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  23 April 2014  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Perspective
 
WWI: Grand Marshal in the Parade of Folly

Blame the hipsters and liberals. Blame television. Blame God. Blame the godless. Blame the Commies or the corporations (take your pick). Blame apathy. Blame public schools. Blame the wusses. Blame testosterone. Blame greed. Blame the shiftless. Blame the ‘hoods and their scary velocirapsters. Blame the ‘burbs and their equally scary humanoid proto-clones.

Blame the bloody—and I mean bloody—state of our nation on everything but history.

August of this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One (WWI), and, in this era of anniversary journalism, it is surprising that professional pundits and commenters, hired to rag on the decline and fall of American civilization, are not connecting the knots on a quipu that is just now a century long.

Wholesale Idiocy

Events and conditions up to WWI and, then, the war itself, led to the demise of established order everywhere. Those who had treated workers as disposable property, who had matter-of-factly made harmful business and political decisions that inflicted arbitrary suffering upon whole populations, who inherited their superior social positions and bullied their way to superior economic positions—those same men (always men) assumed leadership positions in politics and in war and, through their brash and brazen ignorance and studied lack of empathy, caused the deaths of 8-10 million soldiers and millions more civilians.

Never had any war bred so many cynics and critics of their elites, so many people who knocked the whip from their rulers' fists because they saw the destruction that such undeserving men can cause. Out of WWI came rights for women, strong labor movements, a middle class, social freedoms and many, many disillusioned warriors. The plutocratic stranglehold on power was weakened and, in Russia, totally destroyed.

The old rules of war, of which the elites were so fond, were partly to blame for the carnage, in combination with the new tools of war. Soldiers were ordered to charge stupidly into obliviating machine gun fire. Nitrate-based explosives and scientifically engineered shrapnel cut down old-fashioned valor before it could properly engage another flesh-and-blood human. Then there was the gas—an agent of mass destruction that was casually deployed on many fronts, by all sides, as the largely unsuccessful means to break open front lines that had remained nearly static for months or years. 



In the process of fighting a monumentally stupid war, led by monumentally stupid politicians and generals, the ordinary soldier, if he survived, witnessed volumes of sanctioned butchery that had been, up to that point, taboo to humanity. And in the Reich, because of Allied blockades, ordinary Germans were starving by the hundreds of thousands. Morality, empathy, tolerance and mercy disappeared as a result of a war that married technology (and lack of introspection) to death. 



Here was the genesis of today's industrialized bloodlust, of our disinterest in domestic gun deaths, our mind-warping use of gulag-scale incarceration, our enthusiasm for the death penalty and torture, our eagerness to go to war within our own cities and our lack of concern for the wounded, sick and starving among us. It all can be traced back to the global horror that was WWI. Of course, we could go back further in time to slavery, the Civil War, and the systematic eradication of Native Americans, but WWI stands out as the curtain-raiser for a new world of mechanized violence and wretched nationalistic behavior.

A Genealogy of Violence

Pick up the thread and follow it through the 1920s when thousands of disillusioned soldiers, many with permanent psychological wounds, turned to black-and-brown-shirted fascism and the use of ultra-violent means for reducing other humans to obedient slaves, dead protesters or just plain dead others. Bigots and demagogues shed crocodile tears recalling the injustices of WWI in order to recruit disciples from among these damaged veterans. In the 30s, follow their blood-stained tracks through the Jewish ghettos and into the killing fields of the 40s where they were finally subdued.

So… Good was at last triumphant over Evil, and the victorious Allies were at liberty to create a new world order. Except that the leaders of the “free world” had burned their moral blueprint back in WWI. The experience of winning both world wars taught them the virtues of massive force, and that became their new moral compass. Given the choice, they picked up the bloody cudgel, not the olive branch, and set about improving its killing power by orders of magnitude.

Through the 50s, an arms industry built to win WWII not only persisted but grew exponentially. The victorious Allies were now at each others’ throats in an ideological Cold War that can also be traced back to WWI and the Russian revolution. By the 60s and Vietnam, most Americans could approve of war-business as usual. But, wait. It took a massacre at My Lai (photo, right) to tweak our long-dormant conscience and remind us that killing of innocent civilians and the destruction of their villages “in order to save them” was inconsistent with our self-image as the good guys who won the good war. Instead of re-juicing our moral sensibilities and reflecting on what we had done, our leaders poked out our eyes so we couldn’t see such things anymore. With no witnesses, there could be no guilt.

In later wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, freelance reporters who had dispatched independent stories from the informative nooks and crannies of Vietnam were allowed into the active theaters only in the company of selected battle groups. Their dispatches were edited or censored. No more reminders to the American public that we might be engaged in the regular killing of innocents. Today, anyone like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden who breaks the law to warn America of its continuing descent into hell is branded by the government as a pariah.

… And the Band Plays On

Now we use torture and drones like an enlightened Lady Macbeth, telling ourselves that if the blood can't be seen it isn't there. But hiding the truth doesn’t bleach the fabric of facts: a new stupid elite, akin to the old pre-WWI plutocracy, has taken the reins and, insistent on fighting its enemies (including domestic refusniks) by the old rules of overpowering force, is employing the latest destructive technology without a hint of irony. And our children, genetically modified by ten thousand censor-approved on-screen killings, are entering the chute—both as eager killers and clueless victims.

What new abyss of inhumanity will we plumb this time? America’s state interventions at home and abroad are already so alarming we must classify as secret everything that might reveal how far we have descended. Yeah, we sure learned a lot in Vietnam.

Man’s inhumanity is the hideous and far-flung work of many devils, even some that claim God whispers in their ear. WWI may not have been our original sin, starting us down this exceedingly slippery and alarmingly finite slope, but because of the Pandora’s box of new horrors it let loose and all the forms of bad governance that continue to drive them forward, The Great War deserves to be Grand Marshal in the current parade of human folly.

-End

Retired from the United Nations, Jay Moor lives with his wife, Judie, in Bozeman. He thanks Montana State University Associate Professor Dale Martin for supplying historical background to this piece in a recent short course on World War I sponsored by MSU’s adult learning program, Wonderlust. Weak connections and improbable conclusions may be attributed solely to the author and his undisciplined rush to concoct a theory of cultural violence.

 
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