Friday, October 20, 2006

The Prisoner of Thanatos

I recently re-read a brief compilation of lectures from British writer Doris Lessing entitled, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside. It is a short book (78 very manageable pages), but it is as packed with insight as many longer works that tend to meander about on tangents or try to compensate for what is lacking in quality with excess volume (a sin I am no doubt guilty of on more than one occasion).

In this work, Lessing discusses certain aspects of human nature that, in my opinion, are not as widely examined as their import would merit. The themes tackled by Lessing include: the potency of group think and group psychology in dictating one's beliefs and behavior, the innate desire in humans to find some form of exclusive path to salvation (whether in religion, politics, art, culture, etc.), while the rest of 'the uninitiated' remain damned, the capacity for almost all humans to act in despicable ways (ie, Milgram experiment) when compelled by a certain set of circumstances (ie, Zimbardo study), and the complex relationship between human beings and war. Despite the scope of those topics, this is by no means an exhaustive list of Lessing's focus.

To her credit, she shines the light of unvarnished analysis on subjects that range across political, cultural and religious spectrums. It is more an investigation into human behavior, than any type of diatribe or polemic. These are traits, after all, that cross boundaries from Right to Left, from Christian/Jew/Muslim/Hindu, Capitalist to Socialist, and so on. The lack of agenda or partisanship is disarming. The evenhanded approach, and her willingness to criticize herself, has the effect of muting defensiveness, which, in turn, allows introspection to intrude.

One somewhat uncomfortable moment of epiphany was piqued by Lessing's writing on the subject of war - and the universality of its appeal. While in my most sanctimonious and partisan moments, I might be tempted to characterize warmongering and war-revelry as the exclusive sin of the political 'other' (war bloggers, the Right, neoconservatives, Victor Davis Hanson, Peter Beinart, liberal hawks, etc.), the truth is, there is a little war-mongerer in us all - with me being no exception (as discussed here).

It is by recognizing that we all share an in-born predilection to war-like behavior (which manifests at extremely early ages in children as evidenced by the widespread preference for war related games, toys and play themes) that we can better attempt to overcome the seductive rhythm emanating from the drums of war when the playing commences. Recognition of a counter-productive tendency is the first step to overcoming or controlling it.

The attraction to war has pervaded our lexicon and frames of thinking - from politics to entertainment (and where the twain do often meet). In our political discourse, for example, those who display the most willingness to resort to war the quickest and in the broadest set of circumstances are rewarded with the labels "strong," "tough," "serious" and "hawk" while those that counsel against the knee-jerk use of war, or an overly idealized view of war's efficacy, are cast in disparaging language as "soft," "weak," "unrealistic," "appeasing" and "dovish."

In fact, some of you right now are probably rolling your eyes at this post, thinking that I have lost my ability to critically assess a given crisis due to the pernicious influence of some quixotic hippie-ism. In anticipation of this loss of credibility, I feel compelled to brandish my "serious" credentials by stating clearly that I am not a pacifist and recognize that some situations - Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for example - require the use of military force. The need to defend myself in such a manner is itself telling.

It is not that war is never necessary, it is just that far too often, war is seen as a redemptive act with the ability to resolve complex issues that, in reality, defy violent solutions. Instead of a last resort, it has become an initial reaction - proposed as a panacea to the intractable.

From a cynical perspective, war is also a political boon to the war-makers themselves. The political benefit derives from the fact that war is popular - especially during the initial stages (alas, support does dwindle if the war proves overly tedious or difficult, but attention spans aren't what they used to be). Early on, however, ratings spike for the 24-hour news networks, and those networks oblige the appetites of their viewing publics with flashy graphics, shock and awe-filled pyrotechnics, maudlin back-stories and other such marketing and promotional flourish. This is no accident. Suffice to say, the approval ratings for politicians enjoy a corresponding surge.

While certainly not the only presidency to fall under the spell of war, the Bush administration has proven to be an exemplar of this phenomenon. Under the Bush administration's reckless foreign policy calculus, war and conflict is actually favored over the laborious, time consuming and nuanced world of diplomacy. According to Bush, war has a clarifying effect - and he seems to relish his role as "warrior." There was only a thin veneer of reluctance shrouding President Bush's numerous and vocal descriptions of himself as a "war president." One certainly did not get the impression that Bush resented this self-assigned mantle. Nor did Condi shrink from her "Warrior Princess" moniker.

The glee was barely concealed, if at all, when Bush strutted across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in his flight suit - the event itself a carefully crafted spectacle designed to identify him as a warrior in the mind of the public. More damning still, perhaps, is the giddiness that he admitted to feeling on the night of 9/11 - as if his moment in history had, at last, arrived with visions of battlefield heroics coming into focus. But he is only human, and there is a very good reason that so many humans have repeatedly engaged in massive, prolonged, and bloody wars since history was first recorded, and before. Doris Lessing scratches the surface:
In times of war, as everyone knows who has lived through one, or talked to soldiers when they are allowing themselves to remember the truth, and not the sentimentalities with which we all shield ourselves from the horrors of which we are times of war we revert, as a species, to the past, and are permitted to be brutal and cruel.

