Victor Nuovo: The irony of war


14th in a series

The theme of this essay occurred to me while reading a new history of the Second World War entitled “Blood and Ruins, The Last Imperial War.” It occurred to me that the subtitle, “The Last Imperial War,” must be taken ironically, although it was probably not meant that way by its author, British historian Richard Overy. He obviously meant it as a statement of fact, clear and simple. World War II was the last imperial war. Period.

World War II was started by three nations, whose purpose was to expand and consolidate their empires: Germany in Europe, Italy in the Mediterranean region and North Africa, and Japan in China and across the Pacific. In the book’s title, “last” is supposed to mean “final” or the end as in “there isn’t any more.” But “last” has another meaning. It signifies something that happened before and will happen again; like my last cold. My point is that “last” in the title of the book makes better sense when taken in both ways.

World War II was not the very last imperial war, it was merely the last one. The war in Ukraine has become the next one. Overy wrote his book before Russia invaded Ukraine. By invading Ukraine Russia began another imperial war. Hence, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has falsified the title of Overy’s book, or, better, the title remains true, but only if interpreted ironically. It must be taken in both ways: World War II was meant to be the last imperial war, but it wasn’t. This double meaning is inherent in tragedy. And it tends to confirm Reinhold Niebuhr’s belief that all human history is tragic, and that a sense of tragic irony is the key to understanding history.

What is tragic irony? I’ll begin with an example: the song “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” whose melody was composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. It was written in 1940 just after the Fall of Paris. Seeing Paris could then be only a memory for them. The song is ironic; it expresses the hope of seeing Paris again as it was, when “her heart was warm and gay” and one could hear “the laughter of her heart in every street café,” but it also expresses a foreboding that this is no longer possible. All that remained was the memory of it: “No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way” —“they” refer to the Nazi conquerors.

The song expresses conflicting sentiments: hope and despair, joy and sadness. Hope and despair, joy and sadness are contradictories. And it is just such inconsistencies and the capacity of the mind to think them and the heart to feel them together in the same moment that gives the song such power. Tragic irony is the power of a narrative simultaneously to evoke these conflicting thoughts and feelings. Perhaps, in time a Ukrainian exile, a poet will compose a poem on the theme “the last time I saw Mariupol.” As I write, her defenders are preparing to make a last stand. Glory to Ukraine!

What has this to do with the meaning of the title of Richard Overy’s book and to the irony of history?

In “The Last Imperial War,” Richard Overy argues that the period 1914 through 1945, which embraces both world wars, should more properly be labeled a second Thirty Years War, which seems to me to be correct. But the defeat of the Axis powers did not end the war. At the end of World War II, the three imperial powers that began the war lost their empires. The two major victorious powers stood opposed: The United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War followed, which lasted until 1991, and this set the stage for another imperial war, which began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is no description that better fits this war: It is yet another imperial war. From Putin’s irrational rants, it is clear that his motives are imperial, and his method to achieve it ruthless, cruel, barbaric and unforgiveable. It seems now that the U.S. and NATO will be engaged in another cold war for years to come, and that the world has not seen the last imperial war. If, as Richard Overly believes, the two world wars constitute a second Thirty Years War; then it may also be said that the wars from 1914 to the present constitute another Hundred Years War. These precedents only show that civilization has not progressed. Peace does not seem to be in our nature. We are, as Hobbes believed, aggressive animals, better at making war than making peace.

Vladimir Putin has described his war against Ukraine as a tragedy. But Putin is no tragic hero, and there is no irony in the cruelty with which it is carried on by Russian forces, nor in his tirades, which are mad and full of lies, like Hitler’s rants, they are just as evil.

The tragedy belongs to the powers allied with Ukraine. The hope of the Allies after World War II was that victory would usher in an age of the rule of law. The possibility of achieving this goal depended on the total defeat of the Axis powers. Even then, the goal was not reached. For we are in the midst of another imperial war. And from the look of things, it doesn’t look like the U.S. and NATO have yet worked out a winning strategy. At the very least, Putin’s armies must be defeated and destroyed. Ukrainian forces have proven that they have the ability to do this. But they require the material means to achieve this, which the U.S. and NATO must provide unstintingly. But perhaps even more is needed: a show of force by NATO. Otherwise this current hundred years war is likely to go on forever, and the tragic guilt will be ours to bear.

Postscript: The full title of Richard Overy’s book, which is excellent, is “Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War: 1931–1945.” Read it along with Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Self and the Dramas of History.” And be sure to watch the late great Ann Southern’s rendition of “The Last Time I saw Paris” on YouTube; it evokes the sadness of war. It is a very deep sadness deepened by the remembrance of Parisian gaiety, the gaiety of a city at peace.

Editor’s note: Victor Nuovo is on break now, but look for this series to resume in a month or so.

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