The Touch of Evil

From a final scene in The Thin Red Line

What’s this war in the heart of nature ? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? ls there an avenging power in nature? These are some of the existential questions posed by the mystical Private Witt in the opening scenes of The Thin Red Line, Terence Mallick’s great meditation on war and man’s descent into the barbarity of military conflict. He was trying to come to terms with man’s savage replication of inanimate nature’s ebb and flow. Looking for an answer to them is ever an urgent task. Indeed, it is a perennial task confronting generations of mankind from time immemorial. Today its urgency forces itself upon us yet again.

I know he meant something more subtle than it sounds, but to many ears it was a soundbite too far. The end of history, Francis Fukuyama declared in 1989, was upon us. His first outing with the idea was in an essay. This caused such a stir that it was expanded into a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. The occasion for his prophetic utterances was the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, bringing about the end of the Cold War.

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

— Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, No.16 (Summer 1989)

Well, well, well? So much for wishful thinking. It was a little ironic to hear – on Bari Weiss’ Common Sense platform – Professor Fukuyama, discussing our current world crisis with historians Niall Ferguson and William Russell Meade, where the consensus was that we were now indeed entering Cold War II. Cold War I got its baptism of fire in the Korean War. Cold War II was now getting its hot war initiation with the Russian assault on the Ukraine.

Aside from the fact that historical narratives are about much more than the rise and fall of empires and ideologies, history will end when the human race has run its course on this earth. In the meantime human beings will forever need to struggle with the powers behind the forces we now see unleashed in Eastern Europe – the forces of evil, mysterious and malign, which take possession of our hearts and wreak havoc as they do. This is what we keep forgetting – at our peril. We have done it before and are now once again scrambling to try to make sense of it. 

T.S. Eliot more than hinted at our folly in  Four Quartets when he confessed,

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,

Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;

Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

The river has long been a metaphor for man’s troubled journey in this world, sometimes more, sometimes less, mixing good and evil. Rivers in Ukraine are not only metaphors but real players in its current struggles.

Kiev on the banks of the Deniper

Our current incarnation of the implacable strong brown god bursting his banks is Vladimir Putin. This century has already had two other gods of different hues which have destabilised our fragile existence – the god of greed who ravaged the world economy in the first decade of the new millennium, and then the crowned monster – still of uncertain human origin – who cut short the lives of almost 6 million of us and inflicted pain an estimated 500 million more – and rising. All three of these are in different ways manifestations of  mankind’s capacity for evil. From time immemorial, to inflict pain and suffering on our race, a capacity which has been in evidence since evil first entered the heart of Cain, driving him to slay his brother Abel.

In their exchanges with Bari Weiss, these three aforementioned remarked on our failure to learn anything from history. That certainly is part of the problem. We keep forgetting the ogre slouching in the shadows, waiting for the moment  to come out and devour us. History, if studied and reflected upon with any wisdom, will lead us towards the overwhelming question, “why?”. Any honest grappling with that question will lead us further to consider the problem of evil, its origins and the need to mount defences against it. There is a mystery surrounding evil that material science will never fathom – and political science does not make much of a fist at it either. We do not like mysteries – except when they entertain us – because they ask us to be humble. Humility in turn nudges us to perhaps acknowledge that a God more powerful than the brown god – or gods of any other colour – may be needed to help us cope with what assails us in the greater and lesser onslaughts we suffer here in our earthly sojourn. 

But we also need to go even deeper, lest we adopt a holier-than-thou posture in all this, letting ourselves off the hook on the question of complicity in those things which have brought woe on our race. We need more than humility. We also need an honest self-awareness and a capacity for contrition. The greed and carelessness of the many compounded the exorbitant greed of the relatively few who triggered the financial crash of the last decade. The mystery of the origins of the viral forces which ravaged the world economy in this decade is still unresolved – but until the CCP gets itself a higher standard of honesty and openness, the jury will remain hung on that one. It is in this context that it is worth reflecting on the recent words of Philip Johnson, columnist with the Daily Telegraph.

He reflected on the  extraordinary reverence the French have for Napoleon Bonaparte, whose monument sits within an open circular crypt beneath the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, conveying the unambiguous message that here lies a ‘great man’ of history. He notes that we are fascinated by such people, even though they are brutal, ruthless and despotic. They seem to weave a spell over the millions prepared to follow them, sometimes to destruction. But, he asks, to what extent do individuals determine history?

In War and Peace, Johnson reminds us, Tolstoy sought to debunk Thomas Carlyle’s theory that events are shaped by “great men” like Napoleon, seeing them instead as “involuntary instruments of history.”

The invasion of Ukraine, he argues, is being personalised as “Putin’s War” or the adventurism of “Mad Vlad”, thereby divorcing the event from its context by making it entirely a projection of one man’s derangement. 

But to what extent are the Russian people willingly swallowing the justification given on state-controlled media that Russian troops are merely engaged in a humanitarian operation in eastern Ukraine to protect their ethnic brethren from fascist death squads and genocide? Johnson cites Putin saying  that without helping the insurgents in the Donbas there would be “another Srebrenica”. “The fact this is preposterous is irrelevant if it is believed in Russia.”

Johnson again: “The so-called great men of history never act alone. Napoleon was followed by his Grande Armée into Russia and to miserable retreat because until then he had, by and large, been a winner, extending the boundaries of France, even egged on by “progressive” European thinkers. 

Putin visited a reenactment of the battle of Borodion, presaging the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Will the siege of Kiev presage another downfall?

Putin, puny as he may be, shares something of the trajectory of Napoleon. Like Napoleon, after the mayhem of the Terror, he pulled his country together again after the messy collapse of the Soviet experiment. Now for reasons so far unfathomable to most of us he also has set his sights on a new Empire. To help him along this path he has also become a dictator, has created a phony sense of national grievance, and manufactured an enemy in the West to generate  paranoia in his people. 

What now remains to be seen, even as this is written, is whether the Russian people will buy the lies he feeds them and cooperate in the evil which he is unleashing on them and a sovereign neighbour which simply wants to determine its own way in the world and find its place in the community of nations.

How this all ends is alarmingly uncertain.  It may be the end of Vladimir V. Putin, it may be the extinguishing of the independent State of Ukraine – but one thing it will not be is the end of history.

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