A Personal and Promethean Response to Objectivism

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by Phoenix

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism has become a significant modern phenomenon in popular philosophy and popular fiction. More than once, I have been asked to distinguish Prometheanism from Objectivism. I always hasten to do so. However, the main intention of this essay is not to distance Prometheanism from Objectivism, through objection to the latter. It is instead to offer to Objectivists some illumination of a greater mission of philosophy from which Rand deviated, a mission which is their rightful home and which Prometheanism now represents. And, it is my intention to offer a place to those who have turned away from Objectivism because of perceptively detecting some of its errors.

I feel a certain gratitude toward Objectivism because my first inspiration to change the world through ideas came from reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Although I felt her ability at writing fiction left something to be desired, I found much of it compelling and inspiring. I interpreted much of its philosophical foundations in adaptable rather than stringent ways, such as ‘rationality.’ I looked past its flaws as I was searching for a lifeline, any lifeline of attention to the individual and the fulfillment of the individual, amid a morass of collegiate Plato, Hobbes, and Marx. I had not yet read Rand’s nonfiction essays.

Then I began to read copious amounts of Nietzsche after hearing of his connection to Rand, and I read more Rand, and made a startling discovery. In fact, I had been interpreting Objectivism in my own way. It was impossible to liken Rand to Nietzsche, but only because Rand was a child in comparison (though not in innocence or playfulness). Rand had liberally appropriated Nietzschean principles, methods, symbols, language… almost entirely, everything about Objectivism which had spoken to me was not originally Objectivist but Nietzschean: individualism over collectivism and altruism, human strength over weakness, self-interest, a prominence of mythic symbols, the similar effects of Christianity and socialism, the essential underground influence of ideas, the affirmation of life, the value of what is life-advancing, and on, and on. But she was a dilettante and he was a master, at both philosophy and its expression. It was Nietzsche who had intended his work much as I had interpreted Objectivism based on limited exposure.

And she did much more than appropriate his work as her own, she denounced him and barely acknowledged his influence. Nietzsche exposes much philosophical work as an expression of the psychological insecurities and limitations of its creators, and I believe Objectivism is no exception. Perhaps the most telling evidence of Rand’s problems is her brutal rejection of Nietzsche after her early years. Her inability to be grateful in retrospect or to fully acknowledge Nietzsche speaks volumes. Much of the difference between Prometheanism and Objectivism is the product of motivational and psychological differences. Rand seemed to be fighting her battles too rigidly for anyone who was not also fighting herself. Quite likely, her heavy emphasis on logic and reason signifies a very common psychological problem, a fear of facing and reconciling her own emotions and feelings. Prometheanism is less intended as a recipe for a better world, than a description of the sorts of people who can prepare the foundations for it and prepare themselves for it. And such a person is unfortunately not like Rand. As a friend once remarked to me: “How can I heal the world, if I cannot heal myself?”

This is not to say that I reject reason or logic where its use is appropriate. Reason is a wonderfully useful tool; when a logical process can be used productively, it should be. But logic always requires assumptions to operate. Besides, deliberate applied logic is but one of the critical abilities of the human brain. One other is intuition, in which we cannot easily distinguish between the critical and the creative (or between the rational and the irrational). Reason as a concept does not adequately encompass human creativity or justify it, though creation is essential to us. Nor does reason in itself encompass the inherent assumptions (sometimes one might say ‘faith’ and sometimes one might say ‘instincts’) which life requires. There is so much which is perhaps ‘irrational’ which is a necessary part of us, and often a productive advantage. We may describe and we may analyze, but we will not find these aspects of ourselves to be logically derivable from assumptions we make. Reason does not include everything which is potentially valuable.

An illustration of the comparison between Nietzsche and Rand in philosophical scope and ability is the revaluation of all values, one of Nietzsche’s greatest and unique achievements. He envisioned the work of the true philosophers of the future as the reexamination of every possible assumption, every possible value in light of its practical impact on life and life’s advancement, with creation of ideas based on what is learned. This process in detail, applied especially to society today and in the future, describes the evolution of Prometheanism as it has been accomplished and as it will be accomplished. In contrast, Rand’s greatest contribution was probably her exposure of altruism (continuing one part of the larger universe of Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values). She popularized her confrontation of altruism and applied it to economics particularly.

Altruism as a value is indeed a mistake; at least as a moral value, altruism is against the nature of man. All that the purveyors of altruism promise, from real satisfaction to a social paradise, is not achievable through self-sacrifice or living for others. It is against the nature of man, who lives as an individual much more than as a social animal, to be an altruist. Altruism is a blind alley, altruism is the destruction of potential and achievement and happiness. What altruism promises, self-interest as a path to integrated strength can deliver. It is through a self-interested pursuit of one’s own goals, satisfaction at existence through self-expression, and the perfection and strength of an individual focused on himself, that men and women arise who feel themselves to be so much that it is natural for them to give of themselves — they feel there is always more to give. But they do not do it for others, they do it because it has become their nature. There has never been a true altruist, and there never will be. A true altruist would be inhuman. Many who have been called great altruists have simply been strong men and women, who gave of themselves nothing more essential than the excess of an unquenchable fountain. The fountain still remained — they never gave of their own source.

But Objectivist egoism does not comprise a philosophical end in itself (or a moral end in itself, as Rand would say). Rand’s formula, “a man’s life is an end in itself,” may be a good way to express a critique of altruism, but it is really just the beginning to say this. For a man to focus on his own life, is a beginning. Then — what will he do with it? Prometheanism, in contrast, follows the Nietzschean precedent and examines the basic question of what has practical value, a question which is answered in part by the idea that one’s own life is the source for value, and then invites Prometheanists to join a crusade to further that value in the world. As much as Rand was interested in practicality, she seems to have had little knowledge of what to do with her philosophy. In particular, her acceptance of established political infrastructure demonstrates an inability to apply Objectivism, not to mention some hypocrisy, and not a little naiveté.

Given Rand’s recognition of the oppression of self-sacrificial morality, I wonder how she could not go just a bit further, and see that morality of any kind can in itself become something to enforce which suppresses the individual. But she did not, and her own Objectivism became that which it detested. What is distinctly Randian in Objectivism is twofold: her particular tone, which is too often alienating, uncompromising and self-righteous, and her retrogressive fusion of an Aristotelian obsession with reason with a purist, fundamentalist morality. Both are quite recognizable in her closed-mindedness to what might be learned from non-western cultures, and her clannish attitudes which condemned all those outside her circle, and periodically purged it of those she found untrue to her vision.

As much as I may agree with many specific points that Rand makes, I find it difficult (as do many) to approve wholeheartedly even if I agree with a given point. The root of this goes beyond specific arguments with elements of her philosophy, it also extends to aesthetics. If I read her novels, I cannot approve of the way she presents herself and her ideas, and my disapproval blurs the line between reasonable evaluation of her points and aesthetic feelings. We must realize that a very great amount of our reactions based on judgement are dependent on personal aesthetic taste. Presentation and tone mingle with our own associations, affecting us in a way inextricable from those evaluative processes we call ‘logical.’ There is no line, except as we artificially draw it.

And here we come to a fundamental difficulty in her thinking. It is impossible for anyone to separate one’s own subjectivity from judgement. She believed it was possible. She believed in the independence of a rational function in man. But there is no such thing as a man or woman who can separate reason from identity, an identity which includes instincts and incorporated impulses which produce, among other things, aesthetic reaction. This is why Rand’s attempts to depict purely rational men produce wooden and unrealistic characters.

In fact, it would not even be desirable to be a rational person in such a strict sense, in order to be fully realized as an individual; individuality requires subjectivity. In a philosophy, I believe that only subjectivity of perspective can really justify the necessity of individualism. And I believe subjectivity of perspective is true in a practical (not objective) sense. To me nothing is absolutely objective. Nor does this matter. The only thing that matters is what is life-advancing and beneficial, be it fluid, rigid, reality, appearance, true, false or anything else. As a Promethean I do not care about always pursuing objective truth even if it does exist, unless it is always beneficial. And I cannot conceive of any substantive explanation for why, if it did exist, it would always be beneficial, as in Rand’s assertion that objective men have no conflicts of interest. When I realized all of this, with Nietzsche’s assistance, I realized I could not be an ‘Objectivist.’

A specific example from Rand’s books: I find many of her aesthetic arguments in The Fountainhead appealing, particularly her application of “form follows function” as this is my favorite artistic principle. But I do not accept that my approval is evidence for a rationality in accordance with her pretension to an objective standard with which to judge aesthetics. That would be arrogance, since rationality and being objective only have meaning across shared assumptions. Shared assumptions can be unlikely or impossible for individuals with necessarily different and subjective perspectives. Objectivity does not have meaning in an all-encompassing cosmic sense. A person can meaningfully be objective in relation to another only according to a set of agreed criteria, preferably those which are demonstrable according to practical standards. Or, one can appear objective because one lacks personal attachment and basically lacks the interest to perceive and act at all, thereby avoiding subjectivity. A dogged pursuit of super-objectivity is as destructive to the independent self as abandoning reason altogether, even when it has meaning as a tool.

Nietzsche might have called Rand a disciple who had lost her way, alluding to his mock-biblical Thus Spoke Zarathustra. She was not one of his presaged philosophers of the future, self-honesty being a chief requirement. In her desperate affection for the objective (and unspecific) self, exemplified by her unmemorable heroes Howard Roark and John Galt, Rand lost her way from the path of individualism she also so desperately sought. It is no coincidence that both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged feature prominent characterizations of strong femininity, Dominique Francon and Dagny Taggart, who are nevertheless vulnerable and inadequate and in search of their rational mates. Rand’s own search for the objective ideal was as desperate as any search for the external, objective validation of God. In a fascinating and ironic parallel to many who have sought religion, despite Rand’s capacities and strong will, she looked outside herself for validation because she felt unable to stand alone on her own subjective validation. She looked with too much faith to Reason as the ultimate objective authority she unconsciously needed. It is not surprising that Objectivism as a philosophical school has experienced many of the same symptoms inherent in organized religion: defensive dogmatism, clannish behavior, condemnation of unbelievers, and even the excommunication of prominent members for their unorthodoxy. Tragically, Rand was not strong enough to look at herself honestly, and see that much of her philosophy was a reflection of herself rather than of an objective authority: ‘truth.’ Recognition of personal investment in devising and interpreting philosophy is very important in order to avoid the prices of self-deceit.

A reader may react positively to Rand, and have the proper mindset at the proper time to find Rand’s books quite valuable and productive as a stage in their development, especially a reader who needs firm redirection to reevaluate the worth of self-interest. Other readers will experience an adverse effect, even if they can recognize that worth, because Rand’s strictness of understanding will fit them much like a straitjacket. I have gone through both reactions. But I am still disposed favorably toward Rand for providing an important stepping stone in my philosophical development, a stepping stone to the larger mission of recognizing and creating what is life-advancing. This mission has become my work with Prometheanism. I outgrew Rand, and moved on, but I choose to fondly remember my early experience with her work.

Additional Reading

The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult by Murray N. Rothbard

List of writings developing Prometheanism:
http://www.prometheanmovement.org/network/Prometheanwritings.html

Books by Nietzsche

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On Conformity

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By Phoenix

On Conformity is included in the print anthology Rising in Words with this introductory note: “In this essay from 2001, I examined one of two basic inclinations I regard as vital to all life. Neither is definitively superior or thoroughly preferable (contrary to many points of view about them). We know one in genetic terms as mutation, and it appears in cultural exceptions, mental originality and social dissidence. The other inclination involves continuation of a trait, maintenance of the same, known as conformity in social terms.”

I have written about conformity before (in The Promethean Manifesto), when I identified conformity as an “acceptance of sameness and interdependence” on an individual and a mass scale. I discussed it primarily in the derogatory terms of its being both a warning sign of a suppression or decay of mental fortitude and independence, and a potential catalyst for that suppression or decay by the replacement of one’s own active faculties, turning over to others one’s self-reliance and responsibility. These are useful ways of thinking about conformity in many instances. Those who would push themselves forward, those who would push humanity forward, fight and must fight conformity. It tends to be the many, exhibiting disbelief, fear, and hostility, that stand in the way of progress, improvement, and what is superior. Those tend to come by way of the rare and the few, or the one.

In the pursuit of individualism and individuality, by its very nature a struggle for what is special and unique, and more individual by comparison, it is sometimes easy to demonize conformity. Even if this is avoided, it is easier to dismiss conformity as entirely disagreeable, so that one is always in the position of wishing to argue for the unusual, for the exception, simply because it is different. In most cases, this is a position warranted in order to correct the heavy, combined weight of mediocrity that people have become accustomed to endorse in the traditions of normalcy, convention, expectation, and similarity.

