Darkness Visible?

Historian Richard Overy thinks we should all calm down.

In a powerful review essay, he argues that the history of World War Two, in fact the distress of wartime German society alone, can help us keep things in perspective about our own troubled times. He dislikes contemporary Western fears. Compared to the war in the midnight of the Twentieth Century, they seem self-indulgent and lacking in perspective:

We are awash in anxiety-inducing scenarios: terrorists with weapons of mass destruction; computer viruses that will destroy the delicate web of modern communication; global warming that in a century may create a methane explosion, obliterating life; and all the rest. And though cinemas are currently flooded with movies showing urban wastelands and terror-struck stars that could be mistaken for images of war-torn Germany in 1945 (and many other parts of Europe as well), the fact remains that nothing the Western world currently faces carries more than a small percentage of the menace confronting the collapsed international order of the 1930s and 1940s. We need to put the threats we do face into perspective.

The fear that even moderate dislocation (economic or otherwise) cannot easily be supported by democratic electorates has created a paradox of capitalism shored up by the state, and of extensive (though often-trivial) levels of surveillance and coercion in the name of preserving the liberties these very policies undermine. Democratic populations have to accept fingerprinting, bag searching, DNA sampling and police stop-and-search routines as if none of these infringed upon personal liberty more than the danger of a handful of fanatics. It has also resulted in a long-drawn-out campaign in southern Afghanistan in which the casualties and destruction inflicted on Afghan society are seen as necessary conditions for the preservation of Western freedom. This is a line of argument which might well have been understood in the aftermath of World War II, when Western notions of freedom had clearly been under threat, or in the Cold War, when nuclear confrontation brought the entire globe face-to-face with the prospect of widespread obliteration. But in the context of a small army of guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan it makes almost no sense at all.
Firstly, Amen. As I’ve argued elsewhere, against most threats, a heightened sense of one’s own fragility and an exaggerated  state of emergency disproportionate to threats are bad things because they tempt states to inflict great self-harm. This can take many forms, whether  eroding constitutional liberties or waging protracted and costly wars that create other problems. As George Kennan argued before his doctrine of containment was militarised to the point where he couldn’t recognise it, a spirit of patient resilience is a surer psychological foundation for our responses to threats. Hitlerism was the worst thing, just about, that the species has ever seen, and comparisons with it are usually promiscuous.

But there is an equal and opposite danger. Not so much the apocalyptically minded panic merchant, but the complacent optimist. One problem with complaint about the ‘politics of fear’ is that it loses sight of the constructive role fear can play. As Barbara Ehrenreich puts it, societies need to sustain a degree of anxious vigilance to survive. Cataclysm, if not the end-time, can actually arrive. Australia is being savaged by heat and drought. We can’t afford to be hysterical in our reaction to most problems, but sighing with relief that at least its not 1945 is also a poor basis for living.

After 9/11, the Administration of Bush II combined both threat inflation and reckless self-confidence. 9/11 type attacks, serially repeated, would constitute a serious threat. But AQ wasn’t one of the world’s most advanced industrial economies in a bid to conquer Eurasia. The Bush team regarded its struggle as the reincarnation of the Churchillian struggle against Axis powers, equating religious terrorism with Nazism and in at least one case suggesting the former was worse! Yet it approached the invasion and reordering of Iraq with great swagger and without regard for detail or complexity. And in Afghanistan, we have consistently under-estimated the radical and difficult nature of what we are trying to do. For a West gripped by fear, we are also capable of great complacency.

Complacency as well as paranoia can shape defence policy. Consider, for example, the notion that vast struggles of survival are a thing of the past or so remote in likelihood, or that we know the future and that we should abandon fears of nation-states and major powers and must embrace a middling and murky future of minor wars, military operations, and nationbuilding tasks. Major war may well be remote. They are also worst-case, and the penalties for not being prepared could be severe. This is of some practical policy importance when it comes to budgets and scarce resources.

So two cheers for Overy and the warning that we should keep things in perspective. We are not fighting the Axis powers, thank heavens. But we can’t afford to bank on the notion that existential crisis was just our grandparents’ problem. Its worth imagining and preparing for. In that cheery spirit, my wife and I are looking forward to watching the film version of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, a story about a father and son struggling through a post-apocalyptic world that has been hit by an un-named cataclysm, and where balaclava-covered predators enslave and torture anyone they find. Global Warming? Nuclear war? We don’t know. But maybe its not so indulgent to contemplate.

Hopefully my wife finds it romantic.

NB: For my money, Overy’s point about Afghanistan isn’t quite right – the US-led coalition doesn’t simply intend to inflict ‘casualties and destruction’ on that country, and AQ is a slightly more complex movement than just a few hundred guerrillas in the Af/Pak mountains – but its the overall thrust of his argument that deserves some thinking.

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