Friday, January 01, 2016

Great Wars and History

Regular readers know that I believe our history is shaped by great crises, occurring roughly every 80 years, that mark the death of an old order and the creation of a new one.  It was William Strauss and Neil Howe who identified this pattern more than 20 years ago, and subsequent events have only confirmed it.  The old order that was still very much alive when they wrote their key works in the 1990s is now dead, along with the generations that made it, and we are struggling to create something new.  They also noted, in Generations and The Fourth Turning, that great wars had played a key role in this process, inevitably raising the question of whether another such war would take place in the opening decades of the 21st century.  I still believe that the answer is probably that it will not--but at the same time, I am increasingly worried that those wars, from the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars through the Civil War (and its counterpart in Germany) and the Second World War,  did create the basis for future stability in ways that we desperately need now, and have found no other way to bring about.

Simply put, the wars of the modern era have been fought for ideas, and the victory of one side or the other has validated certain critical ideas that have dominated political life for the next 60 years or so, until those who remember the last great war have died off.  In the United States, the Revolution validated the idea of national independence, elaborated within a decade in the new Constitution, and those ideas withstood various challenges until the late 1850s, when the postwar generation took power.  The outcome of the Civil War had even more far-reaching effects on both sides.  In the North, it established the Republican Party as the ruling party in most of the nation, and that party kept the loyalties inspired by the war alive nearly into the twentieth century, while also dedicating itself to the triumph of the great business enterprises that the war had helped to bring about.  In the South, the white ruling elite re-established its supremacy after Reconstruction and dedicated itself to maintaining the racial status quo.  The Second World War was the largest war in history, and had the greatest effects here in the United States.  The generation that fought the war--the GI or "greatest" generation--earned the gratitude and support of its fellow citizens, reflected in higher wages, guaranteed mortgages, highly progressive taxation, and support for growing families. The nation's foreign policy, designed to resist a new totalitarian threat, reflected the lessons of the war as well.   A remarkable consensus developed over much of the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War destroyed it.  Still, the GI generation and key elements of the order it helped create remained the status quo into the 1990s.  The Clinton Administration even took one step back in its direction by raising everyone's taxes, although it also dismantled a critical piece, the Glass-Steagall Act.  By this time, however, the Republican Party--dominated since Newt Gingrich by the postwar Boom generation--had completely repudiated our parents' legacy, and George W. Bush destroyed a great deal more of it, both at home and abroad.

I still do not know if any leading figures of the Bush II Administration had read Strauss and Howe--Karl Rove's office, as I mentioned, refused to tell me if he had--but certainly George W. Bush conceived of the "war on terror" as his generation's new world war.  It was, he explained, nothing less than a generational struggle to shape the development of the Muslim world.  But in sharp contrast to Franklin Roosevelt's endeavors in 1940-45, Bush's enterprise was poorly conceived, and carried out on the cheap.  Rather than raise taxes and mobilize the country, he repeatedly cut them.  He removed a key government without any plan to put anything in its place.  Now, 14 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, we remain locked in an endless, indecisive war, fought by a tiny portion of the population, and which is no longer the focus of major interest among the population.  With the rise of ISIS, some presidential candidates are talking about a bigger war, but none are being very clear about how big it might be, and no one is calling for the return of a draft.

My purpose today is not to debate the wisdom of a big war in the Middle East, however, but to ask how the divisions that have arisen in the United States are going to be healed.   This election looks most unlikely to create any new consensus.  Donald Trump is the most polarizing candidate to emerge yet, and is basing his campaign on explicit attempts to divide the American people.  Even if he loses the nomination, whoever wins it will be paying close attention to the views of his supporters.   Hillary Clinton, if elected, will be just as despised by large numbers of Americans, and for similar reasons, as Barack Obama, and the same would probably be true of Bernie Sanders.  There is a very real chance, it seems to me, that we will become two countries, de facto if not de jure, just as we were in the years immediately before the Civil War.  In theory, a great foreign war, fought with millions of troops to a successful conclusion, might create a new consensus.  But no such war is on the horizon, and even if it were, a lifetime of the study of war makes it impossible for me to welcome such a conflict, no matter how much good it might do.

History suggests that there are other alternatives.  After 1945 the nations of western Europe, all of whom, in one way or another, had been defeated, built new orders at home based on the need for reconstruction and economic justice.  By the 1950s they were busy with another even larger project, the creation of what is now the European Union.  That edifice is also cracking, once again because those who originally put it together are gone.  The French, the West Germans and others proved that nations could rebuilt, ideologically as well as physically, without large, victorious wars.  But they had no choice, precisely because they had been defeated.  The United States is not going to face that kind of situation.  Some do believe that the impact of climate change might force us into a different kind of mobilization, but so far, it is dividing us, not uniting us.

There is, perhaps, one other possible alternative: a new cold war uniting the West against radical Islamic territories, not for the purpose of wiping them out or converting their populations, but to contain their ideology and re-assert western values at home.  Certainly the first Cold War helped the west assert its values of democracy, economic growth, and a measure of economic justice, and kept the best parts of the spirit of the Second World War alive.  It did something similar in the Soviet Union, but there, too, the existing order--Communism--could not survive the death of the generation that had put it together as young adults.  Some, in our age of individualism and identity politics, prefer to believe that we can simply continue as we are, fragmenting into different subcultures with completely different values.  I however doubt very much that this can preserve our society and government as we known them.  Eventually we will need some way to establish a consensus, whatever it turns out to be.  Barack Obama, in his famous Democratic convention keynote in 2004 and during his Presidency, assumed the consensus was abroad in the land, beneath the heated political rhetoric of the Boom generation. He was wrong.  He will leave the almost hopeless task of building a new one to his successor.


ed boyle said...

