Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Welcome to 1915

We are living in the equivalent of early 1915. Let me explain.

I’ve been reading The Great War in Modern Memory. It’s about the profound effect that World War I had on Western culture. It was a watershed event; the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. The war changed the way people write and think and interact. The Western world that existed before the war was destroyed and the modern world as we know it was born. Afterwards, Western consciousness had changed. It didn’t just change the political landscape. It changed the vocabulary, the clothing, and the behavior of Western, and especially European, people. It changed art and literature. No one thought about royalty or religion in the same way as before the war.

The author, Paul Fussell, writes that when the war started, people assumed that the moral and social world of 1914 would continue on after the war. It didn’t. He quotes Hemingway who wrote that words like honor and glory and fatherland are obscene when compared to the list of town destroyed and lives lost. Millions of lives. Fussell says that if Hemingway had tried to express this idea before the war, no one would have known what he was talking about. It was quite literally unthinkable.

Everyone from the Prime Minister to the young volunteer soldier expected a war of cavalry charges and grand Napoleonic battles. What they got was thousands of miles of trenches and barbed wire; a static landscape of mud and rats and artillery barrages. Before the war, Fussell writes, no one had yet put the word machine with the word gun, or the word chemical with the word weapon. The war gave of numerous term of horror and pain: “No Man’s Land”, entrenched, lousy (meaning with lice). The list goes on and on.

Empires fell. Kaisers, czars and sultans were deposed and fled or were executed. As bin Laden laments, the Muslim caliphate was abolished. The war cast the European aristocracy into oblivion. What little remains today is a ruin compared to the mighty edifice of the 19th century. The modern vestiges of this aristocracy are at best ceremonial, at worst tourist attractions. The idea of Progress through Industry was crushed as people witnessed the industrial might of nations turned into weapons that boggled the mind. The horse as a military instrument, a warrior’s companion for millennia, was finished, and replaced by the tank.

I believe that the War on Jihad is similar to the Great War, not in the weapons and tactics, but in the effect it will have on our culture and our consciousness. We all assume that the moral and social universe we inhabit will survive the war intact; that life will be as it was before; that people after the war will be like us – think like us, act like us, use our vocabulary and accept our assumptions. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the War on Jihad, like the Great War, will change Western culture in ways we cannot yet foresee or even imagine. Perhaps the War on Jihad will affect not just the way we think about war, the military, and security but also concepts that we consider relatively stable, such as human rights, privacy, the role of religion in society, the moral limits of self-defense. Perhaps the moral and social conditions that will prevail after the war we would today find incomprehensible or even repugnant.

People don’t know they are living in the end of an era until they have passed into the beginning of the new one.

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