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What Have We Learned, If Anything?

The twentieth century is hardly behind us but already its quarrels and its achievements, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory. In the West we have made haste to dispense whenever possible with the economic, intellectual, and institutional baggage of the twentieth century and encouraged others to do likewise. In the wake of 1989, with boundless confidence and insufficient reflection, we put the twentieth century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market.

The belief that that was then and this is now embraced much more than just the defunct dogmas andinstitutions of cold war–era communism. During the Nineties, and again in the wake of September 11, 2001, I was struck more than once by a perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion. We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us. Ours, we assert, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The recent past is the hardest to know and understand. Moreover, the world really has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1989 and such transformations are always unsettling for those who remember how things were before. In the decades following the French Revolution, the douceur de vivre of the vanished ancien régime was much regretted by older commentators. A century later, evocations and memoirs of pre–Word War I Europe typically depicted (and still depict) a lost civilization, a world whose illusions had quite literally been blown apart: “Never such innocence again.”1

But there is a difference. Contemporaries might have regretted the world before the French Revolution. But they had not forgotten it. For much of the nineteenth century Europeans remained obsessed with the causes and meaning of the upheavals that began in 1789. The political and philosophical debates of the Enlightenment had not been consumed in the fires of revolution. On the contrary, the Revolution and its consequences were widely attributed to that same Enlightenment which thus emerged—for friend and foe alike—as the acknowledged source of the political dogmas and social programs of the century that followed.

In a similar vein, while everyone after 1918 agreed that things would never be the same again, the particular shape that a postwar world should take was everywhere conceived and contested in the long shadow of nineteenth-century experience and thought. Neoclassical economics, liberalism, Marxism (and its Communist stepchild), “revolution,” the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, imperialism, and “industrialism”—the building blocks of the twentieth-century political world—were all nineteenth-century artifacts. Even those who, along with Virginia Woolf, believed that “on or about December 1910, human character changed”—that the cultural upheaval of Europe’s fin de siècle had utterly transformed the terms of intellectual exchange—nonetheless devoted a surprising amount of energy to shadowboxing with their predecessors.2 The past hung heavy across the present.

Today, in contrast, we wear the last century rather lightly. To be sure, we have memorialized it everywhere: shrines, inscriptions, “heritage sites,” even historical theme parks are all public reminders of “the Past.” But the twentieth century that we have chosen to commemorate is curiously out of focus. The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory are either avowedly nostalgo-triumphalist—praising famous men and celebrating famous victories—or else, and increasingly, they are opportunities for the recollection of selective suffering.

The twentieth century is thus on the path to becoming a moral memory palace: a pedagogically serviceable Chamber of Historical Horrors whose way stations are labeled “Munich” or “Pearl Harbor,” “Auschwitz” or “Gulag,” “Armenia” or “Bosnia” or “Rwanda”; with “9/11” as a sort of supererogatory coda, a bloody postscript for those who would forget the lessons of the century or who failed to learn them. The problem with this lapidary representation of the last century as a uniquely horrible time from which we have now, thankfully, emerged is not the description—it was in many ways a truly awful era, an age of brutality and mass suffering perhaps unequaled in the historical record. The problem is the message: that all of that is now behind us, that its meaning is clear, and that we may now advance—unencumbered by past errors—into a different and better era.

But such official commemoration does not enhance our appreciation and awareness of the past. It serves as a substitute, a surrogate. Instead of teaching history we walk children through museums and memorials. Worse still, we encourage them to see the past—and its lessons—through the vector of their ancestors’ suffering. Today, the “common” interpretation of the recent past is thus composed of the manifold fragments of separate pasts, each of them (Jewish, Polish, Serb, Armenian, German, Asian-American, Palestinian, Irish, homosexual…) marked by its own distinctive and assertive victimhood.

The resulting mosaic does not bind us to a shared past, it separates us from it. Whatever the shortcomings of the national narratives once taught in school, however selective their focus and instrumental their message, they had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience. Traditional history, as taught to generations of schoolchildren and college students, gave the present a meaning by reference to the past: today’s names, places, inscriptions, ideas, and allusions could be slotted into a memorized narrative of yesterday. In our time, however, this process has gone into reverse. The past now acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting present concerns.

