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Thursday, November 11, 2004


the great illusion

edited from "the great illusion", part iv of "from dawn to decadence: 500 years of western cultural life" by jacques barzun:

the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-18.

the 15 years that preceded the catastrophe have since been called la belle epoque and also "the banquet years". this nostalgic remembrance dwelt on the high artistic achievements of the cubist decade and on the outstanding minds that promoted social reform and forced a political turnaround that has shaped the present conception of the state throughout the west. a third form of energy was also at work: the practice of the cult of violence. many contemporaries blinded themselves to its significance in the enthusiasm for the for the abundance of original art and intellect: but many others, with fear or zeal, thought about nothing else.

the west that brought on itself the war of 1914 was a larger society than the one that was split four centuries earlier by the protestant revolution. the later europe included russia and turkey, and the world at war included africa, australia, new zealand, the south pacific, and japan. two thirds of the way through, the united states joined the occident. the seas were doubled in size by the submarine, and the air was added as a spacious new theater of war. who can deny the reality of progress?

much has been said about the causes of the great war, and all the chief actors in the feverish august days -- nations and individuals both -- have been accused of making it inevitable.... all... worked hard to avert the catastrophe. and no man could have engineered it alone. likewise, no single "cause", overt or underlying, propelled the multitudes into shedding their blood. a cluster of long-standing conditions, of cultural traits and intellectual defects, of purposes varying in force, brought the diverse minds to their collective act of will.

it has... been said that nationalism was the root cause of the great war. that passion was indeed one of the impelling ideas, but it was rather the failure of nationalism in central and eastern europe: the long delay before germany, austria, italy, and russia became nations bred in that region the perpetually nervous and grasping state of mind. was late in the day to hope for the fusion that the full-fledged nations had achieved when the occidental monarchs made their revolution. in a europe with parliaments and free-thinking intellectuals, separatist and irredentist feeling could not be stilled. the appeal to some past greatness, to a "unique language", to "a great hero of the 9th c sung in the national epic", to religion -- all this together with the demand for a parliament in the place of puppet kings, energized small groups that could only be repressed by intermittent violence. the tyranny that the weak exercise on the strong undid all compromises.

both sides had plenty of reason for arming to the teeth. ...everywhere "the next war" filled news articles and common talk. the phrase was the title of a book by a german general, and the provocative utterances of the kaiser helped keep the tension high.

what must be said further about the 20th c colonial empires is not that nations found them financially worth fighting for -- on the contrary, they were an expense; only some individuals profited. but imperialism created endless opportunities for enhancing or wounding prestige. hence the boast about possessing lands so fortunate that the sun never sets on them. in short, not alone imperialism as economic greed, but "national honor" -- jingoism as a state of mind -- was another of the conditions that led to war.

violent events... made the conscious mind reel: anger, shame, pride, confusion, relief, then a return to apprehension nurtured by the press. newspapers were more widely read than ever as public schooling kept increasing the number of working-class readers. replacing the pulpit as the medium for information about current events, print was more authoritative than voice, and its message came out daily, not once a week on sunday. and instead of being coupled with a predictable sermon, the news (true or not) sounded fresh and was served up with excitement added. the power of the press was demonstrated when it prodded the united states into that gratifying war with spain.

the educated public that read the weeklies was likely to find in some of them justification for war as such, or at least debate about it. it was a live issue because writers of various nationalities and grades on intellect were social darwinists; they believed that the theory of natural selection applied to nations as well as to animal species: struggle brought out the fittest. ... war might be costly in lives and money, but the reward was an improved "race", a stronger, finer, more capable people. ... the american president theodore roosevelt generalized the notion as "the strenuous life" and defined foreign policy as walking softly and carrying a big stick.

yet another line of thought converged with social darwinism to reinforce the war spirit. scholars who called themselves anthropo-sociologists did not hesitate to assert that the "mediterranean race", with its brown eyes and round skull, was not disposed toward individual self-reliance and risk-taking. its nature was to favor socialism -- protection by the state; whereas the nordic type was a pioneer, the individual endowed with courage and originality, who single-handedly achieves great things. on him alone progress depends.

that fortunate adventurer... cecil rhodes, believed this prediction so literally that to help prepare the future rulers of the world he endowed by his will of 1903 the scholarships that bear his name. they were intended for english, german and american students of high character and ability.... when war came, the germans suddenly lost their racial merit and their scholarships. ... but in the basis of these groupings one detects the principle that hitler exploited in his third reich. a nation is forged into unity by successive wars and the passage of time. when this result has not been achieved, some other means must be found.

