As the numerologists celebrated 11/11/11, our attention was better focused on the day as the anniversary of the end of the useless, worthless, horrifying war that turned so much of 20th century into a twisted, violent mess. And on how we must prevent the same from happening to our shiny new millennium.
A superb route to that understanding comes through a modern masterpiece, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-18, by Adam Hochschild.
A seasoned author and social critic who helped found Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild's page-turning account of the "Great War" in Great Britain is both a joy to read and a tragedy to digest.
Its glory lies in Adam's ability to penetrate the human core of the arrogance, foolishness and utter senselessness of a conflict that for no real reason killed at least 10 million people outright and tens of millions more (including 500,000 in the U.S.) by disease, most notably the influenza, which struck just prior to humankind's ability to mass-produce penicillin.
The author (by way of disclosure, a friend of mine for decades) is an extraordinary writer of history. His prose is fluid and clear, unpretentious and at all times accessible. He manages to balance devastating accounts of lethal folly with the human dimension behind even the cruelest military martinet.
Adam's story is of a nation -- and a continent -- that embarked on a war it thought would be a cake walk. Europe had been at peace since Bismarck's Prussians left Paris in 1871. For more than four decades, an unimpeded industrial revolution took the U.S. and western Europe -- as well as Japan -- to levels of imperial wealth undreamed of before. The Great Powers had achieved by 1914 a level of technological affluence that might have been described as science fiction a century prior.
But the literature of the time was polluted by an astonishing ennui, a bizarre discontent with the ease of middle and upper-class life that is staggering to comprehend. The prose of the rich is filled with the "need" for war to "stir the blood" and "further the race." Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and their ilk glorified mass gore as if were some kind of vital tonic for the deadening sink hole of peace and prosperity.
That war finally came for no real reason thus comes as no surprise. As Hochschild deftly shows, much of the upper crust of England welcomed it as a cross between a fox hunt and a garden party, and sent its sons off to die miserable deaths in mud and blood almost too ghastly to describe.
But there were those who knew better, and these are Hochschild's true heroes. The war aroused great pacifist activists like Bertrand Russell, and created others from the horrors of the struggle itself. Male and female, rich and poor, Adam introduces us to a panoply of truly great human souls whose desperate warnings about the insanity of armed struggle resonate ever more powerfully through history.
On the other side, one can hear in the pro-war ramblings of so many insulated English aristocrats the prelude to this century's excursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, et al. Dick Cheney predicting an Iraq throwing flowers at our troops' feet merely rephrased the ravings of the empire's minions heralding the "grand adventure" in France, where the Bosch would "be sent running in days."
Run they did, of course, but after years, not days, transforming themselves into Nazis who would deliver even greater horrors to us all.
Hoschild's genius in To End All Wars is to seamlessly weave the lives of the working class and the rich, the militarist and the pacifist into the single human fabric, and then to show how it was tragically ripped apart and burnt to cinder.
As a global organism we are, each of us, deeply harmed by all mass slaughter, whether our actual bodies are on the killing field or not. No carnage was as devastating in terms of where it led than the imperial madness of World War I.
Now, with a new millennium upon us, we are again tested by America's imperial attacks in the oil fields and wherever else an insatiable war machine -- the same war machine -- can sell its message of fear and violence.
Reading Adam Hochschild'e elegant, compelling narrative of how "civilized" England turned into a barbarous killing machine, we come away knowing that the function of such great writing is to teach us above all not to repeat this kind of history.
Given our imperial presence around the globe, and reading here of the shining lights of those who opposed that absurd carnage, our path of action should be clear. To End All Wars is a compelling, inescapable elegy that leaves us no room for excuses.
Harvey Wasserman's History of the U.S. portrays our own nation's plunge into WWI.