This disconcertingly alien character of the past is doubtless in part the result of the sheer speed of contemporary change. “Globalization” really has churned up people’s lives in ways that their parents or grandparents would be hard put to imagine. Much of what had for decades, even centuries, seemed familiar and permanent is now passing rapidly into oblivion. The past, it seems, really is another country: they did things differently there.

The expansion of communication offers a case in point. Until the last decades of the twentieth century most people in the world had limited access to information; but—thanks to national education, state-controlled radio and television, and a common print culture—within any one state or nation or community people were all likely to know many of the same things. Today, the opposite applies. Most people in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa have access to a near infinity of data. But in the absence of any common culture beyond a small elite, and not always even there, the fragmented information and ideas that people select or encounter are determined by a multiplicity of tastes, affinities, and interests. As the years pass, each one of us has less in common with the fast-multiplying worlds of our contemporaries, not to speak of the world of our forebears.

All of this is surely true—and it has disturbing implications for the future of democratic governance. Nevertheless, disruptive change, even global transformation, is not in itself unprecedented. The economic “globalization” of the late nineteenth century was no less turbulent, except that its implications were initially felt and understood by far fewer people. What is significant about the present age of transformations is the unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not merely the practices of the past but their very memory. A world just recently lost is already half forgotten.

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.

Moreover, war in the twentieth century frequently meant civil war: often under the cover of occupation or “liberation.” Civil war played a significant role in the widespread “ethnic cleansing” and forced population transfers of the twentieth century, from India and Turkey to Spain and Yugoslavia. Like foreign occupation, civil war is one of the terrible “shared” memories of the past hundred years. In many countries “putting the past behind us”—i.e., agreeing to overcome or forget (or deny) a recent memory of internecine conflict and intercommunal violence—has been a primary goal of postwar governments: sometimes achieved, sometimes overachieved.

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. Reciprocity and trust, whether in neighbors, colleagues, community, or leaders, collapsed. Behavior that would be aberrant in conventional circumstances—theft, dishonesty, dissemblance, indifference to the misfortune of others, and the opportunistic exploitation of their suffering—became not just normal but sometimes the only way to save your family and yourself. Dissent or opposition was stifled by universal fear.

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.3

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.4 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.

This contrast merits statistical emphasis. In World War I the US suffered slightly fewer than 120,000 combat deaths. For the UK, France, and Germany the figures are respectively 885,000, 1.4 million, and over 2 million. In World War II, when the US lost about 420,000 armed forces in combat, Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the deaths of 58,195 Americans over the course of a war lasting fifteen years: but the French army lost double that number in six weeks of fighting in May–June 1940. In the US Army’s costliest engagement of the century—the Ardennes offensive of December 1944–January 1945 (the “Battle of the Bulge”)—19,300 American soldiers were killed. In the first twenty-four hours of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), the British army lost more than 20,000 dead. At the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army lost 750,000 men and the Wehrmacht almost as many.

With the exception of the generation of men who fought in World War II, the United States thus has no modern memory of combat or loss remotely comparable to that of the armed forces of other countries. But it is civilian casualties that leave the most enduring mark on national memory and here the contrast is piquant indeed. In World War II alone the British suffered 67,000 civilian dead. In continental Europe, France lost 270,000 civilians. Yugoslavia recorded over half a million civilian deaths, Germany 1.8 million, Poland 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 11.4 million. These aggregate figures include some 5.8 million Jewish dead. Further afield, in China, the death count exceeded 16 million. American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead.

As a consequence, 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. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies—seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.

That same contrast may account for the distinctive quality of much American writing on the cold war and its outcome. In European accounts of the fall of communism, from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, the dominant sentiment is one of relief at the closing of a long, unhappy chapter. Here in the US, however, the story is typically recorded in a triumphalist key.5 And why not? For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the twentieth century is that war works. Hence the widespread enthusiasm for our war on Iraq in 2003 (despite strong opposition to it in most other countries). For Washington, war remains an option—on that occasion the first option. For the rest of the developed world it has become a last resort.6

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.

