The Twentieth Century was a profoundly weird century. No. Seriously.
I was thinking about this as I was exercising. Currently my exercise video (have to, or I get bored and wander off) is Amazon streaming video, mystery series Foyle’s War mysteries set during WWII.
It’s funny because I never considered WWII history. History was stuff in the eighteenth century. WWII was part of my parents’ childhood memories. (Yes, Portugal was neutral. But they took in refugees and supplied food to both sides – you would too if you had a much bigger Axis country next door ready to whomp you if you sided with the allies, and, otoh, you were Britain’s oldest alliance and therefore couldn’t turn your back on them. At any rate, considering what Portugal contributed to the effort in WWI [barefoot, unarmed soldiers. I was reading a book about WWI and when they described the Germans attacking and the Portuguese stealing the messengers bicycles and pedaling away, I almost lost it. It was one of those laughing through tears moments. I grew up with stories of those poor boys sent to die at the pleasure of a government who wanted to look good and be part of the allied force, even though the country was bankrupt. Some of them returned. I don’t know if they returned because they stole bicycles and pedaled home and I wouldn’t hold it against them if they had.] ) Portugal had food rationing and whenever our rulers at the time thought they might have upset the axis, people went about taping the windows, in case of raids.
This as well as the regimes blinkered ideas of economics – were they Fascist? Well… not exactly. To a certain extent, they ruled as FDR would have unimpaired by the constitution. But let’s face it that was as close as no separation to national socialism. It was still socialism, crossed with crony capitalism. Cradle to grave plus your buddies got all the plum financing for public works, etc. In their defense, they did better than the previous anarchist sympathizers. In their non-defense, crony capitalism and economic dirigism will only take you so far. – Meant that my parents, one of whom at least was solidly middle class and probably for the time upper middle class (the extended family, at least, was) grew up knowing hunger and also such contrivances as gleaning and walking the rail line for fallen coal pieces, to keep body and soul together.
What I mean is that this was not, truly, in the end, exactly history, but stuff mom and dad had lived through and talked about, plus stuff that movies were made of. I despaired ever writing a romance because I didn’t know nearly enough about WWII, and that’s when all romances were set.
And the Napoleonic invasions? Well, grandma had heard of them from her grandma, so it wasn’t exactly history either.
Anyway, now that we’re nearing the anniversary of WWI, I find myself looking back at the twentieth century and thinking it was a very odd time and it has colored the way we think of things like… What causes war and what constitutes acceptable war and what our motives should be in going to war… In a way it is probably responsible for the “Hate our side first” crowd.
I think the problem was mass media. Well, not the problem exactly, but what made the twentieth century such a bizarre time. If that was the case, it is entirely possible that the new media will take us back, instead, to a time where war and conflict and all are seen as what they were to begin with: a striving of tribes in defense or securing of their self interest.
I’m not making much sense, am I? Blame it on one cup of tea and one diet coke. Not nearly enough caffeine.
Look, humanity has always more or less been at war. Yes, I know fantasy books, and some of the history books that resemble fantasy talk about times of peace. But mostly peace was either localized or known only in the default. Every religion prayed for peace because what there was, in fact, was war.
I’m not going to moralize about this. The people who went on about how humans were particularly bad because of this, never apparently really looked at other species, from the starling to the chimp. We strive because we’re alive, and sometimes that which we strive against is, perforce, our own species. In a way, it is perhaps part of how we’ve tamed ourselves, because the only way to ultimately stop a really bad behavior of a group is to stop the group.
The oldest burials of our kind are chiefs with their war maces, which were sometimes ornamental (the kings were sometimes children, too) but were indisputably, a sign of power because the mace serves to hit enemies on the head, and if you can hit enough people on the head, there, you have power. Even what appears to be peaceful agrarian villages were regularly raided by hunter-gatherers, when times got lean. As for Celts, for all their admirable poetry and other achievements, let’s face it, they were glorified cattle robbers and headhunters.
It’s not a choice whether you’re descended from thieves, raiders and cannibals, only WHICH thieves, raiders and cannibals you are descended from and how successful they were.
Of course, these things changed. Wars continued, but as we got wealthier as a species, as we changed more areas to be good for our habitation, there started to be pockets of peace. Even in the middle ages, these pockets might be temporary, as Summer was war time, but there was a chance the army would take another route and your village would be left unraided. Some lucky places could go generations without being raided. (Okay, they were normally dirt-poor places, but all the same.)
