Sunday, May 13, 2007

War, and What It's Good For.

Recently, Maj. Douglas Zembiec kicked the bucket, and not a moment too soon. He was profiled in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere some years ago, and instantly became a hit among some of the more rabid entrail-gazers of the American press. He expressed, repeatedly, his devotion to combat, explaining that soldiers who died in Iraq did so for "something bigger than themselves" even if the war resulted in nothing but a humiliating withdrawal. "One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy", he explained. A fire-fight in Fallujah was "the greatest day of my life". "I never felt so alive, so exhilarated, so purposeful ... There is nothing equal to combat and there is no greater honor than to lead men into combat." He put this philosophy into practise too, and received an award because on two occasions, he "coordinated the actions of the Marines from atop a tank while rocket-propelled grenades and enemy small arms fire impacted all around him. Wherever the battle raged with intensity, Zembiec could be found inspiring Marines to aggressively repel the enemy's determined assault." I, for one, am happy to see him ennobled in the fashion that he would have wished, and if anyone else would like to cop a similar elevation from Juba, the Baghdad sniper, they are also in my thoughts and prayers.

However, the fact that Zembiec felt this way is less interesting than that it is seen as admirable by a good chunk of America's mainstream media and intelligentsia. To the extent that American culture sentimentalises The Troops, and to the extent that martial honour and the warrior ethic is celebrated, that is precisely the extent to which such modes of cognition and behaviour are absent from daily life (even if business ideology has it that the workplace is a battlefield in itself). The ideal expressed by Zembiec (heavy stress on ideal) is that one can be fused into "something bigger than oneself" at precisely the same time that one achieves perfect individuality, "maturity" and "resolve". In the fantasy of intimate combat, hand-to-hand trial of strength with an enemy, the divide between individuality and collective humanity is supposedly overthrown.

This is as American as apple pie, with roots in Theodore Roosevelt's reforming, militaristic 'anti-capitalism'. In an 1899 speech (one year after the Spanish-American War), he had already outlined his ideal of The Strenuous Life, in which he chastised the notion of a slothful life of unchallenged ease as a despicable prospect, and gloried in a life of strife, challenge, combat. "As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation." "Thank God for the iron in the blood of our fathers," he says, for by fighting and risking all, they proved equal to the mighty days. America should not "be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in a scrambling commercialism". Rather, "If we are to be a really great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the world." Had the US not fought and defeated Spain, "we would have shown ourselves weaklings, unable to carry to successful completion the labors that great and high-spirited nations are eager to undertake". Then take his 1910 speech to the Grand Army advocating a New Nationalism, advocating "proper sense of proportion in his relative estimates of capital and labor", a square deal for the working man, but no "sordid and selfish materialism" and certainly no hand-outs for any lazy bums. There are sustained parallels made with the condition of the army, which is a model for how society ought to be in its administration, loyalty, zeal and so on. The frontier wars, the civil war, the American revolution - all instances in which Americans, he said, had fought for the general interest and not some narrow section of society. The New Nationalism would therefore be one in which the executive is the steward of popular interest, not a chair to be purchased by the propertied interests; though there will remain classes, and dividends and property, there will be a moral revival in which human character means more than these things, and in which politics will not be divided by class warfare. Both of these aspects, military aggression and social reform, are of course integrated in the ideology of the 'new frontier', in which a "community of heroes" would be created, and communist revolution averted.

It is an early manifestation, in its own way, of the Kriegsideologie, discussed by Domenico Losurdo in his 2001 book Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death and the West. For in the latter we have a promise of war (beginning with World War I) as a form of epic struggle, a religious or civilisational clash, such that according to Stefan Zweig, millions had felt what they should have felt in peace, "that they belonged to a great nation". Even Weber, on the liberal wing of German nationalism and an avowed materialist, saw the war as irreducible to power politics - rather it had dimensions of honour and destiny involved. "German existence, not profit, is our goal in war," he added. Marianne Weber's account of her husband's period in a military hospital in Heidelberg records that "In those marvellous first months [of WW1] all inner life was reduced to its simple, shared outlines and everything unimportant crumbled away." "It was the acme of existence [Dasein]". Further, "the hour of depersonalisation [Entselbstung], and of integration into the community [gemeinesame Entrucking in das Ganze]. An ardent love of community [Gemeinschaft] spread among people, and they felt bound by flesh and blood to one another. Having formed a brotherhood, they were ready to destroy their individual identities through their service". Community in this invocation is to be contrasted to its more democratic counterpart, society. Community evokes a sensation of closeness, familiarity, warmth - love, even. As such it is inherently local and exclusionary. Universal fraternity is derided as uninvolved, a mere sublimation of the cash nexus. Max Weber would go on to say of Germans in the war: "Here we have proven that we are a great people of culture [eingrosses Kulturvolk]" (Kultur being superior to mere Zivilisation, the mere accumulation of dividends, the dull commerce of faily life).

