- The Gift of Modernity
The banalization of horror is the gift of modernity. A gift, because it breeds in the same incubator that gives body to key aspects of Enlightenment reason—bureaucratization, mechanization, the proliferating efficiency not only to build and generate but also demolish and destruct. Max Weber’s long shadow looking over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann. The cruelty of the filing cabinet.
Great progress, great speed, and the great banality of evil. The dream of autobahns reaching its natural conclusion in Auschwitz. The Belgian Congo coming home, growing to a continental cancer far beyond the dimensions of King Leopold’s palace museum. In this progression of the rational mind, the thunderous speed of the new freeways lead, paradoxically, to the unique boredom only capitalism can generate. We have come a long way from the mist of acedia over the medieval monastery. No speed without the alienation of producing millions of pins, trifling manufactures as immortalized by Adam Smith. Capitalism that takes the art of warfare under its nourishing wings, gives it steel wings of its own. Banalizes it.
A fury of passion, Zygmunt Bauman has argued in Liquid Modernity (2000), might be what you need to kill sixty people. To kill six million, however, passion is irrelevant. What you need is a bureaucracy. Drain the horror, empty the pity and terror. Bring in the filing cabinets. Be clinically indifferent. Killing, Eichmann had uttered in a business-like manner, is a medical matter. If Renaissance humanism dethroned the fury of the [End Page 259] supernatural and introduced human beings as the true protagonists of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, the Enlightenment re-carved the human soul with the corporeal body of reason: the machine. And the filing cabinet.
The great virtue of the banalization of war is that it pulls apart violence and idealism. While these affects still, sadly, remain bedfellows, their conjugation today looks far less hallowed than it has in the past. What the twentieth century has kindly demolished is the marriage of military violence to the specter of idealism. The infantile belief that war is heroic, masculine, patriotic. Technology has been the high priest of this sordid epiphany. Technology, which created wealth and the printed book, eventually produced vast killing machines that wrung mass murder dry of horror and pity. It has pushed the scale of killing to ranges hitherto unknown in the human imagination. From the war poetry of Rupert Brooke to that of Wilfred Owen. From sacrifice for Merrie England to the regrettably avoidable horror of killing one’s alter ego and dying all over again in that phantasmagoric encounter.
The twentieth century made it hard to believe that throwing away one’s life for the cause of military heroism was ever worthy of a poem. The light brigade charged foolishly, wrote the poet laureate of Victorian England, and therefore, heroically. They died without reversing the course of the war. The poetic eulogy to great military stupidity awaited the kind salvation of satire at the hands of a worldly cynical Irishman with a socialist’s soul. In Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, first performed in 1894, Sergius is delightfully innocent and muddled, the Byronic solider rendered idiotic by the sudden blow of techno-modernity, its assault on warfare. What was once mistakenly dreamt of as the “art” of war is now revealed as the banal mechanism of science, technology, and pragmatism. The soulless mercenary of war, Bluntschli, declares with no-nonsense efficiency that he’s fine with being challenged to a duel, except that he will carry his machine gun to face Sergius’s sword. He’s in the artillery, after all. There are no values in a fight, only strategy. And there is no victory but victory. Dying is simply a strategic blunder; it warrants no poem. He’s a professional; for him there is no romance on the battleground. He fights for whoever pays the bills. (That the rich Swiss hotelier actually needs no bills paid remains another twist in the Shavian romantic irony and a whole different issue.)
World War II capped the magnification of military violence. After the spectacle of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bipolarized world...