Monday, February 12, 2007
From idealism springs horror
Adam Gopnik, reviewing David A Bell's "The First Total War," writes in the New Yorker:
Before the modern period, wars were just part of life, like taxes and sickness. Every country fought them and was expected to fight them—they were a necessary sign of aristocratic virtue among the officers who led them—but they were fought largely along established lines, and among soldiers who were, like Renaissance mercenaries, more devoted to the profession than to any cause. [...]Indeed, there is nothing more horrible than a dream of utopia. And Bell's book and Gopnik's article aren't just about history -- idealism and war are inevitable bedmates in our times as well, no matter which side you look at. No?
Into this often bloody but still limited and cautious warfare came, alas, the intellectuals. The French philosophes of the Enlightenment began to see war not as one of those things which happen but as one of those things which must be forbidden. [...] Of course, once the philosophes had dreamed of an end to war, the fact that war hadn’t ended could mean only that someone was keeping it from ending. The vexing remnant of the old-fashioned had to be swept away. Through the one-last-time exertions of total war, total peace would arrive at last.
And so, Bell argues—using a reverse spin familiar to all readers of Foucault and company—from the germ of Enlightenment idealism springs modern horror. Instead of limited battles, we have entire nations swept up together in ideological or nationalist crusades: the long line of misery that led to “the war to end all wars,” “the decisive ideological struggle of our time,” and so on, each designed to use maximum violence to end violence in the world, with predictable results. Wars to end all wars give way to wars that never end.