There have been anarchist terrorists, Russian terrorists, Indian terrorists, Arab terrorists, Basque terrorists, Malay terrorists, Tamil terrorists, and dozens of others besides. There have been and still are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, and Muslim terrorists. There were Yugoslav (“partisan”) terrorists settling scores in World War II; Zionist terrorists blowing up Arab marketplaces in Palestine before 1948; American-financed Irish terrorists in Margaret Thatcher’s London; US-armed mujahideen terrorists in 1980s Afghanistan; and so on.

No one who has lived in Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, the UK, or France, not to speak of more habitually violent lands, could have failed to notice the omnipresence of terrorists—using guns, bombs, chemicals, cars, trains, planes, and much else—over the course of the twentieth century and beyond. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the unleashing in September 2001 of homicidal terrorism within the United States. Even that was not wholly unprecedented: the means were new and the carnage unexampled, but terrorism on US soil was far from unknown over the course of the twentieth century.

But what of the argument that terrorism today is different, a “clash of cultures” infused with a noxious brew of religion and authoritarian politics: “Islamofascism”? This, too, is an interpretation resting in large part on a misreading of twentieth-century history. There is a triple confusion here. The first consists of lumping together the widely varying national fascisms of interwar Europe with the very different resentments, demands, and strategies of the (equally heterogeneous) Muslim movements and insurgencies of our own time—and attaching the moral credibility of the antifascist struggles of the past to our own more dubiously motivated military adventures.

A second confusion comes from conflating a handful of religiously motivated stateless assassins with the threat posed in the twentieth century by wealthy, modern states in the hands of totalitarian political parties committed to foreign aggression and mass extermination. Nazism was a threat to our very existence and the Soviet Union occupied half of Europe. But al-Qaeda? The comparison insults the intelligence—not to speak of the memory of those who fought the dictators. Even those who assert these similarities don’t appear to believe them. After all, if Osama bin Laden were truly comparable to Hitler or Stalin, would we really have responded to September 11 by invading…Baghdad?

But the most serious mistake consists of taking the form for the content: defining all the various terrorists and terrorisms of our time, with their contrasting and sometimes conflicting objectives, by their actions alone. It would be rather as though one were to lump together the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof gang, the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, Switzerland’s Jura Separatists, and the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica; dismiss their differences as insignificant; label the resulting amalgam of ideological kneecappers, bomb throwers, and political murderers “European Extremism” (or “Christo-fascism,” perhaps?)…and then declare uncompromising, open-ended armed warfare against it.

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.

How else are we to explain our present indulgence for the practice of torture? For indulge it we assuredly do. The twentieth century began with the Hague Conventions on the laws of war. As of 2008 the twenty-first century has to its credit the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Here and in other (secret) prisons the United States routinely tortures terrorists or suspected terrorists. There is ample twentieth-century precedent for this, of course, and not only in dictatorships. The British tortured terrorists in their East African colonies as late as the 1950s. The French tortured captured Algerian terrorists in the “dirty war” to keep Algeria French.7

At the height of the Algerian war Raymond Aron published two powerful essays urging France to quit Algeria and concede its independence: this, he insisted, was a pointless war that France could not win. Some years later Aron was asked why, when opposing French rule in Algeria, he did not also add his voice to those who were speaking out against the use of torture in Algeria. “But what would I have achieved by proclaiming my opposition to torture?” he replied. “I have never met anyone who is in favor of torture.”8

Well, times have changed. In the US today there are many respectable, thinking people who favor torture—under the appropriate circumstances and when applied to those who merit it. Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School writes that “the simple cost-benefit analysis for employing such non-lethal torture [to extract time-sensitive information from a prisoner] seems overwhelming.” Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago’s School of Divinity acknowledges that torture remains a horror and is “in general [sic]…forbidden.” But when interrogating “prisoners in the context of a deadly and dangerous war against enemies who know no limits…there are moments when this rule may be overridden.”9

These chilling assertions are echoed by New York’s Senator Charles Schumer (a Democrat), who at a Senate hearing in 2004 claimed that “there are probably very few people in this room or in America who would say that torture should never ever be used.” Certainly not Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who informed the BBC’s Radio Four in February 2008 that it would be absurd to say that you couldn’t torture. In Scalia’s words,

