You’re afraid, I’m afraid. He’s going to start World War III. Is that a rational fear, or an irrational phobia? After all, there’s a world of difference between the two.
What is war? What was the last great war? Just seeing war as war is not to see it at all. War is a pattern that defies other patterns. It is an avalanche, not an equation. The pattern of stagnation, rage, hate, demagoguery, war, atrocity. That is what World War II really was. The causes were rooted in a German economy broken by a peace whose price was too high: it simply couldn’t repay Britain what was decided that it owed. The result was mass stagnation, that became rage, which metastasized, in the hands of a demagogue, into hate at scapegoated minorities, and then hurled, blitzkrieg, at neighbors and allies, in the forms of planes and tanks.
That pattern of what “war” is long precedes the planes and tanks that are all we often see and remember, and that is precisely the problem. Stagnation is like a river. Every river flows into the ocean. Stagnation flows into the great ocean of death. Beneath the strategies of generals and the feats of heroes, “war” is economic stagnation transforming, in a kind of devil’s magic, into bullets and bombs. People who should be productively employed, living gentle, happy lives, instead devote those very lives to making death. The instruments are just means — iron, steel, uniforms, rallies, raids, and so on. The product of stagnation is death.
Every great war in history has stagnation as its cause, by either omission or commission. Of course, like all good and clever people, you will rebel at my saying that. You want, maybe need, to be the smartest, so you will try to find an exception. Go ahead and try. There are no exceptions. Behind every great army, behind every rain of bullets, you will find the same pattern: a stagnant (or soon to be) economy, where people have been told, by a clever demagogue, that the path to prosperity is by taking it from those people.
“Those people”. Who are they? First they are the internal others. The Jews, Muslims, gypsies, gays. Then they are the external others. The aliens, the hated, the enemies. At last, they are friends and neighbours and allies. And when that point is reached, then there is war at last. The product of stagnation is death, and the great consumers of death are the desperate and broken people for whom the only salvation left is taking prosperity from the next village, town, city, country.
But death is death. And so war is unlike other human endeavours. Marriages and laws and even countries can be made and unmade. War, death, cannot be undone. It works on precisely the opposite logic: not that of a contract, but that of an avalanche. Slowly, slowly, the snow piles up atop the mountains. And then — silently, the most inconsequential thing in the world happens. One snowflake shifts. An archduke is killed. A treaty is broken. A messenger forgets his way. A tax is protested. And then the avalanche, years of hard packed snow, thunders down the mountain. War. Its logic is the precise opposite of it’s what produces it: collapse. War is the inverse of collapse: it is an eruption waiting to happen.
War is the eruption in collapse. So now that we understand what war is, let us answer the question: is it rational, or merely irrationally phobic, to fear World War III?
The next great World War is likely to be the eruption in American collapse. The pattern is exactly the same. Stagnation, rage, hate, demagoguery — then violence, atrocity, and so on. We are already halfway to world war, if you understand war as the sudden eruption of collapse’s volcano. This decade is a repeat of the 1930s. Or: the river of ruin has begun flowing down the mountain, into the ocean of death. American collapse is in danger of producing, just as German collapse did before it, and European collapse did before that, a World War. Just as Roman collapse, Greek collapse, Persian collapse, and so on did, right back to the end of time. This much is the tale of history, of men burning with greed, shackled by blood, with greatness shining in their eyes.
But there is another tale, too. It is the tale of a golden age of global peace and prosperity. The aftermath of the last great war, when people, at least some people, came together to build history truly greatest accomplishments. What are those accomplishments? Do I mean Teslas and YouTubes and profit margins and McMansions? No. I mean European Unions and National Healthcare Services and high speed railways that whisk me from once a war-torn Paris to Barcelona. These are the things that prevent wars. They are called public goods, and I mean that literally: the good in them, of and for the people, prevents and stays the human heart from becoming the cauldron of war. Now: America’s karma is sealed, precisely because it never built such public goods, which led to hate, greed, fear, as ways of life, being, seeing. Its collapse is already written. The only question is whether the eruption American collapse produces can somehow be contained. Can it? I don’t know. Here is what I do know.
America’s heart is cauldron. Mine was, too, once. And then I spent a long time dying. It erased every last speck of greed and hate and fear I once felt. Dying, I discovered, is the gift of making peace with one’s broken and wounded self. My river of ruin no longer flows into that ocean of death. It dried up, and in its place a garden grew. Maybe, then, dying in that way is the first and last way. Before the bullets fly and the bombs fall.