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Was August 2014 our version of August 1914?  Or are we just drowning in so much over-hyped bad news that the world looks worse than it is?

One hundred years ago last month, Europe began its lurch into the bloody, muddy siege which, after tearing up the landscape and devouring a generation of young men, came to be known as “The Great War.”  That was when “great” meant big, not terrific, mind you. A popular chronicle of that disastrous month came in the early 1960s from American historian Barbara Tuchman, whose “The Guns of August” paints a picture of the step by step progress of 19th Century European nation states into the mire they all met in the 20th Century.

A century full of wonders and horrors followed.  We have seen the fastest evolution of human technology – lightning communications, air travel, assembly lines, short-stalked wheat, inventions capable of feeding, moving and lighting-up a world of billions.  The state of human relations has arguably greatly improved, with a widening aversion to sexism, racism, discrimination against the disabled and the gay. Everyone is richer, although the planet is definitely poorer.  Concurrent to this we have witnessed depravity on a mass scale: from the factory murder of the Holocaust to the machete-wielding madness of Rwanda to the latest depredations of ISIS, and all its fundamentalist Islamic kin.  It was a busy century.

If August 1914 was the real beginning of a weird and new century, the century begun in August 2014 seems worse. Russia has renewed its furtive invasion of the Ukraine, while the West dithers and blithers.  ISIS, having committed the memorable and well-advertised mass murder of little girls and journalists, men and women, boys and old folks, is now beginning to feel the tang of American missile fire but only just.  Unemployment eats the lives of a generation of young Europeans. The awkward and imperfect democracy of Thailand has given way to a stuffy, distinctly anti-democratic military junta – again.  Middle America, overheated and over televised, has accidentally displayed the modern evolution of its suburban police into Army units.  Drought consumes the southwest, while cloud buries the east.  And any observer of the American scene must admit that the country is more brutally divided today than at any moment before or since the Civil War – a cultural schism being aggravated and milked by the dominant strains of political thinking.

Halfway around the world, Israel has just settled its “truce” in Gaza, which consists of sending IDF units back home for a while to eat their mothers’ cooking while Hamas begins to smuggle in new crates of rockets and iPhones.  It is hard to tell if the Hamas strategy (“let’s see how much sympathy we can win by getting our own people killed”) was better than the Israeli strategy (let’s see how many of their buildings we can level before they get tired of shooting rockets at us”). One thing for sure, the anti-Semites aren’t hiding anymore. Meanwhile, Nigerian Islamic terrorists appear free to kidnap girls into slavery. Nearby and worst of all, Ebola speckles West Africa with corpses. The World Health Organization has just fled the scene and the public health strategy appears to be simple: contain it and wait. Whole villages will simply die of it, before – hopefully – the plague runs out of people to kill.

The news of August 2014 was uniquely bad, and unfortunately does not seem to hold the seed of any better news in September. The political classes of almost every country appear trapped in their own brain-cauterizing ideologies: whether it’s fascistic pan-Russian expansionism, murkily pacifistic Obamaism or turgid Euro-timidity, who do you trust?  When the Arab nations buddying-up to Israel seem like the most astute among us, how bad have things become?  Who do you look to with any confidence that he or she “gets” anything right at all, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel (unless you’re Southern European)?  Even the people who run Apple don’t seem infallible anymore.

It has been my belief for a long time that the progress of human civilization has met, and will continue to meet, a countervailing force of resistance and backwardness. We build our houses on the beach and hold back the sea. Without comparing them in terms of moral offensiveness, there is a fundamental (pun intended) similarity among certain belief systems surging forward: Islamicism, exemplified by the Hamas and ISIS death worshippers; the widespread stupidity of people who desperately deny the obvious (climate change, the public health menace of guns in America, etc) and the widespread belief in the ridiculous (GMO food conspiracy theories, immunization = autism, etc). It may be that the world is so bad that people naturally reach out to their God, the supernatural or their native prejudices to cope, but more likely the world is so bad because they’re doing that.

We have all enjoyed peace at the price of someone else’s life: a soldier, a cop, a diplomat, a good neighbour – each has put his or her life on a line for us at some point, so that we can sleep soundly behind that line.  Many people like to believe that violence and force in human affairs is somehow evil or wrong.  They may be right about that, but violence and force are also inevitable: there have always been and always will be people out there ready to imprison or enslave you, your daughter or your wife, to saw your head off and to dance on your grave.  Your home, however pretty and serene, is surrounded by an invisible fence of people you pay to keep it quiet.  The only question is whether you are protected by the people who have the most force and the greatest capacity and willingness to commit violence to preserve your way of life.  In the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st, the West has amassed an array of weaponry and economic clout so titanic that the enemies of this civilization have been held at bay.  That clout seems to be ebbing and with it, our peace. Again, this is not to advocate violence but rather, as with the weather, not to pretend it is not a reality in our lives.

