Have you noticed that in modern wars the losses in the civilian population are similar to the military casualties?
You may just shrug: war is war. It is. But it hasn’t always been like that. Deliberate targeting of civilians as a legitimate tactic is strictly a modern innovation. Hence the title above.
As a former adman, I admire the chap who first described as ‘the Enlightenment’ a systematic destruction of history’s greatest civilisation. It’s even better, and certainly simpler, in French: la lumière, the Light.
All sensible people prefer light to darkness, both physically and metaphorically. Waking up to a sunny morning puts a song in one’s heart, bounce in one’s step. Anything called ‘the Light’ has to be brilliant. There’s nothing to argue about.
There is, actually. And the arguments against that abomination are much stronger. They deal with facts (what happened as a direct result of the Enlightenment), not ideologies that the other side typically expresses in the subjunctive mood (what would have happened but for the Enlightenment).
Such as: but for the Enlightenment, we wouldn’t have the science and technology of which we are so proud. This subjunctive argument sounds good but it’s really unsound.
The Scientific Revolution began in the pre-Enlightenment 16th century with Copernicus and gathered momentum in the 17th with Newton, Leibnitz et al. There is no reason, other than an ideological one, to insist that, but for Diderot and d’Alembert, science would have run aground. Ascribing cars and computers to the Enlightenment is a typical example of a widespread rhetorical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
Nor is science a free ride to public virtue. The same energy that can heat your house can also incinerate it, and which it does depends on how fallible men use it. Thus scientific and technological progress isn’t unequivocally laudable unless it’s accompanied by a similar advance in morality and matters of the spirit.
These took a huge hit from the Enlightenment, which instantly widened the limits of the allowable. For mankind began to act as if it set out to prove the folly of Rousseau’s postulate of innate human goodness. Left to his own devices, man quickly vindicated the old belief in the inherent sinfulness of human nature.
That’s why war has changed beyond recognition after the Light shone on man. In the past, wars were fought between princes. Now they got to be fought between nations.
Before the Enlightenment, nation states in our meaning of the term didn’t exist, and different princes had more things uniting them than those setting them apart. Wars did happen – boys will be boys. But, even when protracted and bloody, they were more in the nature of local feuds than the all-out wars of extermination we’ve got to know and hate.
Princes would raise armies, typically numbering in the tens of thousands, and let them get on with it. Civilian populations might have suffered a tax pinch, but otherwise they just went on with their daily business. Ideally, wrote Friedrich the Great, civilians shouldn’t even be aware there’s a war going on.
When the Enlightenment produced nations as geopolitical phenomena, it effectively replaced subjects with citizens, each endowed with inalienable rights. Yet rights come packaged with duties, and army service is one of them.
Universal franchise presupposes universal conscription. If rulers of the past had to beg their vassals to spare a few hundred men to sort out yet another princely quarrel, today’s presidents and prime ministers can conscript the whole population at the drop of a hat (or rather of the ballot paper into the box).
A refusal to fight is treated as a criminal offence, and nor do people have a right to choose the sovereign to fight for. If they are citizens of a country, allegiance to any other is treated as treason, often punishable by death.
Just imagine what would have happened to Montgomery or Patton had they taken command of the Waffen SS in the Second World War (I’ll give you a hint: William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, was strung up merely for Nazi propaganda broadcasts).
Yet in the 17th century nothing of the sort happened to Prince Condé, who twice led foreign armies against his cousin, Louis XIV. Once defeated, he only suffered the ignominy of a short banishment to his wedding-cake castle in Chantilly.
Limited, princely, wars of the past became total, national, wars of today, a development that contributed at least as much to the death count of modern wars as did advances in killing technology. Moreover, if it’s nations and not just armies that fight wars, the whole nations become legitimate targets.
The line of demarcation between soldiers and civilians fades away. A munitions factory may be bombed even though it employs no military personnel. So may an engine factory. So may a steel mill. So may even a textile plant, whose yarns may be used to make uniforms.
And if those facilities are surrounded by residential areas, that’s not a problem either. Carpet bomb the whole thing and let the devil take the hindmost. Or everyone, if such is his wont.
Yet a war is sustained not only by the physical plant but also, perhaps above all, by the nation’s spirit. And if a nation is treated as a combatant, then breaking this spirit is essential. To that end, residential areas may be obliterated even if there are no military installations in the vicinity.
At the same time, the citizens living in occupied areas may well be subjected to the type of atrocities we are witnessing in the Ukraine. Raping a little girl and then defecating into her bed can damage the whole nation’s morale (not an imaginary example: so many murders and rapes of civilians in the Ukraine have been adorned with faeces that one can be justified to believe this is a deliberate stratagem ordered from above).
This isn’t to say that no atrocities were ever committed against civilians before the Enlightenment. War, as we’ve agreed, is war. But they were never systematic parts of military strategy. After all, there was no hatred involved: why would a subject of one German or French prince hate the subject of another?
Dehumanising the enemy is also a distinctly modern phenomenon. Describing citizens of another country as ipso facto vermin or cockroaches, was impossible when nations didn’t exist in any other than the recondite cultural sense. A Florentine didn’t regard his Sienese adversary as pond life, just a chap fighting under a different banner.
This tendency is based on a false Enlightenment dialectic. Thesis: human beings, according to Rousseau, are inherently good. Antithesis: yet citizens of another nation are fighting mine. Synthesis: they have to be sub-human.
The Light shining on the world blinded even intelligent men. Thus, for example, Kant: “The Revolution… may end in success or failure, it may be so full of disasters and evil deeds that a reasonable man, even if hopeful of a benign outcome, would not dare embark on such a costly experiment again – and none the less, I am saying, this revolution finds in the heart of all observers the kind of sympathy that borders on enthusiasm.”
Obviously, Kant was unfamiliar with the works of either Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, to name just two observers whose hearts weren’t exactly overfilled with enthusiasm. But that’s not the point.
What’s important is the devastating corrupting effect of the Enlightenment on the hearts and minds of men, even great ones like Kant. The more I think about it, the more does the Light resemble the searchlight on an Auschwitz watchtower.