... to many artists public affairs seemed unworthy of their attention. their contempt for politicians, mass movement, and journalism equaled their scorn for business at large. they looked down not merely on the source of their own families' wealth but also on the prosperous "academic" artist, and more harshly still on publishers, art dealers or musical impresarios.

this haughty ignorance of social and political facts enables us to understand why the cultivated classes reacted as they did when the war came: several hundred intellectuals in germany signed a manifesto denouncing "the other side" as if betrayed by a friend and brother. it was immediately answered, with a like rhetoric, by several hundred of the french. the enemy's purpose must be wicked since we are innocent.

as for the masses, when they heard the newsboys shout: "war declared!", they felt as if concussed. their thoughts ran wild in all directions. it could not be, and yet it was. the word war had been uttered a million times earlier, in fear or in hope and raised whatever images the speaker had at command; but the immediate prospect of battle was like an explosion in the soul. the next instant, emotions varied -- appall for some, joy for others; relief at the end of suspense, positive zest for action, negative resolve to die rather than yield; all this projected against a kaleidoscopic background of faces -- son, brother, husband, friend.

mingled with concern for the self and those held dear went a sudden spasm of brotherly love for all fellow citizens, high and low. danger, glory made them into a compact totality of equals at grips with heavens knows what evils. it was exhilarating and righteous besides. the overarching thought was a great simplifier; everybody understands war and bows to is single objective. long dormant motives burst into life: heroism -- risking one's life unselfishly to defend the homeland, its women and children; manliness -- to do superhuman deed under fire; to put down wanton aggressors who were committing atrocities.

altogether, it spelled liberation from the humdrum of existence, with all its petty cunning for selfish ends. a new life opened, free of corrupt motives and vulgar self-indulgence. proponents of war as good in itself were being vindicated. thematically, the first industrial world war combined primitivism -- the cure for civilization that carpenter had called for -- with emancipation that nobody could oppose.

"redemption by war" was a spontaneous popular expression, soon seen to be fallacious.

so armed in spirit, the belligerents could not dream of anything but total victory -- hence, the interminable, death-dealing years.

as the years showed, all-out war knows nothing of neutrality and little of international law. huge masses of men in collision means a pitiless, unprofessional war of attrition, fought not on fields but in trenches or foxholes or anywhere else as needed.

none of this had been foreseen. that nation-in-arms initiated by the french revolutionists in 1792 was too far back to remember and 44 years had elapsed since the previous european war, in 1870, which had been between armies in motion. in august 1914, the populations expected to hear about marches, sieges, and pitched battles. professional soldiers, reinforced by levies as needed, and carrying out planned campaigns, would decide the issue. many in france were sure that "we'll be in berlin in three months". the general staffs, at least among the allies, were not far from the same predictions. they expected cavalry to take part... and uniforms were still showy: the trousers of the french had been dyed red in germany; rifles and bayonets and field guns were of tried and tested patterns. german industrial advances upset all this "preparedness".

strategy failed on both sides. ... no plan, but a series of improvisations followed, ending in mutual stalemate along miles of disputed lines. this front was quickly a devastated area, strung with barbed wire and seamed with man-high dugouts, the trenches. the combatants, self-trained for the ordeal, lived in squalor -- mud, water, vermin -- in preparation for sorties designed to capture the opposing trench by annihilating its occupants. the over-the-top endeavor was prepared by bombardment -- a barrage of shells -- to reduce the opposition. casualties were in proportion to the scale of everything: 5000 men, perhaps, on a normal day when, as erich-maria remarque recorded in his famous novel years later, the communique read "on the western front, nothing new."

in the modern people-to-people fighting, men are expendable like powder and shells; they are important but less so than men and women in factories making ammunition. still more important are the material resources out of which to make it, the money to pay the bill, and the inventive talent to create better or novel weapons.

by the end of the war, boys of 16 were filling the gaps in the insatiable trenches. the use for the first time of troops from the african and asian colonies had not sufficed, but it marked the entry of third world settlers into the european nations. the hope never ceased that a sudden push on a broad front -- an "offensive" -- would dislodge enough of the enemy to cause a rout and end the war. the german effort at verdun in 1916 wiped out some 700,000 lives in four months and brought no decision; the same year at the somme, the british losses were 60,000 in one day.

fair warning had been given to all thinking people in the west by an english journalist named norman angell. in 1909 he had written a pamphlet entitled 'europe's optical illusion'. his thesis was simple: modern war between the great powers means a dead loss for both victor and vanquished. the pamphlet attracted wide attention, which led angell to expand it into a fully documented work retitled "the great illusion -- a study in the relation of military power in nations to their economic and social advantage". in it he quoted the words of leaders on all sides who entertained the great illusion. he showed that the existing ways of international finance put the wealth of one nation at the mercy of another. hostilities would ensure their common loss. colonies were no asset but a subsidized expense; annexing them or some part of a defeated country, or occupying it to levy tribute was yet more wasteful. besides, the cost of an up-to-date war would be ruinous. all the resources of all the participants would be drained dry. no nation and no individual would benefit from victory. a large-scale war in the 20th c would be suicide disguised as self-interest.

the argument was so clear, temperate and convincing that all who gave their minds to it believed it. but it is one thing to believe that one's previous idea is wrong and another to act on the newly-revealed right. habit, social pressures, a streak of fatalism conspire to keep action in the groove already dug. "the great illusion" was not heeded but enacted.

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