Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Going to war with eyes wide open

  • Singapore’s next presumptive premier, Lawrence Wong, is too charitable when he warns the United States and China may ‘sleepwalk into conflict’. Their current folly, though, is much worse as both sides are deliberately – and dangerously – provoking each other

I read somewhere that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels turn boys into men. I can certainly understand the sentiment. But in my own case, I lost my “virginity” to Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, first published in 1932.

“You can be a virgin to horror the same way you can be a virgin to sex,” the narrator and anti-hero Bardamu observed towards the end of the novel.

The whole book is about witnessing horror for the first time, beginning with that of the first world war. At the start of the novel, Bardamu was losing a heated political argument with a friend at a cafe while the waiter looked at him with contempt because his tip was too small. To escape all that nonsense, he jumped out to join the greatest party in town – all of Paris was celebrating because what would become the Great War had been declared. He went with a marching band; little did he know he had just joined the army and there was no way out:

“But just then, who should come marching past the cafe where we’re sitting, but a regiment with the colonel up front on his horse, looking nice and friendly, a fine figure of a man! Enthusiasm lifted me to my feet …

“And there I was with the regiment, marching behind the colonel and his band … We marched for a long time. There were streets and more streets, and they were all crowded with civilians and their wives, cheering us on, bombarding us with flowers from cafe terraces, railway stations, crowded churches. You never saw so many patriots in all your life!”

Such wild partying of “patriots” was replicated in major capitals across Europe. Europeans had been so bored by la belle époque and its enduring peace, prosperity and progress that many welcomed the new excitement of war against each other. That turned out to be not only a world war but also a European fratricide and destruction of their own civilisation.

With hindsight, though, we all know how all that turned out. So it’s hard for us to understand the widespread enthusiasm, or, to use Celine’s favourite word, delirium, for the coming catastrophe. That delirium was part of what some recent historians call “sleepwalking” into war, most noticeably, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

The “sleepwalkers” were statesmen and generals, who were trapped in their inflexible military plans (which became ends in themselves, rather than means to a political goal), interlocking alliances and rampant nationalism. They were also cheered on, at least initially, by the delirious crowds of their own citizens.

That was the historical reference made by Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s current deputy prime minister and finance minister, in an interview with Bloomberg.

“We are starting to see a series of decisions being taken by both countries that will lead us into more and more dangerous territory,” said the city state’s next presumptive premier. “As they say, no one deliberately wants to go into battle, but we sleepwalk into conflict. And that’s the biggest problem and danger.”

He was specifically referring to an accidental trigger in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea. He is being diplomatic and perhaps too charitable.

Unlike pre-world war Europeans, Asians have gone through enough war, conflict and famine to secure their measure of security, stability and prosperity. Yet, there are plenty of hardline nationalists in both the United States and China urging ever tougher actions and measures against each other.

Today, though, we can claim no such innocence as those Europeans of more than a century ago. If a war breaks out in the Asia-Pacific, we would have known the horror ahead and still walked right into it. You think Ukraine is bad … But that, as some wise observers, both Western and Asian, have warned, is our current trajectory. We are not sleepwalking, but wide awake. If we screw this up, it will be on all of us.