Saturday, May 14, 2011

Have we learned?

It would take too long to explain, but certain technical/computer problems (which I hope to solve in the reasonably near future) are requiring me to squat on the floor while writing this -- so it will be fairly brief (or at least briefer than it would otherwise be).

Many of us face the problem of too much to read -- too many books, magazines, journals, newspapers, blogs. We make choices and we take shortcuts. I can sometimes get a reasonably good idea about a book via a twenty-minute or half-hour's browsing of it in a bookstore. I did that this evening with Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars. Being familiar with his King Leopold's Ghost, I knew he was a very good writer, so my interest here was not so much savoring the prose as figuring out what he is doing. The answer is that this is a book mainly about the British experience in World War I, but with particular attention paid to the war's opponents (including, e.g., some COs who physically suffered for their convictions) as well as a more conventional cast of dramatis personae. There are some very familiar stories here (e.g., that of Rudyard Kipling and his son) but no doubt also some less familiar ones.

I was struck by the way the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has chosen to pitch the book on the inside front jacket flap. The last line of the jacket description is something like "will we ever learn from the past?"

Some would argue that we already have. It is virtually impossible to imagine a replay of the First World War, in which large armies from the most supposedly 'advanced' countries in the world slaughtered each other in numbers mounting up to the millions while competing, at least on the Western Front, over tiny bits of territory. The last sustained armed conflict involving a direct clash between great powers was World War II (true, U.S. and Chinese troops fought in Korea, but the active fighting occurred over a relatively limited period). Some political scientists (most notably John Mueller) have made a fairly convincing case that the chances of another major great-power war are extremely remote -- not because nuclear weapons would come into play and make it short but because most countries no longer think in such terms, i.e., major war is no longer an option on the conscious menu of policy-makers. This thesis is controversial and it's not too hard to find some evidence that cuts the other way, especially if one looks, for example, at Pentagon planning documents, at the size of some defense budgets (especially but not only that of the U.S.), or at the amount of money that India, for instance, is planning to spend on weapons over the next decade.

Still, whatever one thinks of the obsolescence-of-major-war thesis, it seems to me too pessimistic to suggest that the attitudes that propelled Europe into its collective suicidal madness of 1914-1918 are anywhere near as strong today as they were a hundred years ago. Militarism and hyper-nationalism are certainly not extinct (and their strength varies in different parts of the world), but in general they do not have anything like the hold over mass publics and elites that they did in the early and middle years of the last century. The notion advanced by the historian David Bell that the "war on terror" represents a kind of apocalyptic thinking about war that dates from the Napoleonic era may have an appearance of plausibility, but I am more inclined to see discontinuities and some learning -- for lack of a better word -- in the history of the last 200 years.

P.s. Hitchens reviews To End All Wars in the NYT Book Review.

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