Laptop Bombardiers, circa 1942

The Kosovo war in 1999 gave us the term “laptop bombardiers,” used for those journalists and intellectuals who, safely ensconced in their Manhattan and Georgetown apartments, called relentlessly for more and heavier ordinance to be dropped upon the hapless Serbs. The laptop bombardier flourished during the Afghanistan and Iraq adventures of George W. Bush, as battle-hardened warriors like Jonah Goldberg, David Frum, and Victor Davis Hansen filled the blogosphere with their calls for more — more bombs, more drones, more troops — and no quarter, no negotiation, no understanding, no compromise.

I was recently reading the introduction to the 1995 Penguin Classics edition of John Steinbeck’s classic antiwar book The Moon is Down, written as Allied propaganda in 1942, and was surprised to read that Steinbeck was attacked by the laptop bombardiers of his day, men like Clifton Fadiman and James Thurber. They thought he was soft on the Germans:

Steinbeck’s method was far subtler than that of the overcooked rant customarily served up in this country at the time. . . . Steinbeck refused to adopt the contemporary Teutonic stereotypes. There are no heel-clocking Huns, no depraved, monocled intellectuals, no thundering seig heils in his fable-like tale. Instead, Steinbeck depicts his putative Germans as human beings with normal feelings. They offer the citizens of the conquered country justifications for their invasion. They plead for understanding. They miss their families. They want their victims to accept them. Yet nothing can disguise their theft of freedom, and eventually the local patriots’ desire to regain it impels them to resist. The militarily superior invaders retailate, but the impression remains that ulimately the patriots will prevail because a society of free individuals is stronger in the long run than a totalitarian power dependent on herd men. In the mayor’s words, “It is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.”

Steinbeck’s affirmative, toned-down approach to propaganda in The Moon is Down touched off the fiercest literary battle of the Second World War. Many critics liked the novel, but some did not, and their number included such formidable names as Clifton Fadiman and James Thurber. In effect, the detractors accused Steinbeck of naivete. The creator of the savvy, muscular realism of The Grapes of Wrath was now being soft on the Nazis by depicting them as human beings.

Steinbeck’s response, written ten years later, is instructive:

I had written of Germans as men, not supermen, and this was considered a very weak attitude to take. I couldn’t make much sense out of this, and it seems absurd now that we know the Germans were men, and thus fallible, even defeatable. It was said that I didn’t know anything about war, and this was perfectly true, though how Park Avenue commandos found me out I can’t conceive.

Park Avenue commandos. . . . What a great term! One can only imagine the reaction were a novelist to write this way today about, say, Iranians.

Peter G. Klein is a Research Fellow, Associate Editor of The Independent Review, and Member of the Board of Advisors of the Center on Culture and Civil Society at the Independent Institute.
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