Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Song for the Century

Ypres, Flanders, Belgium.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they speak
To an apathetic grave;
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
—W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939" 
I don't know why Remembrance Day has affected me so much more this year than the past two years I've lived in Britain, or the many Veterans' Days before in the U.S. The omnipresent poppies have something to do with it, and with the difference between the two countries. In America, it's only the most mindful who really observe the day—the veterans, their families, the pious, patriotic, and civically engaged. In Britain, the poppies (such publicly crimson tokens) are everywhere: on lapels, on vehicles, in shops. There is a way to show remembrance together—not necessarily or merely of the nation, but of war itself. America has no such way. The closest you could come would be a flag pin, which says something different.

It is an especially public year, the hundredth since the War—the Great War, the war to end all wars that didn't—started. The first lesson American students of modern British history learn is that the war, a minor one in the American consciousness, was unfathomably more scarring for Britain and Europe—that this is when everything changed, when the horrors of the 20th century began to unfold in earnest. The "long nineteenth century" crashed to an end, and the rough and bloodthirsty beast shambled in. 17 million dead in four and a half years. But that was just the start. 5 million in the Russian Revolution, 1.5 million Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks, half a million in Spain, at least 60 million in the Second World War (a fifth in the Holocaust), a million each in Korea and Vietnam, 3 million in the Congo and surrounding nations; and then the Easter Uprising, Amritsar, Algeria, Cambodia, Afghanistan too many times to count, the 1949 Revolution, Bangladesh, Colombia, Iran-Iraq, the Troubles, the Balkans, Somalia, Sudan, Syria... And this is obviously a laughably incomplete list, one that leaves out events with small body counts but high costs to our humanity: the Cold War; the gulags; the Emergency; Tiānānmen. Maybe, despite the death tolls, we actually are becoming more peaceful over time, as Steven Pinker argues. But that says even worse things about all the centuries before.

It was a bloody century, and on the eve of another, prospects aren't improving. We've been denuded of the optimism that let us hope the first mechanized total war would be the last. What's worse is that we keep retreading the same scorched ground, living out original sins laid down a century ago in the war that started it all. Arthur Balfour writes a letter, and a hundred years later we're worried about a third intifada in a hopeless half-century war. Some meaningless lines get drawn across thousands of miles of desert and rainforest out of colonial convenience, and people are still dying because of them. Columns of Russian tanks are crawling through the same villages Stalin tried to starve into nothingness. No one in Asia apologizes for anything ever. And that war, that origin myth of our tattered age, provides the right metaphor: two sides gunning each other down with no movement, no hope, not even passion, just attrition robbed of meaning and glory.

World War I is not, of course, the cause of everything; and it too had its causes. We trace the aetiology of wars as if to help us stop them, and maybe it might someday; but our miserable failure at doing so up to now makes me think that we do it mainly because to pathologize is to grieve. From the very beginning of historiography, trying to excavate the origins of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides saw this—saw the need to descry the apparent reasons for war into the real ones, just to understand, to write his "major war more momentous than any previous conflict" indelibly into the corporate memory, not as a tool, but as an expression of something demanding a more precise knowledge than poetry allows. Why did this war happen? he asked. We ask the same question of every war. It's in the nature of remembrance. We have never gotten a satisfactory answer. 

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