As war threatened Europe in the 1930s, a physicist turned to a psychiatrist to help understand the impending violence. Albert Einstein wrote to Sigmund Freud because “the normal objective of my thought affords no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling.” Einstein recognized that the machinations of a small group of men partially explain a penchant for war. The men who control the industries, the press and the church gain wealth and power by war. What he could not understand was how the majority, which had so much to lose, succumbed to their ploys so easily. “How is it,” he asks, “that these devices succeed so well in rousing men to such wild enthusiasm, even to sacrifice their lives?”

The question is a good one. The locus classicus is World War I, a war that initially unleashed general fervor. “There were parades in the street, flags, ribbons and music burst forth everywhere,” recalls Stefan Zweig in his memoir, The World of Yesterday. “Young recruits were marching triumphantly, their faces lighting up at the cheering–they, the John Does and Richard Roes who usually go unnoticed and uncelebrated.” Yet the John Does and Richard Roes died unnoticed and en masse. American deaths in the Vietnam War ran almost 60,000 over nine years; the British suffered those losses in two weeks in World War I. In one especially ferocious (and pointless) battle at Passchendaele, British and Germans killed each other at the rate of 5,000 a day for three months, with a total death count of half a million. And yet some soldiers, for instance a corporal named Adolf Hitler, emerged from the violence entranced by war.

The new book by the Paris-based American journalist William Pfaff, who writes widely and sensibly about foreign affairs, bounces off and around World War I, which he views as the decisive event of modern times. He offers a loose series of reflections, mini-biographies and autobiographical snippets that center on war, violence, utopia and ethics. Pfaff is trying to put his finger on a fundamental shift initiated by World War I, what he calls variously the decline of chivalry and virtue, the end of heroism and the rise of romantic or utopian violence. To get at these topics he focuses on a series of individuals, most notably T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”); Ernst Jünger, the German writer perhaps best-known in English for his World War I diary, Storm of Steel; Gabriele D’Annunzio, the nationalist Italian poet and writer, who like Jünger had fascist affinities; Willi Münzenberg, the Communist propagandist; André Malraux, the leftist French novelist who ended up in de Gaulle’s government; Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-English writer, ex-Communist and autobiographer; plus a few other figures both well-known–like Simone Weil, the French philosopher–and little-known, like Vladimir Peniakoff, a Russian-British soldier.

For Pfaff these figures all exemplify something about twentieth-century violence and the eclipse of chivalry and heroism. World War I inaugurated a nihilism that caused men to seek codes of “individual transcendence” or “utopias based on historical fictions.” His protagonists were not major political figures, but they expose “the inner history of the modern crisis.” He explains that “my individuals all saw in violence or its intellectual counterpart, manipulation, means to redemptive political change and the possibility to impose through action as well as art significant form upon historical materials and experience.” Moreover, these people repudiate “tragedy,” which imposes limits on individual and political life. “The effort to deny tragedy was among the fundamental factors responsible for what happened in the twentieth century. Utopianism defies tragedy–and fails.” By examining these selected writers, Pfaff hopes to illuminate a critical movement from virtuous restraint to utopian violence.

Pfaff is a thoughtful observer, but his lax terms lead him astray. He makes no distinction between violence and manipulation, or between political action and art. How are his various themes, such as chivalry and tragedy, linked? What is utopian violence, and how does it differ from nonutopian violence? How does the “denial” of tragedy lead to violence? What is virtue and how can it rise or fall in a society? Pfaff makes a point here and there, but he stitches together his varied cloths with the threads of existentialism. “My book,” he tell us, deals with those who are “in flight from the reality of the human predicament.” Even if Pfaff knew or told us about the “reality of the human predicament,” this statement still covers too much ground.

From the beginning Pfaff is vague about chronology and cause and effect or, at least, about what value to assign to each. Did World War I bury the idea of heroism and is the world poorer for it? Or is it the opposite, and World War I unleashed a heroism that threatened (and threatens) the world? Pfaff seems to argue both. World War I, he writes, “put an end” to heroism. Yet his opening chapter surveys Futurism, the Italian art movement that predates the war and links up with Mussolini’s Fascism after the war. While Futurism hardly offered a coherent ideology, it did champion the hero and heroic act–as did Fascism generally. In Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars the historian George Mosse persuasively argues that World War I instigated a cult of the hero.

