Sunday, October 01, 2006
The prospect of annihilation. posted by Richard SeymourOn this blog, we tend to speak of opposing imperialism rather than war as such, because this is not a pacifist blog. As Malcolm X once remarked, the first principle of nature is self-preservation, and anyone who would deny a person's right to that is behaving unnaturally. Our historically determined capacity for organised killing is not going to be disappear, of course: the best that can be hoped for is that we will curtail and restrain the class agencies that drive such killing, and eventually remove them by abolishing class society and the forms of social organisation that produce war. As it happens, in some cases, such restraints have to be imposed by defensive war and such is the attempt by Hezbollah, the Iraqi resistance, and the Famni Lavalas for instance.
But there remains the problem of war as a form of activity and the dangers that it entails because of its current sources in capitalist society and the way we are mobilised for war in it - because these bring the real possibility of annihilation if not of the human species, then a substantial part of it. It is by now widely recognised and understood that the main reason that the Cold War, predicated on 'mutually assured destruction', did not result in a thermonuclear war was sheer luck. This was not only because in 1962, when it looked like the US would rather risk such a war in recolonising Cuba than allow it to be independent, it rested on the decision by Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet submarine commander, blocked an order to fire nuclear-armed torpedoes in response to an attack on the submarines by US destroyers. We now have a situation in which advanced capitalist states, now without what could even be presented as a systemic competitor, retain for themselves the right to build and rebuild vast nuclear arsenals. Since the whole point of possessing such arsenals is that one deters through the willingness to use them, these states have in fact taken the calculated decision that they may at any point where they feel their interests are sufficiently threatened, destroy a substantial portion of humanity. The Bush decision to try and build 'mini-nukes' adds another dimension - an attempt, if you like, to embed the possibility of a very limited, attenuated nuclear war in public consciousness as well as to adopt it as possibility in state strategy. This kind of strategy surely brings forward the day on which a nuclear strike is attempted. The official nuclear posture in the United States is to combine conventional with nuclear attacks if possible.
There's something else. Martin Shaw, the marxist sociologist (who is, oddly, sometimes given to bedding with the pro-war left), makes the point that contemporary wars have shown a tendency to degenerate, that is to involve wider and wider layers of people, well beyond official combatants. Although the apparatus of limiting norms and rules are usually invoked and highly praised by war-making states, few wars have in practise protected civilians - quite the contrary, they have involved killing them either by transferring all or most of the military risk to them through aerial bombardment, or by deliberately targeting civilian populations (as was threatened with Operation Salvador and, we must surmise, executed). This is because when you are trying to sieze a country's assets and consolidate one's strategic control in a region, one needs the population to be pliant. If they are not, if they passively or indirectly support oppositional movements, they are slowly made targets themselves. Degenerate war, Shaw suggests, is intrinsically linked to genocide.
In that aspect, Just War theory's sole use seems to have been to apologise for itself and accomodate various wars that flagrantly violate its stipulations. In fact, its raison d'etre could be the legitimation of imperialist violence itself, who are always found to be blameless or merely misguided, or merely a little bit excessive. There are, I still contend, Just Wars - defensive or liberatory wars by the oppressed and exploited, by those on whom war is already being made by a ruling class, who are offered domestic peace only at the expense of being held hostage, and only on the condition that they avail themselves for exploitation. But the irony is that few if any of these have anything to do with Just War theory. Because the theory itself is a clumsily commonsensical set of abstractions that takes no account of the conditions in which groups or classes decide to fight. It is an unmaterialist theory. And given the serious prospect of planetary demise, we need a better guide to decisions in how to assess wars than this.