‘We Have Never Recovered from World War I’
And we missed the lessons we should have learned.
October 12, 2013 - 1:00 pm
“And I fear we never shall,” writes Neo-Neocon.
I received several nice compliments via email regarding my recent piece on why 1958′s A Night to Remember continues to resonate, including a link from Neo-Neocon to her post late last year on World War I:
When I was in school, World War I was hardly touched on in my history classes, so eager were the teachers to get to World War II before the year was over. It was only though reading a review of the Paul Fussell book The Great War and Modern Memory when it first came out in 1975, and then being intrigued enough to read the book, that I first learned what a cataclysmic event the First World War was, both in terms of death rates and in its psychological and even spiritual, as well as cultural, effects.
The first hint was this quote by Henry James, from a letter he wrote to a friend the day after Britain entered the war:
The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness… is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.
If you hack through James’ typically convoluted syntax, you’ll see a perfect encapsulation of the effect of the war: blood and darkness, giving the lie to what people of that age thought “civilization” had meant. The war caused people to look back at all the years of seeming progress and regard them as a cruel, tantalizing, misleading illusion, a sort of trick played on naive people who now looked back at the history they themselves had lived through, tearing off their previous rose-colored glasses and now seeing a stark and terrible vision.
We have been stuck with that vision ever since.
World War I gave birth to all the horrors of the twentieth century. A host of banshees were let loose upon the western world, shattering old dogmas of religion, democracy, capitalism, monarchy, and mankind’s rule in the world. The war fueled widespread hatred, suspicion and paranoia toward elites and established institutions. For belligerents on both sides, economic planning lent political and intellectual credibility to state-directed war socialism. And of course, it led to the enthronement of revolutionaries throughout Europe: Lenin in Russia, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany.
It took a while for the modern vision of World War I as hopeless, futile meat grinder to take hold though. (And apologies for largely repeating content from an earlier post here.) In his 2011 book, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, Theodore Dalrymple explored how the meaning of World War One morphed among European intellectuals from the late 1910s to the 1920s:
At least to the victors, the war did not seem self-evidently senseless, and disillusionment was not immediate. The war memorials to be found everywhere in France are tributes to loss, but not to meaninglessness. The soldiers really did die for France, or so almost everyone supposed; in Britain, my next-door neighbor, who collects coins and medals, showed me some First World War service medals for those who survived the war, with an athletic (and naked) young man upon a horse, wielding a sword as if he were a latter-day St. George about to slay a dragon. One of the medals bore the inscription “The War to Save Civilization.” I doubt that these medals were greeted solely by hollow laughter; for one thing, they would hardly have been preserved so carefully if they had been. And browsing in a bookshop recently, I found a book published in 1918 with the title The Romance of War Inventions. It was an attempt to interest boys in science by explaining how shells, mortars, tanks, and so forth had been developed and how they worked. By the time of its publication, millions had already been killed, and surely no one in Britain could by that time not have known someone who had been killed or at least someone whose child or brother or parent had been killed. It seems to me unlikely that such a publication would have seen the light of day in an atmosphere of generalized cynicism about the war.
“The version of the First World War that is now almost universally accepted as ‘true’ is that of the disillusioned writers, male and female, of the late 1920s and 1930s. The war, according this version, was about nothing at all and was caused by blundering politicians, prolonged by stupid generals and lauded by patriotic fools,” Dalrymple adds.
This sea change in intellectual worldviews during that period would have profound ramifications for Europe’s future, Claire Berlinski wrote in her review of Dalrymple’s book:
Europeans, then, “are fearful of the future because they fear the past” and are desperate to secure material comfort, for it represents the purpose of their existence. So important to them is this that they “see children not as the inheritors of what they themselves inherited, as essential to the meaning of life, but as obstructions to the enjoyment of life, as a drain on resources, an obstacle to next year’s holiday in Bali or wherever it may be.”
Larger efforts to find transcendence in brief, meaningless, mortal lives have failed. Marxism has been discredited. Thus the rise of “small causes”-environmentalism, feminism, and anti-nationalism, too, in the form of enthusiasm for the European integration project.
Patriotism in Europe has been discredited. Like most observers, Dalrymple locates this loss of confidence in World War I, which shattered the belief that European history was a form of natural blossoming toward a garden of peace, rationality, and material advance. Whether in fact the war was “senseless,” as commonly accepted, is immaterial. His analysis of the change of perspective on the war is particularly interesting. The assignation of the epithet “meaningless,” he notes, emerged after the war, not during it: “not as a direct and spontaneous consequence of the war, but as the result of intellectual reflection on its meaning.” It is, again, well known among psychiatrists that victims of trauma are best able to recover if able to assign meaning to the experience they have endured. To have retrospectively understood the war as “meaningless,” in other words, is to have adopted the psychological strategy least likely to lead to emotional recovery. If even the victorious countries concluded that the war had been meaningless, there was no hope whatever in the defeated countries of making a meaningful narrative of events, “no way of incorporating it into a memory that could be other than humiliating to national self-esteem.” We all know the consequences: “In Germany, disillusion bred a mad militarism; in Britain and France, a blind pacifism.” World War II then “destroyed European self-confidence once and for all.”
In her post, Neo-Neocon concluded, “Whether people are aware of the details of the events of WWI or not, they are part of a culture of profound cynicism that has taken hold the Western world afterward and has been part of the reason for its decline. Simply put, the West lost a great deal of its boundless confidence in itself.”
Leftwing intellectuals recovered it for a time after World War II, but since the mid-to-late 1960s have been effectively stuck in a permanent malaise, and their cynicism infects millions directly and indirectly, occasionally with hilarious results, when true believers have drunk a little too much of the Kool-Aid, such as the classic headline yesterday in the London Daily Star: “Sir Bob Geldof: ‘All humans will die before 2030.’” But for the most part, it’s not much fun sharing the country with those who have effectively given up hope and replaced it with a toxic mixture of cynicism and doomsday rhetoric.
Does the left have a way out of such box canyon thinking? They certainly could use it, particularly now.
— Bruce Carroll (@BruceCarrollSC) October 6, 2013