Some Costs of the Great War: Nationalizing Private Life

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costs of the Great War were truly astronomical. As with the number
of stars, the final accounting is in God’s hands. The slaughters,
the treasure, the faith in some kind of order of society –
all of these were costs of the war. As Wilfred Owen suggested in
his terrible poem "Strange Meeting," the culture of Europe
seemed hell-bent on trekking away from progress toward something
that literary historian Paul Fussell would later call the troglodyte
world: a kind of Hobbesian vision, one might say, rendered in
pen and ink by Otto Dix. Costs indeed.

Yet this essay
has to do less with numbers of ended lives than it has to do with
altered lives, or rather, with changes in the status of the private
life of the modern individual, the modern family, the modern community.
This essay is about private property, about the autonomy of the
individual, and the disastrous trend, accelerated by World War I,
of the state claiming the right to take at whim everything within
its territory.

A secondary
theme is that this great change in private life was already in process
before 1914. The real agent of change was not the war, but the state
and its backers and minions. Yet war as an accelerator of change
was bad enough. Political and intellectual leaders in all countries
welcomed the war for the collectivist changes it would inevitably
bring. In the United States, one of the more important figures welcoming
the war was John Dewey, a veritable god in the pantheon of our modern
civil religion. Dewey saw the war, rightly, as the accelerator of
the coming industrial society – a managed positivist society,
which he thought of as democracy itself. (More on this below.)

Mere Statistics

Mere statistics
do not tell the whole story, but they can begin to show the outline.
Fifty million men worldwide were mobilized for military service
in the war. Just over a fifth of them died. Civilian deaths are
more difficult to calculate, but many millions died of starvation
(as in the case of Germany, where between half a million and 700,000
civilians died from malnutrition), deliberate mass murder, and forced
migration, while others were shot in reprisal or as spies, killed
accidentally by either friendly or unfriendly fire, the victims
of deliberate violence of individual soldiers (friendly or unfriendly),

the rest of the article

24, 2009

Tooley [send him mail]
teaches history at Austin College. See his article
archives at

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