H.D.S. Greenway: Did We Go to War to Stiffen Our Moral Fiber? (It's Happened Before)

Roundup: Historians' Take

H.D.S. Greenway, in the Boston Globe (Oct. 15, 2004):

Curiously, before the slaughter in the trenches taught them otherwise, many Europeans in 1914 welcomed the coming apocalypse as a cleansing force for the moral good of nations, a sweeping away of what they thought had become corrupt and decadent.

There was also a strong belief in empire, of the civilizing effects of what Europeans could teach "those lesser breeds without the law," as Rudyard Kipling put it.

The last decades of the 19th century were called the Belle Epoque, a materialistic, hedonistic age of peace and plenty that no distant cloud could ever threaten. Or so it seemed.

Yet as pleasant as those last days of peace might have been, there were discontented intellectuals. Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, quotes Thomas Mann on war as a moral necessity, "both purging and a liberation." In England, "any vestiges of (Oscar) Wilde would be swept away at last, and the reign of Kipling secured," Gopnik writes.

Even Sherlock Holmes, who surely should have known better, tells Dr. Watson in the summer of 1914 that the coming war will be "cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind, nonetheless, and a cleaner, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."

The American ambassador to Imperial Germany in 1914, James Gerard, wrote in his memoirs that when war was declared, "there was a general feeling among the Germans that their years of preparation would now bear fruit, that Germany would conquer the world and impose its Kultur among all nations."

One has to wonder if, among those discontented intellectuals of the Bush administration, there was not a similar impatience with America's "belle epoque," the decade of peace and plenty between the end of the Soviet Union and 9/11. Some of the Republicans close to Bush today called themselves "the Vulcans" after the Roman god of fire. Did they perceive a moral decay and a lack of imperial will in that brief, fin de siecle age of Bill Clinton, whom they despised? Did they perhaps see in the sloppy Clinton White House, culminating in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the modern equivalent of an Oscar Wilde age waiting to be swept away by the harder values of the right?

Did the German plans for war in 1914 and the German dream of spreading Kultur to other nations by force have their echo a century later in America with the pre- 9/11 plans to invade Iraq in order to spread democracy and American Kultur to lesser breeds without the law? If so, then the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 and Sept. 11, 2001, provided both sets of narcissistic idealists with the crisis they needed to put their plans into action.

George Bush's foreign policy is described as "Wilsonian," but perhaps it has more in common with an Imperial Germany that thought that a whiff of gunpowder and the use of raw power in the service of empire might restore moral fiber as well as make the world over in its image....

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Mary Jane VanEsselsttyn - 10/17/2004

The warmongers of the world have always tried to use some nobel reason to justfy their violence in order to convince te masses to support their wars that are really waged for profits. If what is expressed in this article is true then are we not delusional. How is it possible that such wars that are based on lies and deception and result in the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians can turn us into a more moral nation but instead lead us into a new dark age of barbarism .