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Society and Culture

The Cultural Costs of the World Wars

Jared Lovell
April 22, 2020
Since war is one of the greatest means of bringing about progressive social change, the cultural costs of military engagement must be an important factor when calculating the costs of war.
Society and Culture

The Cultural Costs of the World Wars


Jared Lovell

April 22, 2020

Since war is one of the greatest means of bringing about progressive social change, the cultural costs of military engagement must be an important factor when calculating the costs of war.

Of the more salient themes that run through J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, war is perhaps the most explicit. Both the larger narrative and the various subplots offer, to those willing to look, an underlying set of insights as to the nature and costs of war. By teasing out some of these, we will find a helpful literary reference from which we can explore more deeply these themes applied to our own Western experiences with war and its cultural costs. For example, in The Two Towers, the Ents engage in a lengthy deliberation as to whether or not they should join the fight against Saruman. Joining the fight against Saruman as soon as possible might seem like the obvious course of action to take to the reader, but through the Ents, Tolkien takes his time to communicate his own reservations about engaging in war.

We find another great example in Tolkien’s ending to the story: The Scouring of the Shire. It is this very ending that Peter Jackson omits from the film adaptation of the novel that has the effect of significantly altering the story. One can be forgiven for coming away from the movies and never sensing the strong anti-war theme that permeates Tolkien’s original work. In the penultimate chapter of The Return of the King, the four hobbits return home after completing their quest to find that the Shire has been turned into a police state. Saruman and Wormtongue have taken up residence at Bag End and have transformed the agriculturally-based Shire into a centrally planned industrial economy managed by an ever-growing bureaucracy of “shirrifs” and spies that keep the new overlord apprised of all of the happenings in the region.  “No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead,” says Sam.

The taverns have been shut down, the crops are confiscated at harvest time to be managed and rationed by Saruman, and the landscape has been transformed in order to accommodate the new, planned, industrial economy. Hobbit homes and trees have been torn down and replaced with a large factory piping black smoke. The scenery has a profound effect on the returning hobbits: “This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.” Although the hobbits would go on to rally the shire to battle and ultimately be rid of Saruman’s influence, the victory comes at a cost: nineteen hobbits are killed and another thirty hobbits wounded. There is now a King in Gondor, but not even the Shire would escape the effects of the wars that were fought to destroy Sauron and his ring. There was no going back to the days in the Shire before the wars. The damage to the land and the hobbit’s way of life had been done.

Tolkien’s conclusion demonstrates a very realistic understanding of the cultural costs of war. Having fought in World War I himself, Tolkien recognized that war is not a game. War, by its very nature, is kinesis, as Thucydides taught us, and as such it is the least conservative force in the world. Wars fought for even the most noble of causes always produce lasting consequences on the home front, oftentimes unintended, that should make any society loath to enter them.

The Scouring of the Shire then provides us with a literary illustration to help us consider the vast cultural changes brought about in Western Civilization due to the world wars of the 20th century. If we can look beyond the glorious battle scenes depicted in our history books, we might find that the world wars took a leading role in destroying societal institutions and undermining traditional cultural values. The family, the church and local mediating institutions took serious blows while the American government forged an empire. The modern technology of the world wars left homes psychologically broken, which in turn lead to the culture wide decay in social morality. The emergency powers claimed during the war served to bring the progressive agenda to fruition, expand the reach of the state, and create more dependents.

It is fairly typical among modern mainstream conservatives to identify the 1960’s as the birth of the sexual revolution and the source of the breakdown in traditional family values. However, a better argument could be made that the 1960’s were the culmination of a revolution that started much earlier and was a legacy of World Wars I and II. Long before the Supreme Court determined that birth control was a right emanating from the penumbras of the Constitution, the United States military was issuing condoms to soldiers deploying for World War I in 1917, and for good reason. Allied soldiers had been infected with a variety of venereal diseases while deployed on the front lines. It was not uncommon to maintain brothels at the front to serve the lonely men as they awaited their next venture into no man’s land. After losing over 116,000 men and having come to the realization that the war did not quite represent the great moral crusade “to end all wars” as Wilson claimed it would, Americans became disillusioned not only with the idea of entangling itself in the affairs of Europe, but also the ideals and mores of the generations before them. Standards of dress for women changed rapidly in the 1920’s as both sexes exchanged the social ethics of the by-gone, Victorian era for a lifestyle of sexual freedom.

