Monday, March 14, 2005

Understanding War

Instead of reading news I've been living in the past for several days, reading three different books from three different eras. Some seem truly past, such as The Federalist Papers, which I'm supposed to be teaching next week, and Barbara Goldsmith's book on Victoria Woodhull and 19th century reform movements, Other Powers. While the conflict between debtors and creditors that shaped the constitution remains pressing, and the intersection of sex and evangelical christianity does continue to amuse today, it was the third book on my list that was eerily current.
14-18: Understanding the Great War is part of a growing field of French scholarship about memory, and is part critique of myths of WWI in contemporary European (particularly French) society, and part an attempt to correct war nostalgia by reanimating the gore and pain of the battlefied and the prison camp. This book is pretty fascinating as an approach to war in general, and I think its familiarity comes largely from the fact that WWI so shaped the twentieth century and modern wars. While much of the book illuminates differences between European and American memories of the 20th century, there were aspects of the experiences and mythologies surrounding WWI itself that felt creepily familiar.
For instance, the authors note the intense religiosity of the war and the way that religious mysticism permeated the culture as a whole during the war.
One of the central points in the book is that in contemporary European memorials to soldiers, the young men are described as victims only, and the acts of cruelty, even the breaking of common conventions of warfare up to that time, are rarely discussed. The book questions this notion of the WWI soldiers as victims and argues that many of the young men had volunteered for the war. It also challenges the idea that propaganda came from above and disseminated the myths of war to the population. On the contrary the authors say, the propaganda came from below, in a massive welling-up of patriotism. This part of the book seems on shakier ground, as it does not present much evidence to explain this point, or to discount the concentrated propaganda efforts of all sides during the war.
Also, much of the presentation of soldiers as victims seems reasonable. When I've taught the "Great War" in the past, I've always relied on Rosa Luxemburg's Junius Pamphlet with its evocative introductory passages:
Gone is the euphoria. Gone the patriotic noise in the streets, the chase after the gold-colored automobile, one false telegram after another, the wells poisoned by cholera, the Russian students heaving bombs over every railway bridge in Berlin, the French airplanes over Nuremberg, the spy hunting public running amok in the streets, the swaying crowds in the coffee shops with ear-deafening patriotic songs surging ever higher, whole city neighborhoods transformed into mobs ready to denounce, to mistreat women, to shout hurrah and to induce delirium in themselves by means of wild rumors. Gone, too, is the atmosphere of ritual murder, the Kishinev air where the crossing guard is the only remaining representative of human dignity.
It is coming up on the second anniversary of the U.S.'s sadistic "shock and awe" air attack, and it seems that for about 50% of us, the patriotism has not yet dimmed. So Bush makes Wilsonian claims for his invasion and occupation of Iraq, and some call him Wilsonian, also drawing parallels between WWI and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Let's hope that the emergence of IVAW and similar groups signals a similar disillusionment to follow.

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