We have now won two world-wars, neither of which concerned us, we were
slipped in. We have leveled the powers
Of Europe, that were the powers of the world, into rubble and
dependence. We have won two wars and a third is coming.
This one—will not be so easy. We were at ease while the powers of the
world were split into factions: we’ve changed that.
We have enjoyed fine dreams; we have dreamed of unifying the world; we
are unifying it—against us.
Two wars, and they breed a third. Now guard the beaches, watch the
north, trust not the dawns. Probe every cloud.
Build power. Fortress America may yet for a long time stand, between the
east and the west, like Byzantium.
—As for me: laugh at me. I agree with you. It is a foolish business to
see the future and screech at it.
One should watch and not speak. And patriotism has run the world through
so many blood-lakes: and we always fall in.
— Robinson Jeffers
And THIS from the masterful Losing the War – by Lee Sandlin
So while their colleagues fell into daydreams of imminent victory, the few remaining rational men of the Axis bureaucracy grew just as convinced that surrender to the Allies on any terms was tantamount to suicide. As far as they were concerned, every additional day the war lasted — no matter how pointless, no matter how phantasmal the hope of victory, no matter how desperate and horrible the conditions on the battlefield — was another day of judgment successfully deferred.
This is the dreadful logic that comes to control a lot of wars. (The American Civil War is another example.) The losers prolong their agony as much as possible, because they’re convinced the alternative is worse. Meanwhile the winners, who might earlier have accepted a compromise peace, become so maddened by the refusal of their enemies to stop fighting that they see no reason to settle for anything less than absolute victory. In this sense the later course of World War II was typical: it kept on escalating, no matter what the strategic situation was, and it grew progressively more violent and uncontrollable long after the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The difference was that no other war had ever had such deep reserves of violence to draw upon.
The Vikings would have understood it anyway. They didn’t have a word for the prolongation of war long past any rational goal — they just knew that’s what always happened. It’s the subject of their longest and greatest saga, the Brennu-njalasaga, or The Saga of Njal Burned Alive. The saga describes a trivial feud in backcountry Iceland that keeps escalating for reasons nobody can understand or resolve until it engulfs the whole of northern Europe. Provocation after fresh provocation, peace conference after failed peace conference, it has its own momentum, like a hurricane of carnage. The wise and farseeing hero Njal, who has never met the original feuders and has no idea what their quarrel was about, ultimately meets his appalling death (the Vikings thought there was nothing worse than being burned alive) as part of a chain of ever-larger catastrophes that he can tell is building but is helpless to stop — a fate that seems in the end to be as inevitable as it is inexplicable.
For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart. Njal’s saga ends with a vision of war as the underlying horror of the world, always waiting underneath the frail mirage of peace. In a final dream image, spectral women are seen working an occult and horrible loom: “Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the words the women were chanting:
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom
The web of man
Gray as armor
Is being woven.
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