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Introduction: Modernisms and Modern Wars

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 44, Number 3, Fall 1998
pp. 505-509 | 10.1353/mfs.1998.0069

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Modern Fiction Studies 44.3 (1998) 505-509

I began writing this introduction on 10 May 1998, with the opening sentence, "It may seem anomalous to have a special issue on 'Modernisms and Modern Wars' at this particular moment in history, at the very end of the twentieth century, when the Cold War, with its threat of global annihilation, is construed as effectively over." Two days later, on 12 May 1998, India tested a series of nuclear devices of twice the force of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. "India's blast shook the world out of its post-cold-war complacency," Newsweek noted on 25 May 1998 (Thomas 30). A little more than two weeks later, the headlines of the Los Angeles Times announced "Pakistan Explodes 5 Nuclear Devices in Response to India" (Filkins A1). This event deepened the seriousness of Newsweek's ominous warning that "India could be a harbinger of a more chaotic world order, of rivalrous nationalities scrambling to arm themselves with the bomb. Think of Europe in August 1914, only with weapons of mass destruction" (Thomas 30). The short-lived hope that, with the end of the twentieth century, large-scale war might be over has been revealed as a dangerous delusion.

Among our various constructions of the modernity of the twentieth century, we must list as its premier legacy the combined will and technology that made it the bloodiest in the history of the world. The casualties of World War I are estimated at ten million dead and twenty million wounded. Of World War II, Paul Fussell writes:

Killed and wounded were over 78 million people, more of them civilians than soldiers. Close to 6 million Jews were beaten, shot, or gassed to death by the Germans. One million people died of starvation and despair in the siege of Leningrad. . . . If the battle of the Somme constitutes a scandal because 20,000 British soldiers were killed in one day, twice that number of civilians were asphyxiated and burned to death in the bombing of Hamburg. Seventy thousand died at Hiroshima, 35,000 at Nagasaki, and the same at Dresden. (307)

And Barbara Ehrenreich reports that "an estimated 22 million people" have been killed in the 160 wars since World War II (226). The final human tragedy of our age resides in our inability to draw a line under these unimaginable numbers, this unspeakable suffering, and declare that it is over. The twentieth century has been unable to contain its violence within its temporal boundaries because war is, by its constitution, uncontrollable and uncontainable. The truce and the treaty that mark the end of this or that armed conflict effect the cessation of only one form of injuring, and they rarely neutralize the potentialities for further violence that have been unleashed. Elaine Scarry's groundbreaking study of the structure of war, The Body in Pain, exfoliates the reasons for war's problematic of closure by noting that the postwar memorializations that signify an altered national identity are not accidental by-products, but constitutive effects of the political outcomes war aims to achieve (113-15). The essays of this special issue of Modern Fiction Studies explore in various literary discourses the diverse phenomena that recognize that once war has occurred, it can never really be over.

I've divided the essays in this volume into three sections titled "The Home Front," "Trauma," and "Ethics"--rubrics of our contemporary literary preoccupation with the effects of war beyond the scene of combat. These essays track the oblique and invasive effects that perdure beyond war's specific spatial and temporal confines to enter into the most intimate recesses of private and domestic life, on the one hand, and into the far reaches of cultural expression, on the other. Thinking about the literature of war has been deeply marked by the access that late-twentieth-century literary theory has opened to marginal, invisible, and even unspeakable regions of suffering. The transmutations of war's violence into effects that are unstoppable, or not easily stoppable, have become more readily visible in the light of modern theories that make formerly obscure structures (the subject, the Symbolic Order...

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