16 June 2006

After Duty

A stray thought provoked by a stray observation. I picked up Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring, a history of European culture from 1914-1945, about the changes produced by the Great War, and quite by chance opened to this paragraph:

If the war was reduced, certainly by 1916, to reflex responses, then the assumptions of the civilizations and cultures fighting the war were all-important. And here the crucial catchword for those assumptions was "duty" or devoir or Pflicht. After the gloss of heroism had worn off in the first month of the war, and as the war settled into the enervating phase of attrition, the concept of duty became the linchpin to the effort. As long as the word retained any semblance of meaning, spoken or unspoken, the war would continue. As long as soldiers could somehow relate their reflexes and instinctive behavior in moments of reflection to an underlying sense of responsibility, they would continue to fight, despite horror, weariness, and even despondency.
Of course it follows from this that, if "duty" had come to be thought of as meaningless, then the war would have ceased--which would have been a very good thing.

I note this because I think that the wars of the 20th c. have much to with why "duty" is not taken seriously in Europe and the U.S. (although one might speculate that the U.S. did not have anything like the reaction of Europe until Vietnam)--not that these considerations touch Cicero's discussion, in principle, since on his theory of a just war it is clear that the Great War would not have been just and thus not a field of "duty".


Anonymous said...

Do I rightly understand you to mean that the concept of duty was applied in an empty or false way in the wars, with the result that people have become so suspicious and cynical about it that they no longer take it seriously at all, even in its legitimate applications? There's probably much truth in that. I often think that something like that is also true of the idea of patriotism, which very many people no longer take seriously at all anymore, and even consider a vice rather than a virtue -- though I suspect that many of them would agree that we should foster the good of our communities, and that the very fact that they are ours gives us reason to do so. So, too, many people scoff at the idea of 'duty' as a sort of ideological tool that governments and other institutions use to manipulate people for their own ends, yet many of them would not hesitate to agree that we have obligations to help people in need. A failure to understand the historical reasons for disillusionment with these ideas and address it may be one reason why attempts to defend them have not been very successful.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Yes, you understand me exactly. It seems right that someone should be willing to sacrifice his life if duty so requires (think of firefighters, as a clear case). And yet in WWI wave after wave of young men rose up out of the trenches, to be mowed down immediately by machine gun fire, thinking that they were giving up their lives, as they should, for duty's sake--when in fact they were simply being tossed away by foolish leaders in a vain and pointless war. It would be natural, after this, to think the Nietzschen thought that every appeal to duty is simply an attempt by the powerful to manipulate others by taking advantage of their idealism.

However, the correct conclusion, I think, is that no one should appeal to duty in this way except when absolutely necessary, and in cicurmstances in which the person making the appeal is ready to make a like sacrifice. (It wouldn't hurt, too, to emphasize Patton's point, that the goal of military combat is not to give up one's life for one's country.)