Grow up in a place where humans have lived long enough and it’s not unusual for a farmer to turn over a box – or a jug, or even an amphora – with his plow and discover within a few coins or a couple of pieces of jewelry. People had the thing down to a science: hear an army is approaching, bury your treasures where no one will know. Of course, get killed and no one ever knows and it’s left for centuries or millennia, scars and mute witness to past conflicts.
With the industrial age and the professionalization of armies, we got yet another distancing of the conflict. Places might be at war more or less continuously, but unless the army came to your region, the war was something you heard about or read about in the newspapers.
And the myth of peace spread. The idea that peace was the normal condition of mankind. It also spread a type of mentality in which war and making war was unconditionally bad, and therefore had to be justified with high moral words.
I’m not saying there was never demonization of the other side before. Of course there was. The number of Portuguese Proverbs that say something bad about Spaniards is roughly equal to the number of Portuguese Proverbs that mention Spaniards. But beneath it, everyone pretty much knew it was your tribe fighting with the other tribe who wanted to take your land or stuff, or you wanted to take theirs. You didn’t need to think – and didn’t think – the other tribe was terrible ideologically and would destroy the world if they won. You just knew they would take yours stuff.
World War One was the first war in which the enemy was made a threat to the world, not just to the countries it wishes to invade. Raped Belgian nuns and all, the war was in the end just a continuation of European nation-state wars, and yet it was blown up to a world conflict. And from it came World War Two.
To be honest, at the same time, we’d got some strange brain worms, like communism, which was a world threat because it was “universal” in nature. Not that communism was anything new. In its scope it was exactly like the invading/expanding Islam of the seventh century: a militant faith, with universal aspirations, which believed conversion at sword point was valid. But because communism (in a way the opposite of Islam which dressed its political/economic system in ideas of religion and morality) was a religious faith pretending to be an economic and political system, it penetrated in insidious ways, and claimed its prescriptions for how to live were “scientific.”
Which meant they had to be fought as a threatening would-be world-devouring ideology, because they WOULD be that, if they could. And that muddied things further.
What I mean is that we’ve got to the point of thinking the only thing worth fighting for is ideas. And then we have people in our own government who think the only moral war is that in which we have no interest whatsoever. Which is sort of putting things upside down, because if we have nothing to gain or lose, than our behavior is not bound by any rational goals. How do you “win” when you have nothing to win from this war. When you establish democracy? How do you measure democracy? And how does it affect you? Does anyone care if we’re creating worse messes for ourselves by arbitrarily quitting wars?
It also creates some very weird ideas of what war IS. Those who believe that the US are war mongers, for instance, think we could stop wars by simply stopping. They seem to think that the rest of the world are angels, with full fledged wings. Terry Pratchett himself – genuflect – got the really odd idea that if a very wealthy place is unprotected, then no one will attack it. This is somewhat more than insane, because just because we’ve been brain washed into believing only in “War for higher purpose” it doesn’t mean everyone has been and as the world turns into a time to pay the piper for years and wealth squandered trying to create paradise on Earth, any rich country will be a big fat target.
Yes, Ronald Reagan outspent the Soviets and let Capitalism defeat them. But he didn’t do so by laying down weapons. On the contrary.
The whole way the historians paint the two world wars as having come from German militarism is putting the cart before the horse. Germany didn’t get all militaristic and then automagically the war started. The war started because the expanding German industry and population needed resources and access to a warm sea port. The militarism, pretty uniforms and arming up was simply a reaction to that.
When we pin our ideas of what war is and one gets to war on the externalization, the “feeling” of it, and the idea that all we need to do to stop war from affecting us is be really peaceful, we are making ourselves what is known in the bad neighborhoods (and the world is always a bad neighborhood) as an easy target.
The Bible can talk of studying war no more, but that’s after a miracle occurs and we’re no longer humans as we know them. For now, being humans as we are, the best we can hope is that war doesn’t hit our particular neck of the woods. And that means, particularly if we’re a wealthy land, going well armed and talking tough enough that the bad actors fear us.
Winning hearts and minds is all very well – but that usually – for humans – happens after the body carrying the mind and heart around has been pounded into the ground. It’s who we are. We’re a striving species, every man against his brother. It’s what kept us alive.
Forget that and we’re gone. The future belongs to those willing to fight for it.