Thursday, March 05, 2009
the resiliency of american social mood
stewart's attack is all the more interesting as a barometer of american social mood. with far bigger disasters still in the offing -- not least of which would seem to be general electric -- we are quickly reaching the point where the obama administration is going to have to decide whether or not it wants to sacrifice its political mandate and popular goodwill in an effort to stem cascading collapses. for better or worse, the american public -- however frightened they may be -- is still not scared enough of what may come and too hopeful of their prospects to try just any unlimited measure to alter their fate.
i think many have forgotten in the intervening seventy-odd years that FDR came on the scene only after the national economy had been laid to waste, a point we are yet far from. not only does that lack of distinction in the timing of his arrival explain some of what is today perceived to be the "success" of the new deal, having as it did the advantage of being implemented only after the utter collapse of the preceding credit bubble; it also misunderstands what made FDR's grand restructuring politically possible (and then only in spite of profound opposition). as recalled by edmund love and others, the individualistic ethic of the 1920s was still very evident in the america of 1930. it took 1931 and 1932 and 1933 to smash widespread denial and modify the popular perspective on the role of government, or indeed the acceptability of any source of aid whatsoever.
similarly, paul fussell's opening chapter on the satire of circumstance which lays out the course of the first world war in his seminal "the great war and modern memory" identifies this dynamic of stubbornly clinging to specks of transient success as if they were the salient features amid widespread carnage and hopeless disaster, of refusing to accept the scale of what has transpired and the awful prospects of even the best actions as 'hope abridged'. from his description of 1915:
the first failed attack of 1915 was not british but german. the area selected was near ypres, and the fracas has been named the second battle of ypres, or simply second ypres. on april 22, after discharging chlorine gas from cylinders, the germans attacked and advanced three miles. but then they faltered for a lack of reserves. gas had first been used by the germans on october 27, 1914, when they fired a prototype of modern tear gas from artillery near ypres. the german use of gas -- soon to be imitated by the british -- was thought an atrocity by the ignorant, who did not know that, as liddell hart points out, gas is "the least inhumane of modern weapons." its bad press was the result of its novelty: "it was novel and therefore labelled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovations." in the late april attack at ypres the british were virtually unprotected against gas -- the "box respirator" was to come later -- and even though the line was substantially held, the cost was 60,000 british casualties.
a few weeks later it was the british turn. on march 10 the first of the aborted british offensives was mounted at neuve chapelle. the attach was only 2000 yards wide, and, although it was successful at first, it died for lack of reserves and because the narrow frontage invited too much retributive german artillery. again the british tried, on may 15 at festubert, and with similar results: initial success turned to disaster. going through the line was beginning to look impossible. it was thus essential to entertain hopes of going around it, even if going around took one as far away as gallipoli, 2200 miles southeast of the western front, where troops had begun landing on april 25.
imagining themselves instructed by these occasions of abridged hope at neuve chapelle and festubert, the british mounted a larger attack near loos on september 15. six divisions went forward at once, and this time the attack was preceded not only by the customary artillery barrage but by the discharge of what robert graves tells us was euphemized as "the accessory" -- cylinders of chlorine gas. most of it blew back into the british trenches, and the attach was another failure which even the Official History later stigmatized as a "useless slaughter of infantry". the proceedings at loos were called off eleven days after they had started, but not before 60,000 more british casualties had been added to the total.
and then his description of 1916 and the apocalypse of the somme:
to haig the lesson of 1915 was clear and plain. a successful attack leading to a breakthrough would have to be infinitely larger and wider and stronger and better planned than had been imagined. with this kind of attack in view, haig and his staff spent the first six months of 1916 preparing an immense penetration of the german line on the somme which he was confident would end the war. the number of men destined for the attack, equal to twenty-six world war two infantry divisions, constituted a seven-to-one superiority over the germans. while the planning was underway, france was engaged at verdun. its defense bled her so badly that henceforth the main offensive effort on the western front had to be british. there were not enough french left, and those remaining were so broken in spirit that the mutinies of may 1917, given the stingy french leave and recreation policy, might have been predicted. the ironic structure of events was becoming conventional, even hardyesque: if the pattern of things in 1915 had been a number of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes, the pattern of 1916 was that of one vast optimistic hope leading to one vast ironic catastrophe. the somme affair, destined to be known among the troops as The Great Fuck-Up, was the largest engagement fought since the beginnings of civilization. ...
the disaster had many causes. lack of imagination was one: no one imagined that the germans could have contrived such deep dugouts to hide in while the artillery pulverized the ground overhead, just as no one imagined that the german machine gunners could get up the stairs and mount their guns so fast once the bombardment moved away at precisely 7:30. another cause was traceable to the class system and the assumptions it sanctioned. the regulars of the british staff entertained an implicit contempt for the rapidly trained new men of "kitchener's army", largely recruited among workingmen from the midlands. the planners assumed that these troops -- burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment -- were too simple and animal to cross the space between the opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows or "waves". it was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover, or assault-firing, or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage.
a final cause of the disaster was the total lack of surprise. there was a hopeless absence of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of its author. the attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn -- the expected hour for an attack -- and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced german machine gunners unprotected up at their open firing positions. but one suspects that if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting. whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending cavalry through to end the war. contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of july 1916, blunden wrote eighteen years later: "by the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. no road. no thoroughfare. neither race had won, nor could win, the war. the war had won, and would go on winning."
regardless of this perception, the british attempt on the somme continued mechanically until stopped in november by freezing mud. a month earlier the british had unveiled an innovation, the tank, on the road between albert and bapaume, to the total surprise and demoralization of the enemy. but only thirty-two had been used, and this was not enough for a significant breakthrough. a terrible gloom overcame everyone at the end of 1916. it was the bottom, even worse than the end of 1915. "we are going to lose this war," lloyd george was heard to say. and the dynamics of hope abridged continued to dominate 1917 with two exceptions, the actions at messines in june and at cambrai in november.
dishearteningly, i am finding on a rereading of fussell's masterpiece so many sad parallels to our ongoing series of failed but ever-hopeful offensives upon the enemy of the depression that i have come to believe that the pattern at work now is indeed one common to mass behavior in a wide range of human disasters. it probably received its best technical phrasing in the work of elizabeth kübler-ross amid a different context. as with the depression of the 1930s and the great war of 1914-18, the crisis only ends once it is widely accepted that the new paradigm of disaster is effectively an eternal one, turning hope abridged first into despair and then finally widespread exhaustion and submission.