But most criticism of conformity entirely misses what should be the real point. Most criticism of conformity consists of little more than a contempt for what is conventional merely because it is not different, without judging its possible merits (which might explain how it came to be followed), or of criticizing those who follow the example of others, on the assumption that they are feeble-minded as sheep. Reflex anti-conformity is still too simple, too predictable. It is time to cease reactionary attacks on what is conventional, instead accepting the truly revolutionary responsibility of judging what is best, from among both what is old-fashioned and what is new-fashioned. Always “rebelling against conformity” becomes a habit, a conformity in itself. It is not a substitute for the real strength which allows one greater freedom of choice to judge whether the less popular, less accepted or the more popular, more accepted ways are better.

Conformity is a complicated phenomenon, and there is much to consider if we wish to understand the worth or worthlessness of conformity as measured by the standard of life, to understand the impact of conformity on our lives, on their fulfillment and advantage. That is, after all, the one Promethean standard.

First of all, if conformity were always such a hindrance to the fullest expression of life, it would be puzzling to explain just why it is so ingrained in human behavior. If we consider conformity as simply following the path established by others without deliberation, conformity would include every instance of following an established convention which has not been consciously examined, a potentially infinite list. Surely, if we stop to consider every convention we follow with every action and every thought, we will get nothing done. Nor do we actually have the choice. Our mental faculties are incapable of pausing to reflect on everything, including the very elements of language, symbols and conceptual models we use to formulate thoughts, which already exist to be absorbed from others, including the fact of reading the lines on this page from left to right. So, at the extreme generality of what we might mean by conformity, clearly it is innate, and it is necessary.

Or, if we take the more specific meaning of following a common pattern of behavior without due reflection, conformity is unavoidable. To consider the wisdom of all one tends to do because one has learned it from parents, friends, neighbors, or widespread cultural material, frequent exposure to others would leave one practically unable to function due to the time for reflection it would demand. And besides being necessary, following what already exists can also be useful, in order to build upon it.

It is natural for all animals, humanity included, to follow some patterns of behavior established either by genetic programming, or by genetics in combination with the constructions of culture. But that is not of course the kind of conformity that is worth talking about; almost always conformity refers to patterns of behavior in areas which seem fitting for deliberation, such as lifestyle, artistic form, political ideology, scientific principles, or philosophical ideas.

We should still ask why that sort of conformity is such a consistent part of human behavior. In fact, wherever it exists conformity by its very definition is the common practice, and it is obvious that there are strong drives within us all to be accepted, to receive approval and other reinforcement from others in what we do. There are usually either instituted or informal (but still expected) rewards for conforming to an established pattern or system, such as money, promotion, position, rank, respect, or affection, making the proverbial ‘road less traveled’ a potentially far more difficult one in practice than the more-traveled path.

If we are really honest in reexamining everything according to the standard of what is life-advancing, we must admit that conforming can happen to be quite advantageous for those who follow it, and not only for the rewards that have been built up around it (which would not explain its existence in the first place). Positive conformity might take the form of following already established and quite popular life-advancing customs and ideological precedents. A blunt example is the nearly worldwide, if diversely expressed, bias against murder (at least, outside of the allowed exceptions in war, honor-killings, and so forth). Or, positive conformity might take the form of following less mainstream, subcultural, more unpopular life-advancing traditions simply because of a greater exposure to them, or some other conditioning which got them accepted. The most common way this happens is almost certainly inheritance of subculture from parents. For instance, not every advocate of what is, after all, frequently a minority, subcultural opinion, the principle that individual freedom has essential importance, has arrived at this idea through careful seeking and deliberation. Parents are the most likely catalyst of its acceptance. Probably in just about any group of any size, there are behaviors, beliefs, and principles taken for granted which really do stand up to careful scrutiny under the light of what is or is not of true advantage.

But, the possibility that unquestioned tradition first became established thanks to being truly advantageous is not enough of an explanation for the repeated human preference for what is the same at the expense of what is different, even when what is different might be entirely helpful and more enjoyable for all concerned, and even to the extent of ostracizing those who create such positive differences as though they are cancerous cells in the bloodstream of society. This is demonstrated time and again in history and surely prehistory, recent centuries actually being a remarkable improvement, in comparison. On the face of it, this phenomenon would seem to make little profitable sense for those concerned, because improvement through human action can only be possible in the first place through an individual who originally presents it to the others in a group, never from some spontaneous change from the group as a whole (very popular nonsense among theoreticians, but impossible nonsense nonetheless, due to the individual nature of human creation and thought). And, there is no specific reason why what is unique or unusual from an individual would usually be worse than what is common and traditional. It certainly might be, if tradition really represents the collected wisdom of a group as preserved over time. But although this is true of traditions sometimes, quite often it is not true at all. Many cultural traditions are as surprising as they are to outsiders because outsiders are unfettered by superstition concerning them, and can apply just a few seconds of common sense to conclude that a given tradition is amazingly ruinous, burdensome, nonsensical, or otherwise far from wise or purposeful. The typical reason traditions are followed is not that they are good traditions, it is simply that they are traditions. People have already been following them, so they continue to follow them.

Realizing these things, it becomes tempting to damn conformity as something that gets in the way too much and has no essential place in an individualistic, diverse, unrestrained, and vibrant human society. But before we jump to that conclusion, let us assume that the substantive category of conformity identified above, the sort which concerns areas of importance, the kind which is the most subject to choice, and also the most potentially troublesome kind for the individual who represents advances, might present an additional advantage of some kind besides the haphazard one of preferring what is common to what is uncommon. After all, if it did not, why then would it have become an integral part of us?

The answer is probably that like the flocking behavior of birds or the herding behavior of grazing animals, the human urge to conform to what is perceived as established cultural practice is an evolved protective advantage of sorts. Conforming to a norm can protect against change which might be more detrimental than advantageous to the group of individuals, quite possibly including the individual who would introduce it.

Consider the example of the internet. It comprises all variety of electronic media and content from the most conventional and mainstream to the most eccentric and bizarre, is a vast array of human expression and an excellent opportunity to observe both diversity and uniformity. In using it to develop and promote a new movement and a new philosophy which is intentionally different, I have had ample opportunity to experience what has uncharitably been labeled “the lunatic fringe,” which is to say the domain of ideas outside of the common and mainstream. Much that is innovative, or simply different, is relegated to the fringe of what has already been accepted. Here, there is genius. There is brilliance. There is that which is not yet understood but one day will become accepted as mainstream (or at least, deserves to become accepted), simply because it is so ahead of what is commonly understood. There is also freakish oddity. There is absurdity without purpose. There is both abject and highly colorful stupidity, beyond the slow, normal and boring stupidity more likely in the mainstream. Usually masking what is truly innovative or ahead of the norm, there is the much more palpable lunacy that fills out the ‘lunatic fringe’ — generally more noticeable from the conventional viewpoint, justifying disdain for the unusual, even the unusual genius, by association.

Conformity is the name for those forces in the psyche and the interrelated psyches within a group of people which keep both the desirable and undesirable deviations, such as the array in evidence on the internet, from drawing as much attention and accreditation as what is more ‘normal’ because it is already accepted. Effectively this functions as a rough substitute for the much more difficult (but more accurate and potentially rewarding) efforts necessary to differentiate between the two. It would be unrealistic to expect the expenditure of those efforts in every case, so it is easy to see why conformity has to exist in some cases as a backup, particularly where the capacity to tell the difference is lacking.

So in general, the factors which contribute to conformity do exist for a reason: conformity serves a species (whether in a biological or cultural sense) in that it keeps the oddities, the mutations which are not beneficial and spectacular from taking root and spreading. Surely human conformity evolved as a social defense mechanism against problematic change from within. But so often it dominates so much which is advanced, along with much which is flaky or abhorrent and only ‘exceptional’ for the literal reason of being an exception to the usual. The conforming tendencies we have inherited have become dangerous in their own right, for we are a species within which relative uniformity is no longer the defining, basic characteristic it is for other species. We are in a way a species of species. If the tendency to conform encourages uniformity among people, then it truly is an abomination to the way human life works when at its best. The expression of individuality allows a chance that in at least some of the infinite permutations of human beings, wonderful possibilities can be realized. To be sure, some of those permutations are bound to be just oddball, or pathetic, or dangerous — something different, but not promising or fulfilled or potent. But uniformity discourages all possibilities which deviate from what remains the same.

The discriminating task of those who would fulfill the nature and the potential of the human species, as a species whose greatest strength may be individuality, is not a futile attempt to eliminate conformity or harass it at every turn, but to align a society in which conformity can continue to function as safety ballast, yet the rare and exceptional because it is superior, advanced, or beautiful is not held back from becoming known, agitating if need be, and spreading out.

Preferably, it is also encouraged and made welcome. Although, if we consider Nietzsche’s theory that pressure upon the stubbornly different strong individual may be necessary to inspire him to shine, as in the formation of diamonds from the weight of thousands of tons of coal, perhaps it should not become too easy for the individualist, if indeed it ever could. The need for pressure against change in order to inspire change might be yet another hidden function of conformity, a seemingly paradoxical one which nonetheless is plausible to me due to many apparent examples in its favor, including my very own experiences. However, it is quite a difficult theory to test.

The “safety ballast” aspect of conformity tends to come from the subtler influences of convention against insurgent difference within a situation of free association. It comes from self-regulation in the face of this. It too really comes from within the individual, when comparing himself to the example of others, rather than from the actions of those outside to persecute, or from the establishment of an official orthodoxy which becomes too unquestionable according to what is promoted and policed as good conscience or seemly behavior.

Thus, a balance between conformity as ballast and a readiness to put conformity aside when it is desirable to do so is most likely in the circumstance of radical individual freedom, sans government or any other forceful bureaucratic institution which centralizes, dominates, and reinforces orthodoxy and cultural stasis. That radically free and open condition would exist in a Promethean society, where at the very least we can say that force, official indoctrination and official punishment for deviation, and systematized normalcy of behavior would not be factors reinforcing an innate desire to be like other people, and the exceptional individual need only overcome his own hesitancy to be unlike others, so far as he and they have built it up. Even more promising, it is likely that the recognized value of individuality and diversity will help others to feel that they can recognize innovation and improvement brought by an individual despite its difference, rather than showing disapproval as a reflex or simply not showing support, which would remain appropriate as a response to dangerous, problematic, or substandard deviation. That reaction should always remain an acceptable option even among advocates of individual expression. For in all honesty, it is a benevolent outlet for the inherent human desire to conform.

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The Fall of the Culture of Mind

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by Phoenix

The Fall of the Culture of Mind is included in the print anthology Rising in Words with this introductory note: “This cry-from-the-heart for free and deep debate, vigorous and responsible intellectual culture, and authentic open minds is also a polemic against superficial free thought, shallow intellectualism, inconsistent respect for ideas, and the demise of the vibrant culture of ideas inherited by modern people. From the winter of 2006–2007.”

Among those who think they comprise “the free world,” many speak well of keeping an open mind. In these lands many have spoken up over the centuries for a free exchange of ideas, and free speech. Modern, “Western” societies are defined in part by the adoption of such principles as fundaments. The more historically-minded have been inclined to appraise this celebrated, continuing tradition as a remarkable testament to modernity, to the triumph of Western values as vehicles of enlightenment. In those same countries of the West where progressive individuals once developed these principles with much deliberation, and envisioned these values so distinctly and firmly as to stamp them indelibly on Western thought for centuries, free ideas and free thought unquestionably remain worshipped icons of Progress today.

So, I should not be controversial at all to reiterate the above from a different angle: there are those who like the notion of the power and importance of ideas, and all the social preparations to trade them. Academic intellectuals in particular have reason to endorse such formulations professionally, to serve the reputation and impact of their own profession. But all intellectuals, in fact all who ever mull over ideas or tinker with them, have a reason: promoting grand perceptions of ideas flatters them through their pastime.

Keeping an Open Mind Careless

Very many of all those who profess their affinity for the principles of ideological freedom nonetheless avoid concomitant responsibility that consistent adherence to principles would imply. They certainly do not want to go so far with ‘taking ideas seriously’ that they admit an uncomfortable possibility: their appraisals of the world around them or the subjects they toss around in discussion could indirectly cause harm. They want to think that ‘free speech’ and ideas free-flowing on tap are all-at-once necessary, fundamental, all-important and yet also casual. Charging their minds with serious matters, they demand their right to think and speak freely, but also loosely, trivially, flippantly, superficially, impractically or senselessly, all in all without sufficient concern for consequences.

For what it seems they really want is mental entertainment in one way or another: sociability through talk, to have their ideas listened to, to tickle their curiosity, to muse as a bovine animal chews, to toy with words and images in mind, to pick out superficial technicalities, to argue like cockfighters over positions, to parrot, preen and posture in clubs and cliques aligned for the purpose, to take flights of fancy with philosophy, to ramble with friends as loose talk comes to the tongue, or the like. In short they want to eschew responsibilities implied by the freedom to exercise that immense power immanent in ideas, the influential, propagating, almost-legislative rule of ideas in society. They treat this freedom as a libertine does, pretending to take it seriously but as provision for a game — always to say one takes it seriously, never to do so.

