Paul Greenberg

What was first called the Great War, for there had been no greater till then, proved only the first and lesser introduction to a whole century of war, revolution, terror and mass murder. As great a tragedy as the First World War was, it would be followed by an even more disastrous Second. And it would bring the old, and even then only perilously stable civilization of the preceding centuries to a terrible end. That terrible century marked the end of any illusion that man's progress is inevitable, automatic, a sure progression. Or it should have.

Now a new world disorder takes inchoate shape under leaders who won't lead. And as America withdraws from the world, the world still declines to withdraw from us. And there can be no more certainty about the results now than there was on June 28th a century ago.

The war that began a hundred years ago today brought with it a flight from any idea not just of meaningful progress but a flight from meaning itself. For men took refuge in nihilism, in non-meaning, (Sound familiar? See this era's craze for po-mo, or postmodernism.) Others took up one fanatical ideology or another in place of philosophy. And each claimed it was The Wave of the Future -- foreordained, sure, and violent. The war that began a hundred years ago today would give birth to monstrous mass movements like fascism and communism, which were so alike while proclaiming their difference and even mutual hostility.

The 20th century would see another, and by now familiar flight -- a flight from God. It was George Orwell who observed that the great difference between the years before and after the First War was a loss of everyday belief. And we still seem to be searching for some God-substitute. For man is the animal that prays, and as we lose faith in God, we still go a-whoring after strange gods, whichever Baal or Ashtaroth is in fashion these days: Power, Reason, The State, Art-and-Culture, Climate Control, pick your poison great or small.

The First World War would kill more than 9 million combatants, and leave twice as many wounded, maimed, never whole again. And that doesn't count the civilian casualties. Or the influenza pandemic that would sweep the world in its wake. Great empires would totter and fall -- like good Franz Joseph's Austro-Hungarian empire. The far-reaching Ottoman Empire would collapse, too, setting little nationalities or new little countries with artificial borders free to war against each other. The result: a spasm of worldwide violence that has not ended yet.

The First World War would prove only a preface to the even more deadly and destructive Second, and we still wander lost in a world we did indeed make. We search for a way to get back to June 27, 1914, the day before the world ended. But that world is beyond our reach now, gone forever, God help us.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.