The Agony Of Occupation: 'The Flies Have Conquered the Fly Paper'

“By ten-forty-five, it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.”

These are the opening lines of The Moon is Down, John Steinbeck’s brilliant novel about the German occupation of Norway, a story about conquerors – decent, home-loving soldiers under the sway of nationalism – who occupy a foreign land. What happens when an invading army proclaims “mission accomplished” prematurely?

It is impossible to read Steinbeck’s masterpiece without thinking about our own soldiers in Iraq and Fallujah, about their daily fear, the growing tendency for revenge, the agony of conquest.

The Moon is Down is not primarily about the Norwegian people, or even about the resistance. It’s about the terror, the self-doubts, the slow transformation of arrogance to self-loathing, under which invaders live.

Steinbeck conveys the breakdown of morale, the shock of recognition, in a series of dialogues – outbursts and remarks of tense and frazzled soldiers.

“They hate us,” says one. “They hate us so much. I don’t like it here, sir.”

A lieutenant exclaims: “The enemy’s everywhere. Every man, woman, even children. The faces look out of doorways. The white faces behind the curtains, listening. We have beaten them, we have won everywhere, and they wait and obey, and they wait.”

Commanders try vainly to instill hope and confidence. “When we have killed the leaders,” says one, “the rebellion will be broken.” “Do you really think so?” responds a skeptical German.

When a lieutenant is upset by the hostility of the local population, his commander admonishes him: “I will not lie to you, Lieutenant. They should have trained you for this, and not for flower-strewn streets. They should have built your soul with truth, not led you along with lies. But you took the job, Lieutenant. We can’t take care of your soul.”

The occupiers are not pacified. “Captain, is this place conquered?” “Of course,” the captain replies. But the listener cracks. “Conquered and we’re afraid, conquered and we’re surrounded. The flies have conquered the fly paper!”

The Moon is Down is not about the violence; it’s about the psychology of occupation. Steinbeck focuses on the inability of occupying soldiers to cope with the ingratitude of a “liberated” people. Germans trusted their leaders and expected to be greeted with flowers, not contempt. The public hatred of the occupation, not sabotage alone, destroys German morale.

“The cold hatred grew with the winter, the silent sullen hatred. Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone with silent enemies, and no man might relax guard even for a moment. If he did, he disappeared. If he drank, he disappeared. The men of the battalion could sing only together, could dance only together, and dancing gradually stopped and the singing expressed a longing for home. The talk was of friends and relatives who loved them and their longings were for warmth and love, because a man can be a soldier for only so many hours a day and only so many months a year, and then he wants to be a man again.

“And the men thought always of home. The men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered and they were curt with the people and the people were curt with them, and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax and go home, a fear that one day they would crack and be hunted….

“Then the soldiers read the news from home and from other conquered countries, and the news was always good, and for a little while they believed it. And their sleep was restless and their days were nervous. Thus it came about that the conquerors grew afraid of the conquered and their nerves wore thin and they shot at shadows in the night. Fear crept in on the men, crept into the patrols and it made them cruel. Sometimes the sentries shot a man with a lantern and once a girl with a flashlight. And it did no good. Nothing was cured by the shooting.

“They were under a double strain, for the conquered people watched them for mistakes and their own men watched them for weakness, so that their spirits were taut to the breaking point. The conquerors were under a terrible spiritual siege.”

If you want to get a feel of what American troops go through in Iraq, read Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down.

The flies have conquered the fly paper.

June 24, 2005