For if one did, if one really did — one would weigh ideas with great care, and live them with conscience and devotion. One would think through puzzles and problems with method and mood fitting to the subject. One might remember that every serious conversation could alter the minds having it, forever. One might hold every serious or would-be serious book like it deserved the respect due a weapon, or like an unknown. For an unknown is even more deserving of respect than a weapon, which at least remains an object defined in use and effect.

One must display conspicuous naiveté towards the concept of open mind in order to see it wholly as an unambiguous value, good or bad. Ideas are neither benign, nor malignant, out of the context of a specific mentality. They depend entirely on our subjective mental context to affect us. As we respond to ideas in one way or another, as we adopt one idea versus another, the ideas we use to operate in the world alter the chances of a given possibility coming to pass versus almost infinite others. This is how ideas benefit or harm us, which we can only judge by the experience of what we did believe and what did happen. We model the effect — not very accurately — by the metaphor of a polar charge, positive or negative. But ideas themselves are neither.

But all the same, ideas are most certainly not neutral, harmless, or unimportant. The written or spoken word is not a matter for flippancy simply because it comes with enjoyment, as well as consequences. One can play with it, and since I love to write, I gladly recommend the joys of artful language and communication. But this is also a serious kind of game. Ideas are the cuts made to sculpt minds, and like a god, a mind seeks to make the future in its own image.

If a mind really is “open,” it is not finished. It is still open to influence, and to being changed. Who can say what mind plus book becomes? A bookstore, a library, a computer connected to the internet —in farseeing eyes each radiates possibility. Each would seem a repository of frozen, time-bound power of thought, fossilized, concretized, made artifact in printed pages, in screen fonts, ready for unlocking and decoding by new minds, essentially printed in a kind of invisible ink to which old minds had become blind. One never knows what comes with the next page of the book or the website, what dangers, what intoxications, what brilliances, what journeys, what will occur to one, what images will appear unbidden in the mind’s eye.

Or if one does know — how could one pretend to have an open mind in any serious way at all? Indeed many have an open mind only so far as ideas are allowed into their anteroom, as if they are briefly entertaining guests. Others, however, let them in as though flinging open the door to a howling gale — they want the furniture rearranged and they do not much care how. Of course they pretend to have rhyme or reason. Both the superficial and the haphazard imply a primitive indifference to the impact of ideas.

Ideas impact all thinking beings, including all those who abdicate their obligation to really think well. If someone fails to take ideas seriously, it does not matter to nature, which will not excuse anyone for laziness, stupidity or cowardice. Careless minds do not transcend their lot. Their nature remains dependent on ideas, and interdependent, following others’ ideas. Those who regress cannot drop out from the imperatives of having a mind. Rather, ideas impact them mysteriously, the way seasons and storms will still confound and batter primitive farmers without means to predict the weather or channel the water. Theirs is a perilous world.

The “free world” only means the world which has inherited freedom. Those would-be open minds who inherit free thought must perpetually recreate themselves as worthy heirs, and earn their world in order to keep it. An open mind is not a present one can give, but an engine firing that must be maintained. The same is true of the open society open minds want to create. This world has been steadily losing the incomplete, but greater awareness of ideas it once had. The culture we generate is no longer one which carefully preserves certain arts and techniques we desperately need—those which individuals of a developed, civilized society employ to understand, and gain from the constant flow of ideas freedom allows, and also to manage the unavoidable influence of ideas on their lives.

There is a strong indication of this in the incapacity of so many readers to actually read, a primary example of the instruments a developed culture must maintain. Of course many technically read, but few have mastered reading in a meaningful sense. By “meaningful sense,” I do not refer to desirable but special, esoteric insights into the subtleties of the author’s psychology, allusions or subtexts. I do not even mean the intermediate knack for grasping metaphor, irony, symbolism, and other indirect meanings found in poetry, satire, aphorism, and other rich forms at which many modern readers shrug indifferently. I mean that most show a pronounced inability to focus on denotation enough to extract a reasonable approximation of precise meaning. Instead, they leap directly to connotation, and without the anchor of meaning, a rough and sloppy connotation at that. They lack the will to understand; they do not really try in good faith, as if the author’s meaning is no matter. They have lost the habit of getting the idea, if they ever knew how. They take a mere impression of the words and immerse it in their own morass of preconceptions, from which no further meaning escapes. Somehow the words are about what they already had in mind, what little they have experienced and what little they can imagine. Strange conclusions bubble up from this process, but rarely do they understand the writer’s meaning in their haste to reiterate their previous notions. An open mind must first learn to lose itself for a minute. It requires enough discipline to pay attention to something other than its own preoccupations, such as the words right in front of it.

There has been much commentary on the modern degradation of standards in writing skills and inspiration. I will not add to that here, except to suggest that writing links with reading, most basically reading comprehension. And the problem is not simply a matter of the author showing poor command of language, necessarily failing at writing if he cannot read well. The problem also involves the author reflecting the audience. Special writers will still write wonderfully for themselves and a select audience. They will still express ideas well that demand to be heard by the minds who are listening, even if most do ignore or fail to understand. But the larger market of writing will follow its customers, giving them the sort of thin product they demand. Grotesquely, universal economic realities apply even if many customers have become unqualified to read, particularly to read anything substantial or challenging. They get the mediocrity they want, and embody. Good or important writing is much more difficult and expensive, as are the writers who can produce it. Mediocrity is so much cheaper and easier that only the artistic choose to elevate writing without market support. Therefore inconsequential writing has multiplied as inconsequential minds have multiplied.

The two most elementary toolsets of literate human minds rust from disuse even as words and data flood the world in numbers beyond measure. Without the will or the means to pay attention to ideas, understand and express them, people are easily consumed by avoidable errors, amorphous fears and baseless speculation. They easily succumb to those who practice manipulation of words and thoughts. They lack the faculties of protection for their own minds, but retain the vulnerabilities of complete dependence on ideas and their signification. They are hapless humans now devolving to prey, having abandoned the natural gift in their own head.

The Freedom of Discord

On the exceptional occasions when “progressive” modern people do attribute thorough significance to some consequential ideas, they do a great deal more than take them seriously, showing far more than the wariness due an unknown. They treat them like a known communicable disease, and try their best to stamp them out with complete intolerance for those who spread them.

Let us consider a particularly sensitive example to illustrate the point, which, chances are, the reader’s own awkwardness will underscore:

Expressing any skepticism about the mainstream view asserting the National Socialist genocide of Jews is not simply derided as a false or dangerous position. To hold any degree or kind of skepticism about this history is now an abomination among all moral and right-thinking people. In the reactive moralistic mind, re-examination of the supposed facts is rarely separated from the determined avoidance of facts, even though this difference distinguishes a conscientious (and undoubtedly a stubborn) historian from a neo-Nazi. Furthermore there exists a criminal offense of “Holocaust denial” in numerous Western countries, which is rigorously enforced. Regardless of the motives of particular historical revisionists suppressed under these laws, such laws render even details of interpreting genocidal evidence and events during the National Socialist regime into dictatorially-policed speech.

This is in accordance with a tenet of philosophically-illiterate, mass-oriented societies: that some ideas are themselves intrinsically dangerous. This is not a developed or reasoned idea, so much as an unexamined impulse against a supposed thing identified by a simple circuit of the brain as bad. To the nervous systems of vertebrates, including primates such as humans, what we call a bad thing stimulates the reaction avoid or the reaction destroy. Linguistic human culture interprets that aversive reaction as a “moral imperative,” and thereby the many mistake their fight-or-flight response for some superior reaction appropriate to civilization.

The nonsense of ideas malicious in themselves, outside the context of a moment in a mind, ignores the multitude of perspectives, the many different lights cast upon circulating ideas by subjective considerations of different and changing individuals. After all in terms of their relationships to people, ideas remain fluid, ever-shifting entities, not constant things. The belief that a given idea is like an atom of evil is not only primitive, it is inconsistent with a free society allowing liberty for individual minds. It shows no faith at all in the principle of free speech, and in the ability of an open mind to separate value from worthlessness.

If the deniers of a widely accepted theory are wrong, they can and should be proven wrong, again and again, and thereby discredited by the standard of accuracy. If the deniers of a widely accepted ethic seek to overturn it for some dubious motivation, bring all this out into the light, and let them scamper away. To do otherwise is to overestimate their power before any reckoning. It suggests that to do battle with them on the open field of ideas would bring defeat, or perhaps that an open debate would likewise draw unwanted attention to one’s own motives.

If all Holocaust revisionists are completely wrong and utterly-straightforward bigots, let them make their case, expose them, and devastate them. As with all such cases, we will know more than before. Our refreshed process of thought will lead to other thoughts. And we will avert the danger of censorship, as well as the danger of falsehoods. But, if they are even a few parts in a thousand right (which even a bigot might easily manage), don’t we want their yield added to our truth, as well?

We might recall that specifically, those who consider maximal emotional propaganda more important than historical accuracy once objected to precision over the death tolls at concentration camp Dachau. But it now seems almost certain Dachau’s facilities were either never or hardly used in the same way as at a mass execution camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka, and that those who died at Dachau perished on a much smaller scale. That apparent truth is not some academic technicality, offensive when compared to the greater question of morality, and therefore indecent for skeptics to debate. It is a major historical difference, and essential knowledge for people tracing their familiar and beloved ones. We can never be sure we really are quite unalterably correct about ideas, or the motives, veracity or consequences surrounding them, no matter how indignantly we insist.

There are so many viewpoints, there is so much incomplete or flawed information, there are so many possibilities to hold in the mind, and there are so many possible unforeseen results from holding any one belief, even provisionally. Any serious thinker copes by means of an open mind. Thinking is a process of consumption, an ongoing reaction which requires an ongoing intake of fuel as well as practice and skill. Ideas put together produce compound ideas. Different thoughts can produce new thoughts, e.g. thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In these reactions, novelty is a prime catalyst. If everyone already agrees to presume to know, and everyone assumes they are all correct, there is very little point in trading ideas which are all quite similar — except to evoke vacuous feelings of congratulation for “being right,” confirming our untested point of view, giving us all comfortable, morally-assuring feelings that conformity has been satisfied.

Even the assimilation of new information requires disagreement between the old patterns and the different, new ones. Overcoming this friction, pushing against this inertia is essentially the process of learning. It is no coincidence that the young, who are scantily-endowed with established patterns of information, learn new things much more flexibly than older people, who are endowed with much that is established and tends to object to the new — the new becomes objectionable.

Notice, the requirement of tension for learning stands in stark contradiction to the tenets of those parents, and other authority figures who so kindly insulate children from whatever ideas they deem discordant (defaulting to their own harmonious program of inculcation, presumably). Watchful people, they aim to reduce children’s exposure to disagreeable influences in general (and in particular, disagreement with them). They often speak of the ‘confusion’ caused by conflicting attitudes (if they disapprove of one or more of them). But learning requires the comparison of different things and discrimination among them, the overcoming of disagreements within the mind, and the resolution of confusion. In fact, actual active learning consists principally of these processes of questioning whatever came before and had appeared solid, comparing, discriminating, overcoming, resolving—which are not to be confused with the rote of imitation, the faculty of absorption a human cannot help but practice from birth, aping aspects of his environment. Consequently, exposure to the provocations of contentious debate is even more crucial for children, who have the most left to learn, than for adults, who have less. Is it quite clear what this means? It would be educational to meditate on the incalculable losses of millions upon millions of young minds ‘protected’ from learning, and how far this goes towards explaining the present inadequacies of culture, but not too long, lest despair overwhelm.

Based on its extraordinary importance, one might surmise the entire point of protecting a free exchange of ideas is to engage in productive disagreement. Let us remember why disagreement needs protecting.

Among a social crowd, insignificant ideas always seem fine, and might even make for appreciable entertainment if they hit the right notes. Among these insignificant ideas are many sensationalistic presentations which distract keen minds from substantive evolutions, and revolutions. And serious-sounding ideas are generally tolerated. They are even agreeable if they remain customary or precedented — albeit a bit too boring to receive much attention.

But genuinely different, serious ideas look like obstructions and threats once they seem necessary to confront. They provoke intolerance among a crowd, unless the crowd is left to pay them no mind, even though these challenges are the only presentations of ideas that matter enormously in a society. For presumably, the old sovereign ideas need little minding to perpetuate themselves for benefit or ill effect, and therefore it is the challenges which deserve a great deal of consideration. And the deadly serious ideas, that is concepts so perversely different they are almost universally maligned, become anathema. Especially in times of pressure, the crowd pursues and approves any means to snuff them out: smears, prohibitions, searches, book-burnings, prison terms, executions, brainwashing generations — furious, righteous censorship of any extent, any merciless variety. The crowd always hates disagreement, strong disagreement most heartily. It does not matter whether the individual who takes exception is a dissident with answers to illuminate humanity in an hour of darkness, or some bigot determined to revise provable facts.

