Franco Prussian generals trained in the art of war by men who mastered it at the feet of men who answered to Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. Waging war with 19th century tactics and 20th century weapons. Tactics that called for massed formations of men marching against each other in an orgy of shooting, stabbing, and clubbing met twentieth century weapons designed to prevent face to face battle. The evolution from saber to muzzle loading blunderbuss to machine gun took less than one hundred years. Military tactics were tragically slower to evolve. The result: millions marched and ran and dove into a hail of machine gun fire. Trenches were dug, the men climbed in and the slaughter was on. This was the Great War. Battle lines shifted a few hundred yards this way and that at a cost of millions of young lives. The magnitude of the carnage was beyond anything humanity had ever experienced. The simultaneous birth of mass communication and urbanization allowed the horror to be communicated contemporaneously and shared by the general population.
This was no historical event communicated to the privileged few. This was a horror vicariously experienced on a massive scale. And it was a war no one wanted. Germinated in an arms race, nations bent on saving face built in Empires now fading moved armies to borders to show their strength and courage. Generals trained in military academies developed plans for war and defense. Triggered by the assasination of a low level member of a once royal family, the Generals threw their great plans into motion and swept across borders on foot and horseback before anyone could say “wait a minute.” Year after year the armies slaughtered each other until they literally ran out of men. The American’s arrival shifted the balance through sheer increase in numbers. When it was over millions were dead and no one knew why.
The impact was enormous. It is no coincidence that humanity’s vehicles for expression – art, music, and literature – were torn loose from their underpinnings and charted bizarre new courses in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Painting and sculpture was no longer bound by realism, jazz was born, and the existentialist school surfaced in the writings of Camus, Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. Our culture began not to build on the past, as had been our experience, but to break with the past. Our traditional modes of expression, along with the social mores, underwent a wrenching change. Few contemporary commentators recognized and connected the realization of what we were capable of inflicting upon ourselves with the 90 degree turn in our cultural expressions.
The nightmare of the holocaust was a precursor to the realization that, with the dawn of the atomic age, we now had the capacity to end all life on the planet. The forty year cold war was a time when our stated policy of national defense went by the acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). The horrors of the mass destruction of WWI impacted on us in ways that we could not, and probably still cannot, fathom. Likewise, the specter of a burned out shell of a planet hurtling through the cosmos tore through the psychic scar tissue formed after WWI and created a new set of psychic wounds.
The current picture of a government at war with its leaders and people, an educational system strained and failing, religious zealotry and fundamentalism run amuck, and continued ethnic conflicts manifesting themselves in the basest and most brutal ways imaginable, is a picture none of us can truly grasp. We see parts of the picture just as we received reports from the front lines eighty years ago. We know it’s bad but we are incapable of truly assessing the impact.
Look to our vehicles of expression. Look to television and film, professional sports, the internet. A television program featuring the tales of a sex crimes unit, films finding ever more visually stunning methods of depicting mayhem, the phenomenal popularity of faux-wrestling, our apparent helplessness to control the dissemination and proliferation of pornography on the internet. The most successful magazines celebrate fame, the most successful politicians behave like attack dogs.
Thirteen year olds convicted of murder. Public discussions of the appropriateness of incarcerating children with adult criminals. Decency, common sense, honesty, faith, all challenged and found lacking. The social mores traditionally inculcated in the young and carried forward in the culture are disintegrating. In the absence of any clear image of right, in the sense of hopelessness that grows daily, what should we expect?
When our children mature, they do so without any sense of the commonality of humanity. Belief systems formally based on providing for the common good or founded in an unchanging sense of right and wrong are weakened and collapsing. The cult of the individual and the failure of the collective institutions of the culture give rise to the new humanity – ungrounded, self seeking, without concern for future generations.
Sociopath used to be a term applicable to that rare individual whose sense of right and wrong were missing. This was in a world where social mores communicated an implicit if not explicit sense of right and wrong. These terms were fixed on a continuum and one could measure or be measured accordingly. That continuum has turned in on itself and absolute measurements fail. Behaviors begin to be measured against other behaviors and not against principle.
In a world where right and wrong become relative, if not meaningless, the sociopath becomes the norm.