Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The War of the World

I just finished watching The War of the World. It was an interesting documentary and the parallels the historian Niall Ferguson draws between the anarchist-terrorists assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand near the beginning of the C20th and the Muslim-terrorists attack on the World Trade Centre in America are intriguing.

Sorry if I misinterpret it, but his thesis lacks something. What I think he basically said was that:

“…the C20th was one of total war; it was the time when falling empires were brought into conflict with emerging empire-states. Global capitalism at the start of the century, with enormous movements of goods and peoples around the world under the supervision of the global empires, was curtailed by conflicts that were brought about partly because foreign minorities became so integrated into society (so says Ferguson – I think this sounds too similar to the “justification” of the Holocaust by Nazis, i.e. “the Jews are racially inferior and have wormed their way into every part of our society, so they must be cleansed”. Genocide seems to be something people do, and it is a compulsion that continues. Exactly why it occurs is a question for social anthropologists, sociologists and social-psychologists, and I feel deserves a little more attention than was given by Ferguson). Ferguson claims the most major events of the 20th century did not surround “the victory of the West” in WW1&2 and the Cold War, but were in the “triumph of the East”. From the Russo-Japanese war (a fascinating story BTW) in 1904 to the recent rise of the totalitarian/capitalist China, and the constant stream of young Muslim immigrants into an aging Europe). He also mentions that in order to defeat the monstrous war machine of Hitler’s Reich the Allies had to adopt the same gut-hating and no-holds-barred mentality of their enemies…”

OK. Personally I found Ferguson’s programming style a little too tortuous. I felt he should have stuck to the topic a little more closely and tried to get his point across more clearly (from the above you can see that I haven’t quite got it – I’d check his website for more info).

OK. This is how I see the history of the Twentieth Century. For thousands of years humankind warred amongst itself. War, like genocide, seems to be part of the much celebrated “human-condition”. It is something we do. Possibly because its fun, possibly because life has always been a zero-sum game, or maybe there’s a cross-wire in our evolutionary makeup.

For most of human history there have been barbarians. I don’t just mean people who don’t live in cities. I mean people who had no concept of the rights of man, and who did not know of the value of liberal democracy (something I believe in). These barbarians include the Romans, and the British. Back when we had an empire and a concept of divine right or manifest destiny to rule the world, our guys on the frontier had very little scruples when it came to strapping the Pathans to a cannon and giving Johnny Foreigner a taste of British [school firewall].

I mentioned the cannon. This is important. Technology amplifies our actions. Advanced, industrial technology mixed with collapsing empires and emerging empire states makes for baaad voodoo at the dawn of the C20th. I think looking at population-movements and macroeconomics ignores the greatest lesson of the C20th. At the start we had machine guns and kites. Now we have ICBMs tipped with thermonuclear warheads capable of devastating an area the size of Israel. The Cold War didn’t get hot because the major players knew that any direct combat would be insane. Failing to blow up the world has got to be one of the greatest human achievements of all time, especially considering our trigger-happy ancestry.

The C20th was when the barbarians met heavy industry. WW1 was so shocking because before war had been something that happened a long way away (from the British perspective) and was rifles vs. pointy leaves. War between industrialised nations never reached a level of “total war”, where the entire economy is forced over the producing the means to destroy the enemy, and where the objective becomes to destroy the enemy, as opposed to warding them off or suppressing them.

My point (made with even less clarity than Ferguson’s) is that Ferguson didn’t recognise the role that advanced technology played in the twentieth century. Here’s what Ferguson says on the matter:

Progress, people and weapons

Why? What made the 20th century, and particularly the 50 years from 1904 until 1953, so bloody? That this era was exceptionally violent may seem paradoxical. After all, the 100 years after 1900 was a time of unparalleled progress: by the end, thanks to myriad technological advances and improvements in knowledge, human beings on average lived longer and better lives than at any time in history.

To explain the extraordinary violence of the century, it is not enough simply to say that there were more people living closer together, or more destructive weapons. No doubt it was easier to perpetrate mass murder by dropping high explosives on crowded cities than it had once been to put dispersed rural populations to the sword. But if those were sufficient explanations, the end of the century would have been more violent than the beginning and the middle.

In the 1990s, the world’s population for the first time exceeded six billion, more than three times what it had been when the First World War broke out. But there was actually a marked decline in the amount of armed conflict in the last decade of the century. The highest recorded rates of military mobilisation and mortality in relation to total population were clearly in the first half of the century, during and immediately after the world wars. Moreover, weaponry today is clearly much more destructive than it was in 1900. But some of the worst violence of the century was perpetrated with the crudest of weapons: rifles, axes, knives and machetes (most obviously in Central Africa in the 1990s, but also in Cambodia in the 1970s).

I don’t agree with Ferguson’s assertion that the nature of the graph of the number of people you can kill to the number of people you do kill is not linear for any other reason than mutually assured destruction.

But I digress. My basic point is that the idea of genocide is not new. Genghis Khan killed millions. The Romans succeeded in wiping out an entire civilization (one up on the Nazis) – the Dacians. Someone’s written a gruesome account of what the Roman’s did to the Dacians on a big rock in Rome – Trajan’s Column.

Human nature is said to be the one constant in all of history. If this is so (the transhumans think that this might change Any Day Now) then you can’t really explain the C 20th in anything other than advances in technology amplifying tendencies that have always been there. Even the greater transport, globalisation and integration of different races ultimately comes back to the impact of advances in technology.

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