Of course this is why the founders of intellectual and ideological freedoms — familiar as the slogans and shibboleths of the West and modernity — first protected the disagreeable individual from the crowd. Only a fool asks a mob, or a ruler pandering to the mob to know and do only what is right, and suppress only that which they deem wrong. This is the wise rationale behind free speech: that only an individual can decide what to like and what to dislike while a mob reacts, and moreover, only an individual child or adult can decide for himself how an idea affects him personally, in his distinct context — as we say, positively or negatively — and nobody else.

The concept of an open mind freely consuming new ideas is not designed for social groups but individual minds. Only an individual can sift gold from sand. As masses, people seek to conform, to remove difference, and tend towards intolerance. Only an individual can experience and learn the value of internal discord. Social conformity, on the other hand, is the process which counterbalances novelty and differentiation. On a mental level, this produces similarity of thoughts with fewer catalysts in the form of different concepts and contrary information. Left to itself, conformity therefore tends to produce a slow-witted stasis.

The accord of society must be refreshed by the discord prized by open minds. Eventually a closed-minded culture is composed almost entirely of dull, conservative conformists, with many superficial differences that persuade them of their own breadth and tolerance, but a poverty of deep variations in thought. They are bored to tears with their well-worn comfort zone, and manufacture neverending permissible transgressions. Their sclerotic culture struggles to cope with changes their ancestors once weathered merrily. They are frightened by their own lethargy. Dimly recalling debate, they have too much trouble summoning up different points of view to stage a productive argument. Instead they bicker ineptly and tediously about nothing at all fundamental, nothing at all relevant to their predicament.

In their intolerance, those who forget why we need freedom of speech attack the very purpose for which it was created. That freedom of speech might, and does allow objectionable points to be raised in a society of two or two billion is not some price to pay for it, but the soul of the principle. To hear objectionable ideas is the goal! If we no longer value objection, if we do not prize the tutelage of discord more highly than uniform agreement, we are unworthy of this great freedom, and we will surely see the collapse of civilization follow the complacency of its engineers.

Making Freedom Meaningless and Closing an Open Society

“In the East poets are sometimes thrown in prison—a sort of compliment, since it suggests the author has done something at least as real as theft or rape or revolution. Here poets are allowed to publish anything at all—a sort of punishment in effect, prison without walls, without echoes, without palpable existence—shadow-realm of print, or of abstract thought—world without risk or eros.”
Hakim Bey

Instead of crediting ourselves for freedom of expression which, after all, we inherited by the blood and ink of the dead, we ought to remember that in practice, ideological freedom is only given whatever authenticity and weight it has by the impact of the ideas we circulate.

Considering the state of disuse to which the free world has abandoned the forum of serious ideas, can we finally admit that in one sense, there is more consistency in the countries where unsubtle powers limit free speech and free thought? — for there, at least they will acknowledge seriousness in the presence of danger, and thereby they recognize that ideas can indeed have power. They actually take the impact of ideas seriously enough to regulate them (or rather to regulate them openly, as opposed to obliquely). Whether this indicates more or less respect for ideas, I leave for those who enjoy pointless and arbitrary debate. But it is certainly less hypocritical than the supposed “free world” — which has yet to live up to that claim, and seems every year to retreat from it. And maybe, some of those who struggle with control over what they can think, write, and say learn that freedom of thought is worth quite a lot, worth wresting away from those who try to control ideas, the same way those who earned our freedoms learned it.

In those places where most take ideas for granted, however, they haven’t much notion what to do with the things anymore, besides toying with them. They return to creaky old methods to deputize ideas, and make them serve their society of stripped-down minds. They treat them like an ignorant savage confronted with chunks of metal ore, seeing the chance to make rough stone tools and nothing more.

They use ideas as currency in the superficial paths of pop culture memes, circulating freely — free as propaganda and advertisements are. And people marvel at the magical functioning of this memetic machinery, and it passes for the free exchange of ideas. But could “ideas” like these help but circulate? I have never heard the imitations of monkeys and parrots mistaken for an open society exchanging ideas, but that is how most humans have degraded the concept. (And do they make a cacophonous din with their chatter!) And why should we see anything remarkable in the delivery systems turning over countless memes that don’t matter? Bad pennies just keep turning up in a world too crooked or cheap to invest in something more worthwhile. Quality manufacturing takes time, effort, skill, as well as freedom to trade. A free exchange of ideas first requires ideas.

And a recent ‘innovation’ in answer to the dullard’s problem of what to do with ideas is that all-too-familiar, age-old attempt to control, limit and manage. Today they are still dispatching free thought as efficiently as the KGB — ah but in some permissible, acceptable, moral form of course, usually unspoken and unnoticed, probably done in the name of tolerance, but ruthless nonetheless. Three resorts of monolithic men bent on ignoring the outsider within — to belittle, to slander, or to distort and appropriate — prove more efficient than any secret police disappearing the dissidents in a totalitarian regime.

Finally, maybe worst of all, it is easy to stop considering the voices of few among many. If we don’t like to hear certain ideas, we don’t need to seize those who think and hide them away, or murder them in cold blood. (We — well, most of the modern We are far too progressive for that.) No, we have only to bury their ideas. The habit of ignoring an idea to death can be practiced and perfected. Ignoring becomes smooth second nature among the ignorant indifferent. If we cease caring about ideas, we have only to cease listening, cease reading, cease communicating, while continuing to go through all the motions. This raises an interesting question of semantics: are the people in a “free world” really living in an open society if they are deaf, blind, or dumb? What does openness mean among closed people?

Primitives born heirs to grand intellectual traditions now fall back on any means to avoid taking ideas seriously, and for one’s own. That is to say, as mature human beings create and claim sophisticated tools, not as toys, not like breaths of wind to pass in and out, not as haphazard effects of which we are prisoners, but as the potent devices our race made in order to remake ourselves. The written word, the spoken word, and the thought-expression of language was the human script for writing atop a palimpsest of the genetic code and any other fate “written in the stars” — for making culture ours. The body of thought is our very tongue, like our flesh itself. From our thoughts, we grow, insofar as we can still “keep an open mind.”

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Post Mortem: Aftershocks and Afterthoughts Following a Day of Death

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September 28, 2001

by Phoenix

Post Mortem is included in the print anthology Rising in Words with this introductory note: “I composed this examination of the causes and potential implications of the World Trade Center collapse in the crisis-minded days of September, 2001. As the world seemed to go mad around me, I was determined to make the aftermath an opportunity for learning and teaching. So I tried to draw wisdom out of disaster, instead of panic, paranoia and revenge. I can only take solace in the fact that many of those who seemed to go mad have finally, over the past several years, come around to some of the understandings I expressed then. Hindsight is clearer, but too late. Unfortunately, all too many still seem determined to make the same mistakes which lead inevitably to disaster or dystopia.”

Introduction

What will come after the death of thousands? What will be the reverberations? I speak of the aftershocks, the ripples of thought and subsequent action which emanate from all very arresting, explosive events, and from very quiet, subtle ones that are nonetheless earthshaking. These seismic undercurrents of concept, the ideas formed and the deeds which result from them will determine all future importance of that deadly event, such as who else will be killed and what other suffering will result.

For the weight of how people respond to an act that demands attention rests far more with their understanding than with loudly advertised, or even visible acts. The subtle changes in thought, the alterations in perception to which a few are attuned, these chart the course of history. Though the first fiery crash of a guided passenger-missile on September 11th thunderously broached a nightmare day of death with screaming terror and trauma, it is how we understand what happened, how it fits into the framework of our mind, how we interpret its meanings and implications which will be most important now. What the event means in the context of the ideas those living on this earth already believe, what they now think, and what they will later be convinced to believe, that is where the matter of that moment rests. So let us learn, let us teach one another, let us think, speak, and listen with open minds and hearts, and let us thereby deliver the future from any more nightmares from which we cannot awake.

An Invocation of Remembrance

Something must be done
but in your anger
remember, death has no remedy.

“We are at war”
but in your anger
remember, wanting war means wanting death.

In your anger,
remember: if you remember, there is yet hope.

Thoughts on Killing

There is quite a lot of confusion concerning how to describe and label the event. Which model applies? Is it to be considered a crime, terrorism, an act of war, an (un)natural disaster, the inexplicable work of madmen — what? The best model here is the most accurate and most literal one: killing. What happened at the World Trade Center was death, death and destruction directly affected by killers. If we depart too far from that understanding we get lost, and there is no need to depart from that in order to understand a great deal.

We are told that there are differences between the use of force to cause death, in different contexts. There are supposed to be kinds of killing, which we are supposed to judge very differently. In one context, killing is murder. In another, killing is war. Or, killing is justice. From one perspective, killing is justified, from another, killing is not justified. One man may judge killing moral, another may call it immoral. Many believe killing in self-defense is moral and just. Many believe killing oneself is immoral. Many believe killing in retribution for killing is moral or just. “An eye for an eye,” they say.

But what is the difference between killing and killing? Between death and death? Somehow — possibly because the living easily disconnect from the reality of death, or are too frightened by it to see clearly — a tremendous number of people ignore the obvious, the one point we cannot debate about killing. So let us return to what we know: killing always has the same result. Death is the result. And death is always an end — at least of everything we can know.

The reality of death entertains no human illusions about rules and qualifications. Justice and morality are not defined by death. It is curiously silent about those concepts which men hold dear. They receive no countenance from an inanimate visage which might have cherished popular or traditional systems of thought or indulged in fierce debates while still warm and breathing. Death has no definition save finality.

No circumstance or judgment changes death, and therefore the crucial and defining result of killing is immutable, rendering all qualifications illusory. Killing is nothing important besides death. There exists no intent or judgment or moral or circumstance in the world to alter that. There is no “eye for an eye.” There is no in bounds, and out of bounds. There is no rule dividing good from bad. Killing and laying waste is killing and laying waste. It is done or it is not. There is more of it, or there is less. Self-defense does not make killing moral, or good, or in bounds. There is no moral killing, there is no immoral killing, it is all simply death, in the immediacy of cold realism. The effect is the same.

None of this grants support to a nihilistic view, however. That killing is killing does not imply that one action is as good as another, or as pointless as another, regardless of deadly consequence. There are differences, but the differences are about life, not about life quibbling about death. Self-defense must be enforced by oneself because it preserves one’s own life. It is necessary for a living being to continue to exist when threatened. It is demanded by a will to live in a life-threatening circumstance. But it still must be sad and distasteful when self-defense means the need to terminate another life, to those who are truly biased towards life. Death is always death, killing is always killing, and a fully living, really alive being must be biased, quite unreasonably prejudiced towards life, and against killing.

The really important distinction is that there are people who know this, who hold all this inside as part of their respect for life, and people who do not know it, who respect life less. The path of respecting life is the life-advancing path, the Promethean way; it is what the Promethean movement must fight for, and not merely in naked terms of life and death. Men who kill themselves to kill men and women they do not even know do not respect life at all, and really understand nothing. But what separates the killing called ‘collateral damage’ from that? What separates death from death, when it is not demanded by the needs of life itself? Those who now desire as an end in itself the death of death-loving wretches, or those who want to kill and lay waste to something or someone to put out an eye for an eye — they are off the path of life, as well.

The Thoughts of the Killers

However unpopular it may be to try to see things from the eyes of the terrorists, however tempting it may be to dismiss that approach as unimportant or wrong to pursue because the terrorists are simply an incomprehensible evil, it must not be forbidden to try to understand why the terrorists did what they did. They have announced themselves to be enemies of life in the baldest way, and unfortunately, they were not cowardly about acting. It is critical to understand how people who would do such a thing conceive of the world. We must not simply curse them and think no more.

Indeed, the hijackers were bastards of the worst kind. Far less than they were the children of any civilization, culture, or world religious tradition, they were the offspring of two unharmonious parents, each one a gruesome or dehumanizing thought. In fact, all terrorists, including those who assaulted the World Trade Center, believe in collective identity and in revenge.

If you hate the suffering and death of September 11th, detest and disbelieve these ideas. Do not follow them as did the terrorists who caused this suffering, and as do many others on this planet.

More explicitly — and this will be a difficult thing for many to face: terrorists believe in applying the same two principles of collectivity and revenge as most in America, and in a similar way. They believe that all of a recognized cultural, ethnic, or national group can be responsible for the actions of its members including those in government, and they believe that terrible acts call for terrible vengeance. That faith in vengeance is very clearly popular in America, given the common responses to the terrorist act, and the vast support for an apocalyptic assault. The other principle of generalization and collective responsibility is equally obvious in the common bigotry and blame evidenced toward all Muslims, an enormous and diverse group of people, or against all residents of Afghanistan, a smaller but nonetheless diverse population. Realizing the parallel may be uncomfortable, but it is nonetheless apparent.

