Sunday, 31 October 2010

Progress isn't always all it's cracked up to be

When Mark Mazower wrote his powerful history of Twentieth Century Europe he entitled it Dark Continent. This struck me as unduly cynical. After all, the century gave us victory over bacterial infections (at least temporarily, for as long as antibiotics remain effective), huge classes of people pulled out of hunger and sub-standard accommodation, to say nothing of great increases in access to culture: for example, at the beginning of the century, the cinema was in its infancy; by the end, its products could be enjoyed in our living rooms.

Mazower’s point is that it was also the century in which mankind learned to be more destructive and more vicious to itself than at any time in the past. This reverse progress, the dark mirror-image of the extension of enlightenment, is probably most striking expressed by how attitudes changed in the space of just a few decades towards the killing of civilians in warfare.

An excellent example is given by the use of submarines against merchant shipping in the First World War.

The rules governing the use of military force against maritime commerce had come down to us from the eighteenth century. They specified that the military ship must ensure that its victim belonged to an enemy or was carrying contraband goods to an enemy port. If it could establish either of those, it was entitled to take possession of it or, having evacuated and taken into safety all the crew and passengers, to fire on the ship and sink it.

The trouble with those rules is that they’re practically impossible to apply in submarines. You can’t tell the nationality of a ship through a periscope. To carry out the search means surfacing, which means giving up the one tactical advantage a submarine has: caught on the surface it is particularly vulnerable to an enemy coming to the rescue of the merchant ship. In addition, a submarine simply doesn’t have the space to take on board the crew and passengers of its victims.

What does that mean? In order to use submarine warfare against merchant ships, nations in the twentieth century had to abandon standards of civilised behaviour established in the far more primitive eighteenth. This was made clear by US President Woodrow Wilson writing to the government of Imperial Germany in 1915, whose attention he drew to:

… the practical impossibility of employing submarines in the destruction of commerce without disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice and humanity which all modern opinion regards as imperative.

What strikes me most strongly in Wilson’s words is their moral content, their appeal to fairness and humanity.

Twenty-five years later, in the Second World War, there was no expectation that any such moral concerns would limit the use of submarines against commerce. In the Atlantic, Germany drove Britain nearly to defeat by destroying its maritime supply lines; in the Pacific, the United States meted out similar treatment to Japan.

Thirty years after the Wilson letter, we had the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Clearly, by then we had reached such a pitch of enlightenment that the killing of hundreds of thousands – literally – of civilians seemed perfectly acceptable in the pursuit of war aims. Such had progress been.

From our standpoint today, the twentieth century looks pretty dark. If we don’t want it to look merely grey and overcast from the point of view of the end of the twenty-first, it might be a good idea to start doing something about it now.


Awoogamuffin said...

Yeah, and very few people express shock at how many Iraqi civilians we've killed. A lot of historians view the 20th century as the rise of barbarity.

David Beeson said...

To be honest, I think that gives the barbarians a bad name. When did Attila achieve what we did at Hiroshima? The Japanese at Nanking? Or worse still the Germans at Auschwitz?