But it is precisely at such a moment that Barbara Tuchman (she of the “Guns of August) offers a little wisdom to cling to. The author found that the more we talk about bad things, the more we  believe in their ubiquity despite the actual evidence.  Being famous enough to coin her own aphorisms, she came up with the modestly named “Tuchman’s Law” which, she said, could be summed up as follows:

“The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold”

Tuchman said that over half a century ago, when the reporting of news was confined to print, radio and television – media which were all “mediated” by professional or semi-professional castes of communicators, filtering events through perspectives wrought by knowledge, prejudice, self-interest and expertise.  We aren’t living on that planet anymore.  Today, there is no filter but one’s own capacity to stop listening and/or to think.  In a world where everything is reported a thousand times, by a million sources, all day and all night long all the way around the world and back, the din of “deplorable developments” seems like the sea itself, washing away all our sand castles in a deafening roar.

So I take slender comfort from the notion that it is the sheer volume of bad news, repeated in a bottomless echo chamber and reflected in a house of mirrors, that has me feeling like things are really, really bad.  Maybe they aren’t so bad.  Maybe this is just another September 1st.  Under a sky of cloud and blue, the safe and contented citizens of my city – like those in your city – wander down the sidewalks, crowd in cafes, mow their lawns, scratch their cats’ chins and stare at their phones.  Half have ear buds in and the other half look a little lost.  There is laughter, there is mourning, there is someone listening to the new Taylor Swift song. Old couples carry their bags home through the park. The shadows are short in the mid-day sun, the girls’ shorts are shorter, Labrador retrievers plod with their heads down in the heat and blind daters keep the chatter going as long as they can.  Just another Labour Day.

Here where I live, we are still at peace.  What is uncertain is whether it is the peace we have long believed we were living in, or whether it is something else that we don’t recognize yet.

Originally posted to samsoneyes on Mon Sep 01, 2014 at 09:25 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  There has evidently been severe strife in the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    world historically, but who knew, now that is changed with instant media review.  Is it worse or not, I have no idea, when you take a look at the present strife it is more than concerning however.  And which one of the many conflict areas should America try to deal in.  Iraq did not go well.

  •  Clueless world leadership (8+ / 0-)

    One thing we sure don't have apparently anywhere is wise leadership.  I always thought the greatest failure of the Clinton administration was not having the leadership and vision for a 21st century foreign policy.  The Cold War had ended and nothing was put in its place.  So the neocons hijacked policy for their pet wars.  And Obama is pretty much just reacting to everything.  

    I didn't like either Nixon or Reagan but they did know what they wanted to do or in the case of Reagan had advisors who knew what they wanted to accomplish.  

    Now???  and Hillary??? President Expedient?  

    I am not liking where things are going because no one is driving the car.

    •  The intelligentsia is starting to come to the.... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greenbell, thanatokephaloides
      I am not liking where things are going because no one is driving the car.
      ....same conclusion

      This space for rent -- Cheap!

      by jds1978 on Mon Sep 01, 2014 at 10:23:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Russia is unpredictable but the middle east (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        patbahn, thanatokephaloides, citydem

        and Pakistan or Pakistan-India could also be the match.  I always thought Iraq could be a catalyst for WWI.  The neocon theory that you just push over the apple cart and see what happens never seemed like a good idea to me.  We don't seem very adept at picking up the apples.  

        I don't think that piece does enough to factor in our diminished economic power.  We don't have the resources to play the post-WWII role we once played.  I'm becoming increasingly skeptical that Europe is ever going to do its part.  We need to reimagine some useful alliances instead of just acquiring more and more dependent nations sucking our resources and serving as trip wires for larger conflicts.  

    •  clinton had no Marshall plan (5+ / 0-)

      The Soviets were collapsed, he didn't come with
      a plan to help them out, instead he handed them
      over to the MBAs

    •  Industry groups and their think tanks are (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      waterstreet2008, NoMoreLies

      driving the car, and we're a drag on their profits.

      I wonder where that's going to lead...

      Democracy - 1 person 1 vote. Free Markets - More dollars more power.

      by k9disc on Mon Sep 01, 2014 at 07:26:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  That's right, it's Obama's fault (0+ / 0-)

      for reacting. When clearly he should be leading the world. Doesn't he know that by action, he makes his own reality?

      Because it worked so well for Bush.

      •  Why so defensive? (0+ / 0-)

        Maybe you could give me a paragraph summary of the Obama Doctrine?  Don't do stupid stuff?  The point is he had no personal experience with foreign policy and he put HRC in as Sec of State for political reasons not because she was Henry Kissinger or John Foster Dulles.  And because she is above all political, she was not one to envision a long term foreign policy strategy either.  And so it goes.... we don't have one.

