As the numerologists note our arrival at 11/11/11, our attention is better focused on this day as the anniversary of the end of the useless, worthless, horrifying war that turned so much of 20th Century into a twisted, violent mess. And on how we must prevent the same from happening to our shiny new millennium.
A superb route to that understanding comes through a modern masterpiece, TO END ALL WARS: A STORY OF LOYALTY AND REBELLION, 1914-8, by Adam Hochschild.
A seasoned author and social critic who helped found Mother Jones Magazine, Hochschild’s page-turning account of the “Great War” in Great Britain is both a joy to read and a tragedy to digest.
Its glory lies in Adam’s ability to penetrate the human core of the arrogance, foolishness and utter senselessness of a conflict that for no real reason killed at least ten million people outright and tens of millions more (including 500,000 in the US) by disease, most notably the influenza, which struck just prior to humankind’s ability to mass-produce penicillin.
The author (by way of disclosure, a friend of mine for decades) is an extraordinary writer of history. His prose is fluid and clear, unpretentious and at all times accessible. He manages to balance devastating accounts of lethal folly with the human dimension behind even the cruelest military martinet.
Adam’s story is of a nation—and a continent—that embarked on a war it thought would be a cake walk. Europe had been at peace since Bismarck’s Prussians left Paris in 1871. For more than four decades, an unimpeded industrial revolution took the US and western Europe—as well as Japan—to levels of imperial wealth undreamed of before. The Great Powers had achieved by 1914 a level of technological affluence that might have been described as science fiction a century prior.
But the literature of the time was polluted by an astonishing ennui, a bizarre discontent with the ease of middle and upper-class life that is staggering to comprehend. The prose of the rich is filled with the “need” for war to “stir the blood” and “further the race.” Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and their ilk glorified mass gore as if were some kind of vital tonic for the deadening sink hole of peace and prosperity. Read the rest of this entry →