War & peace

A century has now passed since President Wilson disowned President Washington’s advice to his successors — to stay out of European conflicts — and war was declared by the United States on Germany. A moral preener, Wilson justified himself by declaring an even more extravagant mission to go with it:

“The world must be made safe for democracy.”

However large, a war is just a war. It should have a beginning and an end. As my old Indian girlfriend explained, “Too much war only leads to peace. Too much peace only leads to war.” As most people prefer peace, most of the time, it is well that war is not a permanent condition. But a war to some idealistic purpose can get very large, and go on for a long time, and morph into conditions which resemble peace, but are not peace. We’ve been making the world safe for democracy for at least a century. By now we have far too much.

Paradoxically, or rather not, this year is also the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. It was greeted with something like relief by much of the war-weary Russian populace. This is because Lenin immediately completed his deal with the Kaiser’s Germany, which had contrived to deliver him safely to the Finland Station. He took Russia out of the war, so Germany could focus on the Western Front; this also allowed Lenin to focus on the annihilation of his Russian adversaries. The addition of America tipped the too-well balanced scales against Germany; but a war-weary Europe soon lost its stomach for dealing with Bolsheviks — and resurgent Turks — in the East. War was over; the massacres never stopped.

Wilson’s idealism was further expressed through his progressive admirers in the dismemberment of the old European order, for his idea of democracy became inextricably mixed with the idea of ethnic nationalism. The maps were redrawn and the ancient Habsburg realm — the Austro-Hungary that had been suing for peace, also since April 1917 — was among the casualties. There and elsewhere, dozens of new jealous nationalisms were spawned. Germany, too, was guided into chaos, and the circumstances from which the Nazi regime emerged; all in the cause of “a new world order.”

In my view, that Great War, that Totaler Krieg, hasn’t ended yet. The old etiquette, that war was for soldiers — that non-combatants should be non-involved — became a thing of nostalgia. Vast conscript armies had been summoned, and would never be fully demobilized. The men I call the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse” — Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau — clinched at Versailles this new normal. It was not simply the punitive terms that were imposed on the war’s losers, but a more fundamental reorganization of all national and international affairs: “statecraft” became “policy.”

For Wilson was also the pioneer of progressive schemes to change the American way of life. He was, in some sense, a second Washington, consolidating a second American Revolution that had begun more modestly with Lincoln and the Union victory in the Civil War. America would be recreated, along bureaucratic lines, in a tireless campaign for full secularization, under centralized government control. The general mobilization of the First World War, now in America as well as Europe, created a new opportunity, by accustoming men to following orders; by the propaganda that made them identify with huge abstractions.

This is of course an inexhaustible topic, at which I pick away, in my attempts to explain if only to myself what makes our world so different from all preceding. It embraces more than any single force or event. We must also go back to the Prussian invention of the welfare state, and for that matter to the Gatling gun. Post-modernity is an invention of modernity, as modernity was an invention of the Middle Ages. The contemporary revolution has antecedents that may be found in the Enlightenment and in the Reformation. (What will post-modernity beget?)

Totaler Krieg and Totaler Frieden: that is our post-modern age, in which we have lived for a century or more; the age of the monstrous Nanny State, in war but also in peace. It grows ever more “inclusive.”