Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"Everywhere is War," Stabroek News (Guyana), July 27th 2006.

Today in Lebanon six hundred thousand displaced people are waking up to chaos, and improvising new lives. America's wait-and-see diplomacy and the Israeli air force will soon create even more refugees and deepen the general hopelessness. In a few quick weeks this qualified success in America's drive to democratise the Middle East could easily return to the war-ravaged country it used to be when Hezbollah was founded on the heels of the last Israeli invasion. President Bush and Secretary Rice are also waking to chaos and improvising.

In The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, Philip Bobbitt argues persuasively that wars are best interpreted as a struggle of ideas, a duel of political visions. Wars arise to resolve political tensions which are posed by the evolution of the state. Monarch states fight different wars to those which confront nation states, for example. By this reasoning, the Long War (Bobbitt's term for a series of connected twentieth century wars) becomes the story of democracy's triumph over fascism (World War II) and communism (the Cold War). If this theory is correct, wars like those now underway in Iraq and Afghanistan will occur much more frequently while the "market state" era raises its questions. But perhaps they are the opening notes in a much grander symphony, maybe even a third world war.

Every war has its advantages, of course, though often these are inversely proportional to one's distance from actual combat. Whatever the larger political questions may be, the US tabloids are busy mustering ever more outrageous headlines for the gathering storm. It is hard to tell whether their work will rise to the heights of the New York Post headline on the death of Al-Zarqawi ('Gotcha' above a full page headshot of his corpse, and a speech bubble saying: 'Warm up the virgins.') That headline was probably a conscious echo of an infamous front page from The Sun, an English tabloid which was celebrating how "our lads" had sunk ARA General Belgrano in the Falklands war. More cerebral readers may have to wait a while for wittier fare such as the Post's 2003 "Axis of Weasel" headline, with a photograph of the German chancellor shaking hands with the French president (subhead: "Germany and France wimp out on Iraq"). Sadly there's also the inconvenient truth that more than two thousand American families are now mourning a parent, child or spouse lost in the wars those weasels were trying to prevent -to say nothing of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have also perished. Trapped in a conflict they barely understand, a large and growing section of the American public is bewildered by Washington's insistence on "staying the course" even though a vocal group of retired generals and most independent analysts see only an incoherent policy and no good 'exit strategy'.

In the introduction to War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a poignant meditation on his years as a war reporter, Chris Hedges writes: "the rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years." In sorrowful detail, much of it drawn from personal reminiscence, Hedges shows how the pressures of war offer clarity in a messy world. War charms us with targets and missions and life-and-death campaigns. It creates myths that consume true believers. Its narcotic 'rush' can overwhelm anyone. Many journalists and diplomats become addicted to the frissons of the front lines, the "danger pay" and the importance of negotiating settlements in battlefield conditions. So much so that they find little joy in ordinary life when they return home. (This sentiment is best expressed by Lieutenant Kilgore in the movie Apocalypse Now: "I just love the smell of napalm in the morning...The smell, you know that gasoline smell, that whole hell. Smells like--victory." Then, with deep sadness in his eyes, Kilgore adds, "Some day this war's gonna' end".) Elsewhere, Hedges has written: "The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief."

Classic war literature also records that most ordinary soldiers are routinely terrified and yearn for peace as ardently as anyone else. Moreover, in a volunteer army like the one currently fighting America's wars, many soldiers only choose to fight on principle: to serve their country even though they may disagree with a particular campaign. These are honourable men, there is no gainsaying that, and thinkers as diverse as Samuel Huntington and Michael Ignatieff have paid tribute to the paradoxical virtues of their hard choices. But these nuances tend to get lost in the sweep of history, or overlooked in the triage of broadcast journalism. Increasingly, war is reduced to nothing more than what can be shown on television. Bad as this is, a modern war with no cameras (Chechnya, Darfur) is worse, because it might as well not exist. Each week "forgotten wars" claim as many lives as the 9/11 attacks but they lack the media coverage which helps to create the political will needed for international interventions. So death tolls mount ad nauseam: to date more than 3 million people have been killed in the Congo war.

What does it all mean then, especially for a peaceful region like the Caribbean? That we are extraordinarily lucky to have survived an awful century in relative peace? That the evolution of the state creates Hobbesian nightmares which are occasionally relieved by Lockean dreams? That a lot of political discourse is a sham which developed countries use to hide their real agenda, repossess former colonies, or keep oil prices down? There may be some truth in all of these, but perhaps humanity's ineradicable fondness for war at every stage of our history offers a harder truth: that every society yields eventually to the darkness of the Freudian id. That our collective actions are often incomprehensible but never meaningless.
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