25. February 2005 · Comments Off on Meditation on the Great War · Categories: General, GWOT, History

I was looking through my own archives this week, and realized that essay-wise, I periodically came back to the “Great War”, 1914-1918…(here, here, here) which struck me as bit curious. Vietnam was going on up until I started high school, and the effects of that war were still deeply felt when I started service life. We went back to the swamps of South-East Asia, metaphorically speaking, all during the most recent election; it is old and well-trodden ground for pols and reporters and other chatterati.

When I was growing up, though, the war that we harked back to most frequently was of course, World War II. (here, here, here, here) I was born barely a decade after it was all over, my parents were teenagers during it, but many of their slightly older friends were participants; books, movies and television shows all harked back to it, even the plastic airplane models that JP built. That earlier world war seemed merely a prelude, an opening gambit. Seen through the medium of jumpy, coarse-grained film footage, very obviously cranked through a camera by hand, it all looked impossibly archaic… the uniforms and accoutrements, weapons, transport and gear all clearly, distinctly of another age, and faintly ridiculous at that.

And yet the sheer, bloody brutal bungling of that war, the monstrous wastefulness, not to mention the shattering changes that came out of it— the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the end of the Ottoman empire, the end of the Romanovs and the ascent of the Soviet— all of this cast a long shadow. It is a given that the dropping of an atom bomb on Hiroshima, opening the nuclear age and the Iron curtain, dropping across Eastern Europe, all cast a shadow too, but more a political shadow.

Look at the pictures of ordinary people, read novels and other accounts of ordinary lives, before and after the Great War, and compare that with the same, before and after the Second World War. My parents and grandparents lives really didn’t materially change much: the lives they led in 1939 were pretty much the same that they had in 1945, the things they had, and the amusements they favored didn’t change all that much. Unless there are specific references to the war, a mystery novel from the late Thirties reads pretty much like a mystery novel from ten years later. The movies they watched, the radio shows people listened to, all stayed pretty much a constant.

But to go back and consider the difference between the world of 1910 and 1920… just to look at the way people dressed, amused themselves, used the available technologies. To read contemporary literature, to look at how the people who lived through the Great War looked back at the time before it, is to know how heartbreakingly aware they were of what had been lost, and how much everything had changed. The automobile was not a rarity, neither were bicycles, trains, electricity and telephones, but they weren’t all that common as they would be later. It was a horse-drawn world, just as it had been for centuries before. Clothes were elaborate, manners ornate, even the middle classes had servants. The place of monarchy and the nobility was secure, everything was for the best in this best and most cosmopolitan of all possible worlds.

And then in the space of half a decade it had fractured into millions of pieces: the murderous war, the flu pandemic at the end of it, the revolution in Russia; the pillars of everything comfortable and familiar were rocked, and the world we have now, ninety years later is the result. With the best of intentions, those who were still alive at the end of it— politicians, intellectuals, soldiers— tried to cobble something together, out of all those smashed pieces of that proud, forward-thinking, immensely confident tower that had been their world.

I think I keep coming back to it because 9/11 had the same effect in the course of a single day; not so much on the physical aspects of our lives… not much has really changed there, save for seeing the American flag in many more places and much oftener than before… and of course for the military being very much better thought of than before. For many of us, certain intellectual verities were smashed in the course of a single day day: amongst them that we were at the end of history, mad Islamic revolutionaries were nothing to fret about, we were secure, and had nothing to fear from anyone– and if we did, it small stuff and really our own fault. But it turned out that we weren’t at the end of history. The really shattering part was that we do have enemies willing to kill any number of us in the most savage ways. A lot of my own writing— and of lots of others in the blogosphere— is an attempt to come to grips with that, to sort out what has happened, what is going on, and what we should do about it… and what the world we build afterwards should look like.

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