Today is Armistice Day. It marks the end of an era.
Before the First World War, the western understanding of warfare was that it made plain things noble. It allowed superior individuals to show their valor, to exercise a virtue that both transformed themselves and offered a shining example to those around them. To act in the face of danger was what men did, and for them to do it properly, you needed a war.
Yes, there were a few naysayers out there — Thoreau, Mark Twain, Moorfield Storey — but the consensus view held that war made weak things strong, boys into men, and good nations into great ones. Yes, war was horrible. No one doubted it. But to be sublime, a thing must, on some level, be horrible. So was war — a great, terrible proving ground for the man and the nation.
Industrialized war, the thinking often went, would do all of this on an even grander scale. Just as mechanization made shirts and steel faster and better, mechanization would make warfare faster and better, too. Men of valor could be, and would be, mass produced. This view of war can be found in thinkers from the great to the pitiful, from G. W. F. Hegel to Edward Mandell House. For them, not only was war great and sublime, but it was thought to be getting better and better.
World War I changed all that. From the early months of the conflict, thinking people realized that modern warfare would certainly be more productive, if “productive” was quite the right word for it. It would not, however, be more ennobling. Modern warfare would be capable of killing on a scale never before seen. Sure, there had been some hints of it — the U.S. Civil War, the Crimean War — but this was different, particularly to most Europeans.
Personal valor meant less, not more, in the era of mustard gas and the artillery barrage. To show valor, one has to face a danger and in some sense exert a force against it. To be placed in a hole and left to wonder helplessly about one’s fate, while everyone around you randomly falls dead, isn’t valorous. It’s horrid and nothing more.
I know I will get some pushback on this, but I will say it anyway — personal valor means even less in the face of nuclear war, in which one minute you are there, and the next you can be unmade. Few if any in the nineteenth century appreciated what industrialism would do to war, but this was it. As Ludwig von Mises put it, “[I]n the long run war and the preservation of the market economy are incompatible. Capitalism is essentially a scheme for peaceful nations… If the efficiency of capitalism is directed by governments toward the output of instruments of destruction, the ingenuity of private business turns out weapons which are powerful enough to destroy everything. What makes war and capitalism incompatible with one another is precisely the unparalleled efficiency of the capitalist mode of production.”
To have an industrial capitalism is to have the ability to wage war on a scale that obliterates all pretense of humanity. That is what we commemorate today — an appalling sacrifice, and an appalling responsibility that we can never again be free of.