In effect, the woman of the Post-war Decade said to man, ‘You are tired and disillusioned, you do not want the cares of a family or the companionship of mature wisdom, you want exciting play, you want the thrills of sex without their fruition, and I will give them to you.’ And to herself she added, ‘But I will be free.’1

Disillusionment gave way to cynicism. Warren Harding’s promise of a “return to normalcy” resulted in a boom in the economic realm as taxes and spending were dramatically cut, but did not translate in the socio-cultural realm. World War II provided the next blow against traditional morality as American GI’s received a much more extensive sexual education provided by appreciative women in Europe and Asia. Combine this fact with the reality of having lived through the Great Depression and a second world war, Americans tended to live for the moment rather than think about long-term commitments in relationships. While sexual promiscuity was not flaunted as it later would be in the 1960’s, single motherhood was on the rise throughout the late 1940’s and 1950’s. What was considered culturally acceptable in the realm of entertainment had also undergone a notable shift after the war.

Lost among the blatant physical casualties were the unseen psychological casualties of the World Wars. The technology of modern warfare made war-making increasingly lethal. Machine guns, mustard gas, and artillery fire in WWI amassed record casualty numbers unforeseen in the history of war. Soldiers ascended out of their trenches hoping to advance a few yards before taking a bullet so that the men behind them could advance a few yards still further toward the enemy trenches before being cut down. In order to survive psychologically, soldiers had to separate themselves from the events that they witnessed and adopt a detached view of life. One soldier on the Austrian line wrote,

A certain fierceness arises in you, an absolute indifference to anything the world holds except your duty of fighting. You are eating a crust of bread, and a man is shot dead in the trench next to you. You look calmly at them for a moment, and then go on eating your bread. Why not? There is nothing to be done. In the end you talk of your own death with as little excitement as you would of a luncheon engagement.2

Experiences such as these could do little else but cause one to take a desensitized view of human existence, which would be carried back to civilian life with those who did manage to survive the war.

In addition to the lethality of new weaponry, technology allowed for quicker transportation and mobilization of troops. The effect was to ensure that soldiers would almost never leave the battlefield. In previous wars, even in the particularly deadly American war between the states, troops were afforded breaks from combat even if for no other reason than it took time to march and maneuver troops. Deadly bouts with the enemy were interspersed with long breaks where troops could safely assume that they were out of harm’s way at least until their next engagement.

The unmitigated exposure to combat in the world wars of the 20th century led to record numbers of men suffering from psychiatric collapse. The American military dismissed 504,000 men during the war as unfit to serve due to psychiatric reasons. In their 1946 study, Combat Neurosis: Development of Combat Exhaustion, doctors Roy L. Swank and Walter E Marhand determined that 98% of soldiers exposed to 60 days of continuous combat would suffer from some kind of psychiatric illness.3 While the government increased combat efficiency through improved technology, it did not realize that it would also need to produce a new kind of human being in order to withstand the toll that modern warfare would take upon the psyche. Thus, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and psychologist Dave Grossman, in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, writes,

It is interesting to note that spending months of continuous exposure to the stresses of combat is a phenomenon found only on the battlefields of this [20th] century…. Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it is only in this century that our physical and logistical capability to sustain combat has completely outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it.4

Men are not machines. Grossman concludes:

[W]e must marvel at the inventiveness of modern armies and nations in their efforts to ensure that they get full value from their soldiers. And we cannot help but come away with an image of war as one of the most horrifying and traumatic acts a human being an participate in. War is an environment that will psychologically debilitate 98 percent of all who participate in it for any length of time. And the 2 percent who are not driven insane by war appear to have already been insane – aggressive psychopaths – before coming to the battlefield.5

The new psychiatric effects of modern warfare would present unique challenges to the health of the American family in decades to come. Women would have to continue to provide financial, emotional and spiritual support for the family as men continued to suffer from the psychological wounds that had been inflicted during the war. For many American families whose fathers had participated in combat, life would never be the same.

