world war III
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones…“
is the editorial/admin staff of Creative Politics, and the pen name used for the original Federalist Papers making the case for the US Constitution in the 1780s. The founders of Creative Politics are a father and son team, both left-handed.
Genius is no longer required to know the weapons World War III or IV will be fought with. Hurricanes, typhoons, and tornadoes. Droughts, floods, crushing heat waves, blasts of polar air. Rampant wildfires, ubiquitous new forms of gas warfare that target civilians and cognition, sabotaged water supplies, crimes against both humanity and nature, which have become one through violence, not covenant. And plagues, of heretofore unimaginable scope and variety.
Some say COVID-19 signals the start of WWIII, and when they say this, they’re envisioning World War II, the only world war close enough in memory to exist and be existential; “the good war” they think, hopefully. But in reality the pandemic has much more in common with the first of our global conflagrations, WWI, right down to the uncanny resemblance between the individuals most responsible for them. Both were predicted for years before they happened, the inevitable results of highly artificial and therefore unsustainable states of affairs. Both were initiated by a single incident in a relative backwater that inexorably took on a life of its own, in a simple, almost linear chain reaction that was always there to see.
Part of our Revivalist History series, in which we search for clues as to what we should do next in what we, as Americans have–as usual–forgotten we did before. Zinn only knows we’ve achieved some pretty amazing things under the influence of novelty and change. Do you remember when? Did you always want to be an archaeologist, but never found the epoch?
The real “invisible enemy” in both was and is greed, right down to the vector itself, whether mindless acquisition of unnecessary colonies or, in the case of our current struggle, levels of income inequality not seen since, well, the period immediately preceding and following the 1914-18 hostilities, cynical conflicts where ideology, while trumpeted, was/is window-dressing at best and worst (not that wars driven by ideology are any better for it). Like COVID, World War I was disjointed, a chaotic, every-country-for itself affair, much of it completely senseless, in which life was treated as shockingly cheap among even the most “advanced” and “civilized.” How different are today’s “essential workers”–ordered by law and contract to risk their lives every day so their bosses can collect even more coin from the shelter of their enclaves–from the infantry ordered by their “betters” to rise up out of the trenches and charge across no-man’s land to be slaughtered, again, and again, and again, a ‘philosophy’ that, in the literal end, resulted in more soldiers dying on Armistice Day than on D-Day in World War II? Dying by the RNA of an organism that is a mockery, a parody of life, as remorselessly indifferent as infinite space, while their debauched modern-day trench commanders take bets on how many will fall.
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote his best known work, The Second Coming, during the darkest days of the stalemated sieges. The crescendo, in particular, seem as if it could literally have been written yesterday:
Yeats wrote these lines weeks after watching helplessly as his pregnant wife nearly died of influenza, and normally it would be too ‘on the nose’ to point out that WWI, like the present day, featured a deadly pandemic, but it’s worth noting that in both cases, the resulting destruction was made immeasurably worse by governments–including, in both cases, our own–dismissing, dissembling about, and covering up the danger involved. In fact, the 1918 influenza, which most now believe likely originated in rural Kansas, became mistakenly known as the “Spanish flu” because the Spanish government was the only one that allowed its press to publicly report what was going on, something that should give pause to those quick to redirect their own government’s incompetence onto the Chinese.
Just as World War I was widely declared “the war to end all wars,” there’s been no shortage of public intellectuals trumpeting the long overdue, sweeping, and generally positive changes they expect COVID to produce as a result of all it has chewed through and laid bare. And one key difference between 1920 and 2020 gives them at least a hugger’s chance of vindication: the self-reflection and contemplation forced upon us by lockdowns and quarantines, in particular the extent to which it has compelled many of us to reconnect with nature, and nature to reconnect with us. Much of humanity was stunned at how quickly the plants and animals of the oft-mourned Anthropocene took back the earth, seas, and skies within the period, however brief, in which we’ve been forced to stop and think; it makes fatalism (aka the fourth stage of climate change denial) look laughingly presumptuous and arrogant.
In fact, in our present existential situation, it’s difficult to walk through a woodland or past a stream without stopping to realize that virtually every plant or animal we see would be more missed by the rest of nature than ourselves, because, Native Americans excepted, we’ve never made any effort to be a part of the natural world, rather than trample and dominate it for our own purposes. For our fellow terrestrial denizens, we are nothing more or less than weather, as ephemeral, random, and mercurial as clouds and their consequences; our fellow mammals are going to keep crossing our roads no matter how many we thoughtlessly kill with our cars, birds and butterflies will continue to migrate no matter how daunting we make the gauntlet. Many of the ‘species’ we’ve ‘identified’ and ‘named’ (as if we really have that authority over creatures whose every sense, including many we cannot even fathom, is superior to our own) may be in sharp decline, but given the perverse satisfaction such feelings of power and control can inspire, we can only hope COVID, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, is in the process of providing us with the bracing realization that in the end, we are merely destroying ourselves, not the orb we’ve been permitted to rent, not rend.