What may not be so apparent is that terrorists have reasons for what they do, they are not insane — once we allow for their viewpoint, born of those two beliefs which millions in America clearly share. For they inflict suffering on Americans because they, along with millions of the other people who have felt the effects of overt and covert American foreign policy, believe that Americans cause suffering. And they are correct — at least about some Americans, especially some of those in political power.

Given that terrorists attribute responsibility to all because they fail to see things individually, let us consider the reasons, the grudges, the acts of some Americans blamed on all Americans and others seen as associates. The following list may be extraneous for anyone introduced to the reality of American foreign policy, but insufficient for anyone ignorant of it. Therefore, it can at best be considered a beginning or a supplement.

Because he is the primary suspect at this moment, let us use the views of Osama bin Laden as a starting approach, supplementing as necessary. While he should not be allowed to represent the diversity of all people who call themselves Muslims, he will be representative of some commonly held views, and more importantly is very likely to have relatively close views to other Islamic terrorists. Thus, to understand what they think and why they kill, it is worth understanding him. (The following quotes are from two interviews as related by PBS’ Frontline.)

In the interview he gave in 1998, he gave no evidence of hating democracy, the assertion of many officials including George Bush Junior. In fact, Osama bin Laden said of America and the West, “If their people do not wish to be harmed inside their very own countries, they should seek to elect governments that are truly representative of them and that can protect their interests.” There is no sign that he seeks the destruction of America in itself, or the erosion of its celebrated, traditional political ideology of democracy. Rather, he gives another primary reason:

“The call to wage war against America was made because America has spear-headed the crusade against the Islamic nation, sending tens of thousands of its troops to the land of the two Holy Mosques [Arabia] over and above its meddling in its affairs and its politics, and its support of the oppressive, corrupt and tyrannical regime that is in control [the royal family of Saud].”

Notice that although this may appear at first to be only a religious argument over an offense to purely Islamic or Islamist sensibilities, the presence of foreigners near Mecca and Medina, he does not convey this alone, but marries it to anger over the support of the government. The troops’ presence is merely the crowning example (to a certain kind of devout Muslim) of interference on behalf of an oppressive rule. The troops in question were invited by the government; their presence was not popular. Osama bin Laden is himself from Saudi Arabia, and his chafing against the control of the country seems to have defined his character. It is through the brutal government of Saudi Arabia, which profits itself through centralized control of the petroleum flow, that “they rip us of our wealth and of our resources and of our oil.”

That this absolute rule and several other exploitive, despotic regimes ruling primarily Muslim populations enjoy not only the tolerance, but the official approval and assistance of the American government for reasons of securing economic and military cooperation must be considered a principle reason for resentment of America by many Muslims and others in those countries, not just terrorists, or Islamists. It is a simple fact that the government of America provides financial and military support to prop up many repressive regimes, not only in the absolute sense of repression, but in the relative sense. In these countries, Islamists with a repressive agenda often gain the legitimacy they do primarily because they are the primary resistance to a regime which America foreign policy supports. This was the reason for the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and associates in Iran; they enjoyed the support of unwitting people, including ‘moderates’ and intellectuals, who assumed that any government had to be preferable to the hated Shah, who had been an American ally and beneficiary.

For reasons of solidarity, empathy, and the religious stature of Jerusalem in Islam, the struggle among Palestinians and Israelis must also be considered a fundamental source of Muslim animosity against the American government. As Osama bin Laden put it: “For over half a century, Muslims in Palestine have been slaughtered and assaulted and robbed of their honor and their property. Their houses have been blasted, their crops destroyed.” The reason why regrettable actions of the Israeli military and vigilantes correspond to anger against American foreign policy is the favoritism which has been applied to Israel — diplomatic bias, direct financial aid and military sales: “while America blocks the entry of weapons into Islamic countries, it provides the Israelis with a continuous supply of arms allowing them thus to kill and massacre more Muslims.” To an American interviewer, he summarized, “Your position in Palestine is despicable and disgraceful.” Most Muslims would tend to agree, as would many other people around the world and in America itself. There is also that fact that the invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, in which apparently many more civilians died than perished in the World Trade Center, produced no diplomatic objection from the United States government.

There is also the continued, customary, and periodic bombing of Iraq, all these years after the defeat of Iraq and the regained political independence of Kuwait. There have also been continuous sanctions blocking the trade which ultimately determines the amount of food for the people living in Iraq, who have been dying in the many hundreds of thousands in the past decade. Since Saddam Hussein’s grip has only been strengthened during those years, we can surmise that the sanctions which caused so much suffering, and certainly did not profit his many opponents and rebellious subjects, have not punished him according to their intent, and have only profited him. There have also been violent attacks against unthreatening targets in Somalia and Sudan, and even some benign or well-wishing targets. Those are two places in which it is especially clear that there is no uniformity of opinion or purpose, so that the acts of some plainly cannot be attributed to all, and random people cannot be counted as assisting those who do present threats.

Also, an insult to honor and dignity may assert an inflammatory influence sometimes extending beyond actions in themselves. One such insult is certainly the arrogance demonstrated in portrayals and characterizations of foreign policy actions by many politicians, officials and media figures. So often, foreigners get the message that the despised acts committed under the banner of United States foreign policy are not so much carefully weighed choices which unfortunately hurt some people, but undisputable acts of a master of the world who can do anything, no matter what.

We need look no further than the name initially released for the military operation now underway: “Operation Infinite Justice.” The name was retracted by the military due to objections by some Muslims, but it should not have required a believer in any religion to recall that usually, only a god in the monotheistic, all-powerful sense is associated with “infinite justice.” The fact that this name was internally accepted and publicly announced without anyone realizing its infinite arrogance shows that for all too many Americans in power, if not underneath and outside of power, the state and the military have long since undergone deification.

Here is another example, chosen because it demonstrates arrogance which is made indisputable by a deliberate attempt to display humanity instead of arrogance, showing that the arrogance evident must be conscious, unaffected, and very real. When Madeleine Albright was interviewed in 1996 as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, half a year from being unanimously confirmed as United States Secretary of State, she responded to this question on the continuing blockade of trade with Iraq to punish Saddam Hussein:

“We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. [Estimated as of 1996.] And — and you know, is the price worth it?”

with this answer:

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

What are the many Iraqis, and Arabs, and Muslims, and anyone else who might quite sensibly feel contempt for this woman and for the Senate who confirmed her going to think? Are they necessarily going to take pains to separate her and the many individuals like her in government from the others who consider themselves Americans, support and believe in the government, and show no outrage? How many are likely to distinguish between different Americans much at all? Few Americans seem to be able to distinguish the many noble or at least uninvolved inheritors of the ancient and often profound cultures of the Middle East from a handful of terrorists, or from the corrupt, despotic rulers like Saddam Hussein that their very own rulers have supported in the past.

It is reasonable to conclude that all of these grievances, and the others which many Muslims have against American and other Western foreign policies have coalesced into a worldview for many, a conclusion that the American government is not a friend of Muslims in general. Few would take up arms to inflict suffering upon some Western citizen in return, fortunately. Nevertheless, as long as the harm provides the grudge, there will be some like Osama bin Laden. Therefore we should listen when he explains himself: “while the slogans raised by those [Western] regimes call for humanity, justice, and peace, the behavior of their governments is completely the opposite.” This implies most distinctly that terrorism of the sort that brought down the World Trade Center is fundamentally a reactionary commission of destruction and death, and that the original provocation, though not the direct personal responsibility, is destruction and death committed or assisted by those acting in an official capacity in the very government charged with defending potential victims of terrorist retribution.

Of course the derivative or retributive nature of this pattern does not justify the approach of becoming what one hates. The above list is not related here in order to excuse the terrorist killings. Rather, it is submitted in order to show two things. First, that “your own government” may get you killed, and that you should separate yourself as much as possible if only for reasons of personal safety, if not for those of decency and humanity, or for the sake of individual sovereignty. Second, to show that the terrorists are only applying in these acts the same two principles to which so many Americans and so many others around the world subscribe. Seen from this mindset, these grievances call for American dead, the deaths of any Americans — just so much as the deeds of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen justify bombing Iraqi cities and towns into bloody charred piles of rubble and corpses, or starving people living in Iraq to emaciation and death, and just so much as the fact that some Palestinians kill Israelis justifies the aimless killing of random Palestinians, and just so much as September 11th justifies attacking a country of people. It should disturb you, if you have ever endorsed anything similar, to know that regardless of religious or cultural differences, your acceptance of that equation meant that at that moment, you were thinking like the men who set those thousands of people aflame and gave you a sorrowful sick feeling on September 11th. But from this you should learn, and you should realize that almost everyone can only learn their lesson after having once subscribed to that sort of thinking, having been raised to instinctively regard the acts of “their side” favorably.

Remedies for a Deadly Mindset

Of course knowing why there is enough rage among some terrorists to kill those of us who live in America, carry American citizenship, or perhaps are just associated in their minds with America, does not in itself protect anyone from being killed. Reasonable people, intelligent people, sane people who care about life including their own must protect it. This is especially important due to the increasing danger that even a single attack might be devastating, due to the increasing ease of manufacturing or obtaining chemical, biological, nuclear or other terrible means. People on television may say, “they can’t do this to us!” But they can. They did. They can do it again. Instead of trying to lock up the world, or kill anyone who might conceivably be a threat, make sure you have not given them any reason to do it, even if a reason is not a justification. As I have said before, the best way of trying to get people not to do something is not to forcibly prevent them, but to provide for their own desire not to do so. This includes never giving them a reason.

There are two critically important remedies for insecurity through avoiding provocation, two principles which must be recognized. The first remedy is to recognize that any one person in a country cannot be responsible for the actions of all others in their country, including governmental choices which they do not assist. Therefore, an attack targeting all inhabitants, including the uninvolved and dissenters is unprovoked and hostile, not defensive. The second remedy is to recognize that revenge or other excessive force (including causing collateral damage without absolute necessity based on self-defense) provides no additional safety once a threat is neutralized by minimal, appropriate force, and that what little strategic advantage is ever gained from deterrence is typically lost by the inspiration of further resistance.

Unfortunately most Americans associate themselves quite overtly with the sorts of suffering as in the list above, by linking themselves with official actions through nationalistic sanction and participation. When a resident of America does not associate himself with the harm done in the name of the American state, when he no longer voluntarily supports terrible acts done in his name, when he yields taxes for those acts only because the money is taken without his consent, when he no longer accept the acts of one as the acts of a group, then he can say that any terrorists threatening him are his utterly unprovoked enemies, and that they are deluded. Since he wishes other men well and his actions follow his wishes, if a man who calls him enemy wishes him death and suffering, he can reasonably conclude that his enemy does so without reason, and such errant and baseless attacks must be prevented in self-defense. He can, in short, have a ‘clean’ enemy and fight a necessary fight. Few living in America should be so proud.

The terrorists have not forgiven their grievances, some of which may not be fairly called direct injuries and are instead offenses to sensibility, but some of which were truly offenses to life itself. Many others, not only Muslims, feel similarly but will never take the same action. And few in America will ever forgive the terrorists or those who assisted them for September 11th. Some will never forgive other Muslims. And so the world will continue in the thinking of the blood feud, revisiting the sins of the one on the many, with all paying the price of this thinking until thinking changes.

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

— Gandhi

Never was any man such a real, intractable, and dangerous enemy as the beliefs which make him inimical, or the causes of those beliefs.

How Tyranny Helps Terror

We should bear in mind that the aim of terrorists may not be the rather quixotic goal of bringing down a government directly through attacks, much less destroying a population. Despite simplistic theories along these lines, which suggest that terrorists are just crazy and unreasonable people who can only be dealt with using the most draconian measures, terrorism is more likely intended to motivate a change in perception. This is unlikely to be so simple as a general goal of instilling fear, which is a popular explanation. But it may be as simple as convincing citizens that the only way that they will achieve peace is to change their government, and thereby end the policies which the terrorists find so objectionable. Osama bin Laden himself has explicitly urged the American people to remove their unjust government from power and thereby achieve safety from attacks, so that is certainly part of his thinking, at least.

The aim may also be to induce the government to overextend itself in tyrannical means, justified by newfound fear and demands for security — thereby either demonstrating that reliable security cannot be provided by the government, when attacks still succeed as they unavoidably can, or convincing people that the government is oppressive and therefore illegitimate. Either way, the effect would be to produce an overthrow of a hated regime indirectly.

