Saturday, July 28, 2007

What is it good for?

John Dewey, in 1927, on WWI, offered as a corrective (or, if you like, addition) to Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory:

"The extent of that war is unparalleled, because the conditions involved in it are so new … We think of all wars as much the same thing, only the last one was horrible beyond others. Colonies were drawn in: self-governing ones entered voluntarily; possessions were levied upon for troops; alliances were formed with remote countries in spite of diversities of race and culture, as in the cases of Great Britain and Japan, Germany and Turkey. Literally every continent upon the globe was involved. Indirect effects were as broad as direct. Not merely soldiers, but finance, industry and opinion were mobilized and consolidated … Extensive, enduring, intricate and serious indirect consequences of the conjoint activity of a comparatively few persons traverse the globe. The similes of the stone cast into the pool, ninepins in a row, the spark which kindles a vast conflagration, are pale in comparison with the reality … The consolidation of peoples in enclosed, nominally independent, national states has its counterpart in the fact that their acts affect groups and individuals in other states all over the world. The connections and ties which transferred energies set in motion in one spot to all parts of the earth were not tangible and visible; they do not stand out as do politically bounded states. But the war is there to show that they are as real, and to prove that they are not organized or regulated." (The Public and Its Problems, 127-128)

Dewey's idea here not that the war was meaninglessly destructive, which is mostly how Fussell sees it, but that it was terrifyingly meaningful: the war as the global spread of consequences beyond prediction, the realization that the world forms more of a system and that that system is less thoroughly understood than had previously been imagined, the war as the beginning of a new world order which is not in order; in short, a harbinger of globalization avant la lettre. With this vision in mind, one might say that English poets like Wilfred Owen ("What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns") wrote like soldiers; Apollinaire (“Le tonnerre des artilleries qui accomplisent / le terrible amour des peuples”) wrote like the war itself.