Beyond the lingering effects of the war itself, the emergency powers claimed by the federal government served to bring the cultural revolution begun by Progressives over the turn of the century to fruition. Murray Rothbard, in his essay “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals”, demonstrates that, rather than a rejection of progressive ideals, World War I served as a means of realizing vast social change.6 In his history of the Progressive Era, Rothbard argues that the driver of social change was an alliance between postmillennial pietists and special interests of big business.

Two examples may be provided to illustrate this point: prohibition and women’s suffrage. Prohibition had been a long-standing policy goal of post-millennial pietists going back to the Second Great Awakening. The revivalist tradition in America very quickly began to entangle itself with political and social causes with the aim of ridding the world of sin and bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth. After slavery was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, prohibition became the next great moral endeavor for the pietists in advancing the Kingdom. Due to the influx of immigration, pietists were never able to accomplish this goal as immigrants tended to vote for Democratic Party candidates who tended to take a more laissez-faire approach to the issue.  World War I provided the impetus for the federal government to restrict and eventually prohibit the production of alcohol in the name of conserving grain.7

Upon America’s entry into World War I, the federal government quickly moved to restrict and then prohibit the use of grain to produce alcohol under the duel rationale of conserving foodstuffs and protecting soldiers. President Woodrow Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover to be the director of the newly created Food Administration. In that role as “food czar”, Hoover was placed in charge of food production and allocation in order to ensure the Allied army was well supplied. Under the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act of August 1917, liquor production was prohibited. As Rothbard put it in his characteristically sarcastic tone, “Even though less than 2% of American cereal production went into the manufacture of alcohol, think of the starving children of the world who might otherwise be fed.”8

Arguments against the prohibition of beer and wine were made as part of an anti-German campaign during the war. Under the Selective Service Act which permanently established the government’s power to conscript American men into war, Congress also declared dry zones around every military base prohibiting the sale or distribution of any alcoholic beverages to military personnel. Ultimately, the prohibitionist cause was able to succeed only under the guise of a patriotic endeavor. Ratification of the 18th Amendment was completed in January 1919 prohibiting the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcoholic beverages in the US and the National Prohibition Act followed ten months later to enforce the Amendment. Overnight, this longstanding cultural component of immigrant communities became the currency of the criminal class and tainted by its association with the gang life of the underworld.

Women’s suffrage, another long-standing issue in American politics and of central importance to the Progressives was accomplished essentially as a tradeoff for women’s support in the war effort. The Women’s Committee was created by the Council of National Defense for the purpose of coordinating “the activities and the resources of the organized and unorganized women of the country, that their power may be immediately utilized in time of need, and to supply a new and direct channel of cooperation between women and government department.”9 The Women’s Committee was tasked with helping to promote the conservation of food, facilitate the registration of women for serve in the war effort and work to Americanize immigrant women through education.10

Thus, women’s suffrage was not so much a triumph for women’s liberation as it was a means of securing women’s labor and loyalty for the war effort. By World War II, women would be enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp to serve as an auxiliary role in Army. By 1978, the WAC would be disbanded and women would be integrated with male units. Women were also called to replace the men in defense industries turning wrenches to produce war materiel. With men deployed and “Rosie the Rivereter” working outside the home, the federal government obliged in taking on the role of parent in supplying the first child care programs. Though women would largely return to their domestic roles after the war throughout the 1950’s, the precedent had been set. Women’s “liberation” in effect meant freedom to serve the state or the corporation in the same capacity as men.

