A Visit to Warsaw

I have been to Warsaw before. This was in the spring of 1989, just weeks before the first free elections that put an end to Communism in Poland. And twenty-two years after Poland had broken diplomatic relations with Israel, which meant that my colleagues and I were the first Israeli delegation to visit the country in all those years.

At the time Warsaw was a weird place. Clean and safe, or so we were told. Built almost entirely of bare concrete, painted exclusively in gray, a sea of unintentional brutalism gone mad. And with hardly any colored signs to relieve the depressing monotony. People living on $ 20 a month. People queuing in front of small kiosks to buy various kinds of preserved fruit, apparently the only food that was freely available. Every corner occupied by old women holding out small transparent plastic bags with a single tomato or cucumber inside. Every street swarming with black market dealers trying to con you as they changed your dollars into zloti.

Very little traffic, consisting almost entirely of locally-produced, antiquated Fiat (Polski) cars on the streets. A hotel with lousy food and no running hot water (when I called reception to tell them of the problem, they sent up a waiter with a glass containing it). Big “magazines” staffed by lazy saleswomen who spoke nothing but Polish and refused to get up if you were looking for something. Returning home, people asked me what Warsaw was like. I used to tell them it was a place where you spent a week looking for a present for an eight-year old—but could not find any.

Twenty-eight years later Warsaw is still clean—as my wife and I could see with our own eyes—and quite safe—as we were told. In other ways, though, such is the change as to merit just one description: stunning. The kiosks, the old ladies, the black market dealers, and the antiquated cars are gone. While traffic is as heavy as in any Western city drivers are, if anything more polite. People are very well dressed. Public utilities gleam with cleanliness. Color is everywhere. Shops, many of them first class (and, for those of you who are contemplating a trip, very cheap indeed) are bursting with the best imaginable merchandise: clothing shoes, leatherware, cosmetics, electronic appliances, what have you. Any number of excellent restaurants serving every imaginable kind of food. Some truly excellent museums. An extremely lively cultural scene. To be sure, compared with London or Paris Warsaw remains quite poor; the minimum wage is about 400 Euro per month. But it has gone a long, long way towards catching up.

All this is interesting, but it is not what I want to talk about today. The reason I went to Warsaw was because the Polish Staff College asked me to give some talks. I readily agreed, and so I found myself lecturing to 40-50 officers, most of them colonels (on their way to becoming generals) and lieutenant-colonels with the odd major thrown in. Average age about 35-50. As agreed, the lectures were based on my book, More on War. The course was a success and the members of the audience, most of whom spoke very good English, seemed very interested. They kept asking questions, which is always a good sign.

Again, though, this is not what I want to write about. What I do want to write about as the fact that, for the first time in God knows how many years, I found myself in a class that did not include any women. Having asked, I was told that the Polish military, which like other Western ones consists entirely of volunteers, does in fact take women; they are, however, mostly limited to ancillary tasks such as medicine, logistics, administration, etc. In the higher ranks there are hardly any women at all. One outcome being that, unlike most Western militaries, the Polish one has no difficulty attracting as many young men as it needs.

Finding myself in this unaccustomed situation, at first I kept opening my talks by saying, “ladies and gentlemen.” As the week went on, though, I discovered that not having females around has its advantages. I found myself able to mention some sensitive, but serious and interesting and important questions; and do so, what is more, without having to follow the obligatory wisdom whereby women are no different from men and can and should imitate the latter in everything. Or having to worry about some crybully getting “insulted” and running off to admin to make a tearful complaint.

Briefly, the evil winds blowing from Brussels did not make their effect felt. Political correctness did not reign. I did not have to worry about anyone feeling “embarrassed” by what I said. Though I only spent five mornings lecturing, the experience of liberation was overwhelming. What a blessing, not having to constantly look over one’s shoulder! All, paradoxically, in the one institution—the military—which is normally considered the most hierarchical and the least open to freedom of thought.

Shame on those who have brought us all to this point. However, I am happy to say that the Director of the College has asked me to come back next year. Health permitting, I most certainly will.