The fast-developing events of the last week in Iraq have been stunning and ominous if for no other reason than that they’re sweeping beyond anyone’s control, adopting a certain relentless inevitably that harkens back to the kind of frightening sequences of developments that resonate in today’s morbid historical documentaries about events that led to the outbreak of World War I just 100 years ago this summer.
In both scale and consequence, today’s unraveling of any modicum of control in and around Iraq by ostensibly prevailing interests is breathtaking, especially as set against the pre-World War I record. The parallels pertaining to key components, to those capable of identifying and assessing them, are downright stunning.
Those pre-war events in 1914 are recalled for the way in which humanity became so swiftly overwhelmed by a seeming inevitability of historical events caught in the grip of treaties, conventions of two-dimensional thought, boundless egos and convictions of self-justifications.
We can only hope that the 100th anniversary of what was known then as “the Great War” this summer can awaken enough in time to prevent an inevitable repeat of what triggered the greatest and most rapid descent of civilization into sheer barbarism on an unfathomable scale.
The Summer of 1914, it could be argued, was the most eventful, from the standpoint of the unfolding of human history, ever. Consider a European civilization that had evolved the greatest cultural and political achievements of human history, that had become the nexus of the most progressive ideas and experiments in polity, being the birthplace of modern constitutional democracies, scientific inventions, economic and industrial progress, and the cultivation of universal notions of the commonality and shared destinies of all persons. Here was the context, united by the invention of railroads and the telegraph, efficiencies in architectures, where the higher angels of mankind’s existence were beginning of outpace man’s more brutish and selfish impulses, fueled by the great poetry, literature, art and musical compositions that were so encouraged and heavily subsidized in that era.
Notwithstanding exploitations of labor and looting of the natural resources of the planet, the era demonstrated the enormous, wider benefits of a generous and optimistic time. Diaries of creative optimists bulged with rich accounts of shared deliberations of the possible and visions of the kinds of achievements that would soften and enrich the human soul.
It is virtually impossible to fathom the descent from this Renaissance culture and its universal hopefulness into the kind of living hell that became Europe within a year of the onset of the Great War. The trenches, the filth, the unspeakable pain, suffering and lack suddenly overtook everything, like the imposition of a terrible collective nightmare.
This was worse than any nightmare, not only because there was no awakening from it, but because it brought with it the permanent destruction of everything that contributed to the era of beauty that preceded it. What had been characteristic of that earlier time, the “cross- fertilization” of the cultures, the constant touring of great artists and minds crossing national borders without hesitation, and across the water to the United States, the regional festivals and university fairs, opportunities for experiencing the best talents from Moscow to Madrid and New York, was rent asunder with a finality that was little short of surreal.
The appeals to honor and glory that marked the opening weeks of the horror soon gave way such that there was no way anyone could be deceived that the war had anything to do with the period preceding it. It became a blunt meat grinder that chopped up tens of millions of shiny-faced lads and a half-million domesticated horses, dying in impossible pain and filth with no honor or choirs of angels.
It’s been a mere century since, and most of us knew, or certainly knew of, someone who was alive then. The sad reality is that we’ve never gotten over the core impulses that caused world war then. In fact, we’ve gone further to reify such tendencies: the claim to territory, the sanctity of greed and worship of the ego against all. The interlude between the two great wars of the last century was known as “the long weekend.”