A hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918, the War to End All Wars came to a wobbly close by way of an Armistice.
In the trenches of Flanders, in the hills of Gallipoli, in the barren places of Mesopotamia, and amidst Alpine recesses an entire generation, the flower of youth that might have built a better world vanished.
Over four years of bloodshed, about 20 million were killed and nearly 24 million wounded. Those who survived saw themselves as flotsam on the vast wreckage of a blasted civilization.
One such survivor, a British officer named Guy Chapman, in his learned and thoughtful account entitled, “A Passionate Prodigality” (which should be more widely read) wrote: “The news of the impending Armistice was accepted with a shrug … The band played, but there was very little singing … The whole of our world was crumbling … Our civilization was being torn to pieces before our eyes. England was said to be a country fit only for profiteers to live in … England had vanished over the horizon of the mind.”
As if the Great War were not murderous enough, 1918 also saw the Spanish Flu, which raged for two years and killed between 50 to 100 million people worldwide. Nor was the Armistice real peace; it was only a twenty-year respite, wherein another generation matured enough to die fighting.
The final chapter of the War to End All Wars began in 1939 and claimed 50 million more lives. In the end, it became “the Long World War,” which endured from August 1914 to August 1945.
The world that coalesced afterward, emptied of so much human talent, came to be known as “modern.” As such, it was nothing more than a recoiling from the muck and mire of trenches, the carpet-bombing of cities, the industrialized slaughter in concentration camps, and the Mushroom Cloud.
Perhaps it might even be true that the Long World War continues to this day, and it is to it that all wars now belong, for the West has yet to outgrow its posture of cringing, drawing back — it has yet to overcome its modernity.
Many mistake modernity as the natural context of the contemporary West. This is an error because modernity is only a reaction — and all reaction is also a denial of reality. Thus, modernity is the denial of all that was and is the West — and denial can never fertilize civilization. (This is also a word of advice to those much enthralled to critiquing that popular fake term “postmodernism” — but that is another topic for another day).
At the heart of this cringing — this recoiling — is the rebellious rejection of the transcendent, which means that there can only be a fragmented selfhood. Modernity holds that the individual can never be complete and must accept living in suspension, neither falling nor climbing up, and that to live is to be in flux. Hence, gender confusion, identity politics, the rights industry, Critical Race Theory, intersectionality and all the other forms of madness that now pass for profundity.
In fact, modernity can only offer a haphazard, transitory purpose — just something ad hoc to get through the job of living. This is what Chapman points to, and this modernist sentiment is deeply ingrained at the present moment in the Western psyche. It is what is naively known as “progress.”
Such transience is ultimately a theological problem — for how could a good God allow so much slaughter of the innocents in the darkest hours of the Long World War?
This question has extirpated Western civilization — and sadly, neither churches nor theologians have been up to the task in providing a good answer, even though such an answer is an easy one, and it is this: Free will demands that God be invisible and silent, for how can there be free will if some Big Guy keeps showing up to whack us whenever transgression becomes a possibility?
God’s silence and absence further demand morality, which are divine commandments, given to us for our own good, and because we must be good to ourselves and to each other in order to express our freedom — because freedom is a Godly virtue. Cruelty comes about when the human heart is empty of morality (God’s commands); cruelty is never the result of deficient legality, let alone a chemical imbalance in the brain.
By giving up on God, the West gave up on itself, for that which gave it meaning was allowed to vanish. But the West still wants to be both Godless and virtuous — it still wants to love the neighbor, help the weak, give value to each life. Why? If there is no God, then a “better world” can never be possible, for why should anyone be worried about another person’s good when we are only animals who must find ways and means to survive and thrive.
Instead of good and evil, there can only be instinct and strength, and the devouring of the weak. The Marquis de Sade understood this perfectly, which Nietzsche picked up on (inadequately). A modern West is, in fact, a pre-Western dystopia.
Given this quandary, the modern West can no longer understand its existence into the future; modernity can allow it care only of the present moment. What will come a hundred years from now; who knows and who cares? Modernity is about insulating the self from the wiles of reality.
Another survivor of the Great War, the Tsarist officer, Colonel Paul Rodzianko, in his memorable work, “Tattered Banners,” mentions a man from Russia whom he met some years after the Revolution of 1917.
Speaking of the new Russia, this man remarked, “Cant and slogans do not really satisfy. Stronger even than the desire for food is the desire for belief and peace.” It was Christ who first said that man does not live by bread alone.
Thus, true peace is the by-product of faith, not of government policy. Civilization is the by-product of love, not of social engineering.
It is becoming obvious now that the West will have to slough modernity since modernity is tearing it apart; and this rendering cannot long continue. As a result, there are only two possible paths.
The West can either abandon its apostasy and return to Christianity, its true root, and work to build again the civilization that it has lost — namely, Christendom. Or, it can become pre-Western (or, post-Christian), which some call, “archeofuturism” (per Guillaume Faye), which is a world driven by tribal expedience and exigency, where love and goodness are no longer needed.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his epic novel about the Great War, “1914,” offers this advice: “The laws of the perfect human society can only be found within the total order of things. In the purpose of the universe. And in the destiny of man.” This is a good description of Christendom.
The time is fast approaching when the West will have to change its mind and decide what path it will choose to follow — and this choice will not be an easy one, for the Long World War yet endures.
Nirmal Dass is a former university professor specializing in the Early and High Middle Ages. His areas of research are philosophy, history and ancient languages. He has written several books and is actively engaged in literary translation.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.