It should be allowed that encouragement of a draconian reaction may not be the plan, though even if none of this is the conscious calculation of terrorists, rebellion in some form may well be the eventual outcome whenever a government remains intractable. However, those who would dismiss the above strategies as unrealistically Byzantine and long-term for the invention of brutal zealots would be greatly mistaken; they should realize that no inhuman cleverness is necessary in order to see as far as the recruits to be gathered along the way, before eventual overthrow is really feasible. A tyrannical government has a way of radicalizing at least a few people; quite possibly the terrorists are counting on the radicalization of some more fellow Muslims, as a result of forthcoming oppressive anti-terrorist actions. Essentially, in that case, the terrorists have just gone recruiting with their actions on September 11th, and it appears the war hawks in the American government may satisfy the terrorists’ dearer aspirations.

Who Is Threatening the World?

The American foreign policy in the aftermath has demonstrated the character of a bully, to the extent that now one is hard-pressed to find comparable bluster amid the examples of a world history stocked with militarism and tyranny. Those who bear the official mantle due to the obeisance and great affirmation of the majority have bullied the world; they have said that any who even fail to assist their ‘war on terrorism’, not only those who assist the terrorists but any who fail to cooperate and to join in the hunt as directed, will be treated as terrorists themselves. And that amounts to a threat of war, now that war has been declared on terrorism. So now the ‘peace-loving’ American government has literally threatened to attack any nation which does not offer to join its military crusade. These heedless rulers have explicitly threatened every country in the world, which as far as we know neither Napoleon, nor Hitler, nor Stalin, and certainly none of the non-American power-drunk rulers in the world today have done. The rulers of America have made the American military into the world’s press gang.

And yet, unless the media is somehow distorting the numbers, the vast majority of American citizens apparently feel this is only good and right. They are cheering it on. They would, it seems, be shocked if they heard of any qualms around the world, any delay in rapid compliance, as though the knowledge that ‘America wields the big stick’ in the world contains within itself a self-evident implication that nothing could be wrong with that domination, and that nothing could be more natural. No doubt any country of people that evidences qualms could only be guilty of assisting terrorists directly, and therefore deserve to be crushed as an enemy in war. (It is really fascinating that even American citizens who do realize their own government oppresses them nevertheless become pawns willing to accept newer and more burdensome oppression, if only the fruits of their labor and the aim of their sacrifice will be directed at menacing those outside the imaginary lines in the dirt drawn around the American state.)

One writer (The New York Post’s Steve Dunleavy) put what should be done to those who harbor terrorists into words devoid of eloquence, but sadly, all too typically American in intent and language: “bomb them into basketball courts.” Another (National Review editor Rich Lowry) said, “If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution.” There are seemingly endless examples to be culled from the statements of officials and ex-officials, reporters, commentators, and humbler citizens at large.

These are not the words and actions of a peace-loving people, or of the constitutional republic America once was. They are the words and actions of a democracy — a bloodthirsty mob inflamed by demagogues in league with a bureaucracy of unseen dictators, all three with unbelievable arrogance and infatuated with atrocity. And most of all, these are the words and actions of an empire in all but name.

Pax Americana, Imperium Americanum, Terminus Americanus

This year, the eleventh day of September was an ending. This ending was more than the cruel, heartrending death of several thousand human beings. It seems the aftermath of the event will mark the final and inexorable death, also, of the possibility that America might in coming days be considered a republic by any realistic person. Another wartime state of emergency added to the historical sum will indelibly alter the understood relationship between power and the individual citizen, already pushed all too far towards utility and domination. This period of war will once again enshrine those personifications of power in the office of the president and others, an effect especially useful to any leader who has lacked legitimacy. The powers-that-be will no longer have to camouflage or downplay military adventure, proconsular postings of military commanders in chief, inflation of bureaucracy, erosion of liberties, or the executive authority of an emperor-president and more importantly of his imperial agencies with their often unseen hands, all of which leave the legislative contests a useful but unimportant distraction, the popular legacy of an antique political system. Advocates of the past may yet dream in their well-meaning way of the reawakening or, as some admit, the resurrection of the American republic. But, the America of Bush can no more return to the America of Washington than the Rome of Commodus could return to the Rome of Cincinnatus. They are not akin except as near relatives in time and inhabitants of the same geography.

Thus, America is gone, at least as anyone has had good reason to love her deeply and purely. What was loved will rise again in another form, a new form, not at all the American republic of old. Change is a constant. We can only make sure that change will bring an improvement. But as for the America of today, the state can only proceed along its self-immolating imperial course, vainly enforcing the Pax Americana, not the Res Publica Americana, even at the price of its own ultimate end as a political conception, as well as the suffering and death of untold numbers of people within and without its borders. America will destroy itself, because of what America now really means to those who would lose themselves, who would dissolve into a great mass under its banner. All empires must fall, just as all republics granted the fullness of time and opportunity must become empires.

The imperative now is to avoid being crushed underneath as the ruins of freedom topple, the price of blindly binding oneself to what exists now for the lingering love of what it once represented. America will perish. But something better than any empire or republic, something new and different will rise up elsewhere in a future time and place, probably before the American Empire’s collapse: an open society of free individuals, a land redolent of some sensory sweetness which, if one pauses, one will be able to detect as reminiscent of Washington’s orchards, perhaps even like the hot hay smell of the fields of Cincinnatus, borne by the summer breezes of yesteryears long past.

Look Inward and Outward

Our antidote to imperialism and our lesson from September 11th and its aftermath should not be to become isolated and turn away from the world, saying it is not our interest or concern. In fact, pursuing that course on an individual and mass basis, while government did something quite different in our name, is part of the reason for this catastrophe. If for example, Americans refuse to even notice, much less care about the deaths of Afghans, Somalis, Sudanese, Iraqis, Palestinians and people of many other descriptions who, directly or indirectly, have been made casualties by the policies, activities and monies of those in a government they ought to have disowned at minimum, then it might almost be surprising if those who cared for those dead cared very much for the American casualties on September 11th. And as callous as celebrations in Palestine or Egypt may seem on such a tragic occasion, they can at least be understood in context, and Americans of the above description are insensible to expect anything besides that careless imbecility. So many Americans have been careless with the world.

So many Americans and not only Americans care for their own neighborhood, and understand how to behave with respect to all who live within it, but blindly empower those in power to treat the neighborhood to which we all belong according to whim. The politicians and officials so many Americans obey and even revere have been going around the neighborhood of the world, killing people, harassing people, laying waste, or aiding those who do such things, out of irresponsibility, or to exert influence at a distance and pretend they are not responsible. They claim to speak for others, if not justice and freedom besides. They have been traced back to where they come from and those they claim to represent. They have done these things with most Americans ignorant, either from a careless apathy, or a naïve belief that their leaders’ versions of events must be true. Many in the world are murderously angry at what has been done, and a few have done something about it, sadly, by violently punishing people out of desperation, and still more sadly, by punishing the unculpable, which only makes them appear worse than those people in government who contribute to misery. But never let the tragedy and the hypocrisy of the terrorists’ retribution obfuscate what gave them the rage to do it, and the nature of those who rule.

Never neglect looking outward. Never become myopic and isolated from what goes on outside yourself, your locality, and the imaginary lines on the map inside which you were born. There is an imperative for all exceptional, awake and strong human beings, a Promethean converse of imperialism, the salutary activism of life instead of the interventionism which causes suffering and death.

The blind, frighteningly asleep and programmed condition that the conformity of men has displayed after the crisis is one sign among so many — and indeed, if one pays attention every relevant sign confirms — that if we do not look outward and actively discredit, overturn, and replace the beliefs, systems, and other enemy factors out there opposing the advancement of life which we as rare individuals represent, then we are doomed to be caught up in the disasters that shadow the programmed mob, if we do not become a target directly. We might like to leave others alone and live a separate, benign, well-wishing existence as so many like us have always done in the past, in anonymity, in the university, in exile, in the monastery, in the artists’ colony, or in the welcome respite of our own minds, but we cannot. Out of self-defense, if not our own natural inclination, we must succeed at changing the world for the better and awakening it, even beginning with whatever small minority we can work with for now. Otherwise, the grave result will be the world overall remaining in a twisted, painful state of programmed sleepwalking through fits of self-destruction. We are all too likely to become casualties of its fits, if we do not die along with everyone in some Armageddon. The world will become imperially dominated, or locked in a more unstable conflict, or trapped in an even darker age, or — we dare not say what — unless we change it, and alleviate the fundamental problems. The world of men has become global, and there can be no more retreats into the safety of anonymity and solitude for us. We must take responsibility to rule in a way and with a character totally opposed to the impulses to rule politically and imperially, or by any other means founded on blocking, and controlling, and dominating, and holding life back. We either win decisively at this great struggle, or we lose. Turning away from the task ensures that we lose. We must not turn away.

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Independence Day

break-free-from-the-chains-1024x682

July 4, 2001

by Phoenix

In America, the Fourth of July is supposed to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an act asserting liberty from tyranny, in particular, the freedom of the American colonies from the imperial rule of Britain. As far as this holiday is a celebration of freedom and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ which it allows, it is a worthy occasion which would demand only the most lighthearted and glad jubilation to commemorate it. But in all honesty to ourselves, there exist undeniable facts in stark contrast to that interpretation of its significance, realities apparent to all those who remain open to recognizing them, facts which tell us that the cherished meaning of the Fourth may now be little more than theoretical, leaving freedom but an American shibboleth.

What can be said of a holiday about ‘freedom’ traditionally celebrated with fireworks, in a country where fireworks are commonly banned or regulated, typically limiting legal fireworks to those eliciting only the slightest entertainment? What can be said of a holiday about ‘freedom’ popularly celebrated with outdoor picnics, in a country where, in some cities, a picnic in public is like an invitation for unwanted guests, enforcement officials whose contribution to the festivities is the now expected and standard search to find and confiscate such forbidden indulgences as alcohol, drugs, and of course, fireworks. I choose to mention just these minor examples here not just for the sake of irony, but because if such trivial pleasures and minor examples of volition are denied and controlled, the implications for the much more critical avenues of desire and choice can only be obvious. We can say: this is a country where one is often made to beg an oppressor to be allowed the pursuit of happiness, or to timidly conceal it. We can observe that it does not appear as though the signatories of the Declaration won the war. We can conclude that celebrating American political independence as though it means freedom is a sham, a pretense, a dirty lie, and thereby an insult to the principle of personal freedom, and to those who risked their lives for it in the past.

Independence is not something other than freedom from some political rule. Why, then, is this holiday commonly portrayed as the beginning of the American nation, the United States, even though that formally began later with the Constitution? For instance, American presidents, signature figureheads of the state, are now probably more associated with Independence Day than the Declaration itself, odd since the presidency began years later. The assumption is that to declare independence is part of the very same phenomenon as everything that followed, the foundation of the United States, the gradual solidification of American central statehood, the increasingly imperial nature of American political, legal, and military domination, within its borders and without. An act of liberation is thereby made into an act of propaganda.

Independence so falsely associated with freedom is a dangerous thing. Home rule and representation have proven far more burdensome and harder to bear than that old foreign rule to so many Americans who have felt their weight, and surely broader and more pervasive in their reach. And in the absence of real freedom, as if by some terrible and cynical design, nationwide celebrations pretending freedom are substituted, convincing citizens that they possess what they do not: power over their own will to express themselves in words and actions, and an openness laid out before their own enterprise.

As unpopular and uncomfortable as it may be to recognize it, the men who signed the Declaration were well-meaning but quite mistaken. No one loses their claim to freedom from control simply because they do not assert it by political representation, yet they signed in representation of their countrymen as though it had been necessary to do so. And this they had no right to do, for no one can really speak for another, no one can substitute his decision for that of another human being. Thus they laid the foundation for government, as they knew they were doing. They felt that the foundation of a new government could be accomplished which would allow for freedoms and protect them. They believed in representative government and set down the precedent for it. They should have pledged on that day to abolish it, as the fundamentally, eventually irredeemable problem that it always proves to be. Instead, in a way, they did indeed begin everything that followed, central statehood and imperial rule, and an American nation which would one day reach the ridiculous condition of having the pleasures associated with its own ‘birthday’ forbidden by the democratic ‘will of the people.’

But they were right and sensible in the spirit of what they did, and for this they deserve praise:

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Seventy-six years after that day, a pointed question was presented by Frederick Douglass in a speech which contrasted the noble spirit behind the day with an ignoble reality, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” To us, let it be an opportunity.

Whatever your country of birth or residence, celebrate a new declaration of your own independence on the Fourth of July, and every other day of your life. Celebrate your independence from right of rule by any other human being, whether you can defend it or not, whether others respect it or not. Do not confuse prosperity, and leisure, and the pride of accomplishment, and other good things which are made possible by limited freedom, with the complete achievement of that goal and its far greater potential rewards. Celebrate your defiance of the principle of political rule over your life with your assertion, your insistence, of your own absolute independence. Promise that until this is respected, you will not be satisfied with anything else until you are allowed to live free. Vow that you will not be fooled when you are told that you are already free, that you live in a free country, that you are free because you can vote, that freedom is a flag, that freedom is patriotism, that freedom is nationalism, that freedom is the place where you were born. Resolve that your own pursuit of happiness in freedom will never be yielded.