More broadly, perhaps it will expose us as the evolutionary refugees we are, no different than the neotropical avian migrants that left the fierce competition of the rainforest in search of a better life when they, as we, spread across the globe. When a new virus is unleashed on the world, destroying everything in its path, we call it “novel,” a child among microbes that will never be as successful or persistent as its forefathers until and unless it evolves to co-exist with its host (like the common cold corona), not kill it. We don’t consider such a virus more advanced; we consider it immature. And even when it progresses to such a stage of equilibrium, it will be deserving of no more than the nod of acknowledgment given to initiates by those already there; new mousetraps in evolution and nature are usually not better, just different, and we are deluding ourselves in a foolishly self-serving way if we believe otherwise. Just as we do when we’re naively impressed with lethality as a measure of strength or power, and think we’re actually “at war” with microbes when such wars are merely failures on the part of microbes involved.
The aftermath of World War I is a cautionary tale that echoes down to us as well. In its ‘resolution’ at Versailles, lessons overripe for the taking were methodically elided out of the peace in favor of the same zero-sum acquisitiveness that launched the travesty to begin with, with the underlying causes of the conflict either unaddressed or excised so incompletely that metastasis was inevitable. In the detritus of our present predicament, scattered before us like thrown bones, there are already warning signs we’ll need to hit bottom again before we learn. For us, the housing market crash of 2008 was our Versailles moment, as Wall Street received massive bailouts while Main Street was foreclosed on, sowing the seeds that have germinated to produce the same bitter hops of populism that arose in Weimar Germany. Those in charge of “too big to fail” piously vowed that this was the ‘bailout to end all bailouts.’ Yet here we are again, a little more than a decade later, and once again, and not just for the second time, major corporations on the exchanges have mainlined huge cash infusions from the government while hundreds of thousands of small businesses around the country are shuttered.
Getting out in nature, we come to realize that habitats disrupted by thoughtless violence–the gashes a new highway through the wilderness creates, for example–rarely provide fertile ground for something better. Instead, like an open wound, they attract omnipotent invasives instead–toxic bacteria, runaway algae, sharp-bladed, thick-stalked weeds. With its economic underpinnings ignored, the War To End All Wars fostered and compelled an advance in authoritarianism from monarchy to the more pervasive, more sophisticated, aptly named totalitarianism of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, and more.
In our postmodern world, it’s similarly become clear there’s a pandemic within the pandemic, in which the generation 2.0 of authoritarians around the world rapidly seize the novel opportunities presented to apply the latest tools of their craft and further consolidate their power in ways Orwell most likely dreamed of, though a minimum level of competence does appear to be required to take full advantage. No model of governance has risen more out of the fog of fomites than China’s state capitalism; as democracies have faltered, Beijing has been rushing in to fill the vacuum. Even the most enlightened democratic responses to the plague–strong, coordinated central leadership, lockdowns and quarantines, social distancing, contact tracing–are setting precedents and creating new levers of power that can easily be deployed by aspiring strongmen to strike at such fundamental norms of democracy as freedom of assembly and personal privacy. By year’s end, 70% of the nations of the world had seen democratic freedoms curtailed, the worst setback for our most cherished ideals since The Economist’s Democracy Index was established.
In the 1920’s, disgust with the pointlessness of The Great War led the U.S. into a period of profound isolationism at a time when, as Woodrow Wilson understood, the opportunity and necessity for our engagement with the world was, in fact, never greater, if for no other reason than to prevent the much more devastating world war that followed. That’s what it finally took to make Wilson’s League of Nations a reality, in the form of the post-war United Nations, an institution whose existence, whatever else one may say about it (nobody likes the referees) has been accompanied by nearly eighty years of relative peace since its inception. WWI only killed enough of us to make us cynical, not enough to shock us into ongoing commitment, and for countries like England, the steep costs of the war–a generation lost–only became fully apparent many years later. We can only hope that reports of COVID cases lasting months, “long-haulers” with permanent organ and neurological or cognitive damage done, don’t become its parallel.
Flash flooding forward from ’20s to 20, it took only days after the novel coronavirus emerged for isolationism, in the form of xenophobia, to follow like a chemtrail in its wake, with the contagion deployed as justification for the Mexican border wall, deportations, border closings, immigration suspensions, hate crimes against Asian-Americans, attacks on international institutions and treaties, and more. Large majorities of Americans, who are generally pro-immigrant, supported the border closings and halt to legal immigration; if the disease continues to crackle and flare for months or years (e.g. if vaccines are not as effective as we expect and/or millions cannot be persuaded to get them), it’s quite possible these positions will harden and become a new normal, especially now that there’s no longer a surplus of jobs we need immigrants to fill. Meanwhile, pleas that the primary lesson of COVID is the need for more globalism, more international cooperation, not less, are falling on millions of newly deaf ears. The logic of the globalists is unassailable, but when 200,000+ of your fellow citizens die because of the sale of an animal most have never heard of in a grotesque meat market half a world away, in a backwater we’ve never heard of either, the logic of isolation is tough to surmount, and literally visceral besides.
