History | Culture

Bravado and Bluffs (How Wars Begin)

“We have to remind ourselves that, at that moment, Blitzkrieg was nothing. It was just a bunch of stalled Panzers. Just a monstrous traffic jam on the Austrian highways, some furious men, a word that was coined later, like a gamble. What’s astounding about this war is the remarkable triumph of bravado, from which we can infer one lesson: everyone is susceptible to a bluff. Even the strictest, most serious, most old-world souls: they might not give in to the demands of justice, they might not yield to an insurgent populace, but they’ll always fold before a bluff.”
— Eric Vuillard, The Order of the Day

It’s hard not to read this quote about the earliest days of World War II and not see current events in the world. We’re seeing bravado and bluster all around us, and the voices of those who stand up against it shouted down in social media and in mob rallies. This isn’t far off from what was happening in 1930’s Europe. We’ve always seen it, really, for humans live to react and take time to think about the consequences when it’s too late.

History is full of thugs and gangsters rising to power on a bluff and a healthy dose of intimidation. To think it’s not happening now is to live with blinders on. But we wonder, who are we to raise a voice in protest? Why rock the boat when you see what happens to others who do? We all have our filters on, biting our tongue when the oddball rambles about something a bit too extreme for our tastes. Why give them any momentum at all?

I was at a trade show in Las Vegas, listening to some people I know parroting some mob rally talking points. I wasn’t surprised at their point of view, but taken aback that they’d voice it in the midst of industry peers. And what are you to do in that moment? Argue the contrary? Who wants to argue with someone you’re trying to do business with? And that’s exactly how a fringe idea vocalized becomes accepted by some who lean in that particular direction.

I write this with a sense of optimism. It feels like the world has recoiled, finally, in the face of Putin’s aggression. In the face of Trump’s sedition. Yet the mob rallies continue. The lights are on and the cockroaches scatter, but they’re still there, waiting for their opportunity to come back out. Don’t give it to them.

Bravado and bluster attracts some even as it repulses others. We either rise up and face it or we enable it. Strong leadership requires a play for the middle. The middle must recoil and throw them out before they gain momentum. Call their bluff—before it’s too late. As we’ve seen, it can happen here too.

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