Thursday, July 19, 2012

Judt on the 20th Century and the Meaning of War

I was scrounging around in the bowels of the blog, deleting long-forgotten draft posts, when I ran across a fragment, never finished, from 2008. It seemed better to post this one than delete it.

Tony Judt had an essay on the twentieth century in NYRB: What Have We Learned, If Anything?  Along the way, he asks:
What, then, is it that we have misplaced in our haste to put the twentieth century behind us? In the US, at least, we have forgotten the meaning of war. There is a reason for this. In much of continental Europe, Asia, and Africa the twentieth century was experienced as a cycle of wars. War in the last century signified invasion, occupation, displacement, deprivation, destruction, and mass murder. Countries that lost wars often lost population, territory, resources, security, and independence. But even those countries that emerged formally victorious had comparable experiences and usually remembered war much as the losers did. Italy after World War I, China after World War II, and France after both wars might be cases in point: all were "winners" and all were devastated. And then there are those countries that won a war but "lost the peace," squandering the opportunities afforded them by their victory. The Western Allies at Versailles and Israel in the decades following its June 1967 victory remain the most telling examples....
War was not just a catastrophe in its own right; it brought other horrors in its wake. World War I led to an unprecedented militarization of society, the worship of violence, and a cult of death that long outlasted the war itself and prepared the ground for the political disasters that followed. States and societies seized during and after World War II by Hitler or Stalin (or by both, in sequence) experienced not just occupation and exploitation but degradation and corrosion of the laws and norms of civil society. The very structures of civilized life—regulations, laws, teachers, policemen, judges— disappeared or else took on sinister significance: far from guaranteeing security, the state itself became the leading source of insecurity....
The United States avoided almost all of that...
The difference in civilian casualties was especially stark:  in World War II 67,000 British, 270,000 French, over 500,000 Yugoslavians, 1.8 million Germans, 5.5 million Polish, an estimated 11.4 million Soviets, over 16 million Chinese, and 2000 American civilians in both World Wars combined.

"As a consequence," Judt wrote,
the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today....For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the twentieth century is that war works....For Washington, war remains an option.... For the rest of the developed world it has become a last resort.
Judt's antidote was that "Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike..."