The 20th century saw a comeback of total war. But there was a uniquely curious and disturbing never-before-seen element of madness to it.
In the distant past, there were occasions when an army would “sack a town.” This, too, was total war or almost so. But it was done with a very specific and understandable purpose. A standard procedure might be to kill all the men and take property and young women as plunder. The warriors aimed to profit with this action. War was a way to get rich. It was a business. You’d fight a number of lucky battles and retire with a fortune. If soldiers or pirates were not promised the spoils of war, they’d leave. War was simply organized crime.
In contrast, the siege of Leningrad and the bombing of Dresden were not undertaken in order to rob people and obtain their goods. The attackers sought destruction for its own sake. It almost looks like people fought each other just because they could.
The million-man armies of that time were little more than machines that did not act according to any discernible purpose. It’s as if indeed some “material productive (sic) forces” were ineluctably smashing people against each other as toys.
It was what Richard Weaver called the “pure and ultimate unreason.”
Even today, war and threats of war are highly mysterious. Again, why aren’t the soldiers sacking towns and taking slaves, women, and property as plunder for their own personal profit? Why aren’t the brave and cunning folks of one town organizing a posse to raid a neighboring community’s retail stores to loot their inventories? Why is no one assassinating mayors and governors to take their place and enrich himself?
Why, in short, isn’t war just regular reasonable well-calculated common thievery anymore?
Regarding the first Persian Gulf War, for example, who became happier as its result, other than perhaps the usual suspects of the good old manufacturers of weapons? What realistic goals were attained and by whom?
George Bush’s approval ratings went up. The people seemed to like the war. But what exactly were they cheering? Brian Williams suggested much later, “the beauty of our weapons.” Was it about an aesthetic appreciation of the elegance and efficiency of killing and destroying property? Was the government providing entertainment?
But then why aren’t people today, for example, cheering Antifa? They, too, can claim to be producing entertaining riots. Why aren’t they being given Academy awards? The mob may be out for blood, but let’s at least be consistent in our nihilism.
(As a boy in the Soviet Union in the early 80s, I once asked my mother why the Americans wanted to kill us with nuclear weapons. A stunning reply came: because they have not had a war in 150 years, and they wanted to know what it feels like to kill firsthand and to enjoy the novel and exciting experience of orgiastic destruction. Americans were just psychos! Have they now no objections to this diagnosis?)
The generals got to do actual work. They “won” and got medals. Some were promoted. Was that it? The generals were bored and were mentally invigorated by the slaughter?
No regular American citizen derived any benefit whatsoever from the war, other than the implausible “entertainment” mentioned above. On the contrary, he paid for it with taxes and debt and blood, yet purchased for his troubles only harm to the global economy and his own standard of living, future terrorism, and, to the extent that most Americans are Christians, his own disgrace with God for massive unjust violence.
Even regarding the profits to the “merchants of death,” if the money had not been spent by the government on weapons, it would have been spent by the people on cars and herbal tea. Why did the herbal tea manufacturers fail to protest the war that harmed their vital business interests? What caused the weapon makers to beat the herbal tea makers?
I don’t know.
For what purpose was Alderaan destroyed in Star Wars? Not to persuade princess Leia to reveal information about rebel bases: the threat of destroying it succeeded in getting Leia to talk. After she gave that information, why was the planet destroyed anyway?
Not to provide an example of what the Death Star was capable of: there were a million uninhabited planets that could have been used to test the Death Star just as well.
Not to get rid of any Jedi: I do not recall any imperial general expressing any hostility to Vader’s abilities as such. The movie suggests that at that time Vader was the last known Jedi.
Alderaan was a highly advanced civilization. “Alderaan was known to the galaxy as ‘the planet of beauty.'” It was, for example, a vacation spot. Was no citizen of the Empire interested in enjoying the planet’s amenities? Did no imperial have any family on Alderaan? Was there no interplanetary trade between Alderaan and the rest of the world, so some established businesses within the Empire lost customers or suppliers?
We might be justified in calling the destruction of Alderaan “evil,” if it were a human act. But human acts are purposeful. Yet there is no discernible purpose to this horror at all. For example, it is not as if the people of Alderaan were killed so that Vader could expropriate their property and get rich. It was absolute destruction for its own sake. Far from being a human action, it has the nature of a random and meaningless natural disaster.
It is pure and ultimate irrationality, a triumph of “a universal wolf that must make perforce a universal prey, and last eat up himself.” At the most, I can speculate that the Emperor wanted to devour the world. Star Wars was a worthy product of its time.
Today, there are numerous American aircraft carriers out there which Lew Rockwell aptly calls “death ships.” They float to and fro, burning massive amounts of fuel and polluting the oceans. Many people are employed on them, and they are running around every day busily swabbing the decks and cleaning the guns. But why do these death ships exist? Who exactly benefits from their activities? Whose life and well-being are improved as a consequence of the construction and use of a new death ship?
I don’t know that either.
The seeming utter irrationality of modern war and militarism is a genuine defilement of humanity. It’s a major and novel retrogression; nothing quite like it, other than perhaps the Mongol conquests, was ever known before. But it’s also the logical conclusion of collectivist ideologies.