As we all know – or rather, as everyone but those who climb and claw their way to the top of power's greasy pole knows – the effects of war are vast, unforeseeable, long-lasting -- and uncontrollable. The far-reaching ripples of the turbulence will churn against distant shores and hidden corners, then roil back upon you in ways you could never imagine, for generations, even centuries.
Nor is "victory" in war proof against these deleterious effects. For the brutalization, moral coarsening, corruption and concentration of elite power that attend every war do not simply disappear from a society when the fighting stops. They persist, like microbes, in myriad forms, working with slow, corrosive force to degrade and deform the victors. Indeed, victory in battle often leads a society to enshrine war's most pernicious attributes: violence is ennobled, and becomes entrenched as an ever-ready instrument of national policy. Militarism is exalted, the way of peace dishonored: cries of "Appeasers! Cowards! Traitors!" greet every approach that fails to brandish the threat of extreme violence, that fails to "keep all options on the table."
The apparent "lesson" of victory – that there can be no right without armed might to win and safeguard it – quickly degenerates into the belief that armed might is right. (William Astore has an excellent article here on how the collision with Nazi Germany infected America's military with a continuing admiration for the German war machine.) Military power becomes equated with moral worth, and the ability to wreak savage, unimaginable destruction through armed violence -- via thoughtless obedience to the orders of "superiors" – becomes a cherished attribute of society.
War is no longer seen as a vast, horrific failure of the human spirit, a scandalous betrayal of our common humanity, a sickening tragedy of irrevocable loss and inconsolable suffering – although this is its inescapable reality, even in a "good" war, for a "just" cause. (And of course no nation or faction has ever gone to war without declaring that its cause is just.) Instead of lamenting war, and girding for it, if at all, only in the most dire circumstances, with the most extreme reluctance, the infected society celebrates it at every turn. No national occasion – even a sporting event! – is complete without bristling displays of military firepower, and pious tributes to those wreaking violence around the world in blind obedience to their superiors.
Oddly enough, when a modern nation consciously adopts a "warrior ethos," it casts aside -- openly, even gleefully -- whatever virtue that ethos has historically claimed for itself, such as courage in battle and honor toward adversaries. In its place come the adulation of overwhelming technological firepower and the rabid demonization of the enemy (or the perceived enemy, or even the "suspected" enemy), who is stripped of all rights, all human dignity, and subject to "whatever it takes" to break him down or destroy him.
Thus our American militarists exult in the advanced hardware that allows "soldiers" to slaughter people from thousands of miles away, with missiles, bombs and bullets fired from lurking, unreachable drones high in the sky. (A recent study shows that even by the most conservative reckoning of who is or isn't a "militant," at least one third of the hundreds killed in the Bush-Obama drone campaigns in Pakistan are clearly civilians.) The drone "warriors" -- often living in complete safety and comfort -- see nothing but a bloodless image on a screen; they face no physical threat at all. This is assassination, not combat; it reeks of cowardice, and dehumanizes everyone it touches, the victims and the button-pushers alike. Yet our militarists -- most of whom, of course, have somehow never found the time to fight the wars they cheer for -- wax orgasmic about this craven weaponry. In the transvaluation of values that militarism produces, cowardice becomes a martial virtue.
Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate, pushes forward with plans for the "Prompt Global Strike" system of "conventional" super-missiles that can rain down massive death -- unstoppable, undeterrable, without warning -- anywhere on the planet within an hour. All this, while expanding shorter-range missile "defense" systems that bristle with blatantly offensive potential, and intent, all over the world. Plus spending billions to "modernize" the nuclear arsenal, ensuring that it stays effective enough to murder the entire earth, while weeding out some "redundant" warheads as a PR gesture.
