I started listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast recently. It’s very, very good. I began with his series on the Mongols, which is one of the best treatments I’ve read or heard on their conquests, and now I’ve moved on to the episodes regarding World War I.
He makes a great point about the world in 1914 being radically different from the world of 1900 or at any other time in history. The Industrial Revolution changed everything, but more importantly it kept feeding and accelerating the pace of change. None of the world leaders at the time knew how to handle these changes or adapt to the pace of change, which contributed to the intractable nature of the war.
The world now changes at lightspeed, and we’re all supposedly used to it. I think, though, that we’re facing an set of global challenges today not unlike the challenges we faced just 100 years ago. Back then, the mobilization of nation states with huge armies – armies bigger than anything the world had ever seen before – upended the notion of “gentlemanly warfare” and introduced slaughter on a massive scale. Today we’ve moved in the opposite direction – small armies, small bands of radicals and jihadis and terrorists, now cause massive destruction irrespective of national borders or existing states.
It’s true that small bands of radicals and terrorists helped in large part to bring WWI about. Gavrilo Princip singlehandedly “lit the fuse” in many respects by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He was a nationalist, to be sure, but that’s arguably much different than using religion to radicalize several thousand other followers and attack other nations from within and without.
This is the central challenge of our time: how do we deal with radical elements, violent elements, that do not depend on nation-states and operate irrespective of their borders? Do we throw a huge army at them? Where? We did that in Afghanistan, with mixed results. Do we send in the drones and let them do the dirty work for us? Do drones even help if your own countrymen are the ones drinking the Kool-Aid and committing atrocities on our own soil? How do we respond to an entity with no defined location, especially when it could be living next door?
I think what this points to is a certain deficiency in Western society. News outlets all week have been asking “Why do Americans join ISIS? Why do European girls leave to fight in Syria?” I certainly don’t claim to know the answer, and I suspect that the motivations for each person are different. But I think the question can be reframed in a way that allows us to approach the issue from another vantage point. What is it about IS or radical Islam that makes some people want to leave Western culture, Western society? Why give up peace and prosperity for war, martyrdom, death?
Maybe IS gives them a sense of purpose. Maybe the nihilism and materialism of our daily lives has caught up to us. Maybe these people aren’t “crazy” in the broad-brush way we so often dismiss them – maybe they are seekers, and they think they have found the “truth.”
Again, I am not excusing their actions. What they do is unquestionably evil and unjustified.
But I think this says something about us as well as about them. I think it uncovers a hesitance, a reluctance to confront the “great questions” that human beings ordinarily confront about their lives, their existence, their purpose, and which we often dismiss or shy away from in the West.
What if our reluctance to approach questions of life and death, of purpose and fulfillment, of good and evil, pushes these seekers out of our culture? What if our comforts in temporary, transient things, in stocks and houses and cars and technology, are not sufficient answers to life’s great questions?
What if people who are desperate for answers find them amidst people with evil motives?
What if their fundamentalism is all wrong, and what if our materialism is all wrong too?by