The Failure of Introspection

<![CDATA[World War I (or the Great War, as we called it before we knew we would need to number them) was terrible. The technology of killing surpassed the tactics, and the result was the stalemate on the Western Front.

This technology concerned the machine gun, but it would be a mistake to think that one side had machine guns and the other didn’t. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, both sides had machine guns. As John Ellis explained in his 1975/86 book The Social History of the Machine Gun, the difference was how they were used. The French though of them as field artillery, and gave them to the gunners, who replaced some of their artillery and put the new weapons at the rear. The Prussians realized they were a new weapon, and created a machine gun corps with the guns at the front. That’s why the war was so short.

But in the Great War, both sides had them, and their use (which required the digging of trenches to keep from getting ones head blown off) caused a stalemate, the inability to take ground. Millions died, not only from getting killed going “over the top” but from disease and gassing.

When it was over, Europe entered a deep period of introspection sometimes referred to as the “Age of Anxiety”. In U.S. history, this era is often called the “Roaring Twenties” due to the prosperity funding jazz, modern art and social change (such as female suffrage). But new philosophies like logical positivism and existentialism clearly indicate a looking inward, a re-examination of values. How was it possible that an advanced civilization had slaughtered so many of its own? Was this progress? Best-sellers included books like Spengler’s Decline of the West. European culture reinvented itself in the years that followed, and developed revised values that it would fight again to hold onto under the fascist threat of the 1930s and 40s. This experience, too, would be followed by a wave of introspection during the Cold War.

When the attack on the World Trade Center occurred in September 2001, Americans were horrified. To many Europeans, such a disaster clearly called for a period of self-analysis on the part of the United States. And yet the American response, or rather the government’s response, was one of revenge and a polarization of thought: good versus evil. Within a year, the response in the foreign press clearly indicated a disappointment at the failure of the U.S. to engage the opportunity, caused by tragedy, for the re-evaluation of its foreign policy, knowledge of the world and perceptions of others. The situation simply worsened as the attack on Iraq became imminent, and today much of Europe, more experienced with tragedy, seems to wait at a respectful distance. ]]>