On this day 100 years ago, the “guns fell silent” as an armistice was proclaimed to end combat in the Great War that started in 1914. In Paris this morning, the heads of nations gathered to commemorate the event, which was marked at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
We have traditionally commemorated the end of World War I, or Armistice Day, here at Liberty Unyielding with the annual re-posting of an article I first posted in 2009. In the article, I wrote about the significance of World War I, and how its day of armistice eventually became Veterans’ Day in America. The post ends with John McCrae’s 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Here is the link to the last posting of that article, “Ninety-nine Years.”
When I put it up in November 2017, I looked forward to the centenary of the commemoration, and a repeat of the tradition. What I find as that fulfillment rolls around is that the reference to World War I no longer defines us and our time as it once did. In the countdown to 100, so many centuries have been rolled back that even the touchstone of the Great War seems ephemeral and transient, against a backdrop of historical unraveling so vast that we haven’t yet begun to comprehend it.
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The unraveling began long before President Donald Trump was on anyone’s horizon. It began years before President Barack Obama took office too, although it accelerated rapidly during his tenure.
Although I have written before about the geopolitical symptoms of this unraveling (see here as well), I think it is best understood as a crisis of communication among men – which I’ve also written about. It’s not just that we are sharply divided on how we ought to live. It’s that we don’t even mean the same things when we talk about them. In fact, many of our once-most-respected institutions – the media, academia, senior political leaders – go around talking rank nonsense, and thus cannot be taken seriously.
Meanwhile, communication that does make sense seems to only come across in ways that jar our sensibilities. There are examples of both these phenomena in relation to the World War I armistice commemoration in France this weekend.
Of the second phenomenon, a good example is Trump’s tweet taking President Emmanuel Macron of France to task for advocating a European military force. The point here is not whether Trump was articulating sensible policy; it’s whether you could understand – make sense of – what he was saying. Manifestly, it was possible to do so. In fact, Trump pretty much always says things that can be interpreted straightforwardly and logically.
But his words jar, irritate, and alarm people.
On the other hand, President Macron, and Trump’s critics in the punditry, have lobbed a barrage of counter-commentary that makes a hash of history, logic, and even the essence of language and meaning themselves. The sound of their strings of words is comforting to one side of the current human divide. But it doesn’t make any sense.
Macron, for example, proclaimed in what was widely interpreted as a rebuke of Trump that “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism.” This, as David Horowitz pointed out, is utterly irrational. Patriotism has no meaning outside of nationalism. They refer to the same thing: the organization of the human world into nations – in Latin, patriae, the plural of patria, meaning the land of one’s fathers, and universally understood in the West to refer to one’s nation. Yet in order to flog a specialized political agenda, one Western faction has suddenly, just in the last few years, begun vilifying one word (nationalism) and vaunting the other (patriotism).
This was not the case until very recently. An editorial by Max Boot in the Washington Post on Friday crystallizes how tortured the unparsable enterprise to attack “nationalism” is, by upending the 20th century’s quintessential belief about World War I in an effort to frame it as the terrible outgrowth of “nationalism.”
World War I was not predicated on nationalism; if it was about anything at that level of human conflict, it was about the preservation of empire, against nationalism. We spent decades in the last century polishing an understanding that nationhood was a natural and positive aspiration of peoples subjected to imperial rule. The tinder-spark to the Great War had its source in what were viewed as subversive nationalist aspirations in the Balkans, but the decisions that produced a war were made by imperial powers, organizers and hegemons of little nations and proto-national colonies. World War I was largely about what actually came of the war: a fight among empires, and the break-up of most of the bled-out empires that had organized the fate of millions over the preceding three to four centuries.
There was more to it, of course, but this was a universally recognized theme of political and historical analysis throughout the mid and late 20th century. National-ism came to have more freighted import in relation to World War II, anti-colonialism, the formation of the UN, and other geopolitical phenomena after 1945. That was partly due to the disarray in geopolitical structure left by the collapse of the pre-World War I empires. But as a factor in World War I, it is anachronistic to read “nationalism” into the matrix of influences and decisions of the time as if it were a uniquely significant driver. The odd thing is that if he weren’t working so hard to triangulate against Trump, I think Max Boot would find that summary perfectly recognizable and familiar.
It also makes theoretical sense, in a way pinning World War I on “nationalism” or “isolationism” (Macron again) doesn’t. The Great War couldn’t possibly have been about isolationism, considering that its initiation was the result of every great power in Europe having armies and war plans on standby for the express purpose of being in each other’s business, as immediately as possible. If anything, the powers were hyperprepared for intervention across borders, and determined to perceive a need for it.
That point isn’t an argument for isolationism either, merely because it rejects linking isolationism to every negative development in international relations. In 2018, we seem to have lost the capacity for rational discussion of these points, and have been reduced to hearing from each other only dog-whistles.
A most remarkable sentence from Agence France Press, a news organization of distinguished heritage, puts a coda on the mangling of language and sense that marks our break with the past:
On the centennial of World War I, some historians compare US President Donald Trump’s “America First” credence to WWI isolationism.
This sentence has no rational interpretation. It is gibberish. I realize that there are people who understand something comforting to their spirits in it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not gibberish. It means that a whole faction of humanity has broken with rationality in what it expects from communication.
Trump, on the other hand, as harshly as his communication often comes across, speaks with a plain meaning: one that scans and parses. In fact, he sometimes has to walk back things he has said precisely because they do make sense, as opposed to the strings of incoherent nonsense-clauses so common with his knee-jerk critics. They seldom bother to walk anything back anymore, because who can prove what they actually said?
Trump’s trenchant, straightforward use of language, so antithetical to the totemic, disordered – even frenzied – orthodoxy with which Western civilization has come to express itself, resonates with the spirits of another whole faction of humanity.
And the two modes of communication are irreconcilable.
This overriding reality colors the images of this weekend and the commemoration of the armistice of 1918. We so clearly do not live any longer in a world that has what we had as little as a decade ago: a common, sense-making view of what the war and its ending meant.
We seem to be losing such a common view on more and more topics. The break has already happened, and the world we came from – one in which we actually had a common weltanschauung, of the kind we were all (ironically) taught to decry because it was an intellectual organizing tool associated with Nazism and other totalitarian ideologies – is gone.
But as we turn a great page at the centenary mark, I want to make this final comment. The breaking-up passage we are in is not a reason for despair. It’s an opportunity for letting go of things that don’t make sense: civilizational conventions that now impose costs on us without conferring benefits, that burden us and hold us back instead of protecting hope for us, and a future. It’s an opportunity for reassessment, and building anew.
Instead of prizing political conventions, each of us is called to ponder what we cherish the most. Is it God, family, liberty, friendship, vocation, country? What do we live for? What is worth our lives and our sacred honor? Those things, we can express in straightforward, unambiguous language.
Those things, and not political conventions about buzzwords and ideological orthodoxies, are what our American veterans have served for, and bled and died for. That is the essential meaning of the American project.
One hundred years on from 1918, I’m not sure we’d even recognize John McCrae’s “torch” – the one passed to us by the dead who lie in Flanders Fields. That’s not a comment about whose time is a better one. It’s an observation about basic cognition, and the distance we have traveled in 100 years.
I don’t know that either of today’s big “communication factions,” the orthodoxy-talkers or the Trump-talkers, would more readily recognize the torch McCrae wrote about in 1915. But God bless and keep the veterans whose watch stood over us gives us space and time to sort these things out, and the American idea of nationhood that means for us to do it without fear or favor.