Meanwhile, the drone programs -- emblazoned with names that proudly proclaim their savage nature: "Predators" and "Reapers," launching "Hellfire" missiles into sleeping villages -- keep expanding relentlessly. As noted by Nick Turse -- who is doing invaluable work detailing the deadly nuts and bolts of the militarist empire and its profiteers -- the Pentagon is drooling over visions of vast robotic forces filling the heavens and roaming the earth, even down to the smallest crevice. He rightly notes the main purpose of this massively funded R&D: to make war "easier," less deadly to "our side," and thus more palatable to the public:
This means bigger, badder, faster drones – armed to the teeth – with sensor systems to monitor wide swathes of territory and the ability to loiter overhead for days on end waiting for human targets to appear and, in due course, be vaporized by high-powered munitions. It’s a future built upon advanced technologies designed to make targeted killings – remote-controlled assassinations – ever more effortless.
... For the Air Force, such a prospect is the stuff of dreams, a bright future for unmanned, hypersonic lethality; for the rest of the planet, it’s a potential nightmare from which there may be no waking.
But while Turse outlines this potential nightmare in grim detail (the whole piece should be read in full), we are of course beset by present nightmares in horrific plenty. And few are more chilling than the ruling establishment's astonishingly swift acceptance of outright torture as an open tool of national policy. This acceptance not only includes the increasingly frenzied praise and championing of torture by the circle of war criminals and accomplices led by Dick Cheney; in slightly more restrained tones, it goes right across the board among the political and media elite. Torture is now nothing more than a topic for "debate" -- debates which center largely on the relative "effectiveness" of various torture techniques, or else on mindless (not to mention heartless) hairsplitting over the meaning of the word "torture."
There is of course a myth that Barack Obama has "ended" the practice of torture. This is not even remotely true. For one thing, as we have often noted here, the Army Field Manual that Obama has adopted as his interrogation standard permits many practices that any rational person would consider torture. For another, we have no way of verifying what techniques are actually being used by the government's innumerable "security" and intelligence agencies, by the covert units of the military -- and by other entities whose very existence is still unknown. These agencies are almost entirely self-policed; they investigate themselves, they report on themselves to the toothless Congressional "oversight" committees; we simply have to take these organizations -- whose entire raison d'etre is deceit, deception, lawlessness and subterfuge -- at their word. And of course, we have no way of knowing what is being done in the torture chambers of foreign lands where the United States often "outsources" its captives.
Finally, even if the comforting bedtime story of Obama's ban of torture techniques in interrogation were true, there remains his ardent championing of the right to seize anyone on earth -- without a warrant, without producing any evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing -- and hold them indefinitely, often for years on end, in a legal limbo, with no inherent rights whatsoever, beyond whatever narrowly constricted, ever-changing, legally baseless and often farcical "hearings" and tribunals the captors deign to allow them. Incarceration under these conditions is itself an horrendous act of torture, no matter what else might happen to the captive. Yet Obama has actively, avidly applied this torture, and has gone to court numerous times to defend this torture, and to expand the use of this torture.
Many thousands of innocent people have already been forced through the meat grinder of this torture -- at one point early in the Iraq War, the Red Cross estimated that 70-90 percent of the more than 20,000 Iraqis being held by the Americans as "suspected terrorists" were not guilty of any crime whatsoever, much less 'terrorism'. And that is just a single snapshot, at a single point in time, of the vast gulag that America has wrapped around the earth -- a gulag where many have been murdered outright, not just tortured or unjustly imprisoned. And it is still going on, with scarcely a demur across the bipartisan establishment. The heinous and dishonorable practice of torture, physical and psychological, is now an intrinsic, openly established element of American society.
Murder, cowardice, torture, dishonor: these are fruits -- and the distinguishing characteristics -- of the militarized society. What Americans once would not do even to Nazis with the blood of millions on their hands, they now do routinely to weak and wretched captives seized on little or no evidence of wrongdoing at all. We are deep in the darkness, and hurtling deeper, headlong, all the time.
