There is no denying that we live in disturbingly anxious and contentious times. Apocalyptic assertions, profanity-laden tirades, public shaming tactics, and crude weapons of moral accusation have increasingly taken the place of rational discourse and the steadfast rule of law. There is something ominous in the air, a faint but unmistakable scent of dissolution. Even before the shamefulness of the Afghanistan debacle, still unfolding as I write, there has been a growing and justifiable disgust with the self-serving incompetence of our leadership classes, and a sense of resignation to a future of ever-growing polarization and irreversible diminution of our national self-understanding. Hard times give rise to troubled thoughts; and when the hardness of the times is in large part a product of our own folly and improvidence, the thoughts are likely to turn inward, like knives in the brain.
— Wilfred McClay, “Has America Lost Its Story?”
Although some of these ideals survived the war, they lost much of their intellectual appeal and cultural force. That the West lost confidence in itself was a direct consequence of the war. As Francis Fukuyama remarked, the “First World War was a critical event in the undermining of Europe’s self-confidence.” Or as Jacques Barzun observed, “the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-1918.”
When the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, stated on the eve of the Great War that the “lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our time,” he had little idea just how long darkness would last. Richard Overy characterized the decades following the Great War as “The Morbid Age,” one where cultural and intellectual life appeared to be haunted by expectation of a new Dark Age and an end to Western civilization. This was had more than the usual unsettling outcomes associated with a military conflict. It called into question the self-belief of the political and cultural elites of Western societies.
One of the most momentous and durable legacies of the Great War was that it disrupted and disorganized the prevailing web of meaning through which Western societies made sense of their world. Suddenly the key values and ideals into which the early-twentieth century elites had been socialized appeared to be emptied of meaning…One response to this existential crisis was to lament the sense of loss of the old order. But even those who possessed a strong conservative impulse understood that there was no obvious road back to the past.
The power of destruction unleashed during the Great War, with its unexpected and uncontrollable trajectory, and the failure of the intellectual legacy of modernity to make sense of this tragedy undermined society’s faith in future progress. Despite the rhetoric that this was a “War to end all Wars,” it was widely understood that four years of slaughter did not resolve any of the problems that caused the conflict in the first place. Premonition of the war to come in the future coexisted with fears of uncertainty about the capacity of society to absorb internal conflicts. Suddenly, the taken-for-granted assumptions about civilization, progress, and the nature of change lost their capacity to illuminate human experience. The prominent English historian H.A.L. Fisher acknowledged in 1934 that he could no longer discern in history the “plot,” the “rhythm and predetermined pattern” that appeared so obvious to observers in the past. “I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave,” he stated.
— Frank Furedi, First World War: Still No End in Sight
Is that gash in your leg
Really why you have stopped?
‘Cause I’ve noticed all the others
Though they’re gashed, they’re still going
‘Cause I feel like the real reason
Is that you’re quitting and admitting
That you’ve lost all the will to battle on
Will the fight for our sanity
Be the fight of our lives?
Now that we’ve lost all the reasons
That we thought that we had
Still the battle that we’re in
Rages on till the end
With explosions, wounds are open
Sights and smells, eyes and noses
But the thought that went unspoken
Was understanding that you’re broken
Still the last volunteer battles on..
— The Flaming Lips, “The Gash“