The cumulative effect of all of these cultural changes was a shift in the understanding of the role of the family in American society. Historian Allan Carlson has argued that rather than being an independent, self-sustaining institution consisting of individuals with particular roles, the post-World War II family was reduced merely to association providing companionship for its members.11 Carlson notes the implications of this change:

The companionship family could not feed or clothe itself, build a house or care for its own young, sick, or aged; it could not provide self-protection, recreation, or even religious worship to its members. The democratic, egalitarian, person-centered "companionate family" needed—you guessed it—a Welfare State to provide the security and services that families once provided themselves.12

Thus, the 1950s family was not quite the ideal many conservatives today seem to think it was. Heavily subsidized and nominally religious, it maintained some of the external trappings of the traditional family, but held to very little in substance that was worth passing on. The emergence of the New Left in the 1960s did not spring from nowhere. It had been nurtured for two generations on a rejection of traditional religious and cultural authorities. The sexual revolution of the 1960s then did not represent of a rejection as it did an extension of the ideals of the 20th century. Neoconservatives may have desired to jump off the Progressive train at this point, but this did not mean their break with the New Left consisted of a substantive difference in philosophy. If the family consists only of individuals bound together in order to provide companionship, it is not hard to see how within just a few generations, the family could be defined as any collection of individuals regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Combine this with the fact that no economic price would need to be paid for degenerative behavior thanks to the welfare state, we can see how very little of anything representing the traditional family remains in our own day.

The cultural revolution produced by the world wars of the twentieth century would have been tragic if they were merely unintended results of a well-intentioned and noble cause. However, these consequences were not entirely unforeseen, nor were they brought about by any endeavor so noble as destroying Sauron’s ring or enthroning Aragorn, son of Arathorn in Gondor. The Progressives’ pursuit of imperialism had drawn a host of critics first from the Anti-Imperialist League and later, the America First Committee. The Old Right opposed the world wars not only because they understood that the idealist visions that Progressives held for the remaking of the world were not in accordance with man’s nature, but also because they understood that nothing endangers social and cultural continuity than war.

What is most troubling, perhaps, is the seeming victory that militarism as a way of life has achieved in the West, particularly the United states. One rarely hears outspoken concern with regard to the cultural, familial, and even institutional effects of war as a great upsetter of social continuity. For all of the sermons and essays we come across that point to the social damage that has been foisted on the West by socialists, cultural leftists, and passionate ant-religionists, there is far too little talk of war itself.

The off-and-on military tensions of the twentieth century have given way to an era where those born post-2000 have never experienced a United States not at war. In terms of the frustrations and outcries against an increasingly uncivilized culture of anti-rationality, disintegrating family structures, and a culture of despair and hopelessness, one wonders how much longer we can keep ignoring the draining effects of war on sociological development. What if war, rather than being a necessary sloughing off of worldly forces of darkness, is itself an extinguisher of civilization’s lights?


End Notes

1. Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (Harper Perennial Modern Classic, [1931] 2010), 91.
2. John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present, 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 893-94
3. Roy L. Swank and Walter E. Marhand, “Combat Neuroses: Development of Combat Exhaustion” Archives of Neurology and Psychology, 1946; 55(3): 236-247 cited in Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996), 44.
4. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996), 44-45
5. Ibid, 50.
6. Murray N. Rothbard, “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals”, The Progressive Era, ed. Patrick Newman (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2017), 397.
7. Ibid., 404
8. Ibid.
9. Ida Clyde Clarke, American Women and the World War (D. Appleton and Co. 1918), 19, quoted in Murray N. Rothbard, “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and Intellectuals”, The Progressive Era, ed. Patrick Newman (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2017), 409.
10. Murray N. Rothbard, 410-411.
11. Allan Carlson, “The Military as an Engine of Social Change,” in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, ed. John V. Denson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003), 395.
12. Ibid.

About the author

Jared Lovell lives in Northeast Pennsylvania with his wife and three children. He actively works to corrupt the youth as a history and economics teacher at Memoria Press Online Academy and as an ESL teacher to Chinese students.

from the editor's blog