In her book, The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman begins chapter 17, “In 1915 a book about the invasion of his country was published in exile by Emile Verhaeren, Belgium’s leading living poet whose life before 1914 had been a flaming dedication to socialist and humanitarian ideals that were then believed to erase national lines. He prefaced his account with this dedication: ‘He who writes this book in which hate is not hidden was formerly a pacifist…For him no disillusionment was ever greater or more sudden. It struck him with such violence that he thought himself no longer the same man. And yet, as it seems to him that in this state of hatred his conscience becomes diminished, he dedicates these pages, with emotion, to the man he used to be.’
“Of all that has been written, Verhaeren’s is the most poignant testimony of what war and invasion did to the mind of his time. When the battle of the frontiers ended, the war had been in progress for twenty days and during that time had created passions, attitudes, ideas, and issues, both among belligerents and watching neutrals, which determined its future course and the course of history since. The world that used to be and the ideas that shaped it disappeared too, like the wraith of Verhaeren’s former self, down the corridors of August and the months that followed. Those deterrents–the brotherhood of socialists, the interlocking of finance, commerce, and other economic factors—which had been expected to make war impossible failed to function when the time came. Nationhood, like a wild gust of wind, arose and swept them aside.
“…Where (Rupert) Brooke was embracing cleanness and nobleness, (Thomas) Mann saw a more positive goal. Germans being, he said, the most educated, law-abiding, peace-loving of all peoples, deserved to be the most powerful, to dominate, to establish a ‘German peace’ out of ‘what is being called with every possible justification the German war’
“…There was a stridency in the German tone that conveyed more menace than ebullience. The world became ‘sore-headed and fed-up,’ wrote Mr. George Bernard Shaw in 1914, with Germany’s clattering of the sword.”
The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was no 9/11. The war we waged against the Taliban was not comparable to the Austrian invasion of Serbia. And the French army of 1914 held its own against a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, unlike the regular Iraqi forces against the might of a mechanized, American military. But the similarities between the United States of today and the Germany of ninety years ago are striking.
Both countries represent all that can go wrong when an enormously powerful country begins to believe its own propaganda, and in its infallibility as an arbiter of truth and justice. Like the Germany of ninety years ago, we have embarked on a course that has threatened the stability of the world at large. As our tanks continue to roll through the cities of Iraq, and as our planes continue to mercilessly pound house and hovel, we find ourselves becoming the most hated peoples on the face of the earth.
Unlike the Germany of the Uhlans and the Kaiser, however, the United States can change its course. The United States is only a slave to her mistakes by choice. The very fact that we have an energized electorate on this election day is testament to the fact that this country can take painful, introspective moments and turn them into a chance to make things right. Unfortunately, the country is evenly divided between electing a new administration, and rewarding the Bush administration’s incompetence with another four years.
No one can say exactly what will happen in the next four years after all the votes have been tallied, but certain trends become obvious.
If President Bush were to win a second term, no matter by how narrow a margin, he would consider his victory to be carte blanche for his administration to pursue whatever ill-considered policy his team can imagine. He will become even more emboldened in his conviction that he is unquestionably correct in all his decisions. He will use his power to try to reverse forty years of social change. Paranoia will become the new currency of the United States, as more and more of its real wealth will be collected in the bulging coffers of the rich aristocracy. A second Bush administration will mean the continuing loss of power of the ideological rulers of this nation: the people. We will continue to have less say in the way our government operates, and will also find ourselves more and more in the dark as to what it is doing. This is an admittedly fatalistic view. After all, no presidency lasts forever, and no single party holds control forever. But President Bush has already done enough damage in his four years in the White House to take years to correct were he to lose this election. Another four years of Bush (two of which would leave him a true lame duck after the midterm elections of 2006) would be akin to letting an untamed, ferocious, monolithic beast out of its cage.
The military of the United States will continue its slow transformation into a great army of the Christian right. Our foreign policy will become more brutal, more foolish, and also more futile as most of the world crosses a dividing line against us. It is popular in American politics today to discount world opinion. But the fact of the matter is, we are accountable to world opinion, and that will become ever more apparent the longer we find ourselves mired in Middle Eastern deserts.
Additionally, those fanatics who truly are our enemies — the madmen who are capable of reaching across oceans and shattering our thin veneer of safety — will continue to be free. They will have company. Our foreign policy, if we stay our course, will serve to further enlarge the ranks of terrorist organizations, and will probably make the war far more deadly than it need be. I see no reason why this will not happen, as the Bush administration has no clue what to do in Iraq, and will not be granted a magical solution to ending that quagmire if reelected.
But all this becomes moot if Senator Kerry is elected president. I have no doubt that a Kerry administration will be a vast improvement over the Bush presidency. The last four years have been such a disaster in the White House I can’t think of a single person fit to hold office who could not do at least a better job. But that is up to the American people. And up to this point, half of them appear to disagree.
This is one of the few times in history where it can be said that, “the whole world is watching.” That is how important this election is, not just to us, but for the world. And the world is looking no longer to this great nation, but at us with an accusing gaze. We have been indicted. We are on trial. We are feared, reviled, and hated. If George W. Bush is reelected today, we will have been found guilty of the crime of empire. If George W. Bush is reelected today, we will be alone for at least the next four years.