Be glad we’re not a hundred years ago. All the more today.
I’ve always found it hard to get my head around the Great War. Monuments to it cover Europe, including every village and town I’ve ever been. Such was the loss, and the horror. It was huge, merciless, and ultimately so sadly pointless that it deserves its euphemistic subtitle with dark perfection: The War to End All Wars. But what was it for? What was the cause? Who in their right mind prosecuted such a thing? Why were we so mad keen to burn our nations to the ground?
It wasn’t all about a prince whose car took a bad turn one day in Sarajevo. Nor was it just an almighty clash between opposing alliances who wanted one another destroyed. I learned about it during the tail end of the Cold War, when the current day was easy to confuse with the past. But empires allied with republics in that conflict. There was no war of ideologies. Not a consistent one, from the start. Instead, it really was perhaps the hideous act of naked hubris that it appears on first sight. A grab gone wrong, big time.
I have much to learn from it.
Specifically, the First World War was fought by one tactic above all else: concentration. It was the supreme creation of the industrial age. Never before could we cart about so many people, and so much firepower, as quickly and on such scale. So that we did. Over and over again. To hurl them at the enemy in overwhelming force. If only he could not muster just the same thing in return. Instead, we found that defence had the better over offence through most of that nightmare of a conflict. The fronts held. Only the death tolls made much progress before the bitter end.
Absurd as it sounds to say, the generals who did these things were broadly right. No one had fought like this before. Their principles were valid, in a sorry way. Either side could overrun the other if only their massive attack was sufficiently obscene. The fact we had cavalry men fighting battles of trenches and machine guns was no surprise, as technology moved on ahead of tactics. It always does. Fighting yesterday’s war isn’t so much an indictment of fools as it is a truism of time’s arrow.
A recurring image in my work, which has no shortage of them, is the opposing swarm. Jocaster’s story throughout Alpha, right back to his childhood, is enemy after enemy, united to attack him, using the only advantage they have on their side: sheer numbers. There’s something truly archetypal in one figure opposing the horde. The individual, alone, against the sea. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Jocaster was right out of my unconscious. He is a vision of the universal hero, albeit an enigmatic one undecided between the alliances of legend, good and bad. His struggle against his many foes is the monomyth, as I happened on it, without a compass.
I’m well of the opinion that villains are people too. They always appealed to me the most, when I enjoyed stories, for as long as I can remember right back into my youngest days. They were the ones who made things happen in so many sloppy tales. What kind of hero just reacts to other people? In the better stories, the baddies were the stars, no matter what the hackneyed morals tried to tell. They were the most visibly human. They had their reasons, and their tragedy. Hardly a surprise then that I came up with a hero and a villain in the shape of one single character, surrounded by his own little cast of no better and no worse. Making Jocaster believable, making him someone you sympathise with for as long as I can, that’s a vital test of Alpha. I’ll get a good sense of what I’ve managed in the first draft when I read it, looking for this very point. You know as good as I, that there is no first book without princes.
The ultimate lesson of the World War One, that still holds today, is the way to end that kind of war is to develop nukes. I’m quite serious that their invention in 1945 is what we have to thank for saving us from more of the Kaiser’s bloody sequence throughout the last century and beyond. Make no mistake, there were more genocidal cranks in charge of nations after Hitler, but only his name remains as loaded, as the last one to try for global dominance the fast way, before the bomb. Nukes made major wars unwinnable, in the quickest possible fashion. And so we’ve had but little wars ever since, speaking relatively of course. The Cold War passed, but our weapons aren’t going away any age too soon. We remain a world blessed by its own potency to strike.
Quite what happens when we find some way to overcome our ultimate offensive force, and wars of supreme conquest become viable again, well, I think we’d all be lucky not to find out. It will surely happen, at some point. History does not bode well for the disruption, whatever it may be, so long as men are still but men.
I wonder if I’ll write it?