Monday, September 2, 2013

"The League" by Bill Mills (2013)

Given enough time; and the opportunity; history will always repeat itself. It may not happen in your lifetime, but through the ages it always has, and we humans seem to learn nothing from it. That may be the most important message in this book, if the author intended there to be one. As Harry Truman used to say, “The only thing new is the history you don’t know.”

As the United States went to war in 1917, a civilian “army” of volunteers; numbering about a quarter of a million people, at a time when our population was just about 100 million in total; went to work spying on one another under the guise of “protecting the home front”. The unintended consequences of this well intentioned action played out across the nation as the American Protective League infiltrated Unions, busted up strikes, and generally intimidated anyone with an opinion against the war in Europe. This should be starting to sound familiar right about now, as we struggle with our own sense of what is right and wrong with the “War on Terror”, and the recently disclosed actions of the NSA.

Between 1917 and 1918 this group was like a miniature NSA, listening to everything said by their co-workers and friends. They even had their own newspaper/magazine called “The Spy Glass”, which gave tips on turning in your neighbors. Even preachers were not immune to this feeling of power, and in at least one case, a clergyman sent in a report about a fellow clergyman with whom he did not agree. 

That the APL became somewhat of a place for people to go in order to “get even”, or a place to settle personal scores should not be surprising at all. It’s human nature. Erich Maria Remarque wrote, in "All Quiet on the Western Front", that “even a dog trained to eat potatoes will snap at meat given the opportunity. Men behave the same way when given the opportunity to have a little authority. Every man is a beast underneath all his manners and customs.”

This book is both timely and informative. It is timely in respect to our current situation in the War on Terror, in which our own government is spying upon us; and informative in the sense that very few Americans alive today really have any idea that what we are experiencing now in relation to “national security”, has all been done before. The lesson of this book is simple; it was a bad idea then, and remains so today.

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