Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lessons of the Twentieth Century - Tony Judt

Tony Judt is a British Jewish historian specializing in European history. He is currently a professor at New York University and his most recent book was the critically acclaimed history of Europe since 1945 titled "Postwar". Not surprisingly for a historian interested in twentieth century Europe, Judt has reflected deeply and insightfully on war, genocide, occupation, empire and displacement of populations. He regularly writes for the New York Review of Books where many of his past essays are archived here.

His most recent essay titled "What have we Learned, if Anything" in the May 1st issue of the NY Review of Books is an eloquently argued plea to learn the right lessons from perhaps the bloodiest century in human history. Judt argues that, in America in particular, the more distant effects of 20th century suffering and the post cold war triumphalist view of the century's events have led to amnesia about the meaning of war. He calls war the "crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era" and goes on to discuss the dangerous consequences for the republic of not learning this crucial lesson from the 20th century. He looks at America's war against terrorism and examines how it displays massive ignorance of the key lessons from the previous century; "the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them".

It is always difficult to provide excerpts that would do justice to a well-argued, tight knit essay but here are some passages:

War, in short, prompted behavior that would have been unthinkable as well as dysfunctional in peacetime. It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War—total war—has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902. Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either communism or fascism would have seized hold of modern states. Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust. Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot. As for the brutalizing effect of war on ordinary soldiers themselves, this of course has been copiously documented.

The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly "good wars." The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.
Ignorance of twentieth-century history does not just contribute to a regrettable enthusiasm for armed conflict. It also leads to a misidentification of the enemy. We have good reason to be taken up just now with terrorism and its challenge. But before setting out on a hundred-year war to eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth, let us consider the following. Terrorists are nothing new. Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century.
This abstracting of foes and threats from their context—this ease with which we have talked ourselves into believing that we are at war with "Islamofascists," "extremists" from a strange culture, who dwell in some distant "Islamistan," who hate us for who we are and seek to destroy "our way of life"—is a sure sign that we have forgotten the lesson of the twentieth century: the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them.
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 and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war's indefinite continuance. And perhaps, in this protracted electoral season, we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?

Update: Just after publishing this post I saw in the April 20th New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review of "Reappraisals", Judt's new collection of essays.

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