And yet it’s also worth remembering that deep within the wall-to-wall, trench-to-trench, hand-to-hand obscenity of the First World War, there was one moment that seems to genuinely deserve to be called a miracle in the truest sense of the word, one we can hope will be replicated here and now as well: the spontaneous, wholly unofficial and unsanctioned Christmas truce of 1914, in which more than 100,000 soldiers on the Western front laid down their arms, sang carols to each other, exchanged gifts, even played football in no-man’s land (though one sullen young Austrian corporal was less than amused). In our current donnybrook, the battle has been joined to the point where we are all combatants, all over the world. Unlike the grunts of more than a century ago, we haven’t spent months firing state-of-the-art weapons at each other, no matter how many things we say we’ve “weaponized.” We’ve already largely stopped pointlessly displacing our quotidian anger at each other (the car horn has virtually disappeared from the soundscape in many places, except as a form of applause, though like a wildfire reviving from the embers when relentlessly blown upon, it’s audible with increasing frequency); would it truly require a miracle–or more–for we, the people of the world, to insist, most definitely without the blessing of our present-day commanders, on an honest, fair, and sustainable economy? A real free market economy, not a capitalist oligarchy? Have we at last reached the state of abundance, exposed and made clear by the withdrawal of its scraps, that finally compels workers of the world to close ranks? Or are we destined to forever repeat the cycle of periodic cicadas, the longest-lived members of the phylum with whom we currently share what passes for world dominion with the microbes, to spend nearly all of our lives groping in the dark, nursing comfort and protection, emerging, at last, into the light where we can finally see, where we finally ‘get it,’ just in time to die?
We won’t have to wait long to find out the answer, because it appears we’ve already passed through the world war interregnum, and WWIV is upon us. As WWI turned out to be a dress rehearsal for II, many scientists believe the coronavirus is merely the front edge of the real existential struggle, the fight to spare the planet as we know it from the ravages of climate change. As The Atlantic’s Ed Yong put it more pointedly, “Humanity has squeezed the world’s wildlife in a crushing grip—and viruses have come bursting out.”
It’s said that every war starts with at least one of the two sides making the mistake of fighting the war before. Today’s world is a time-compressed one in which existence increasingly looks like a trolley car approaching the speed of light. Our past–influenza, the Depression, the ’60s–snaps forward like an accordion while 500 year extreme weather events pile back from the future like Chinese traffic jams, and technologies accelerate, if not the rate of discovery, the rates of awareness, dissemination and adoption that represent reality. Heat of all kinds increases the velocity of everything from the atomic level up, and in the blur of rapid change, time slows down. Every day seems like a week, every week like a month, every month a year. Which means the very speed that seems to be killing us gives us, in the reality of possibilities, extra seconds between the seconds, extra minutes between the minutes, extra hours between the hours to find and implement ideas and concepts that, like World War II, not only solve the immediate problem before us but a whole lot more.
In this environment, WWIII and IV are more like fronts than a succession; even more strangely, this is a good thing, not just because the two are as closely related as I and II (so there will less re-fighting required and more opportunities for flycatching), but because the human–and especially American–tendency for rapid onset ahistoricism will likely not have opportunity to take root before it’s pulled up and exposed. We’ve just seen COVID blitzkrieg all the world’s health systems, for example; without the detriment of time, we’re unlikely to create a Maginot Line or Pearl Harbor to protect us against the impacts of CO2. But this can’t compare for Escherian sci-fi novelty with a battlefield theater in which we’ll be trying to rescue our adversary, Gaia, from our common enemy–us–before she destroys us instead.
At the same time, if WWII, in which 85 million perished, 60-65% of them civilians, more than four times as many as in WWI, was “the good war,” what superlative would be appropriate for a conflict in which the goal is, instead, to save the lives of many times more? It would hardly seem to be a war at all if not for the fact that we have no more treacherous and indomitable opponent than ourselves. When Americans despair of averting climate catastrophe, it’s not because they don’t believe solutions exist; it’s because they don’t believe the world’s leaders have the will to do what’s necessary. Our 1942 leadership quietly feared as much about we, the people, when they sent our green troops, who had seen no action in a quarter of a century, up against Rommel in North Africa. It turned out to be one of many ways in which WWII, so different and distant, provides guidance on how to win the greatest challenge of modern times.
In Part II of this two part series, we’ll elaborate…
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