zondag, februari 10, 2008

Over oorlog en planeten

Goed stuk uit de NYTimes.

"Europeans Are From Venus"

At the time of the World Cup the summer before last, there was a nice cartoon in the papers by Oliphant, with two panels. One showed “Soccer as seen by Americans,” a group of dainty chaps prancing lightly across the grass with purses dangling from their limp wrists, and the other, “American football as seen by Europeans,” a heap of brutally moronic humanoids using severed limbs to batter each others’ brains out.

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WHERE HAVE ALL THE SOLDIERS GONE?

The Transformation of Modern Europe.

By James J. Sheehan.

Illustrated. 284 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $26.

Yes, that sums up this reciprocal perception rather well — and it might have hinted at a contrast going beyond sports. The delicate midfield artists of Barcelona and Arsenal are vegetarian Venusians, shall we say? While the ferocious Giants and Patriots linebackers could be called Martian carnivores. The very games look like a metaphor for the gulf, growing between the two continents since World War II, that was the subject of Robert Kagan’s “Of Paradise and Power” in which he denounced sybaritic, pacifistic Europe on behalf of “Americans from Mars.”

As James J. Sheehan neatly observes in “Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?” Kagan’s philippic was published on Feb. 5, 2003, just 10 days before Europe saw the largest political demonstration in its history. More than half a million marched in Berlin to protest the imminent Iraq war, with other huge rallies in Rome, Barcelona and London (prompting Tony Blair’s bizarre comparison of the number of demonstrators with the number of Saddam Hussein’s victims). This outpouring of popular feeling against war no doubt confirmed Kagan in his view that those “Europeans from Venus” are now incapable of the use of military force that still comes naturally to Americans, and that it was “time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.”

However that may be, it’s a surely astonishing fact that no European war has been fought for more than 60 years, at least outside the ruins of Yugoslavia. Western Europe has become politically and socially demilitarized to a degree once unimaginable; after so many centuries of bloody conflict, Europeans don’t want to study war no more. In his scintillating tour d’horizon — and de force — Sheehan suggests that such obsolescence of war is specifically “the product of Europe’s distinctive history in the 20th century,” and he argues that it has created a new kind of European state along with “a dramatically new international system within Europe.”

There had been an earlier age of peace. The half-century following Waterloo was notably pacific after the violence from which it had emerged, and 1871 to 1914 saw the longest period until now without any war at all between larger European powers. There was besides a vigorous peace movement. Sheehan describes the vogue for such books as Bertha von Suttner’s “Lay Down Your Arms,” Ivan Bloch’s “Future of War,” which inspired the 1899 Hague peace conference, and Norman Angell’s “Great Illusion.” So it was that “at the beginning of the 20th century, as at the beginning of the 21st, a relatively peaceful Europe lived in a dangerously violent world.”

And yet even then there were powerful contrary forces plainly visible. In that age of ever more strident nationalism, chauvinists saw the army — and war — as the crucible forging national unity. Great powers displayed their greatness with mass conscript armies, uniforms were seen everywhere, and when a Bulgarian general said in 1910 that “we have become the most militaristic state in the world” it wasn’t a lament but a boast (not to say one of the many fascinating quotations with which Sheehan’s book is studded). An unmistakable mood was bored with the very achievements of consensual government and material improvement, while “the revolt of the masses” itself had military implications, as some saw: well before 1914 Churchill said with chilling prescience that democracy was more vindictive than oligarchy, and “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.”

In the end the Party of Peace did win, but only after the catastrophe between 1914 and 1945, with bloodshed surpassing anything ever seen and an utterly unparalleled murder of innocents; a regression that remains an inexplicable moral mystery. In those years one might say that the best lacked all conviction and the worst were full of passionate intensity: even after the carnage of the trenches, an important minority — Russian Communists as well as Italian Fascists — still believed in “the regenerating value of violence,” and this was brilliantly exploited by Hitler. When the next war came it was waged just as he demanded, “with the greatest brutality and without mercy.”

Although Sheehan’s title alludes to Europe since 1945, almost two-thirds of his narrative deals with the years up to then — but in a way those earlier years answer the question he poses. By the second half of the 20th century, having given a most vivid demonstration of Walter Benjamin’s saying that civilization and barbarism are far from incompatible, Europe was exhausted and ashamed. For all the exigencies of the cold war, there was an overwhelming desire never again to see real war, between France and Germany or among their neighbors.

The trente glorieuses after VE-Day saw three decades of astonishing economic growth, which coincided with another most remarkable change: “With or without a fight, Europeans abandoned their empires.” This proved pure benefit for Europe, if not for the former colonies, and its further significance was that, as Sheehan says in a typically perceptive phrase, the brute force with which empire had been won and held now seemed anachronistic, “part of a vanished world in which the ability to wage war had been centrally important to what it meant to be a state.”

