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But there’s more modernity there than you might think. As Adam Gopnik wrote recently in The New Yorker, the “rhetoric of 1914” had a startlingly contemporary sound. It featured a “relentless emphasis on shame and face, on position and credibility, on the dread of being perceived as weak,” the fear of “being reduced to a second-rate power.” Straight out of today’s headlines.
World War I happened because nations began attacking one another willy-nilly, essentially in response to the sight of other nations attacking one another willy-nilly. Austria attacked Serbia because its grand duke had been assassinated, and Vienna required justice. Russia declared war on Austria to defend its ally Serbia. Then Germany, Austria’s ally, launched a preemptive attack on France, Russia’s ally, which was making threatening noises. England came to France’s aid. Turkey, Germany’s ally, attacked Russia and lunged for Suez, hoping to cut off England’s link to India. Now England and France attacked Turkey. Japan got in the act. In every capital there was a war party trumpeting honor and duty and blood and soil. Nobody wanted to be left out of the great game. If it sounds idiotic, that’s because it was. And a generation was slaughtered because of it.
Now it’s a century later, and the rhetoric and diplomatic parlor-games are depressingly similar. Do we stand by our allies? Do we attack preemptively when we are threatened, or cower and wait? Do we face down our enemies at gunpoint to assert our American exceptionalism, or do we beg them to meet us halfway? Is America the world’s sole superpower, or is America the world’s therapist? Have we lost the will to shed a little blood in defense of our honor?
Of course, today’s war party will tell you that the analogy is all wrong — that the current moment isn’t 1914 but 1938. The danger, they never tire of telling us, isn’t that the world is about to stumble blindly into another World War I, but that we’re failing to prepare for the return of World War II.
That logic might hold some water if it weren’t for the fact that while 1938 found Nazi Germany racing unhindered to build the world’s strongest war machine, 2014 finds Iran, the putative Nazi stand-in, laboring under suffocating sanctions that have brought it near economic ruin. While Nazi Germany in 1938 faced a handful of neighbors seeking politely to limit its dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, Iran faces a united world community demanding its disarmament.
There is one important way that 1938 is repeating itself today. Then as now, American isolationists accuse a Jewish lobby of pushing America into a rerun of a pointless overseas war. The difference is that back then there was no Jewish lobby to speak of. Which brings us back to 2014…
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com