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100 Years After World War I

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My grandfather showed me the bullet hole in his knee from his soldier days of battle in World War I. That was back in the late 1950s when I was 6 years old. When he died, I was gifted with the ceremonial flag that draped his coffin. I used it for…Well, let me explain that at end of these reflections.

Today, The New York Times marks the beginning of WWI, 100 years ago from this June 28 date, from the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Maybe that was when WWI started – maybe.

Beginnings are hard to determine. Textbooks often neglect the militarist rivalries between jousting European states over their colonies (in Africa, Asia, the Americas), which occurred over the decades leading up to World War I, during the latter nineteenth century and early twentieth, the last great era of “globalization,” as some scholars call it. There were certainly earlier “globalization” projects, too, notably in the 15th century, as indigenous American labor, African slavery, and expropriation of Asian labor and goods combined to power Europe’s rise and consolidation.

So when and where did WWI begin? There are no easy answers to that question. But surely it did not begin simply with an assassination on June 28, 1914 of a European leader. Why not look to the colonies? There, the intrepid resistance by the colonized, as well as the brutality of colonizers, had bred instability. This rippled back into the colonizing North to destabilize European nations’ globalization dreams.

W. E. B. Dubois, then Aimé Césaire, and also Frantz Fanon following Césaire, all saw the debacle that befell Europe in WWI, and continuing through the rise of Nazism and WWII’s ending in 1945, as related to this European structure of colonizing violence. WWI did not just destabilize European globalization’s dreams. It unleashed a nightmare.

Du Bois saw the pitiable sight of Belgium on the WWI battlefield, showed his compassion, but then acerbically noted: “has the world forgotten the Congo? What Belgium now suffers is not half, not even a tenth, of what she has done to black Congo since Stanley’s great dream of 1880” (“Souls of White Folk,” 1919).

Both WWI and WWII were interpreted by these writers on behalf of the colonized, not so much as metaphysical payback, some ruthless version of “what goes round comes around.” More accurately, the World Wars were portrayed by Césaire and colleagues as the result of historical habits, practices and policies of European colonizers, long built up against the raced bodies of the colonized, later blowing back North, where dehumanized colonizers targeted also the bodies of Europe’s own peoples. Césaire portrayed this as a certain “boomerang” effect. Fanon cited his words, as they bore especially on the rise of Nazism in Europe: “And then one day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.” (Discourse on Colonialism, with Intro by Robin D. G. Kelley, page 36; Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox, 2004, page 71).

As we start marking the 100th anniversary of European/U.S. military events (and there will be many more military centennials to come between 2014 and 2045), start by thinking of the World Wars as not just European events and trauma – but as phases of the longer brutality of genocide and militarized violence meted out to the racialized others of colonized domains.

To be sure the consequences of the wars for Europe were onerous. The results benefited the U.S., which took up the reins of overseer and military enforcer in the post-WWII globalization era. Those consequences are still ongoing.

Thomas Piketty, in his much-debated book (and one much feared in some quarters), Capital in the 21st Century (2014), writes that “This world [pre-1914 Europe] collapsed for good with World War I.  . .  . In all countries the shocks of the period 1914-1945 disrupted the monetary certitudes of the pre-war world, not least because the inflationary process unleashed by it has never really ended.” (106, 107).

Neither have the wars of European capitalism’s empires “really ended.” They have continued, reconfigured under the purview of the U.S.A., which is still what Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented about America in 1967: “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own country” (“A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City).

The U.S. genocidal violence and militarized aggression went into high gear after the 1914-1945 era, taking off into the Cold War period and beyond (if there is a “beyond” to the Cold War). The U.S. exploited the two World Wars for establishing its superpower status, standing unrivaled by 1989/1990 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Beginning after WWII, the U.S. perpetuated and consolidated the record of genocidal logic and military violence that it had previously established with its American Indian massacres, land confiscation, reservations, and cultural genocide; with its devastation of Mexico (ending in the most devastating land confiscation known in the history of war-ending treaties among nations); with its damnable war against the Philippines (causing even Harvard philosopher William James to rail in a Boston newspaper, “God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles.”); with the economic re-enslavement of Haiti after its revolutionary independence from France; with the evolution of ever new racial caste systems for African Americans (slavery, black codes, convict-lease laws, Jim/Jane Crow, “New Jim/Jane Crow;” and then, too, with a deadly game of playing off against each other the various immigrant labor forces, so that these non-white groups and families in the U.S. also know the sting of U.S. oppression –  notably, Asian-Americans, Latinos/as, Arab Americans, and more.

