Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Great War For Our Times

One of the great and surprising failures of The Great War (1914-1918) was that it was not limited in scope and time as had been every European War since the Napoleonic Wars.

Wars of the mid and late 19th Century were short affairs - one year, maybe two - and rather frequent (a list of all the wars is here).  And while they may (overall) have been locally destructive, they did not necessarily bear the total destruction of the Thirty Years War or the Conquest of Ireland.  In a rather odd sense, war - especially as represented by Otto von Bismarck - became a short term tool of politics.

Which is why The Great War became so traumatic (if you have never done so, I recommend The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.  It is a great history on how the countries at the time viewed the upcoming conflict.).  Everyone believed - truly - that the old rules still applied, that this would be a limited war like any other, and everyone would be home before the leaves fell.  Almost no-one anticipated that modern technology had advanced past the point of 19th century war, nor that once committed, no-one could or would pull back.

Why this brief ramble down memory lane?  Because I am coming to believe that - culturally, politically, and socially - we are about to find out the same thing.

Politics, culture, society - all of these at some level in late 20th and very early 21st Century America (and maybe Canada as well) was based on a certain compact that everything operated by the rule of law and that those who did not believe as you did had to - at some level - be treated with some level of decorum (the reader, of course, will choose their level of decorum based on which group they are from.  But do not kid yourselves that political, societal, or cultural conflict here was anything like that in the Soviet Union of the 1960's to 1980's or Communist China for most of its history.  Prison time based solely on political beliefs or religion is not a thing here - yet).  But what has been happening over the last decade or so is the beginning of the break down of the system.

More and more, the concept "The Ends justifies the Means" is a concept that is believed in some quarters - never stated quite like of course (because who wants to be associated with communism) but in practice.  Careers and personal lives are ruined, businesses destroyed, economic weal drained away, all in the name of an agenda.  This situation cannot go on infinitely of course:  at some point the other side, who has finally either exhausted all other solutions or whose leadership of that earlier time has finally moved on,  begins to respond in kind.  Suddenly there is no decorum or civility, there is simply the struggle for power to impose your views on the other side.

This, my friends, is civil war.

We are not quite there, but we are definitely in the dying stages of the Republic.  We have not yet built the trenches that led to trench warfare, but we have suddenly found out that old-style rifles of debate and the charge/counter charge of discussion and form have been replaced with the machine guns of violent protests and the chlorine gas of social media.

Sadly, all those who start this sort of thing in search of a goal are ultimately destroyed by it - once set free, fire knows neither friend nor foe but only that it has the power to destroy everything.

It is worth pondering if any of the combatants in November 1918 felt as if the war had been a good idea.

Most likely, we shall get to ask the same question some day.

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