Wednesday, April 04, 2007
"that they would rather the war were lost than that the calvary should gain distinction in it! . . . But it was partly the simple, pathetic illusion of the day that great things could only be done by new inventions. You extinguished the horse, invented something very simple and became God! That is the real pathetic fallacy. You fill a flower-pot with gun-powder and presto! the war is won. All the soldiers fall down dead. " (533)
In the years leading up to World War I, the theory of progress was the vogue. The theory of progress grew out of an older religious belief in teleology, that everything that happened in the world happened in order to continue toward a defined goal or end. The religious leaning of this, of course, was that God guided this process and determined its end.
When absolute faith in God faded in England, a faith in science rose to replace it. The people of the nineteenth century, having witnessed the fruits of the industrial revolution, had become enchanted with the idea of technological progress. "Great Exhibitions" were held around the world, starting in England after 1851, and existed for the expressed purpose of lauding the rapid advances of technology and the new age they heralded.
The passage quoted above illustrates just how much of an effect World War I had upon this system of beliefs. Up until that point, technology was seen as nothing but good: efficient factories meant cheaper goods, newer trains meant more convenient travel, etc. The possibilities were limitless.
World War I totally debased this optimistic teleology founded on the wonders of science. Advances in technology elsewhere also meant advances in the technology of war. The technological teleology that brought about steam engines had also brought about the machine gun and mustard gas. In this way, progress brought about the countless meaningless deaths of millions of soldiers and destroyed the world's previous understanding of warfare as an honourable man's pursuit. Certainly the "flowerpot filled with gun-powder" killed more efficiently than a man on a horse, or a knight in armour, but at what cost? At least before, men had the dignity of having a fighting chance for their survival in battle, where survival rested at least partially on skill, and you looked into the eyes of the man you would kill or be killed by.
In the same way progress had depersonalized the process of producing clothing with the spinning jenny, so to did it depersonalize warfare: no longer was it a bloody process where eventually a victor would arise through skill and good fortune, but instead killed all soldiers.