The dignity of that life, the epic meanings that accrue to one's actions in the course of combat, are valorised. According to Husserl: "The belief that one’s death signifies a voluntary sacrifice, bestows sublime dignity and elevates the individual’s suffering to a sphere which is beyond each individuality. We can no longer live as private people." Death comes up quite a bit, as something that sharpens one's experience of life. Husserl again: "Death has once again regained its original sacred right. It is here again to remind one of eternity. And thus again we have developed organs to see German idealism." And Freud, writing in 1915: "we have an evident tendency to discard death, to eliminate it from life … Life is impoverished, loses interest if you cannot risk that which is the highest stake, that is, life itself … It is clear that the war would sweep away the conventional way of considering death. Today death can no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it … And life has become interesting again, it has rediscovered all of its content."

And life has become interesting again. Only death can give meaning to life, which otherwise is "empty, as insipid as an American flirt, in which it is clear from the very beginning that nothing must happen, as opposed to a European love affair, where the two are continuously conscious of the serious consequences which they may face". The essential element of danger and strife is otherwise missing. Oswald Spengler would enthuse that "the life of danger, real life in history, reappropriates its rights". The "bourgeois State of security, the welfare state" was loathed by Sombart. Karl Jaspers would also complain about the Weimer Republic: "The State has become a mere servant to the masses, it has lost all ties to authentic destiny." It was "no longer held accountable before God, but before the fickle masses". The aversion to risk, the pursuit of an unattainable perpetual peace, revolted him, as did "philistine contentment" and "bourgeois self-justification". He, in accord with the culture of German rightism at the time, was also fervently anti-universalist. "I would betray myself if I betrayed others, if I wasn’t determined to unconditionally accept my people, my parents, and my love, since it is to them that I owe myself."

The essential coordinates of Kriegsideologie are therefore community, death, danger and destiny. Nazism would inherit this ideology, its exponents celebrating the (mythical) "wonderful communal experience of 1914". At the first Nazi book-burning, when the works of communist authors were put into the fire, the following slogan was shouted: "Against class struggle and materialism, and in favour of community and of an idealistic conception of life, I give the writings of Marx and Kautsky to the flames." Unsurprisingly, many of the exponents of Kriegsideologie would turn out to be supporters of, or apologists for the Nazi regime - notoriously Heidegger, who esteemed the "authentic community of the people", "true camaraderie" and "authentic socialism". He too found a life of peace "boring" and "senile", prefering "proximity to death as sacrifice placed everyone in the same void, so that this became the source of unconditional and reciprocal belonging" [emphasis added]. Again, in a 1934-5 lecture: "It is precisely the death that each individual must die for himself, that death that individualises him to the extreme, which, together with sacrifice, creates an environment ripe for camaraderie within the community."

I should state that Heidegger was not a biological racist, and nor was Jaspers (who became a muted critic of the regime). But even where the ideologists of struggle, death, community, risk etc were not supporters of the Hitlerian state, they certainly shared a vocabulary with it. Appended to the national regime was a phrase-regime which had been elaborately and assiduously constructed by romantic conservative philosophers. This is important to point out, as is the fact that there were American precedents. Obviously, by introducing the topic of Nazism, I have piled such a weight of barbaric connotations on Kriegsideologie that someone might suspect that I am casting aspersions on dear old Bush, and those repositories of national affection, The Troops. Yet we are speaking of an ideology of war, which can manifest itself in various situations, and whose themes are certainly resonant today.

The promise of war is that it can bring an individual face to face with destiny at the same time as it plugs him into the national community. It is a forlorn promise. Ernst J√ľnger, the great right-wing glorifier of war in its human and heroic dimensions, tacitly acknowledges the changed nature of battle, envisioning a technologised war in which the world is decisively ordered by reducing the individual to a part of the information machine - there is no intimate combat, and the soldier's fusion with the community is achieved not by intensely individual experience, heroism and so forth, but by his reduction. We know that today's wars are designed increasingly to screen the soldier from combat, to remove risk and reduce the prospects of heroism and derring-do. Indeed, if I may return briefly to the deceased Jarhead, his story seems to have been captivating in part because of its rarety. So little of the combat actually involves hand-to-hand fighting or standing amid falling shells and barking orders at troops, because of the technological supremacy of the US. Most wars that the US involves itself in use comparatively few troops, who are directed by a small number of professionals, and who apply extreme force with little chance of even seeing a tiny shadow of any human being who happens to be killed. Even in the recent prolonged occupations, the troops are rarely to be found in a place which has not already been strafed with helicopter fire or air bombardment, and where they are not supported by aerial oversight. If they do find themselves in direct combat, it's an accident and an oversight. Even where they are in relatively close exchange with some guerillas, their best shot is to have someone with a birds-eye view burn them to death, as per this video from last year:

Further, despite the fact that those guys clearly got a kick out of that sortie, it is unlikely that the overall effect of their experience is going to dispose them toward civic virtue and pride in the national community. If they don't come back in bodybags, or with limbs and ears missing, or with brain damage, or DU sickness, they might well come back hating the government for some other reason. Suffice to say, generations of Ron Kovacs and, dare I add, Timothy McVeighs, are probably being moulded in the wonderful communal experience of war as we speak. Yet the feverish hold of this ideology in many quarters should alert us to what has been aroused in American culture, especially since That Day (you know the one), at least because no one - not even the residents of a fading ex-empire desperate to avoid historical oblivion - is immune.