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.”

— Frederick Douglass

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Fighting Future War

 

 

Part One: Know Your Enemy
Part Two: The Effects of War
Part Three: Fighting Future War

August 15, 2003/June 2, 2006

by Phoenix

 

Part One

Know Your Enemy

 

The meaning of this series Fighting Future War is dual:

1. Fighting Against War for the Future

— how war can be ended in the future for the sake of the future, but also, if wars must be fought in the meantime,

2. Fighting in Future Wars

— how wars might be fought according to less detrimental methods and motivations, and how evolution in that direction might also contribute to ending war.

How will war be fought in the future? Will revolutionary, advanced technologies or still more profound influences define its character? What will be the end effects of future war, and for what ends?

In order to fight against future war, we must understand the fighting of future war. This requires contemplating the real history of warfare in order to predict its possible futures. Factoring the interaction of current or hitherto unapplied invention and ingenuity must figure in our analysis. But also necessary is an appreciation for how war relates to seemingly tangential social and cultural ideas, not only as these ideas have been influential, but as they might be in the future. The reasons people fight, and how they fight, are closely linked in the domain of ideas — beliefs and assumptions.

“The written history of the world is largely a history of warfare, because the states within which we live came into existence largely through conquest, civil strife or struggles for independence. The great statesmen of history, moreover, have generally been men of violence for, if not warriors themselves, though many were, they understood the use of violence and did not shrink to use it for their ends.”

— John Keegan, A History of Warfare

An understanding of war and the pursuit of military studies is not encouraged for those outside of the centralized military establishment and its supporters within political, media, and academic institutions, for predictable reasons. War has become the business of the state, of politicians, of university historians and political scientists, and a business of some magnitude for select industries. For the opponents of war, war itself has chiefly been an object of shallow excoriation but not penetrating examination, as though effectively engaging the subject would imply approval. And though depictions of war may be popularly celebrated in media and find cultural expression, by most people war is studied little and understood less.

But the price for a failure to understand every aspect of war as it has actually happened, to learn from plain history, and to predict the possible futures of war must be considered catastrophic. If those in the war establishment do not in fact hold the keys to understanding war fully and objectively without bias (or rather with the subjective ‘bias’ of a life-advancing perspective), nor even have the motivation to scrutinize warfare deeply (and why would they?), then it becomes patently unlikely that war will chance to be improved in terms of the interests of life exclusively from within the war establishment, and even more unlikely that war should ever be rendered obsolete. The bias inherent is very much against the use (or dissolution) of warfare for beneficial, life-interested ends, and in favor of the use of life for the ends of war; thus are shortsighted interests served by war, to the disservice of life itself.

Thus, it becomes incumbent upon the outsiders to that war-system and those war-interests to take up the gauntlet, to become educated concerning warfare in the past, present, and future according to a new criterion. It falls to everyone with an interest in living and an interest in survival — not merely to those who study war because warfare appeals to them on some level, nor to opponents of war who believe their hatred for fearsome war means they need not study it, but to everyone who is born on earth and wishes to live there — to become familiar with war at least from afar, to acquire some useful knowledge of warfare, to face war in all its many facets frankly and honestly without illusion or romanticism, and thereby to decentralize the effective cartel of knowledge in the hands of those who employ war for political, factional, and manipulative goals. There can be no reward for ignorance and apathy, only terrible penalties.

 

Part Two

The Effects of War

 

Where can anyone begin to detail the consequences of war? Prominent or insurmountable losses compile and historians duly record them. But the “little” tragedies of which personal hells are made, these may so easily be forgotten. Even worse, they may never be fully known, except perhaps by a very few.

The impact of war may be terrible. Many may suffer immediate pain, horror, destruction and death. But the legacy of war may just as easily be absences: things which never were, or things which were lost to those who go on afterwards. A friend’s hand, dead. A contribution never made. A composed state of mind never regained. These “little” things are tremendous things to some human world called a person, yet they are so difficult to really know.

In order to understand war, we must try to appreciate the real effects of war in scales both sweeping and individual — for the sweeping developments come down to the individual, where they are really felt. Only this way can we understand war as humans suffer it, not as it is supposed to happen. We must not balk at this basic education demanded by the mission of fighting future war simply because war disgusts, or because of any other disincentive.

What is Seen, and What is Unseen in the Effects of War

“Triple shit! You are a stark raving mad bastard” – Pierre-Auguste Renoir to his friend Frédéric Bazille at Bazille’s signing up to fight in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Bazille perished in his first battle in 1870, a skirmish recorded as militarily insignificant. During his brief lifetime of 29 years he joined his companions Renoir and Monet in creating the impressionist revolution in painting, but Bazille remains comparatively unappreciated among the public today, his further contributions lost to early death. An incidental example of the incalculable unseen losses of war, this incident shows us what Bastiat noted in economics: focusing only on what we see, we fail to appreciate what is unseen.

In the same conflict, the single most influential dissident philosopher living in the modern era, Friedrich Nietzsche, quite possibly contracted syphilis while serving as a medical orderly. In any case his health rapidly became nearly unbearable after the war, intimately affecting his ideas and inability to write, prematurely terminating his philosophical career after the catatonic madness he suffered from 1889 at the age of 44 until he died in 1900. Part of Nietzsche’s self-therapy and philosophy involved graciousness and gratitude even for adversity he endured, although we might wish he had been less forgiving toward the suffering resulting from the phenomenon of war. [1]

Some of the classifications of the terrible effects of war thus summarized below will be further investigated in later parts of this series, along with some of their causes, cofactors, symptoms and remedies:

Deaths and Casualties
Psychological Symptoms
Centralization and Enslavement
Economic Costs
Legacy Effects
Ultimate Consequences: Dystopia by War
Advantageous Effects?

Also see: Selected Sources, Additional Reading and Inspirations below

 

Deaths and Casualties

If the compound works of associates make economic markets and other cultural collaborations, the compound works of allies against adversaries differentiate warfare. War is a cooperative activity by definition — but unlike economics, also inherently a most uncooperative activity, implicit with hostility. “Warfare” certainly implies killing to us, and that is the typical consequence of wars we know. But not all killing comes from war; war is not just equivalent to killing, and need not necessarily entail it. What then makes the difference?

The foremost theorist of modern war, Carl von Clausewitz, claimed that war is an extension of politics by other means, the contest of political will of one group versus that of another, especially the nation-states with which he was concerned. This is certainly the assumption made by those people who prepare, support and engage in war for governments. But Clausewitz was wrong, or at least myopic and limited in his view. In kind and character the activity of war, like any other social activity, expresses cultural beliefs and values shared by a group, only one subset of which produces organized, politicized wars, much less conflict of the Clausewitzian sort, the large state wars mobilizing large numbers for large causes. [2]

Clausewitzian or not, war as we moderns usually know the word means the conflict of numbers, not individuals alone or few. And war as we know it may extend toward maximum investment and commitment, the “total war” of Clausewitzian theory. War with that tendency implies killing, very much killing as a matter of course, something which will hardly change, despite any discussion of non-lethal means in recent years, until the social construction of war itself changes and war means something else with different effects.

“A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
– attributed to Josef Stalin

In a very real sense, modern war is killing by the numbers, the death of statistics. Its immediacy is in danger of being lost. To go further, its immediacy typically does get lost to many people in the modern era. Individuality gets swallowed up in mass armies and “greater” causes. Distance from the killing aspect of modern war, desired or not, is often achieved in practice by the scattered scale of dispersed battles, by technology that enables long-distance, impersonal strikes seeing no faces and no pain, and by the mass nature of wartime psychology and press.

From media portrayals of at least very recent war in the Western mode, or more particularly the American mode (i.e. political, centralized, bureaucratic, regimented, and with enormous tax expenditure per soldier on technological enhancement), most reading this will have perceived a common, insidious misapprehension: that modern war within the brief present has now become relatively safe and successful, and only war in the past (before about 1990, which seems to be as far as some memories reach) really got out of control and threatened unfathomable danger. Since the end of the menacing “cold war,” a collection of quite “hot” proxy wars recognizable in retrospect as WWIII collectively — and since the beginning of a new series of pettier conflicts, some of which, such as the two wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, have been fought to contribute to the hegemony of the US government — American war-fighting has supposedly acquired a static and secure mastery over the dangerous fates of war. On this flimsy ephemeral basis do the many naïve (or cynical) advocates of war-fighting comparatively safe behind the front lines now presume war to have been sanitized and improved. They feel modern war is no longer so dangerous — or at least is well on its way to efficient and clean modernization, and think it worth the risk as long as it continues toward further technological efficiency (forgetting how very much pursuing this way of thinking contributed to the unprecedentedly efficient slaughter of Western wars from the 19th through 20th centuries), or as long as war gets employed for ends popularly regarded as needed or humanitarian (forgetting how many aggressive or finally disastrous wars got popular support, the moral call to arms of an Armageddon, or a humanitarian cast). They advocate war as a policy tool, blindly dooming future people to uncharted horrors like the brilliant but naïve Clausewitz did writing before the World Wars, or promote war as an instrument of progress, civilization, order, and even peace, like the bizarre Orwellian doublethinking contradiction of those who would give themselves to state control in order to protect civil liberties. Such attitudes show little understanding of war, as much as this phenomenon of somewhat disparate attitudes and circumstances has some essence we can grasp.

We can find the most basic and most indicative characteristic of war, past and future, in what we may expect from it aside from rare and selective respites. If war is necessarily anything in itself, it is the chance of death, casualty, and destruction.

Of course, the chances of a member of any one group of people involved in a war suffering a destructive effect vary from one time and place to another, vary from one war to another, and vary between groups, such as a Russian soldier in Stalingrad (Volgograd) 1942–43 who might have predicted an imminent death from blast or bullet hit (from either side), compared to a civilian in Chicago or New York in 2003, who does not reasonably expect to die from a terrorist bomb. Of course all these chances always amount to speculation, and war often surprises; until September 11, 2001, few civilians in America ever imagined estimating any slight chance. However unpredictable the effects of war, though, several facts seem nearly certain.

Overall, soldiers can expect to die in war, often painfully. Soldiers continue to get wounded painfully and grotesquely also (as usual in history, more frequently than they die), for although battlefield medicine has improved with technological advancement, so has the technology inflicting casualties continued to provide them in unfamiliar forms, such as radiation poisoning from uranium rounds or chemical inhalation, as well as updated forms of more traditional blast, shrapnel, and bullet wounds. The very recent, (historically) low deaths and casualties among American soldiers (in the hundreds or low thousands) should not suggest an enduring trend compared to previous deaths and casualties. Furthermore, other soldiers still continue to die and get wounds in more traditional larger numbers when facing American soldiers, putting the lie to the claim that war-fighting has been cleaned up (despite the selective attention of chauvinists). For example, somewhere between several thousand and 150,000 Iraqi soldiers died in the 1990–1991 Gulf War (neither side had a compelling interest to make or publicize an accurate count). And, much greater numbers of soldiers died fighting in earlier modern era wars including Americans (such as 47,000 US and 850,000 Vietcong soldiers in the Vietnam War) even though these wars were also fought with a similar strategy of applying expensive military technology to combat, and with other major elements of the American martial philosophy rather similar to very recent practice (in terms of organization, bureaucracy, politicization, doctrine, tradition, etc.) all told, compared to the practices of other modern militaries. Thus it seems unlikely that anything remarkable or fundamental has happened to curtail attrition, besides a circumstantial combination of unusually restricted theaters of fighting (allowing high concentration of applied force to space and limiting collateral exposure), or just a temporary lull in major conflicts as sometimes happens in history like 1871–1914 in Europe, with one of the momentary hegemonic power disparities so common in history, and just as commonly overestimated as permanent until invariably redressed by competitors. Such a “military revolution” as this, based on industrial and technological factors in this case, creates an unreliable asymmetry temporarily sufficient to limit the duration of each shooting phase of conflicts even as attrition remains high during them, and even as lower intensity conflict may drag on without limitation. Once matched to the practically inevitable upstarts balancing or tipping the scales, any sharp but brief and supposedly surgical method of war once touted as superior against hegemonic inferiors will finally reveal itself in mutual exchanges as gouging, prolonged, and bloodletting.