You overlooked in your analysis that WWII was won through the establishment of a military industrial complex and CIA type organizations. The Dulles type paranoia of the ruling conservaative elite overreacted to communist threat throwing away a chance for peace, destabilizing liberally elected governments globally. Similar is happening since end of cold war. Peace dividend is being thrown away infavour of paranoid global dominance dreams. This is the real background. Kennedy killings by dulles and co. , if true would fit perfectly into this scheme as a coup d'etat of the deep state with LBJ pushing through reforms out of guilt for his involvemeent but pushing vietnam war as a WWII vet and anti communist paranoid just like Nixon. The nexus between the financiaal and military side would be rockefeller, kissinger engineering petrodollar with the 6 day war and the oil embargo and getting their man, carter hand picked into ofice with zbiggy and staff on board as neocons, who still rule our foreign policy to all our detriment. You sound like you read history from broadsheet newspapers and have no idea about real action although I know opposite must be true. Perhaps I should read your books. Perhaps you have a big blind spot regarding USA patrriotism. USA is an oligarchy going though motions of a democracy. Kenneddy should have offed dulles whwn he had the chance.As a historical parallel we have Putin, who as ex KGB was not naive as Kennedy was and was able to maintain control despite resistance by mafias and foreign interests and work in interest of the people and not as most US and other western politicians do, to work in interst of puppet masters in financiall mi,itary industrial state.

The cold war never got hot except as proxy. The same thing is repeating itself today and USA depp state and oligarchy are on losing side as China, Russia and co. have learned all the tricks. Western empire, now based on USA, Japan, Germany is shaky. It has no justifiable ideological support for its resistance to full partnership for Russia and China edcept for individual greed of a couple dozen oligarchs in the west who want global control. When petrodollar is gone and perhaps gold standard returns US debt financed economy and wars will collapse. China in worse shape of course but reset will hurt everyone. 3rd world, MENA wars just to control oil, the spice of george herbert's scifi series of novels. When oil is gone industrial civilization, car adddiction is gone too. Climate change, overpopulation, mass consumption, all just symptomatic of oil consumption, coal, gas. We wanted easy life. It would have been better to live poor and leave it all in the ground and stayed at 500 million population globally. WWIII would be a great blow off but I think we will suffer a slow torturous agony like Rome.

David Kaiser said...

Mr. Boyle,

Yes, I have to agree that if you tried reading American Tragedy and especially The Road to Dallas, instead of David Talbot, your own sense of the history of that era might be more accurate. And I would repeat that in many ways the whole world was better off at the height of the Cold War than in is now. But I'll stop there.

ed boyle said...

I think kennedy assassination, pearl harbour, 9/11 are key turning points. One could read and write libraries on these events and come out believing what one wanted to from the beginning. That said. A billion new people each decade. More CO2 from old and newly industrializing countries just growing the problem. Humans are ravaging earth and holocene isl likely over. USA as a regional power limited within its borders like spain or turkey or brazil would be a different world. Will this be result of trajectory of a nonparticipatory democracy, controlled by moneyed interests? European kings and dictators miscalculated often and lost advantage and power for their countries. I think egoistic neocon led foreign policy, financials dominated debt laden economy will lead there. Overreach, overindebtedness, hubris. Simple formula. Cathartic massive war with possibility of rebuild, restructuring almost more enticing than a slow grinding decline with increasing decay, poverty, disillusionment. Strauss and Howe counted on cathartic renewal to overcome mutual hate in country or similar. Decay seems worst possible option.

Bozon said...


Interesting post.

I doubt most people understand what you mean, here and there, eg re fragmentations of subcultures.

But, true nonetheless.

It is all about never having come together, or ever even having had a real chance of so doing.

all the best

Gloucon X said...

“There is a very real chance, it seems to me, that we will become two countries, de facto if not de jure, just as we were in the years immediately before the Civil War.”

That may not be such a bad thing. Since America claims it is the indispensable nation, maybe the world would be better off if there were two, just in case one breaks.

Unknown said...

"Simply put, the wars of the modern era have been fought for ideas,..." The ideas in conflict today are not just those of Western secularism vs Sharia government. Within Islam, the centuries old idea of who is the legitimate heir to Mohammed, e.g., Sunni vs Shiite, and among Sunnis, the more recent literal vs liberal interpretation of the Koran are evident. Recently, the actions of Saudi Arabia and Iran in their latest conflict are tinged with a Persian vs Arab flavor. There are elements of secularism competing as well, especially in Turkey and Iran. The key question is how can these competing ideas be resolved. It seems preposterous to conclude that the Western world can resolve these conflicts either diplomatically or militarily. The solutions must come from among those holding the competing memes in the Middle East. Only where these conflicts spill over outside the Middle East, terrorism in the West for example, should the West carefully intervene, and only to contain the struggle that is ongoing there. It seems that this is the current US strategy.