Thursday, November 11, 2010

War and the Cultural Conscience

Today is Veteran's Day, what used to be Armistice Day commemorating the end of The Great War which was reduced to World War I once another great war came along. Because of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, we tend to forget about World War I but it was a horror of epic proportions. Trench warfare in which one side would charge only to get mowed down, then the other side would charge only to get mowed down. Lives lost by the thousands and no change. Just death for the sake of death. The use of chemical weapons causing more mass death in absolutely horrible ways.

The unfathomable reality of what they had done to themselves undermined European culture which before the war considered itself the ultimate end of cultural evolution. They were what history had always intended, the full complete actualization of humanity. And then they did this. What did it mean? What was it to be human after this? These questions were very much real to them and you see radical turns in almost every human endeavor that follows from the sciences to the arts to the human sciences. The war had triggered the cultural conscience.

We saw something similar with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the bombing that killed the children in Omaugh in Northern Ireland, a point at which the horrible simply reaches a place where the culture demands an intellectual time-out.

Is American culture capable of this anymore? Do we even have a culture conscience anymore? We permitted torture and there was no outrage. The CIA destroyed evidence of torture and no one is even going to be charged. Is there anything anymore that will make us step back and ask what it means to be human if we allow this? On a day we set aside to think about the human cost of warfare, I worry that the answer is no.