Article by Simon Renwick. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Jack Barnes.
The 20th Century has been characterised by less than favourable incidents; from the origins of the period sparking off a volatile enough atmosphere to cause global scale warfare, through to the closing acts where an onset of terrorism, epitomised by 9/11, continued a global stigma of violence, the 20th century has been one that has been dogged and associated with the notion of conflict.
To characterise the period 1914-2001 as ragged with violent turmoil would be apt. The period entailed two catastrophic world wars, respectively two of the largest death tolls from any single given conflict ever; World War I saw the death of 35 million people, and World War II brought with it enough death to wipe out 2.5% of the world population. Yet these wars are not alone – the ‘Cold War’ between the USSR and USA gave way to 22 million deaths, with the highest concentration of blood shed being in proxy wars fought by factions in Africa, backed by the two major hegemons. Even after this there are still many conflicts, insertions and interventions, forwarded predominantly by Western powers, which has led to the dismally high death toll in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. And we haven’t even begun to mention a new frightening wave of terrorist activity appearing in the latter quarter of the previous century and mass genocides that total over 60 million deaths… Yet there has been what one could class as ‘Paradoxical Progression’ – many aspects of society have improved directly as a consequence of conflict. For the remainder of this piece I shall look into these paradoxical progressions, and determine if they were worth the terrible ramifications of a hundred years of intense conflict.
One of the ways in which global society has actually advanced by conflict and warfare is the astronomical medical developments that have occurred during periods of conflict, and this is none more so apparent than in concentrated periods of the 20th century. One of the most prominent examples would be that, with the discovery of penicillin taking place in 1928, it wasn’t highly manufactured, and many people still died as a result of small infections that could have been stopped by the drug. World War II stopped that. Forwarded by Florey and Chain, the mass production of penicillin was seen as essential, particularly in America due to the Pacific invasion. As a result penicillin has become the most widely used drug in medicine and has saved an incalculable amount of lives from infection and disease. This is but one area of medicine that, as a direct consequence of conflict, has advanced dramatically. This is not to even mention the desperate need for improving systems such as x-ray, anaesthesia and surgical treatments to keep up with the Omni-demanding beast that is war.
Stigma is also an important word when it comes to warfare. With an increase in communications, technology and movement of information, what had once been an isolated atrocity became visibly disturbing for the mass populace. Images captured by photographers, such as Hurley and Bouvet in conflicts, from warfronts such as the Allies Western front in World War I through to Chechnya, illustrated the malignancy of war and conflict, and simultaneously the triumph of the breaking down of conflict, most notably scenes from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Incidents such as the cold war similarly created ‘new culture’ within societies, and the setting up of groups such as the C.N.D (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and even the involvement of anti-nuclear policies in government manifesto’s such as the 1983 Labour election bid, shows the permeation of anti-war culture within society.
Even past this, the simple notion of ‘peace’, at least for some, is a massively beneficial outcome of war. True, there have been many conflicts that have simply led to economic and social turmoil within a state, such as Germany in the interwar period, rife with fears of Communist backlash which inevitably pushed society towards a far right solution; yet for all these instances they have been outweighed significantly by the defence of liberal freedom, none more so apparent than in the results of the two World Wars. Both times an imperialist Germany, who, in the second war were especially indoctrinated with views of anti-Semitism and purity through genocide, were thwarted by the Allies, and arguably safeguarded the notion of peace through Europe, and the peace of those countries who had international ties to the Allies, most notably weaker African states that had previously been part of European Empires. The erasing of what must be widely accepted ‘abhorrent’ ideological stances such as Nazism, other strands of Fascism and repressive authoritarian and totalitarianism, have all been brought to their proverbial knees through conflict, and would have not been any other way – the phrase to ‘fight fire with fire’ is sadly apt, but it has arguably increased living standards and human rights the world over, and this is surely nothing but good.
Yet we cannot in any manor glaze over the truly horrid death toll that conflict has brought with it in the 20th century. Some of the most damning tolls have already been established, but millions more have been inflicted outside of major wars – the Rwandan genocides of the 1990’s are a clear example of conflict which, although not one of the most recognisable conflicts to the general public, accounted for the death of nearly 1 million Tutsi and unwilling Hutu natives, showing the inconceivable figure that would be a total death count from all conflict in the 20th century. On a side note this makes for even more shocking reading considering this was supposedly the epoch of human rights, with Rene Cassin implementing the International Court of Human Rights, and past this the 20th century’s zeitgeist is infused with heavy concentrations of democracy. This is the point that does not fit in with our paradox thesis – the death and destruction by conflict leaves an ever-present scar on the minds and cultures of societies the world over – the Vietnam conflict by America is a prominent case. There is no progression past this; cultures do not ‘progress’ past the horrors, they simply incorporate them and are, for the most part, a little bit damaged by the memory of past struggle. This shows indefinitely that these ‘paradoxical progressions’, no matter their benefit to society, have been paid for with a hefty price.
To conclude, the 19th century laid what would be grounds for severe international tensions that would culminate on a multitude of levels in a multitude of countries with a multitude of outcomes. From these outcomes though came more than simply strife; beneficial instances were created through warfare and conflict, and this in turn paradoxically meant that conflict actually forwarded society. One will never be able to determine whether these ‘progressions’ were worth the sacrifice of conflict, and how long they would have taken to originate otherwise. One thing is for certain though; the 20th century may have been dogged by warfare and conflict, but these mars on history were somewhat cleaned away by advantageous instances that don’t instantly lend themselves to the harshness and brutality of conflict.