    •  Nixon had Kissinger. Reagan had his NeoCons. (0+ / 0-)

      Bush43 was THE DECIDER. And they caused massive damage to America's status, country after country after country.

      For example, greenbell's hero Reagan is a monster to Arabs. The SOB pulled back US Peacekeepers in Beirut in September, 1982, which enabled the slaughter of 3,500 unarmed civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Yeah, the victims were Palestinian Arabs. The murderers were "Christians." So Americans forgot about it instantly.

      Reagan also used Navy guns to bombard suburbs uphill from Beirut, killing another 1,500. He had battleship New Jersey brought over from California to add 16" shells to these mass murders.

      Reagan expressed shock and outrage when the locals got revenge by bombing the US embassy (twice), Marine BLT Barracks, and two other large-scale bombings.

      How could anyone do such a terrible thing to us ???

      Total losses to terrorism (citizens and on-site guests):

      Reagan -- 675 dead

      Clinton -- 444 dead

      Bush43 -- 3,206 dead

      And the current president ??? The guy who doesn't know what he wants to do?

      Obama -- 10 dead.

      Yeah, bun-bun: 10. That's 3 in Boston, 3 at the gas plant in Algeria, and 4 at Benghazi.

      The count excludes the big Ft. Hood shooting because this is a paranoid schizophrenia situation, most likely, where the shooter was delusional in-and-out for years. If you add in every incident that could possibly qualify, you're still under 25.

      Obama does his shxt quietly.

      "Be the very best you can be at your job and have the fewest possible number of people know about it."

      -- J.J. Hitchcock

      Obama is a second Eisenhower. Item after item. It did take Ike to send troops into the South to force integration. And when Ike used force, it went right to the point.

      Eisenhower's move into Lebanon is the absolutely competent counterexample to Reagan's blood letting. Ike landed lots of troops, stopped a civil war, and got the fxck out ASAP. Kill civilians ??? Hell, no.

      Eisenhower/Obama vs. Reagan/Bush43. For doubles. That's the play list.

      "The illiteracy of our children are appalling." #43

      by waterstreet2008 on Tue Sep 02, 2014 at 05:44:57 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  If you rank by body count (0+ / 0-)

        Lincoln and FDR were the worst Presidents ever.  

        Ike was the General who commanded the victorious WWII allies.  He didn't have to speak loudly because his CV spoke for itself.

        As for Reagan, I notice you left out presiding over the end of the Cold War.   Not that I'd give him too much credit for that.  The USSR pretty much imploded but he and Bush Sr could have made a mess of it and they didn't.  In fact, they probably got too good a deal since Putin is pushing back now.  What I mainly meant was that the Reagan's foreign policy was clear, right or wrong you pretty much knew what it was.  That Putin is pushing back now is at least partly because it's not totally clear what our foreign policy is now and he's testing how far he can go.

        •  Reagan didn't "preside over the end of the Cold (0+ / 0-)


          Get yourself a calendar.

          And when Russia shot down KAL-007, Ronnie did nothing. Zip. Nothing.

          Putin is invested with the Macho Man biker types. That got him way too far down the road into Ukraine. And now his military is sending troops over the border ad lib.

          "The illiteracy of our children are appalling." #43

          by waterstreet2008 on Tue Sep 02, 2014 at 05:57:46 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  it may be the Guns of August but it's more likely (2+ / 0-)

    it's Flanders Fields.

    After 13 years of war, the American People are sick of war.

    While the elites may seek a 30 years war, to keep people occupied, it's not selling anymore.

    They can beat the drums, but, most people don't care about ISIS.

    James Foley is dead, murdered by cruel and barbarous thugs.

    True, but

    200 americans are murdered overseas every year.

    Let ISIS take all of Iraq, they will discover it's much harder to keep it.

    •  hmmm (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      thanatokephaloides, patbahn

      This isn't about revenge for Mr. Foley, I don't think. You know, Iraq had a stable (if not very nice) regime before the U.S. invasion. The mass insanity that has erupted in Iraq appears to be a symptom of America's intervention.  This raises the "you broke it, you bought it" argument, I'm afraid. Not a popular position, I admit, but not without merit. Consigning the whole of Iraq to the head-lopping lunatics of ISIS seems an irresponsible thing to do, in the circumstances.

    •  Guns of August led directly to Flanders Fields (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      thanatokephaloides, patbahn

      but the big problem wasn't any of that, it was what happened in 1919: an influenza pandemic that killed multiples more than the war did, and a peace conference that guaranteed another war within twenty years.

    •  War is unpopular (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Navy Vet Terp

      but you're outrunning the evidence.  These are some of the least bloody wars in the past century, occurring in parts of the world that 30 years ago were considered a hopeless bloody chaos of militant incompetents and rigid ideologues.

