By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Janusz Guttner
This is a firsthand historical account of the German occupation of Poland during WWII. Jan Karski became a leader in the Polish underground during the war. He escaped Nazi arrest and torture, and became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1954. In addition to playing a role in the Polish underground, Karski was an early informant to the world on the Holocaust. After graduating with a PhD from Georgetown University, he remained in the United States to become a teaching professor of East European affairs at Georgetown.
Without intending to diminish the brutality of Germany’s occupation of Poland in WWII, Karski offers an education to every government that thinks they have the power to occupy a foreign country. In most respects, World War II is not the same as the war presently dominating attention of American government in the Middle East. However, in “Story of a Secret State”, Karski figuratively lives the life of a Middle Easterner that believes outsiders are occupying the Middle East.
Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and similar Middle Eastern factions have created their own “…Secret State”. Just as Karski and Poland’s underground created a shadow government to fight German occupation, the Middle East has created a secret organization to fight outside influence.
What Karski shows is that Poland survived German occupation. Surprisingly little is said about Russian occupation of Poland, but Poland also survived the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. In that historical affirmation, Karski’s story of Poland’s “…Secret State” teaches all countries something about non-Arab country interference in the Middle East.
Karski’s story tells the world that “boots on the ground” in the Middle East is folly for any non-Middle Eastern organization, including the United Nations. Like Poland’s “…Secret State” during WWII, the Middle East must have a government controlled by its indigenous population. Governments reap what they sow but they are a reflection of the people who they govern.
Only a Syrian understands what it means to be Syrian. Only an Iranian knows what it means to live in Iran. Any physical incursion by an outside country infers occupation; particularly when the country has hegemonic power like the American military. What Karski shows in “Story of a Secret State” is that power is not enough to change a country in the long-term. Change will only come from within and over time.
It is not to say that a “hearts and minds” effort by the American government in Iraq and Afghanistan is wrong but “boots on the ground” interfere with the message and doom the effort. The best outsiders can do in other countries is to lead by example, and reinforce “hearts and minds”’ influence without placing “boots on the ground”.
In defense of one’s own country, unilateral action is always justified. If America is threatened by actions in another country; e.g. use of nuclear or biological weapons that could reach the United States, than defense, by any means necessary, is justified.
The question one asks oneself is what an outside country should do when ethnic cleansing is occurring in another country? Or, what an outside country should do when biological or nuclear weapons are used by a state government to kill an indigenous population? The answer is to act but not occupy. To President Trump’s credit, response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons is justified without the stigma of “boots on the ground”.
The successful example is American and allied forces’ attack on Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. The first Bush President gathered world governments, including Middle Eastern leaders, into a consensus for action. Action is clearly defined–removal of Hussein armies from Kuwait. Upon success, the United States and its allies withdrew. Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice, though morally justified, was beyond the consensus of allies. Bush and American government allies correctly removed their forces.
Occupation, as history and Karski’s story confirm, is a bridge too far and is destined to fail. An acceptable “boots on the ground” option is defined by national and international consensus with definitive agreement on action, duration of engagement, and objective to be achieved. If consensus is impossible, then “boots on the ground”‘ action is not justified. A different course of action is to be politically pursued.
Karski’s book is paean to Poland with heart-rending descriptions of the Holocaust in 1942. It sends the message that power ultimately resides in an indigenous population–ignorance of that truth leads to realpolitik’ mistakes.