2012 President Obama threatened a US military response to any use of chemical weapons by Syria. Assad called his bluff and Obama backed down. Of course in 2013 Trump himself said that was the right call.

To claim five years later that Obama’s failure in 2012 is why Assad dropped nerve agent on his own people yesterday, is simply absurd.

Far more likely is Assad’s calculation, based on the Trump administration’s own statements, that the United States will turn a blind eye to whatever new atrocity the Syrian regime decides to unleash in order to cling to power.  To no one’s surprise, Trump’s statement makes no mention of any new action in response to the chemical weapons attack.

Obama may have drawn a red line, but the Trump administration gave the green light. As I wrote back in December, Bashar Assad had high hopes for the incoming Trump administration, telling an interviewer from Syrian state television, “I believe that he will be our natural ally.” Looks like those hopes were well placed.

Why I blog


N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2It seems to me that I’ve never actually explained why I write this blog, nor how I see this kind of writing fitting into what I do in my professional life as a teacher and academic researcher.  (I was going to say scholar, but that seemed way too pretentious.)

I started this thing a little more than two years ago as I was leaving to spend part of my sabbatical in Northern Ireland doing field research on the maintenance and stability of the peace process there. I had always kept two written journals on prior trips to Belfast, one work-related, the other more personal reflections on my trips, but since I was going to be away for an extended period I wanted be able to share some of what I was doing with family and friends back home.

I also knew that I wanted to get into the habit of thinking and writing more systematically about what I was learning on my research trip. There was much that I was experiencing and encountering that I knew would never make it into a research article but which was having a profound impact on my own understanding of the fragile state of affairs in Northern Ireland and its prospects for the future. I wanted to write about those things as a way to process and work through the ideas and insights as they were coming to me.

This short piece, which I wrote after spending a day in South Armagh with a well-known Loyalist activist, is a good example of what I mean. This one too, which I posted after I interviewed a long-time Republican activist who has spent years working in West Belfast on community restorative justice initiatives.

When I got back home from that trip I kept writing, first on Northern Ireland, and then on a steadily expanding set of topics related but not limited to my areas of expertise in international relations, terrorism and political violence, and foreign policy. Like a lot of others, I got deeply distracted by the 2016 presidential campaign, and the early days of the Trump presidency have been no better.

SAGE Publishing, which sponsors the blogging award that I received in February at the 2017 annual meeting of the International Studies Association, asked me and the other award winners to share our thoughts on blogging and the benefits of blogging for ourselves but also for the wider field and its ability to have an impact beyond our traditional forms of academic publishing and professional engagement.

Below are my comments. You can read what the others’ had to say by clicking here.

Peter F. Trumbore, winner of the Best Blog (Individual) in International StudiesPeter Trumbore

I think there’s a lot to be said for social media as a platform for discussion, certainly, though not so much for debate. Spend any time in the comments section of a well-read and widely circulated blog and you’ll see little that passes for quality debate. I frankly get better interaction with the stuff that I post at my blog through people’s responses on platforms like Facebook and Twitter where I link my posts.

This is tied into the second question you pose: what do these outlets offer in extension to traditional academic publishing? The answer to that is easy. We reach a far larger, and more diverse, audience through blogs and social media.

I see my blog as more an extension of my teaching than anything else, and that in large measure is a consequence of my audience. My readers (based on subscribers, and who I can see interacting with the posts on social media) are primarily regular folks rather than fellow academics or people in the policy world. For me, then, posts are primarily about bringing my training and the insights I’ve developed through 20 years of research and teaching on international relations, to comment on, explain, sometimes entertain, but hopefully enlighten my audience about what’s going on in the world around them and why it matters.

So for me, blogging is not about sharing my own narrow and specialized research to other specialists, but rather my broader expertise to a wider community.