      There is better order establishing itself, but there are groups interested in denying that it's happening.  And averse to the idea that maybe peoples have to fight their rages out, go through periods of seemingly no way out from their anger and mess they're wiling to make of things.

    •  ISIS hasn't won a battle in 2 months. (0+ / 0-)

      830 lost in three battles related to Tikrit, Tikrit Dam, Samarra. Got under 50 kills for the effort, mostly suicide bombings.

      They don't shoot real straight.

      Yeah, between Iraqi Army sergeants/privates and the Iranians these fights went off with professionals vs. amateurs. AAH filled the support and flank coverage roles.

      ISIS never took Tikrit. Period. And they got run out of Daquq by the locals and as small IA unit.

      Want Perpetual War ??? Then pump up ISIS. WSJ and WaPo have been first-rate at building up ISIS with story after story.

      But otherwise this is a gang of psychopaths, not an army. They've made their way in Syria attacking local Sunni militias. Against Assad, Hizb Allah, Qods Force -- not one victory in two years trying.

      "The illiteracy of our children are appalling." #43

      by waterstreet2008 on Tue Sep 02, 2014 at 05:59:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  We need a real peace movement more than ever (4+ / 0-)

    It seems to have vanished before our eyes.

    "The oppressors most powerful weapon is the mind of the oppressed." - Stephen Biko

    by gjohnsit on Mon Sep 01, 2014 at 11:55:35 AM PDT

  •  As of 1914 (2+ / 0-)

    the only party that had anywhere near as bad a record as IS was Russia. (The Ottoman Empire would shortly surpass that.)

  •  Tuchman's Law doesn't apply, (3+ / 0-)

    I fear, to police assaults on young black males, reported or not.

    Consumerism is the deepest shrinkage of what it means to be human. - Dr. Vandana Shiva

    by bisleybum on Mon Sep 01, 2014 at 01:38:48 PM PDT

    •  It applies in spades. (0+ / 0-)

      “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold.”

      What was apparent prior to reporting on the death of Michael Brown was maybe 100 times or 10,000 times less than what we know now.

      Who had ever heard of Ferguson?

      Who would have thought that a Black community would be so attacked by its own police department?

      Brown's body baking in the sun -- what else?

      "The illiteracy of our children are appalling." #43

      by waterstreet2008 on Tue Sep 02, 2014 at 06:07:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Where are we going... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...and what are we doing in a handbasket?


    I have this sneaking suspicion, nothing more concrete than a feeling, that what's happening recently is the 1%-ter, the PTB, the rulers, job-creators, etc. whatever you call them, knows that time is running out. Peak oil, global warming, a planet running out resources, societies drowning in and poisoned by their own wastes, no more markets to conquer, and so on and so on.

    So they decided to grab as much as they can control and fortify their gated community.

    That's why we see the West going for the oil in Libya, the wheat fields of Ukraine (and one of the few untouched commercial markets left), making sure corporations have unrivaled power in national as well as international elections... and so forth.

    Like I said, this is just sneaking suspicion, a malingering emotion, an overeager imagination.

    "No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks” --Mary Shelley

    by Alhambra on Mon Sep 01, 2014 at 11:45:12 PM PDT

  •  Obama is often correct (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    greenbell, NoMoreLies

    in his restraint and reactions. Unfortunately he doesn't share his thinking and seek to persuade. Like with health care, his restrained foreign policy is good, but inadequately explained.

    Previous Presidents made the same mistake. Harry Truman quietly  refused to join in British Petroleum and Churchill's scheme to remove the elected leadership - PM Mohammed Mossedegh- in Iran. Then Ike, in 1953, stepped into the dog shit putting the Shah in power leading eventually to Ayatollah Land.

    Ike quietly stayed out of Vietnam even though his warmonger Secretary of State John Foster Dulles tried to maneuver him into the war. However his silence made it harder for Kennedy and especially LBJ to avoid sliding into the Viet debacle.

    Promoting peace requires compelling and repeated explanation. Obama needs to open up and share his thinking on Iran, Russia, Syria and even Israel/Palestine. Peacemaking can't be quiet.

    Cities are good for the environment

    by citydem on Tue Sep 02, 2014 at 05:07:43 AM PDT

    •  Exactly and if you don't sell a counter strategy (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NoMoreLies, citydem

      the neocons sure haven't stopped selling theirs.  And if your opponents don't understand clearly what your strategy is they miscalculate.  Miscalculation is what gets you into major wars.  

    •  I very much agree (0+ / 0-)

      with your thoughtful analysis of the President's communication efforts; he seems to be oscillating wildly between glib denial ("the world has always been messy we just notice it now because of social media") and strident barking ("the U.S. military will defend you, Eastern Europe").  If his words don't reflect his thinking, he needs new words.

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