CRB: On the slaughter bench of history

We conclude our preview of the Summer issue of the Claremont Review of Books today—the hundredth anniversary of the first battle of the Marne—with Algis Valiunas’s First World War essay, “On the Slaughter Bench of History.” A fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Valiunas draws on several of the numerous books released to commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War to explore the historical, cultural and literary echoes.

“Never such innocence again”—Philip Larkin captured in this line the our general perception of the epoch preceding the bloodshed, a time of confidence, stability, comfort, and security, all broken against the mad modern machines of war. As Valiunas shows, such romanticizing of the pre-war period grew naturally enough from the memories of its survivors: after witnessing the horrors of the Marne, Paschendale, Verdun, the Somme—names that continue to summon the ghost of carnage a century later—how could the past look like anything but a lost Eden? How did such an irenic world find itself mired in the trenches?

In exploring the origins of the war Valiunas draws attention to those few individuals who were in a position to prevent the war. The tragedy of the pre-war period is that such men were either too incompetent to resist calls for war, or, far worse, were themselves lusting for glorious battle: “The men on top are the men who matter most, and the most important thing about them is their inadequacy.”

Valiunas runs through a sad list of men in positions of great power yet in thrall to their desires; men incapable of acting reasonably because overpowered by their own appetites. Prudence fled, the battle was joined: “the force of desire masters one’s reason only too readily. The truly prudent captain or statesman is the rarest of political men—almost an impossibility. The man who craves power or empire for himself or for his country more commonly finds his capacity for prudential reasoning overpowered by his consuming appetite. The man of action often acts as in a daze, or in a dream.”

Franz Ferdinand appeared ready to check some of the more egregious saber rattling among the Austrians, but was killed by the equally bloody-minded Serbian honor-cult. And yet war could still have been avoided had prudential statesmen come to the fore. It was not to be: “The generals and the statesmen…were convinced that now was the optimum time for war, or they were resigned to the inevitability of a war they did not really want once lever after lever was tripped in succession: an Austrian ultimatum that Serbia could only reject, further ultimatums, warnings against issuing ultimatums, partial mobilization here or there, demands that a potential enemy’s mobilization must stop or else, and the mobilization that could not be stopped however the men supposed to be most powerful might have wished it.” And so, Valiunas writes, “The quarrel between ancients and moderns was settled for good” as the full glorious power of the modern world was brought to bear on its own destruction.

It wasn’t just lives that were destroyed: the very foundations of civilized life were splintered. Valiunas chronicles this in some of the best of the writers who experienced the carnage: “Many writers saw that men ground down by this combat of unprecedented savagery often ceased to care about their solemn vows to duty, honor, and country that had propelled them eager and heedless into war. These soldiers felt the pull of a new nihilism.” Convinced of the pointlessness of their sufferings, the writers “laid the foundation for a wholesale rejection of political life: men were no longer morally obligated to fight for the nations of their birth, or indeed to profess any loyalty whatsoever to these discredited relics.”

Worse still were those whose political passions were twisted into terrible new forms, in the idealistic longing for a new creation that could only be built on the thus-far incomplete destruction of the rotten old order. Against the new murderousness the decent seemed powerless, too scared to risk a repeat of worldwide war, too jaded to call on the traditional reserves of patriotic love to carry them through. Their inward retreat to the pleasures of private life away from public responsibilities left them prey to the designs of the fanatical: “This straitened hope, the withdrawal into strictly personal concerns, imperiled the soul of Europe as much as the full-bore nihilism of the irreparably shattered or the utopian fantasies of the thin-blooded on one hand and the bloody-minded on the other.”

Valiunas concludes with a moving tribute to the indispensable man whose vision remained undimmed by the war:

Nobody understood the dire legacy of the Great War better than Winston Churchill, and the two great histories he wrote between the wars, The World Crisis (in six volumes, 1923-31) and Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933-38), constituted a heroic act of statesmanship, undertaken to secure a right understanding of war and politics in the face of nearly universal revulsion from the everlasting truth. Churchill honored the soldiers’ suffering with broken-hearted magniloquence, and damned the unforgivable failures of military and political leaders, even as he reasserted the integrity of the political life as men had always lived it—the life of men in nations, which is perpetually subject to the storms of war, but which honorable leading men are sworn to direct with genuine prudence, a prudence superior to Machiavelli’s brutal ideal, subordinating their natural and ordinary acquisitiveness and vanity to the good of the men and women who obey their commands, including the most terrible command to kill and die for their country. These were the greatest books to come out of the war.

Too many remained unconvinced. For most the supreme value was now life itself, splendid peaceful life, preserved at all costs, never again to be sacrificed to the Moloch of national pride or the Baal of individual vainglory. The civilized world averted its eyes as in Germany the worst of the immemorial passions revived and assumed a demonic intensity never seen before. Men of good will could only hope that the evil would not touch them; but hope is a theological virtue, not a political one. The supreme tragedy of the Great War is that it neutered the multitudes of decent men who ought to have prevented the rise of the foulest regime ever, and the eruption of another war so devastating that the evils of the erstwhile Great War came to seem acceptable by comparison. Never such innocence again, but with a violent turn of the screw: not the innocence of 1914 but that of 1918 and some years following, the innocence of believing that a war of attrition conducted by incompetents is the worst that men can do.​

Churchill warned of the gathering storm, but could not convince the war weary that there could be worse things than the horrors of the trenches.

NOTE: CRB’s reference to “the slaughter bench of history” derives from a phrase used by Hegel in Lectures on the Philosophy of History (“Geschichte Als Schlachtbankwith”) with which I was unfamiliar.