It is for this reason, and of course others, that a great many people enjoy war. But this is one of the facts about war that is not often talked about.

I think it is sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war - not only the idea of it, but the fighting itself [ed note: see, ie, Lt. General Mattis on the fun-side of killing enemies]. In my time I have sat through many hours listening to people talking about war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time of their lives....People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it. [...]

When I was in Zimbabwe in 1982, two years after Independence, and the end of that appalling war that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told, I met soldiers from both sides, whites and blacks. The first obvious fact - obvious to an outsider, if not to themselves - was that they were in a state of shock. Seven years of war had left them in a stunned, curiously blank state, and I think it was because whenever people are actually forced to recognize from real experience, what we are capable of, it is so shocking that we can't take it in easily. Or take it in at all; we want to forget it. But there was another fact and for the purposes of this discussion perhaps a more interesting one. It was evidentt that the actual combatants on both sides, both blacks and whites, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It was a fighting that demanded great skill, individual bravery, initiative and resourcefulness - the skills of a guerilla, talents that through a long peace-time life may never have been called into use. Yet people may suspect that they have them, and secretly long for an opportunity to show them. This is not the least of the reasons, I believe, that wars happen.

These people, black and white, men and women, had been living in that extreme of tension, alertness, danger, with all their capacities in full use. I heard people say that nothing could ever come up to that experience. The dreadfulness of war was too near for them to be saying, "The best time of our lives," but they were, I am sure, beginning to think that.
The following passage reminded me of certain aspects of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as well as the inevitable emergence and empowerment of more radical, violent factions in Iraq post-invasion. It is a cautionary tale about war's legacy and the poisonous dynamic created between warring factions. In this context, Lessing uses a miner's strike in England to analogize:
According to one side, it was the miners who were responsible for the rioting, for the violence, for the disorder. According to the miners, the police and the scabs were responsible. Each side had not one good thing to say about the other, each side was lying...and lying with a good conscience, for the end justifies the means. Most of the people watching knew that both sides were in the wrong, that both were responsible for the violence, that both were lying. And lying with a good conscience. Everyone knows that at such times as strikes, civil wars, wars, from the moment they start there will be tragedies of all kinds, if for no other reason than that the people in every society that enjoy thuggery come to the surface. But the point is, everyone knows this at such times, except the people involved, who seem to the onlookers as if they are drunk, or hypnotized or have lost their senses. Well, they have. They've become part of some great mass lunacy, and while they're in it, no individual judgment can be expected from them.

What they say is formalized in sets of attitudes that are absolutely predictable.
In the days following 9/11, there was a palpable war lust that was so potent that it is only now beginning to dissipate. It was on the strength of these aroused passions that we were led into a war that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11 because we had to punish somebody. If you can remember that point in history, you will recall the vividly bloody exhortations of people like Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and others. You might recall the insatiable advocacy for World War IV - a war of epic proportions that envisioned invasions of Iraq, Iran, Syria and more, as urged by the likes of David Frum, Richard Perle and Norman Podhoretz.

For some of these characters, the "awful, illicit, violent excitement" was rekindled during the recent Israeli-Lebanon conflict. And for many, that excitement remains in a fevered state even to this day.

The good news is, though, that reality is intruding on the grand designs of the vicarious warriors - be they pundit, President or princess. One can almost feel the disappointment and post-partum depression setting in so soon after the birth pangs. Pat Lang passes along this report from Richard Sale:
[Three administration officials] did say that Bush is also becoming "increasingly pessimistic" about any military action against Iran. According to one, "Bush really wanted to mount an attack on Iran earlier this year -- he was really hot to trot," but military briefings brought home to him that attacking Iran did not mean eliminating its suspected nuclear sites but also having to destroy "Iran's entire retaliatory capability," in the words of one. This capability is formidable; U.S. intelligence sources say Iran has underground missile batteries southwest of Abu Musa with the HY-2 advanced version of the Silkworm anti-ship missile. There are also Scud-Cs which could hit any UAE ports, including those to the south and west of Abu Dhabi and they could also strike Dubai where U.S. naval sources currently dock at the port of Jebel Ali. [...]

As one civilian military expert said, "Iran would be likely to do a great deal of damage in the Gulf before its assets on the mainland and islands were neutralized."
In other words, if attacked, Iran would respond asymmetrically, and any U.S. Iran war would be more frightful, full of bloody slaughter and unintended consequences than current U.S. planners think. This is what is giving Bush pause.

Cheney is still pushing hard for a strike, but Bush has become more skeptical of the vice president's ardor as he looks over the wreckage of Iraq, U.S. officials said.
I don't know what's more frightening: that Bush was champing at the bit to attack Iran earlier this year, deterred only by the extensive and detailed briefings on the likely results, or that even after that, Cheney still wants to go ahead with the attacks. War is a force that gives some of us meaning. Especially from a safe distance.

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