From the 1970s the economy stalled while Europe faced numerous social problems. And yet as the cold war ran down the clock, it became gradually clearer that liberal democracy and a market economy mitigated by welfare had won a complete political victory over “actually existing socialism.” At the same time Europe was fully “civilianized”: conscription was abandoned, armies themselves assimilated the values of civilian society and, as the great English military historian Michael Howard has put it, “death was no longer seen as being part of the social contract.”

But life is full of surprises. Sheehan’s book is sprinkled with confident but foolish predictions, like H. N. Brailsford averring in the early summer of 1914 that “there will be no more wars among the six great powers,” or The Economist in September of that year dilating on “the economic and financial impossibility of carrying out hostilities many more months on the present scale.”Just over 70 years later, as cocksure as ever and as wrong, that magazine asserted in 1985 “that nothing much will have changed by the year 2025.” Shortly after those words were published, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet empire imploded and savage violence consumed the Balkans, whence so many of Europe’s woes had long stemmed.

Here Sheehan is most sagacious. He sees that the game was up for the Soviet regime the moment Gorbachev disavowed “force and the threat of force,” and he gets the break-up of Yugoslavia right. In late 1991, at the insistence of the German government (itself egged on, one might add, by Serb-bashing right-wing columnists in papers like The Frankfurter Allgemeine), the European Union recognized the sovereignty of Slovenia and Croatia, and then Bosnia, crucially and disastrously before the nationality questions in those territories had been resolved. This encouraged a competitive round of territorial acquisition and ethnic expulsion and “intensified the predatory war being fought by Serbs and Croatians against Bosnia.”

It was of course ludicrous as well as hubristic for Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, to say at this juncture that “the hour of Europe has dawned,” but trans-Atlantic denunciations of European weakness were also misplaced. When the tub-thumpers of Capitol Hill and the op-ed pages were asked 15 years ago what kind of military intervention in the Balkans they had in mind, it turned out to mean American air cover while the Western Europeans provided the P.B.I., as the British Army used to say, the poor bloody infantry, a division of labor that had little appeal in Europe.

What sense does “Mars and Venus” have in the light of the past century, and the price paid by different countries? In 1914-18, 1.3 million Frenchmen (those cheese-eating surrender monkeys) were killed defending their country, which is to say more than twice as many as all the Americans who have died in every foreign war from 1776 until today. There has been much anguish about American casualties in Iraq, where last year was the worst since 2003, with all of 901 deaths. Reading that, the European may reflect silently on the dates Aug. 22, 1914, when 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a day, or July 1, 1916, when 20,000 British troops died.

It isn’t necessary to agree with Evelyn Waugh writing to his friend Graham Greene — “Of course the Americans are cowards. They are almost all the descendants of wretches who deserted their legitimate monarchs for fear of military service” — to see clearly that the United States isn’t a warlike country at all. In many ways it has always been more deeply peaceable in its instincts than ever Europe was.

And is the civilianization of Europe such a bad thing? Although there has been much grumbling about the Bundeswehr’s inadequate contribution in Afghanistan, some of us cannot see it as an occasion for pure regret if the Germans have changed character so drastically. In World War II, the Wehrmacht was unquestionably the best army, man for man and unit for unit, not least against the less ferocious “citizens in uniform” of the British and American Armies. Is that really a cause for British or American shame? When German rearmament began in the 1950s, at American urging, Gustav Heinemann resigned as Adenauer’s interior minister, with the words, “God took arms out of our hands twice; we must not take hold of them a third time.” Was he so wrong?

In a bravura final chapter Sheehan explains “Why Europe Will Not Become a Superpower.” As he recognizes, the European Union is already a superstate economically, but its failure to develop a common foreign and defense policy will continue to disappoint some enthusiasts. Disingenuous and ignorant at once, Blair once said that no one had ever envisaged a United States of Europe. In fact that very phrase has been current since the mid-19th century. But it was always a false analogy, illustrating Johnson’s saying that life’s follies stem from the attempt to emulate that which we do not resemble: the European Union no more resembles the American Union than the Soviet Union, and why should it?

It is not complacent to say that “the European idea” has in many ways been a heartening success, even if it never achieved all that its early proponents hoped. Europeans may have chosen butter instead of guns, and Europe as a whole may even be what Churchill said he hoped to see Germany become after 1945 — fat but impotent. And yet, while the continents are certainly drifting apart in some ways (secular Europe looks on with bewilderment at the contest between preacher-men in this presidential campaign), Europeans aren’t quite the decadent lotus-eaters that some Americans claim.

One can talk about European soft power against American hard power, but the point is made better by Sheehan in the peroration to this excellent book. The birth of the Bolshevik regime — and then of Fascist and National Socialist regimes — was a direct consequence of the “intense violence” then poisoning Europe. The astonishingly peaceful collapse of Communism rather more than 70 years later reflected in turn “the decline of violence that, by the 1980s, had transformed international and domestic politics throughout Europe”: a change for the better if ever there was one. To put it another way, soccer is not only England’s and Europe’s gift to all mankind. It really is a better game.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include “The Controversy of Zion,” “The Strange Death of Tory England” and “Yo, Blair!” He is writing a book on Churchill’s reputation before and since his death.


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