Makes you think

There are a lot of reasons to read Adam Gopnik's piece about World War I from an August New Yorker (I think the link is dead, but Nexis it if you can). For one, it is a very useful discussion of the popular reads one should pick up on the subject. I've read Guns of August and the Keegan book, and with god as my witness, the new Froomkin book and others mentioned therein will be read shortly.

But this passage stands out:

History does not offer lessons; its unique constellations of contingencies never repeat. But life does offer the same points, over and over again. A lesson is many-edged; a point has only one, but that one sharp. And the point we might still take from the First World War is the old one that wars are always, in Lincoln's perfectly chosen word, astounding. They produce results that we can hardly imagine when they start. It is not that wars are always wrong. It is that wars are always wars, good for destroying things that must be destroyed, as in 1864 or 1944, but useless for doing anything more, and no good at all for doing cultural work: saving the national honor, proving that we're not a second-rate power, avenging old humiliations, demonstrating resolve, or any of the rest of the empty vocabulary of self-improvement through mutual slaughter.

How strange then, at the beginning of the 21st century, that we should be conned by a new incarnation of this sentiment (albeit on a mercifully far smaller scale). That our leaders should be able to convince us once again that war, the violent intolerable deaths of our fellow human beings should be good for anything except avoiding an unconcionable alternative we have no choice to ignore. If you dig deep down in the Iraq war's true belivers, this is the sentiment you will find. It is remarkable the pull it has on us, even now, after perhaps the most personal violent act committed on the American people. But it is there...that deep abiding faith that new violence can cleanse and disrupt the brutal systems of the past.

Look into their rhetoric and you'll find it. "Something had to be done about the cycle of authoritarianism in the Middle East." "Nothing short of a war could have brought democracy to the Iraqis." "Dictators won't change unless someone is willing to use force against them."


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