The same haziness dogs Pfaff’s chapter on T.E. Lawrence. As author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and as a mythological and self-mythologizing figure in the Arab Revolt of World War I, did Lawrence represent the past or the future? Pfaff has it both ways. Lawrence represented a type “that was shortly to be eliminated from history,” a hero who believed in “rectitude, honor, and chastity.” Yet as Pfaff knows, Lawrence hardly fit that type, if it ever existed. Thirty pages later he is wondering about Lawrence’s “shadows,” “political ambiguity” and actions in the Middle East. The “glamour” he bestowed on his deeds “contributed to the destruction of the limits on warfare that were generally respected in his time.” Pfaff notes that “people have naturally associated [Lawrence] with the Fascists.” How do these things go together–Lawrence as the last chivalrous hero of World War I and Lawrence as a menacing figure of the future? Pfaff does not say. Instead he ties these observations together with boilerplate phrases; he concludes that Lawrence lived “in a cleft in the twentieth century” and was a “chivalric Edwardian” caught by “modern forces: of nationalism, liberation movements, and even proto-totalitarian mass politics.”

While the first half of The Bullet’s Song addresses chivalry, the second takes up utopia. Here Pfaff’s argument is more conventional. He believes that in its leftist and rightist forms the “idea of total and redemptive transformation of human society through political means” has bedeviled the twentieth century. As in the rest of the book, Pfaff sketches out the lives of selected individuals but then does not know what to do with them. His biographical vignettes and general observations hardly touch. He summarizes the career of Koestler but comes to no conclusion. Nor does he do better with Malraux, whose overrated novels and political hat changes rankle Pfaff. Yet his irritation does not generate insight about utopian totalitarianism. He concludes that Malraux was fundamentally an “aesthete,” who moved from Trotskyism to Gaullism but always remained “his own man.” He closes by intoning that Malraux was “a crucial contributor to that confusion of self-aggrandizing fantasy with reality which distinguished the history of the mid-decades of the twentieth century.”

Once again Pfaff’s language indicates a problem. “Self-aggrandizing fantasy” fits a bevy of intellectuals and politicians, from a Roman emperor (Nero) to a secretary of state (Henry Kissinger) and beyond. And what does this have to do with chivalry? Apparently nothing; Pfaff never returns to the subject. His opening sentence to his conclusion lets the cat out of the bag–only there is no cat. “I have been concerned with a particular historical setting, the twentieth century, and with the choices and experiences of certain individuals whose personal histories perhaps tell us more than we have previously understood about the nature of the century, and its implied consequences for the century following, in which we now live.” That we now live in the twentieth-first century is a valuable point, but this long-winded sentence suggests that Pfaff has lost his way.

If there is a center to this book, it is a conviction about the decline of virtue and virtuous professions. Pfaff believes that once upon a time people entered the army and the church in the name of virtue. The professional soldier and monk incarnate instances of “lives lived for virtue.” Each is linked to “a moral order now largely abandoned.” Evidently the monkish professions are in decline, but is soldiering? Pfaff seems to think that contemporary soldiers lack the ethical sense of earlier fighters, who were driven by neither ideology nor economics. He indicts “utopian” violence, but treasures old-fashioned military killing. “The moral function of war is to recall humans to the reality at the core of existence: the violence that is part of our nature.” Utopians apparently deny this salutary truth.

When and where was this marvelous violence? Pfaff does not say. Was it when 13,000 Confederate soldiers walked into Union cannons at the battle of Gettysburg? Or the destruction of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital that was equal or larger to most sixteenth-century European cities, by Cortés and his soldiers? Victor Davis Hanson in his recent Carnage and Culture lauds the “lethal Western military tradition” that underlay Cortés’s successful slaughter. Is this Pfaff’s chivalrous soldiering? Pfaff believes World War I ended a virtuous violence that may never have existed.

Pfaff himself stems from a military family and retains more than a little nostalgia for the army. He put on a uniform, he tells us, at the age of 14 in high school Reserve Office Training Corps and kept it on for more than fifteen years; he went to Korea as a “rifleman volunteer” and later was part of the US Army Special Forces. It is too bad Pfaff does not say more about his experiences, which might anchor, if not restrain, his windy declamations about “tragedy,” “virtue” and “chivalry.” His book is surprisingly murky, given that Pfaff often writes astringent columns about foreign affairs. He has been a sharp critic, for instance, of America’s Iraq misadventure. Indeed, it is difficult to square the homiletic call for virtue as the answer to the “human predicament,” with which he ends the book, with his hard-boiled foreign policy columns. Perhaps there are two Pfaffs. One hones the blade of the independent journalist and the other succumbs to the self-aggrandizing fantasy of the philosopher.