June 01, 2008

The Effect of War

Vino suggests that we should be cautious about automatically assuming that the fact that America did not fight in the first world war leads to the point that America is more militaristic than Europe. He is entirely right. It struck me when reading Vino's post that the experience of war has some very complicated effects on societies. For a start, it is worth remembering that American history no less than European history has been governed by war- whereas we remember Churchill and the trenches, America has a folk memory of Roosevelt and Lincoln. The Civil War is a crucial moment within American history and in a sense you cannot understand America in the late 19th and early 20th century without understanding the civil war. Afterall the vice President in 1932 was born barely after the war had ended and lived right up until 1968.

America's past may be as war torn as Europe's but its also worth remembering that wars can have odd effects. The First World War has been a great force for pacifism in European history since 1918: the change effected on the generation that went to fight and the generation that sent them was profound. Just consider Rudyard Kipling whose life was shattered after his son died at the front, or JRR Tolkein whose Lord of the Rings trilogy is obviously scarred by the implications of total war- the marshes of the dead by Mordor are one of the more terrifying descriptions of the trenches ever to have been written in literature. But Tolkein's example should indicate something else- that war can transform lives but not neccessarily in a pacifist direction. Tolkein was no pacifist, rather war reinforced his Catholicism- which is so memorably expressed in the structure of his fable. If that variety is true of the First World War and of the American Civil War then it is equally true of earlier wars.

The point is that it is the mindset with which people approach war that governs their reactions to it. Ultimately war is a terrifying and upsetting experience- especially a war like that in 1914 or in 1860 which kills a large proportion of those who go out to fight. It changes lives. But it changes lives from within. The soldiers of the English civil war for example went to war with a profound monotheistic conviction and came back convinced that providence had saved them for a purpose. Wilfrid Owen and Seigfried Sassoon's generation often went to war with a more secular conviction and came back with a hatred for the 'old gang' who had manipulated the country into war. The effects of destruction in Iraq have ressembled the model of the 1640s more than that of the 1914 war but the general truth remains there. Vino is right to be cautious that war explains differences in militarism between the two parts of the western alliance: it is the attitude you go to war with that largely governs how you interpret the experience of war and how you come out of it. War can therefore do different things to different societies- depending on the way that soldiers approach and experience its tragedies.

War as a general phenomenon produces stress and fear, sorrow and hate. Those emotions cause change in individuals. But it is the base from which they start often, as much as the experience they go through, that explains the place they end up in. Searching for differences based on shared experiences within societies but not between them might help us, but we need to understand whether the societies were in the same place beforehand before we can state that the absense of a variable contributed to the different attitude.


Peter Risdon said...

America did fight in WWI - and the post you linked to acknowledges that.

Vino S said...

Thanks for doing this article - definitely a lot more detailed than my original one. Your example of the reaction of soliders in the 1640s is an interesting one - the war might have actually sharpened their religious convictions in that case (given the religious-political radicalism of groups like the Levellers who had lived through the war).

Gracchi said...

Casual language Peter indeed- I apologise but the point that was important to me was that America was involved to a lesser extent than the Europeans in the First World War. I apologise deeply for my casual language.

Vino thanks.

Political Umpire said...

Peter spotted the major error. But what did you mean by saying "the fact that America did not fight in the first world war leads to the point that America is more militaristic than Europe. "? Surely not fighting does not lead to the point that they are militaristic - quite the opposite.

The Civil War is often unappreciated outside America. Its significance goes very far indeed; the world would be a very different place had it gone the other way (something I have been debating on my blog for a while now with several others). The numbers were staggering - more dead than every war in which America has fought since combined. The casualties in Iraq thus far amount to less than an hour of Antietam (or Gettysburg or several other major battles). If America mobilized the same percentages nowadays you would be looking at something in the region of 50-60 million under arms (cf the present troop levels in Iraq of 160 odd thousand)!

It was in many ways the first industrialised war. And the manner in which it was fought suggests that America can be very militaristic indeed - Sherman's march to the sea was merciless and in the end the Confederacy was beaten first because they'd spent all their manpower and secondly because the North crushed their economy.

Gracchi said...

You see pol ump, I now feel like Chaplin in a film, I've slipped over a banana skin only to fall on a rake!

Of course you are right. I suppose the argument I was critiquing was not so much about America in World War One or Two as America since which you could argue has been more militaristic than Europe. To be honest slack language again and I'm not sure this post can be rescued from it: but the point I was making and think is right is that the effects of war are more complex than just creating pacifists and depend on where you start from as much as on the fact of war. I made several errors in terms of what I wrote: though I hope nobody beleives that I didn't know that America wasn't in World War One- but the essential point I wanted to make I think is right: war's effect on society is more complicated than just creating a nation of pacifists.

Anyway I don't think this post is really worth rescuing- I will now let it sink in ignominy! Apologies again.

dreadnought said...

Aside from your 'America' comment, did Owen and Sassoon speak for their generation as you imply? Or do they speak for those, now, who want to view the Great War through them? Was Britain manipulated into war by the ‘old gang’ or did Britain go to war to protect its interests, in an act of national survival, and prevent domination of Europe by a single, militaristic power?

Gracchi said...

I made no comment on why Britain went to war. Did Sassoon and Owen represent their generation or are they the lense through which we now view the war. I think that is an interesting question- I don't think the answers are neccesarily independent. It is true to say that there were people who were very influenced by that picture of the war- Rudyard Kipling is a great example after he lost his son. I'm not suggesting that that picture of the war was the only picture- though I would hesitate to see a way in which the death of a large proportion of the population could be seen as a good thing. Definitely in my own family, the first world war led to some catastropic consequences- with my great grandfather basically blaming my grandfather and my grand uncle for the fact that he had been lamed for life by the Somme.

I know you want to reevaluate the fact of the war and propose that it was probably the right decision-I'm not arguing with that- what I don't think you can argue with though is that the dominating impact of the war was in the long run pacifist and that was because of the devastation that it wreaked in some lives. I think that the memory of the war had political consequences for a long time- even if other memories of the war coexisted afterwards for a long time with the dominating memory. I don't think that dominating memory was strictly Sassoonian- that's why I mention Kipling- but I don't think the memory of 1914 helped propel people in 1939.