Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Friday, 25 September 2009
Friday, 25 September 2009 21:14

After the Winds of War

In 1971 the American Herman Wouk published his epic novel about the Second World War, The Winds of War. The novel (later a mini-series starring the late Robert Mitchum) deals with the early years of the war, before America’s entry into the conflict. Through the eyes of an American Navy officer named Henry and his family we are provided the landscape, physical and political, of Europe as the war breaks and boils. The story is a treat: it gracefully weaves a private meeting with Mussolini in Rome, an encounter with a nationalistic German waiter in Berlin, a Jewish wedding in Poland and a private talk with Churchill. There is, however, a rather striking disruption in the narrative. Towards the very end a new element is introduced, that of Asia. A minor character offhandedly mentions the Japanese to another. Most of the major characters suddenly find themselves in the Pacific after years of storyline that have them in Europe. Without acknowledging this, the book ends with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

What may be most surprising is that Herman Wouk served in the US Navy during World War II and spent his war in the Pacific theatre. Yet, when it came time to “throw a rope around the Second World War” (his words) his focus was almost exclusively on Europe in explaining how the war came about. In this I believe that Wouk was a man of his times. America in the 20th century most often poised itself towards Europe. This is understandable as the world economy was for so long centred around Europe and as most Americans can still describe themselves as of European extraction. But all of this may be changing as we speak. The day may come – it may be here already – when Europe is no longer where Americans instinctively face.

I have spent a large part of my adult life overseas, all of it in Asia. I first came to Europe a month ago, less Ernest Hemingway than Henry Miller. Let me first state the utterly obvious: Europe is amazing. All the tales are true and, if anything, understated. I am at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, in a town that dates back to the Roman era. I would challenge any sentient or sensible being to sit by one of the canals with a strong coffee, Paris only hours away by rail, enjoying Dutch hospitality in the autumn sun and not be enchanted. It really is not possible, absent a strong will otherwise.

But as wonderful as Holland is it has roughly the same population as Cambodia and it is simply dwarfed by its former colony, Indonesia. And Europe can no longer rely on economic superiority to command attention; the rising powers of Asia have seen to that. Europe is changing from the inside as well. The streets of the major cities are filled with immigrants from Africa and Asia and their European born children. It is reasonable to wonder if Europe should still receive the attention Wouk gave it, or if after years of immigration Europe will even be recognizable as we understand it from the 20th century. These are large questions, and any certain answers are far beyond an outsider who has been here very scant time. But I can hazard a guess and it actually is a very hopeful one.

I do not think that the splendour of Europe is found in any set of fixed traditions. I think it is to be found in a place that not only gave birth to the Enlightenment but lives by it still, by a European tradition that produced the culture of today. I see the children of immigrants and the children of native Europeans accepting one another in a way that is very familiar to my understanding of American idealism and I see it transpiring in a way that does not seem to sacrifice the European sense of self. Europe is responding to the changing economic world by binding itself ever closer in the European Union which as a unit rivals India, China, and the United States. In short, I think that the corrective to Wouk’s focus on Europe is not to discount this vibrant place but to recognize the vitality of other places, to embrace a multi-polar world and not simply to shift to a different uni-polar one. What will become of Europe? I think it will be here for dazzled newcomers to ask that question of it for a very, very long time.

Illustration from movie poster ’Lady Kungfu’ on the website wrongsideoftheart.com


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