Once you acknowledge that, we’re into a different game. How close does the threat have to be? How severe can the infliction of pain be? I don’t think these are easy questions at all…. But I certainly know you can’t come in smugly and with great self-satisfaction and say, “Oh, it’s torture, and therefore it’s no good.”10

But it was precisely that claim, that “it’s torture, and therefore it’s no good,” which until very recently distinguished democracies from dictatorships. We pride ourselves on having defeated the “evil empire” of the Soviets. Indeed so. But perhaps we should read again the memoirs of those who suffered at the hands of that empire—the memoirs of Eugen Loebl, Artur London, Jo Langer, Lena Constante, and countless others—and then compare the degrading abuses they suffered with the treatments approved and authorized by President Bush and the US Congress. Are they so very different?11

Torture certainly “works.” As the history of twentieth-century police states suggests, under extreme torture most people will say anything (including, sometimes, the truth). But to what end? Thanks to information extracted from terrorists under torture, the French army won the 1957 Battle of Algiers. Just over four years later the war was over, Algeria was independent, and the “terrorists” had won. But France still carries the stain and the memory of the crimes committed in its name. Torture really is no good, especially for republics. And as Aron noted many decades ago, “torture—and lies—[are] the accompaniment of war…. What needed to be done was end the war.”12

We are slipping down a slope. The sophistic distinctions we draw today in our war on terror—between the rule of law and “exceptional” circumstances, between citizens (who have rights and legal protections) and noncitizens to whom anything can be done, between normal people and “terrorists,” between “us” and “them”—are not new. The twentieth century saw them all invoked. They are the selfsame distinctions that licensed the worst horrors of the recent past: internment camps, deportation, torture, and murder—those very crimes that prompt us to murmur “never again.” So what exactly is it that we think we have learned from the past? Of what possible use is our self-righteous cult of memory and memorials if the United States can build its very own internment camp and torture people there?

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?

  1. 1

    Never such innocence,

    Never before or since,

    As changed itself to past

    Without a word—the men

    Leaving the gardens tidy,

    The thousands of marriages

    Lasting a little while longer:

    Never such innocence again.

    —Philip Larkin, MCMXIV

  2. 2

    See, for example, Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, first published in 1918.

  3. 3

    See Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941–1944, edited by Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1995). Many German soldiers on the eastern front and in Yugoslavia recorded their worst crimes for the delectation of family and friends. The American prison guards in Abu Ghraib are their lineal descendants.

  4. 4

    The defeated South did indeed experience just such consequences following the Civil War, however. And its subsequent humiliation, resentment, and backwardness are the American exception that illustrates the rule.

  5. 5

    See my discussion of The Cold War: A New History (Penguin, 2005) by John Lewis Gaddis, in The New York Review, March 23, 2006.

  6. 6

    It should be noted, however, that a younger generation of political leaders in the UK—starting with Tony Blair—has proven almost as indifferent to the lessons of the twentieth century as their American contemporaries.

  7. 7

    See Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt, 2005); Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Princeton University Press, 2008); and Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2007).

  8. 8

    Raymond Aron, La Tragédie Algérienne (Paris: Plon, 1957), L’Algérie et la République (Paris: Plon, 1958), and Le Spectateur engagé (Paris: Julliard, 1981), p. 210. For a firsthand account of torture, see Henri Alleg, The Question (Bison, 2006; originally published in 1958 as La Question). La Torture dans la République, by the late Pierre Vidal-Naquet, is a penetrating account of how torture rots the political system that authorizes it. First published in English in 1963, this book has long been out of print. It should be retranslated and made required reading for every congressman and presidential candidate in the US.

  9. 9

    Alan M. Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (Yale University Press, 2002), p. 144; Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Reflections on the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands,’” in Torture: A Collection, edited by Sanford Levinson (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 80–83.

  10. 10

    Senator Schumer is quoted in The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2007. For Justice Scalia’s remarks, see www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2008-02-13-scalia_N.htm.

  11. 11

    Lena Constante, The Silent Escape: Three Thousand Days in Romanian Prisons (University of California Press, 1995); Jo Langer, Une Saison à Bratislava (Paris: Seuil, 1981); Eugen Loebl, My Mind on Trial (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); Artur Gerard London, L’Aveu, dans l’engrenage du Procès de Prague (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).

  12. 12

    Le Spectateur engagé, pp. 210–211.

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