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.
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.