Let's not kid ourselves, however. The militarism that has now gained such a strangulating ascendancy over American life did not drop down suddenly from the sky (or arrive on the hijacked bus that Bush and Cheney drove to the White House). Although this militarism has now reached unprecedented levels of institutional and political dominance, there has always been a strong warlike strain running through American history -- indeed, through its pre-history as well, as Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton demonstrate in their book, Dominion of War, detailing the decisive influence of war and imperialism on America's development over the past 500 years.
Nor is it a peculiarly American problem. As Caroline Alexander notes in her remarkable new work, The War That Killed Achilles:
If we took any period of a hundred years in the last five thousand, it has been calculated, we could expect, on average, 94 of those years to be occupied with large-scale conflicts in one or more parts of the world. This enduring, seemingly ineradicable fact of war is ... as intrinsic and tragic a component of the human condition as our very mortality.
We human beings have been shaped by millions of years of genetic breakage and mutation, all of which is still on-going. We are compounds of chaos, ignorance and error. Our psyches are frail and variegated things, isolated, with each individual consciousness formed from a unique and ever-shifting coalescence of billions of brain cells firing (and misfiring) in infinite, unrepeatable combinations. Beneath this electrical superstructure lie mechanical rhythms and erratic surges of instinct and impulse, dark, hormonal tides and drives that never reach the plane of awareness.
In the infancy of our species we began to cling -- fiercely, in fear and desire -- to patterns of behavior, emotion and thought that seemed to bring some sort of order, some containment of the whirlwind within us, and some protection from the dangers, known and unknown, that lurked outside. We began to do "whatever it takes" to preserve these patterns from the ever-present threat of their dissolution in the whirlwind, to impose them, by violence if necessary, on the recalcitrant material of reality -- including the always-unknowable, impenetrable reality of the Other, those mysterious combinations outside our isolated consciousness.
The patterns become ingrained, they sink into the substrate where they operate unquestioned and unseen, they become "natural," the way that things must be. Domination and obedience are among the strongest, and most enduring, of these patterns, taking multitudinous forms -- a "local habitation and a name" -- in the ever-changing circumstances of existence. War is their expression writ large. It is in us, it comes from us.
But to acknowledge war's intrinsic, universal character does not absolve us of the need to resist it. To say, "Oh, that's just human nature; it's always been this way and always will be this way," is not only a lazy, timorous acquiescence to base instinct, it also posits a settled, even eternal quality to human nature and human consciousness that simply does not and cannot exist. To go against war, to step outside the ingrained behavioral patterns of domination and obedience is indeed an "unnatural" act -- and it feels unnatural, it feels strange, and raw, and frightening. But the deeper fear -- of psychic and physical dissolution -- that lies at the foundation of these ever-more destructive patterns can only be faced down, changed, and wrenched into some more benevolent pattern by embracing the risk and discomfort of stepping forth, of stepping beyond -- literally, "transgressing" -- the boundaries of a wholly imaginary (or even hallucinatory) "human nature."
The whirlwind that characterizes the imperfect, breaking, misfiring, evolving reality of human consciousness is not only a producer of (very understandable) deep-seated fears; it is also a force for liberation. Because our nature is not ultimately fixed, we can, literally and figuratively, burn new connections in our brains, we can enlarge our consciousness and extend our empathetic understanding of those strange Others. And we have been doing this, in fits and starts, in lurches and staggers, with much backsliding and many wrong turns -- indeed, in ignorance and error -- for as long as we have been creatures cursed and gifted with self-awareness. We do have the capacity, the space, to resist the patterns of domination and obedience, to seek out new ways of seeing the world, of being in the world, of communing with others.
This seems, to me, a worthwhile thing to be getting on with during our painfully brief time on the earth, during our infinitesimal window of opportunity to make some small contribution toward pushing the project of being human -- or rather, becoming human -- down the road, at least a few more steps, in the direction of a better understanding, a broader consciousness, a greater enlightenment.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on March 7, 2010.