Given Henry Kissinger’s much publicized effort to get President Bush to read Alistair Horne’s account of the French occupation of Algeria, A Savage War of Peace, here’s hoping a venturesome handler can sneak John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down onto the presidential reading list.
Set during World War II, the book chronicles the blitzkrieg invasion and subsequent occupation of a small Scandinavian town by an “efficient” (read: German) foreign power. Though easily overwhelmed militarily and initially docile under their new rulers, the peaceful townspeople grow weary of their occupiers and eventually launch a violent insurgency.
Working for the Office of Coordinator of Information, a precursor to the CIA, Steinbeck originally wrote The Moon Is Down as a piece of antifascist propaganda for the Allied war effort. But with the shadow of Iraq looming over the public psyche, a work intended to arouse the democratic passions of Nazi-occupied Europe now reads like a textbook on the terrifying psychology of occupation — no matter the parties or the justifications.
“Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone among silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard for even a moment. If he did, he disappeared . . .
“The men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered, and they were curt with the people and the people were curt with them, and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerers, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax or go home, a fear that one day they would crack and be hunted through the mountains like rabbits, for the conquered never relaxed their hatred.”
Though many would reject the comparison of Nazi conquest to American efforts in Iraq on principle, Steinbeck’s compassion and subtle prose make the connection palpable. His occupiers aren’t merciless Nazi supermen — they are pointedly human, with all the fears, dreams and anxieties that accompany mortality. And while the long-term political aspirations of the respective German and American efforts may differ drastically, their immediate task is the same — to subdue and control a population that doesn’t wish to be controlled.
Like white blood cells attacking a virus, the townspeople’s struggle against their aggressor isn’t personal — it’s biological in nature. While plotting insurrectionist strategy, Steinbeck’s gentle town doctor notes, “It’s funny for a doctor to think of destruction, but I think all invaded people want to resist.”
Steinbeck sees revolt in the simplest of gestures: combed hair that refuses to stay in place; starving dogs that howl all night when they should just curl up and die. He envisioned this revolt as a testament to the irrepressible nature of democracy — his notion of the ultimate model of human freedom. But current events give the book a different message — the fundamental human need for self-determination, without regard to political model.
As 20,000 new American troops are readied for deployment to Iraq, The Moon Is Down ought to be essential reading for any politician who thinks a troop surge is what it will take to “pacify” Baghdad. Our political leaders, and the military men and women they represent, should think hard about Steinbeck’s most devastating metaphor — “Flies conquering flypaper. Flies conquering 200 miles of new flypaper.”
THE MOON IS DOWN | By JOHN STEINBECK | Penguin Modern Classics | 144 pages | $17 softcover