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Dirges for NATO, the Dying Watch Dog of Democracy

That the world is in desperate shape was hardly news when, against the expectations of many, 2018 rolled around not long ago. Fires scorched the old year and epic ice greeted the new, all while the U. S. President’s Twitter account only tenuously distracts the current office-holder from the nuclear button. Things do not look good for frail old Mother Earth. She is already on life-support and now there’s an orange-haired emergency room orderly eyeing the plug.

In a hospital bed near to Granny in that same orderly’s ward lies a wheezing sixty-eight-year-old: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some medical observers have claimed that NATO, as he is chummily called, is already dead and decomposing.

Whatever the case, NATO marshaled enough energy soon after New Year’s to adopt at long last an official hymn—its first. The announcement came on January 3rd and received almost no comment, though it did seem an odd move after nearly seven decades of life. Yet it is a clear sign that the organization’s vitality is melting as fast as a North Atlantic iceberg.

Few will mourn the passing, save for defense contractors, interventionists, and the Luxembourg Military Band, whose long-time director, Lieutenant Colonel André Reichling composed the recently-adopted hymn. Reichling devised the piece as the North Atlantic Hymn ((with words by André Ludovice) way back in 1989 when NATO celebrated its fortieth anniversary. It was also the year when the alliance could claim, finally, to have won the Cold War.

Reichling’s composition has the proven qualities of many a righteous anthem: fully-scored contingent of winds haloed with piccolos; stately and unwavering progress through its musical mission launched with a descending bass line that proclaims past deeds and future glory; and just the right number of canny harmonic feints that suggest originality and moral backbone without straying from the path of sanctioned musical strategy.

Mission accomplished, Lieutenant Colonel Reichling!

But this badge of honor brings with it a conundrum: if the West was victorious in 1989, wasn’t Reichling’s tune to be heard as an elegy not just for the Evil Empire but also for NATO itself?

Reichling’s self-nullifying NATO hymn (then still unofficial) was preceded twenty years earlier by a NATO song that had been disseminated to school children and otherwise hawked for propaganda purposes. That multi-lateral shanty had a folk-like melody penned by a German captain and fitted with doggerel—sometimes prayerful, sometimes saber-rattling—that was, appropriately enough, the joint effort of a pair of Dutch and American officers. The song begins by establishing NATO’s territorial reach: “From Nova Scotia to Istanbul, from Bergen to Key West, / Standing together as beloved Free West.”  Soon after that the arsenal of freedom is inventoried: “Airplanes and missiles, and ships, too, / Guarding our boundaries to defend our rights.”

Yet another unofficial NATO hymn of the nearly-hot Cold War 1950s had “poetry” by the ardent British anti-communist Godfrey Lias, a soldier and later a journalist:

May God who rules o’er earth and sky
Cleanse our fair world from fear.
Let freedom’s banner rise on high
And violence disappear.
Build up the power of right;
Bid all the free unite.
Let NATO grow in might
And put its foes to flight.

Reichling’s heavenly strains, solemn and seemingly timeless, stem from the same traditions of Christian nineteenth-century hymnody that inspired Lias’s might-makes-right rhymes.

Since its composition Reichling’s hymn has been performed at countless NATO events, including the meeting in Brussels last May of the alliance’s heads of state. Notwithstanding the blessing provided by these Reichling’s anthem, the less-than-robust commitment of the United States to NATO could also be seen at that May summit, not only in Donald Trump’s chastising his allies for not paying their way and in his white-knuckle handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron, but also in the American’s declining support for internationally-minded military music itself.

In contrast to the military band of Luxembourg, which, not incidentally is home to NATO’s AWACS and its logistics center and is a country therefore eager to keep tapped into the organization’s I.V., NATO’s own musical contingent has been decimated by American cuts. Already under Obama the official band of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was downsized from twenty to twelve members, and had jettisoned the brass instruments that have since the Romans been the symbol of military might.  The current SHAPE ensemble looks more like a group fit for Holiday Inn wedding receptions than it does sonic defenders of democracy.

NATO seeks to change its image away from the bandstand, too. Once a mighty Cold Warrior, NATO has rebranded itself as a “crisis management organization” retaining “the capacity to undertake a wide range of military operations and missions.”  The organization currently has 13,000 personnel in Afghanistan for operation Resolute Support tasked with training local forces there. NATO has been in the country since 2003.  Its 4,500-strong mission in Kosovo began way back in the last millennium. Operation Sea Guardian claims “to police” the Mediterranean, securing borders and combatting terrorism, while largely ignoring the plight of refugees crossing the sea from Africa. Still farther from the North Atlantic, NATO is training African Union peacekeepers and vigilantly keeping a presence on that continent.  And since 2014 the treaty organization has been “air-policing” the Russian border with the Ukraine—its highest profile engagement, one especially beloved of old-school “liberals” of the JFK mold.

Quagmires such as Kosovo and Afghanistan are a useful form of life-support for a fatlering NATO, but new forms of therapy must be sought.  Just as Reichling’s hymn was at being publicly embraced by NATO, its Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg joined Hollywood star Angelina Jolie last week to proclaim that organization should be the protector of women’s rights across the globe. This shameless PR campaign was promptly and clinically dissected in CounterPunch by George Szamuely.

This latest NATO PR stunt is especially unlikely to gain much sympathy from the rogue in the White House, so don’t expect to see the realization of the joint Stoltenberg-Jolie dream to raise NATO from its deathbed so it can embark on an endless War for Women, a crusade that, unlike the words of the first NATO song, won’t have to bother with borders.

Far more telling about NATO’s health than the announcement of the women’s mission is the granting of official anthem-status to Reichling’s hymn. In this musical decision we can discern NATO’s own concern that when the end comes it should come with dignity.

The impulse to choose music for one’s own funeral is a long and venerable one. We are defined by the music we love (and hate) and so it is fitting that if a few relations and friends, or hundreds (even thousands) of admirers gather to celebrate the departed’s life, he or she should be able to share his or her favorite tunes, metaphorically fingering, as it were, the iPhone playlist from inside the nearby coffin—or from somewhere up in the Cloud.

Composers have often been called on to commemorate others as well as themselves. For Beethoven’s obsequies in 1827 in Vienna there was plenty to choose from in the dead musical hero’s catalog. Among the works picked were his Equali for four trombones (that instrument long having been charged with mourning the dead) and the funeral march from his piano sonata op. 26 arranged for gloomy brass band. J. S. Bach seems to have stipulated that his uncle’s motet about the resurrection of the body, Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf (Dear God, wake us up), be performed at his funeral in 1750.

While not exactly of the caliber, as it were, of these works, Reichling’s military anthem is a fitting dirge for the dying watchdog of democracy. The hymn’s recent elevation to official status is to be seen as a deathbed request for funeral music, and serves as confirmation that even if NATO may not depart without a fight, it will soon be breathing its last.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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