Americans still need what Tariq Ali called in one of his essay titles, “A Short Course History in US Imperialism” (Clash of Fundamentalisms, 281-315).  Its killing sites are many. The rage is still palpable. I name just a few of the post-WWII sites of U.S. covert or overt aggression: Korea (scorched earth campaigns and a still unended war), Japan (nuclear devastation of civilians), Haiti (again), Guatemala (1954, its only effective democracy since the conquest overthrown), Iran (1954, another U.S./British supported coup), Vietnam (too much horror to summarize), Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Cuba, Indonesia, the Congo (yes, the U.S. here, too), Venezuela, South Africa (anti-apartheid forces often unsupported by the U.S.), Iraq (1990-the present), Afghanistan (2003 to the present). There’s more. (For documentation see pages 20-21, 166-6 in my Religion, Politics and the Christian Right.)

Is there no sleeplessness among U.S. citizens and residents over all this? U.S. “civil” society is life played out upon an unrecognized killing floor. “Floor” may be a metaphor too solid. Perhaps it is more like an aged skin stretched tight over brittle bones – bones of those unjustly slain in the name of U.S. sovereignty. And now, over the last five decades has risen the U.S. prison regime, the place in “the homeland” where the technologies of U.S. empire and white supremacy create a new mass grave, an inferno, holding those residents and citizens deemed “disposable,” especially from among America’s racialized poor. (Two valuable, sobering analytics of the U.S prison regime are by Dylan Rodríguez, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime (2006: 39-74) and Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of U.S. Punishment (2006).

Fortunately there is, indeed, some sleeplessness over all this, within and without the U.S. This generates hope for me. Sleeplessness can allow needed feelings of lament and rage to rise with creative dreaming and artfully transformative rage and lamentation, then to forge political and social movements having counter-imperial force. Those movements are there. You know where they are.

Let me return now to the U.S. flag draped over my grandfather’s coffin at his funeral, and which had been given to me after his burial as a U.S. war veteran. Alas, I had to turn it upside down in the 1990s and stencil upon it in black letters, “No More U.S. War Crimes.” I then used it in 1990s marches and rallies. Both my grandfathers and my father served in the U.S. military. None would approve of the purpose to which I had put one grandfather’s commemorative national banner. Breaking with this family military tradition – a process begun over 35 years ago – has not been easy. Even some more liberal friends think my use of my grandfather’s flag was disrespectful of family legacy, too harsh a treatment of a family honor. Some have thought it even an abusive dishonor to the nation.

I am clear my grandfather showed me love. We played hours of Yahtzee and scrabble in his taciturn silence, a silence born of his Norwegian immigrant culture and his sobered soldier’s melancholy. He tried to teach me bowling in the white bowling leagues in Detroit, with his co-workers, border guards all in the Michigan/Canada immigration team.

But I am even more clear that a family’s military history brings no honor to a nation or people that really cares about the dignity of all peoples. Any virtuous actions by U.S. soldiers, in their families or on the battlefields, have been more than sullied by U.S. nationalist and imperialist policies throughout the history of this nation’s pursuit of global sovereignty – or “full spectrum dominance” as the Pentagon termed it in the years of President Bill Clinton.

From the perspective that would promote an international justice, and a justice for all peoples within the U.S., honoring and keeping in tact our legacies of militarized U.S. families and institutions is the more onerous harshness. It is the greater brutality. This honoring reflex is the gesture that marks the sites where U.S. homes are captive to U.S. Homeland Security policies, thus masking and buttressing militarized repression abroad and the toll of war at home.

I know…actually, how much have I really broken from these legacies? The militarized ethos of the U.S. is both cause and result of centuries of a poisonous mix of genocide, white supremacist violence and nationalist hubris – and so it is pervasive. It still haunts and arises, sometimes when we least expect it. And so I am not confident of really being outside the legacy I critique. But that’s alright. Remaining suspicious and self-critical is part of the political struggle. Alas, the militarized ethos persists as the condition of the possibility of my everyday, our everyday – whether in Evanston, Princeton, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Wilmette, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Belleview, Philadelphia, Waynesburg and Frackville (PA), Arlington, Middleton , and . . . My hope persists and grows, though, whenever I am with those who know there exist communities and human virtues greater than any nation and any flag.

June 28, 2014.
100 years after the start of WWI (as customarily marked)

Mark Lewis Taylor is Maxwell Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary and a core member of the Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal team. He will be in DC for the Occupy the Justice Department Day on April 24. 

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