Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Review: Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

I do hope to get more reading done in 2013 than in 2012. The best way to do this would be to stop wasting time on the Internet, of course: so here's a book review on the Internet.

Last night, a few hours before the end of 2012, I finished reading Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe by James J. Sheehan. Sheehan looks at the disappearance of armies and soldiers from the lives of Europeans, and wonders where they all went. Indeed an important and intriguing question, along with its cousin: are other nations following suit? Is Europe, in other words, a harbinger or an outlier?

Unfortunately, the book demonstrates all too well the reasons historians need to stay away from journalism. Their tools need perspective to work correctly, and without it they (we) are little better than journalists but without the flair for vivid descriptions. His book is divided inot three sections: 19th century until 1914; the interwar period, and post 1945. The first is easily the best.

Sheehan's thesis in the first section of his book is that the modern nation-state was based on the military. Some nations were forged in war, quite simply, but even those that weren't had strong military strains embedded in their basic structure, from the ubiquitious memorial to the fallen soldiers in the center of each town or village, to the enormous expenditure neccessary for the upkeep of an army, to the logistical, administrative and legal structures developed by society to be able to field their military machines. These capabilities were what made a modern nation state.

Yet parallel to the rise of the militarized nation, there was also a rise of political pacifism. This did not include the relations to imperially-controlled colonial populations, but within the polite society of Europe pacifism was a growing trend around the turn of the century; the Hague Conventions are a creation of this seemingly universal wish for peace.

The pacifism didn't survive the beginning of war in 1914 - if it had lasted even until then, given the series of skirmishes which preceeded the Great War.

My main reflection upon reading this section was that even then it was a mostly European phenomenon. Europeans of the time speaking different languages, indeed, but sharing Christianity and a broad cultural similarity. A farmer in Ohio and a farmer in Afghanistan have precious little in common; Europeans of the early 20th century, for all their differences, had quite a bit. Unremarked, perhaps, the pacifism was already then predicated on a broad cultural and political and religious commonality.

The second section deals with two world wars, though in brief - about 60 pages in total. Not enough to learn much about the wars, and rather a bit too long for to say that the wars were ghastly, the first much so, the second very much so.

At the begining of the third section Sheehan makes an interesting point. Post-war Europe was divided between the domination of two external systems, Soviet inspired (and often directed and ruled) Eastern Europe, and American subsidised West Europe. Improbably perhaps, the European nation states, having been intermittanly at war since their inception, were now unable to wage war or even to prepare for it in an independant way. So they unlearned the art and let the super-powers get on with it; the super-powers, however, now having both acquired the capability of destroying the world, eventually began to unlearn the habit themselves.

Personally I had expected to read more about European exhaustion after the 20th century's 30-Year-War, and perhaps how it has played out in other spheres of life, too. Yet as I said, this section lacks a broad perspective, and instead focuses on specific negotiations within the EU, which resulted in documents which may be held to highest esteeem in 500 years, and may be forgotten forever by next week. It's too soon to know.

Inevitably, I won't finish this review without mentioning Israel (which seems never to be mentoned in the book). Sheehan shows how first Western Europeans relinquished their colonial empires because they were no longer worth the hassle, and then later the Soviets did the same. Which suggested to me how very odd, then, in the eyes of such populaces, must the warring societies of the Middle East seem, and how totally outlandish; this said in a derisory tone, not in curiosity, say. Arabs are one thing, not ever having been part of the European world; but the Jews? What do they possibly think they're doing, what with all that determination to use force to defend goals. Such old-fashioned behavior, don't you think? No self respecting European would behave that way.

Update: then again, maybe I'm being churlish about the Europeans.


Stop BDS Park Slope said...

Yaacov -

I'm sorry if I am being thick. But is this last non-sequitor:

"How odd, then, in the eyes of such populaces, ...."

from the book you are reviewing?


Barry Meislin said...

"...not worth the hassle...and... the Soviets...the same...,"

Not worth the hassle, eh?

Well, um, that's one way to put it....

Certainly, when one is unable to do something, it is far, far more attractive to insist that one's subsequent decisions are based on taking the moral high road. (This mode of "reasoning" is truly fabulous for one's self-esteem, not to mention the public purse.)

The post-WWII colonial empires were flat out broke (i.e., had no money), and this is especially true of the USSR (the lack of, um, money, AKA reality, was merely another bi-product of the Soviet culture of lies).

True, they were exhausted. Nor did they have the will to persist in the fiction that they who had fought two world wars were bringing civilization to the savages of far-off lands. Moreover, Christianity---a main underpinning of colonial ideology---was in crisis (and for good reason).

France, it is true, did sputter on for a bit (honneur, esprit, patriotisme, etc.) but were eventually sent packing.

As for Israel, well, if one's worldview is such that Israel is a colonialist power, then yes, the same analysis and conclusions must apply.

In fact, as you well know, some Israelis subscribe (and many others subscribed) emphatically to the "Israel-is-a-colonialist-oppressive-racist country" paradigm (or any part, thereof).

Such that all Israel has to is end the occupation and peace to break out all over forever and ever, amen....

Ah the virtues of simplicity. (And blindness....)

Jeff Rivera said...

Wars have a tremendous impact on human life and the world around us. Even after a war is over, its effect lingers for years into the future. Reading about wars in the past is definitely empowering and enriching. It gives you a background about the political and social agenda that brings about war situation. You have reviewed a really good book here.