How the Mighty European Military State has Fallen

Review of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe, by Jeff Sheehan (Illustrated. 284 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company)

Historical questions are often dictated by present-day concerns. For Jeff Sheehan of Stanford University and his two-hundred-page tour of twentieth-century European history that question is how did it come to pass that Europeans would differ so strongly from Americans in regards to the War in Iraq and the question of Islamic terrorism.

Cover of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe by Jeff Sheehan
Cover of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe by Jeff Sheehan.

It is to Sheehan's credit that what starts off as a modern question is allowed to flower into a judicious and unpolemical account of modern European history. Sheehan describes the evolution of European attitudes toward standing armies and warfare, without coming down on one side or the other.

Some Americans may object to Sheehan's generalized categorization of Americans as being pro-war and Europeans as anti-war.  It is against this backdrop that Sheehan offers his overview of modern European political history with a twist. Instead of focusing on World War I, World War II, the Cold War and how the political situations deteriorated in each case into these conflicts, Sheehan examines European attitudes toward the military and to warfare outside of the context of these conflicts.

Thus the major conflicts of the twentieth century become the outliers, not what defines European society. This is a delightfully subversive analytic framework. I particularly admired the chapter dealing with peace efforts, most notably one by Czar Nicholas II, in the years leading up to the First World War. It serves as a useful counter to the traditional portrayal of bumbling super powers with their ironclad systems of alliances crashing toward an unforeseen but inevitable war. I owe Sheehan a debt of thanks in that I will now have one good thing to say about Czar Nicholas II to tell my students to balance out his anti-Semitism and his truly tragic incompetence.

Instead of a narrative of war, Sheehan offers a narrative of conflicting ideologies. On one side stands a proudly nationalist worldview, in which statehood was understood in terms of its military. Sheehan sees this worldview as a product of the desire by nineteenth-century states to create national identities. The military and making people serve in a national draft was a means of bringing the state into the lives of people living in provincial areas, who beforehand may have been outside of the authority of the centralized state. This was simply was the logical continuation of state-run school systems and other social services. In essence, for Sheehan, the liberal revolutionary tradition coming out of the French Revolution, with its secular state, led directly to European militarism.

This militarist perspective comes to be increasingly challenged by a worldview skeptical of state power and the nationalist and militarist ideology needed to support it. In the end, according to Sheehan, World War II effectively eliminated the former view in the minds of the vast majority of Europeans, leaving the field to the later.

One point of Sheehan's that I think is particularly noteworthy is the idea that Americans and Europeans speak very different languages when it comes to the issue of terrorism. When Americans, i.e. the American right, speak about terrorism they use the language of World War II. Islamic terrorists are Nazis and September 11 was Pearl Harbor, never mind how apt the analogy was.  I would point to the popularity of the term "Islamo-Fascism" within right-wing circles as a very good example of this.

The implications of this should be fairly clear. If the task of the "greatest generation" that fought World War II was to stop a Nazi conquest of the world then the task of this present generation must be to do battle with the forces of radical Islam and stop them from taking over the world. In pursuit of the cause one becomes justified in all sorts of actions. A trillion dollars fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is not too high a cost to save the world. Four thousand dead in Iraq is nothing to lament when we lost more on Iwo Jima in one day.

The dominant European culture views terrorism not as this Manichean struggle with the fate of the world at stake but as a simple policing problem, one that they have been facing for decades now. Such an attitude leads itself to a different set of conclusions. Rather than war the solution becomes better police protection and, at most, some international diplomacy through the European Union and the United Nations.

Sheehan does not discuss it, but this difference in thinking about terrorism also applies to Israel and its differences with the European community. If anything Israel, particularly the Israeli right, is even more entrenched in the language of World War II than even the United States. For Israel their Islamic opponents are Nazis determined to finish off what Hitler started. In this narrative, the Oslo accords of 1993 become the Munich agreement of 1938 with Israel's security being sold out for a worthless promise, broken before the ink was even dry. From this perspective statements like Nasser's "drive Israel into the sea" or Ahmadinejad's "wipe Israel off the map" are not the blustering of politicians but literal plans of action.

If history means, in some sense, apologizing for the past, for those ideologies that have left the world stage, than Sheehan has offered an apology for late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalist ideologies and their implicit militarism. He connects them to the nineteenth century liberal tradition and offers us an understanding as to why reasonable people believed that it would work. In the end Sheehan raises some very provocative questions about the role of warfare in the making of a state. If states have traditionally defined themselves in terms of their militaries than what does it mean to be a demilitarized state? Can the European Union ever hope to compete with the United States as a global power if it defines itself as the non military power?   

After a pleasurable afternoon of reading this book, I honestly have no idea if Sheehan supported the Iraq War or not.  Thus Sheehan has provided what should be an enjoyable and enlightening read for those on the left and on the right.