H. G. Wells’s famous prediction that the First World War would be the “war to end all wars” was met with skepticism by the British prime minister. “This war, like the next war,” David Lloyd George quipped in the summer of 1916, “is a war to end war.” History, he sighed, is not shaped by wishful thinking.
Two decades later, Lloyd George would be proven right. And yet, in the intervening period, it was Wells’s sentiment that prevailed. The horrors of the trenches having made rationalization imperative, a popular and holistic narrative was developed. The Great War, Woodrow Wilson quixotically argued, had finally managed to “make the world safe for democracy” and, in doing so, had served an invaluable purpose. Henceforth, human beings would remember the valuable lesson that had been written in so much blood, coming together in mutual understanding to, as Wells rather dramatically put it, “exorcise a world-madness and end an age.” And that, it was thought, would be that.
In hindsight, it is easy to criticize the idealists. But, historically, their instincts were by no means anomalous. The most successful politicians today remain those who are dispositionally Whiggish, and who possess in abundance the much coveted ability to sell the future as the cure for all ills. Come election time, candidates from both sides of the aisle promise Americans that their country’s “best days are ahead of her” and that it is now “time to move forward.” Customarily, these promises are paired with a series of less optimistic corollaries, most often with the simplistic insistence that we must never, ever “go backwards,” and with the naïve — sometimes spluttering — disbelief that anything bad or primitive could exhibit the temerity to occur in these our enlightened times. “It is amazing,” our jejune political class will say of a current event, “that this could be happening in 2014!” And the audience will nod, sagaciously.
This week, responding to the news that an American journalist had been executed in Syria by the Islamic State, President Obama contended that the group “has no place in the 21st century.” One wonders: What can this mean? Is this a statement of intent, or is it a historical judgment? Certainly, insofar as Obama’s words indicate a willingness to extirpate the outfit from the face of the Earth, they are useful. If, however, they are merely an attempt to shame the group by explaining that in 2014 the good guys no longer behave in this manner, it is abject and it is fruitless. As a matter of regrettable fact, IS does indeed have a place in the 21st century — and, like the barbarians who hypothetically had “no place” in the Roman Empire, it is presently utilizing that place to spread darkness and despair. Assurances that “our best days are ahead of us,” I’d venture, are probably not going to cut it with the mujahideen.
On a strictly human level, that we are shocked by what we are seeing is understandable. But it is also symptomatic of a deeply problematic worldview. Here in the West, we have grown so accustomed to chanting “never again” that when extraordinary evil unabashedly presents itself for our acknowledgment, we are left somewhat nonplussed. This, in our conception, simply can’t be happening. The man who murdered James Foley employed a technique that would have been frowned upon by even the most bloodthirsty monarchs of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII — no paragon of marital virtue he — cut the heads off two of his wives and, outside of his connubial exploits, was not entirely averse to putting heads on spikes. But even in post-medieval England, executions were quick and relatively painless. Anne Boleyn was killed by a single blow, the king having hired a skilled swordsman from France to ensure the job was done professionally. Also elegantly dispatched were Edmund de la Pole and Edward Stafford, both of whom were plotting to kill Henry and take his throne; John Fisher, who refused to accept Henry’s position as the head of the Church; and Thomas Cromwell, who, having been a longtime favorite, was eventually deemed too Lutheran for Henry’s tastes. American journalist James Foley, by contrast, had his throat slowly cut with a tiny, possibly blunted knife, his head clumsily sawn off over seven agonizing minutes. Goats have been afforded better endings. Can this be real?
Many among us seem incapable of believing that it is. On Reddit, users are furiously debating whether the footage was faked. Elsewhere, others are seeking explanations as to what might have pushed Foley’s killers to such extraordinary lengths. Perhaps, they ask, IS’s behavior is the fault of something else. The United States’ invasion of Iraq, maybe? Or the legacy of colonialism, or of global inequality? Do these men just need running water? This instinct is folly, the product of the mistaken conviction that man is perfectible and his nature pliant, and that there is something intrinsically different about our age. “The lessons of history endure,” Oklahoma University’s J. Rufus Fears observed beautifully, “because human nature never changed.” “All the human emotions,” Fears added,
are the same today as in Egypt of the pharaohs or China in the time of Confucius: Love, hate, ambition, the lust for power, kindness, generosity, and inhumanity. The good and bad of human nature is simply poured into new vehicles created by science and technology.
Of late, some of those “bad” attributes have been poured into vehicles that have guns mounted on their sides and driven with brutal force across Mesopotamia. The stated aim is the “establishment of the Islamic khilafah” — a neo-caliphate that would stretch across the whole world, subjugating everything in its path and bringing all mankind under its ghastly authority. Such promises seem almost risible when sampled from the comfort of North America. But there is little that is amusing for those who find themselves in the way — no comfort to be taken from arbitrary assurances about the “right” and “wrong” sides of history, or consolation to be derived in verbal condemnations from distant powers. Our security and our “progress” is what we make of it, for there are no wars to end all wars; there are plenty of barbarians in the year 2014; and it definitely, most definitely, can happen again.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.