Be glad that symbolism is important. Be glad up to a point. Then quit! Symbolism can ennoble. Symbolism can also kill.
Did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941 to destroy the “symbolism” of this new American world power? I don’t think so. I was the twerpiest of all possible pre-juvenile nerds at the time of that attack – maps, books, I followed every arcane radio panel show – and I’d never heard of Pearl Harbor. It was the destruction of America’s Pacific fleet and the slaughter of 3,000 of our fighting men that the Japanese were after, not the “symbolism” of our enfabled Pearl Harbor.
What about 9/11? I’d say that’s a tie. Certainly, to a hater of American capitalism, 9/11 carried a symbolic payload of some importance. But, again, it was the obliteration of a popular landmark and, again, 3,000 American victims that was the jihadists’ big incentive, not the fact that big businesses were located at the World Trade Center. You doubt me? How many American companies can you name that were headquartered there?
Stalingrad? Now we’re talking. Hitler’s Sixth Army had a clear shot to head south from their position deep inside the Soviet Union and grab the rich oil fields of the Caucasus Mountains. But no. Such logic was not to prevail. Guess who Stalingrad was named after? And guess who Hitler considered his No. 1 enemy! Surely, Hitler figured, there could be no greater way to master this moment than to swing north and conquer the city named after the ruler of the Soviet Union.
That one mistake alone could have cost Hitler the war. Hitler’s entire Sixth Army was eliminated.
Now it’s America’s turn to be up-ended by symbolism.
I remember it well. During our last few Saturdays in the Army, you could feel the relaxation taking over. A truce had put an end to the fighting in Korea, and instead of spit-polish-drill-and-kill we just lollygagged in the shade and talked about what we intended to do in civilian life. One guy said he was going to open up a foreign-car dealership, which we all found quaint. American cars led the world. At that time foreign cars were considered toys, some of them interesting, but all of them toys. No, the post-war world looked rather set. America would lead the world in economics and the fight for freedom. The Soviet Union would lead the world in trouble-making. France would lead the world in sex. Germany would lead the world in guilt. And Detroit would lead the world in cars. I actually took the foreign-car guy’s name. I didn’t want to own a foreign car, but I did want to sit in one and see what it was like.
Was the German surrender at Stalingrad the end for Nazi Germany? Yes and no. The biggest tank battle in history between the Germans and the Soviets broke out less than a year later at Kursk. But everybody knew it was all over for Hitler after Stalingrad.
Does the collapse of Detroit foreshadow the end of America as-we-know-it? I dare you to ask a more important question. And the answer is, it depends. It depends how America takes it. If your fiancée has a spat with you, it can seem like the end. If she hauls off and dates another man, that can make it seem all the more like the end. If she hauled off and married that other, that is the end, of something, all right, but what? If you throw yourself on the floor and declare your meaningful life over, then down, down, down you go. If you go outside and moan, “Motown, the Reuther Brothers, best cars on earth, highest per-capita income; where did it all go? Woe is we!” that’ll help take you down.
If, on the other hand, you get up and gear up and use Detroit to quickly impose sanity into the sweetheart pensions that should never have been allowed in the first place, and build financial firewalls around other big cities, using Detroit as a threat, then it need not be the end of a good “love life” or a lovely life.
The most famous Marine general during the Korean War was Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, who yelled to his troops something that made onlookers think he’d been sipping a little Fortitude Punch (the USMC’s traditional rum cocktail that’s as legendary as Chesty himself).
“They’ve got us surrounded, Men,” shouted Puller. “Don’t let any of them get away!”
Is there anything left in that punchbowl?