Overall, civilians should expect danger from war, and any clear, permanent separation between dangerous combat zones and safe civilian homes is a historical anomaly in modern era warfare. Between 1900 and 1990, 62 million civilians versus 43 million soldiers died in war, including 34 million civilians in World War II, and since 1990, 75–90 percent of deaths in war have been civilians. [3] In combination with other factors, such as democratic involvement (and perceived civilian complicity) in supporting warfare since the American and French Revolutions, and genocidal war aims, the technologies of long-range bombing (and to a lesser extent long-range artillery) have particularly ensured, and proven as early as the Second World War, that civilians can be targeted efficiently: 40,000 dead in Hamburg in one night from UK bombs in the first (and only unintentional) firebombing of the Second World War, 135,000 dead in cultural center Dresden in 2 days, 17,800 people dead in Pforzheim within 22 minutes; 100,000 dead in one night in Tokyo from US bombs (under Curtis LeMay’s strategy following the “area bombing” tactic of Arthur “Bomber” Harris from Britain), more than 250,000 in Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kawasaki, and Kobe (fictionalized in the film Grave of the Fireflies) from March–May 1945; 800,000 dead in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the battle for the city. But all this efficiency would have paled in comparison to mass exchanges of hydrogen fusion bombs (or even just atomic fission bombs) via bombers or missiles which could strike anywhere on earth, which seemed quite possible or even likely for decades during the twentieth century, and actually still remain completely possible in the future.

Overall, people can expect that many, perhaps very many people under some ruling flag, living in some country, will die in wars from attack, disease, malnutrition, and that much will be destroyed. Although relatively few American soldiers have died in recent interconnected Middle East wars from 1990 up through 2003, the amount of destruction has not been so unusually low, nor have total deaths and casualties during or resulting from conflict. The technology which has mostly protected some soldiers defensively has devastated others offensively, following the aged tradition of very asymmetric war as an exercise in massacre for as long as fighting endures. Reaching the minimum for most modern era conflicts, those suffering violent effects definitely number in the hundreds of thousands minimally and perhaps millions maximally (including uncertain tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands in 1990–91 Gulf War, perhaps over 1,000,000 Iraqis (UN) including more than 500,000 children (UNICEF) during the interwar blockade and bombings of Iraq, 2819 killed during the NY World Trade Center attack, up to several debatable thousands of civilians in 2001–02 Afghanistan bombing and thousands more from war repercussions, and uncertain several thousands of deaths since the invasion of 2003). The total number of lives displaced or disrupted certainly number in the many millions, as is typical in the modern era even for a regional war.

Perhaps above all other effects of war upon living things, war shows itself as the potential apotheosis of mass death. (In this characterization of war I include the mass conflict of genocide — at its most efficient simply the most asymmetric war, the war of least resistance.) In war, death may become fully impersonal, fully dehumanized. Soldiers are taught to kill and to accept death without the usual compunctions and shocks, in the “ideal” case with factory efficiency, even if they must still face its realities personally. In modern war especially, even the non-combatants supporting soldiers are also trained to accept death with similar sang-froid, with usual success unless they need reckon with death’s consequences in person. War by a physical measurement is the name for the organized social practice reducing human beings to material, to meat that we intend to be carved, disintegrated, exploded, crushed, starved, decapitated, or otherwise killed, maimed or wounded, often in large numbers, by the agents of violence and with the blessing of indirect supporters.

But just as a materialistic reduction of humankind to mere killable flesh or killing beast and human possessions to just breakable objects would distort with its brutal incompleteness, so is the above reduction of war to physical violence quite insufficient to encompass it. War is far more complex than functional force, as a near-universal activity of the planet’s most complex organism, the one with the most developed culture, the one with language, ideas, and individuality within the species. How otherwise could human beings teach each other to accept the brutal failures in materialistic terms we call “wars,” or “police actions,” or “revolutions,” or “operations,” or other names without immediacy? To kill and destroy mutually should be madness in any material sense; to risk entire, encompassing elimination of all human beings could only be more mad and could find support in no sufficient material gain, and yet many human beings have shown willingness to risk even that given the opportunity. All of which points to an essential ideological, imaginary, even spiritual aspect of war in consciousness, factors of which make the unimaginable, imaginable — and not only that but persuasive, promising, alluring. Human beings as animals who believe make war; other simpler animals simply kill, but not perversely.

golathas

Yet the reality of war as abattoir, factory (dis)assembly line, meat grinder, “killing fields,” whirlwind of destruction, mass murder, or any other name for the practice which has for example necessitated the “logical” pre-production of coffins, body bags, and artificial limbs in vast quantities — that reality, and not the reality of belief that motivates it, is the one that eliminates priceless and profound people and things. War is not only terrible but worst from the perspective of life because it is so often arbitrary in what it strikes down and ruins. The valuable people who die or suffer, and the valuable things they do or might do which get stunted, perish, or vanish in war might often have no escape, and exemplify no particular traits to signify that they above others should be unlucky. War is capricious. On that basis, if life of a type or an individual evolves to be one thing over another for a reason, war violates whatever selective principles naturally govern that life, those processes of valuation that give life the possibility of advancement [4]; war violates natural life itself. It violates life in a way that nothing else does, both the lives of those who do not engineer war and do not intend to risk its repercussions, and the lives of those that do, with random selection otherwise found only in the rare cataclysms of nature (which lacks engineers, and thus lacks malignance). In war, human beings may industriously engineer the destruction, ruination, or hindrance of any and all lives, disregarding deserving exceptions and the choices of selection, imposing on all different and various individualities a uniform death, or stagnant misery. [5]

For the indecency toward life of the violent effects of war, for death and casualties alone, all those who love life and know it not merely as biology or happenstance but as advancement, fulfillment, or at least the promise of either, cannot but condemn war if they understand it. So, attitudes toward war might supply an obvious bellwether of the awareness and maturity of a life-interest in any given heart.

 

Psychological Symptoms

Mental anguish during and after warfare should not be underestimated compared to more visible wounds inflicted on other parts of the body which bleed. The invisible wounds to the psyche may actually feel more acute (and are certainly more common), whether resulting from combat itself, living in or near a combat zone, personal connection to a soldier, or simply exposure to war from afar as the member of a warring population, including intake of propaganda and ideology.

The civilian victims of war may suffer the greatest psychological harm, for they have not been prepared by the expectation of military training to manage the stress, shock, and fright of violence and loss as soldiers have. Even if collateral casualties among civilians are few, significant wars universally scare many more people into fleeing from danger if soldiers do not deliberately force them away (as in “ethnic cleansing”); wars typically create up to vast populations of displaced refugees who may live dangerous and desperate lives with uncertain futures. Children in refugee camps often resort to prostitution, recruitment as a child soldier or other risky means of surviving. Many local women and even large regional populations of many millions (such as German women in Eastern Europe in 1945) endure systematic rapes. Commonly, conquering soldiers use rape and other forms of torture as means to punish noncombatants identified as enemies now at their mercy. All such hardships must be endured by the body and mind as one.

And prepared for battle or not, the deep neural pressure to survive put on soldiers by their own chemical instincts when triggered by circumstances typically exceeds health with its repetition, constancy, and force. Adrenaline which promotes survival in the short term fatigues and wears dangerously on people in the long term, as soldiers find. They usually must remain watchful if not on-edge for long periods of time, sometimes otherwise inactive and therefore without distraction. Furthermore soldiers in many wars encounter extreme stimuli on a fairly regular basis: shocking sights of bleeding and maimed companions, civilians, and adversaries, concussions, screams and other unnerving loud sounds, the oddities of human behavior displayed by those under stress around them, the extreme measures of weathering harsh environments with sometimes insufficient equipment or supplies, and finally the sometimes-exhausting exertions of marching, climbing, swimming, hauling, crawling, and running — not to mention withstanding wound trauma, including some spectacular insults to the human body.

Also, soldiers in combat are required to kill without hesitation, even when their lives are not in immediate danger, according to their orders. Human beings typically have a potent aversion to this which only “natural killers” do not seem to have (2% of those who become soldiers, responsible for up to 50% of kills in war because they can kill without difficulty if they wish [6]) and which certain measures are meant to overcome in more typical killing-averse soldiers: their repetitive training, separation from the abstracted depersonalized enemy, and formation into peer firing groups with mutual motivation to kill. Nonetheless, overcoming a certain degree of innate programming toward cooperation with other humans and natural revulsion toward killing them, and reconciling conscious belief uncomfortable with the self-image of “killer” with competing subconscious awareness of actually killing, likely imposes a cost in cognitive dissonance.

Unsurprisingly, the stress of combat commonly produces psychotropic if not psychopathic effects. Psychiatric casualties have been more common in all major modern conflicts than physical injuries. (A modern military no longer court-martials or executes such “shell-shocked” soldiers for cowardice, nor excuses them, but “treats” these psychosomatic rebellions against fighting with encouragement to return to fighting as soon as possible.) Since WWII the US military has had information that it only takes 60 days of continuous combat for 98 percent of survivors to become psychiatric casualties, and the remaining two percent will already have shown aggressive psychopathic characteristics before combat. [7] In other words, war makes everyone crazy who isn’t already nuts. Maybe we should just be surprised that it takes as long as 60 days for the insanity of combat to finish the job. Which is certainly a testament to personal resilience, biological resistance to shocks, and human adaptive ability, but in part also a credit to the military training designed to reprogram human neural systems, so that those systems can stand to fight and kill each other. Of course some soldiers will “go mental” or “crack up” much sooner (maybe even in their first battle), becoming ineffectual and sensitive or reckless and uncontrollably violent (mutilating corpses, torturing prisoners, raping civilians, executing indiscriminately), disregarding their own health and the well-being of comrades and non-combatants, experiencing a variety of severe symptoms of impending mental collapse including misanthropy, hallucination, hysteria and nervous bodily (mal)functions.

There has long been a cliché, popular with propagandists, of the young soldier hardened and disciplined by war and “made into a man” — that is, improved psychologically by the pressures of war, forged in that so-called “crucible of men.” Certainly it would be impossible to prove this never happens in some sense, and probably untrue. Yet we ought to note the rarity of this reaction to combat stimuli. Pressures so intense and traumatic experiences so acute might conceivably focus the occasional soldier’s mind (beyond the usual brief sharpness of fight-or-flight chemicals) and increase his mental strength over time, yet those many individuals disinclined by personality to benefit from war will more likely get crushed by the same pressures — random, unreasonable, and relentless as they often are, and not designed to aid, ennoble or strengthen as are the pressures of a difficult school, for example.

For the surviving veterans of wars to suffer severe psychological symptoms after their exposure to trauma may not comprise a universal pattern, but certainly the syndrome is not uncommon. Frequently soldiers endure more psychologically after war than during it, even aside from coping with any enduring physical damage, such as a missing hand or leg, profuse scarring or disfigurement, or faulty wounded internal organs. Many of them relive the war, through nights of little sleep and occasional flashbacks fired by the slightest trigger of remembrance, until the day of their death.

Whether or not a soldier dies in war or comes back maimed psychologically or physically, any suffering introduced into the soldier’s life undoubtedly introduces psychological repercussions to the lives of close family members and friends. If a soldier develops post-traumatic stress disorder his family undergoes this also, but even merely absence, worry during absence, and other sources of military family instability present a cross to bear often leading to behavioral problems in children and other friction at home, as well as depression and abuse. Soldiers also come back with manufactured aggression which may be difficult to control. Military families experience double the incidents of domestic violence as comparable civilian families, and apparently US military personnel currently kill a close relative at a rate of one per week. [8]

No doubt some veterans and fans of war would object to such frank diagnoses. But an appetite for war’s violence among soldiers or civilians does not by itself indicate that its psychological effects on them are salutary any more than a heroin user can appraise that drug without bias. War appears to become addictive. Soldiers can experience, expect, and crave a documented “combat high” from adrenaline, or “killing high” once they overcome their aversion to killing. More commonly civilians acquire an attachment to consuming media depicting war, as though they themselves fight by proxy.

Warfare inflicts another kind of psychological impact more subtle and less obvious than psychological trauma and suffering among soldiers and their personal associates, but perhaps farther-reaching: ideological programming, and the psyche associated with war among both combatants and non-combatants. Adopting from wartime some altered models of interpretation which subtly change the course of habitual thought may inculcate in people entirely more dangerous social consciousnesses, while absorbing different memes such as militant terms and catch phrases may more noticeably alter the expressions of thought following a war.

For example, what veterans “learn” sometimes amounts to the habituation of following authority unquestioningly and assuming the truth and rectitude of official information or authoritative opinion, habits physically reinforced during military service by physiological practices such as drills, and reflexes of noting rank, like saluting.

Hand-in-hand with this unearned trust and obeisance, another habituation involves thinking according to group generalization, a collectivist error encouraged by the selective information given by any leadership which demands fear, hatred, or at minimum an attitude of separation and otherness toward some group conceptually collectivized as an “enemy power.” Such a pattern of thinking only gets reinforced by the emotion of actually fighting according to the formula: on the side of “us” against “the enemy” — as the basic political assumption goes. Certainly long before modern times, a politician could expect the mass of any properly-coached wartime population to respond to any suitably-delivered speech calling them to war with ecstatic emotional excitement and even frenzy, and to any contradictory (“enemy”) claims with revulsion, anger, or bitter skepticism. For the typical antediluvian instincts of identity-preservation and identity-conflict await imprinting, and crave whatever identity common ideology supplies.

Linked to that, yet another psychological habit of war manifesting in ideology becomes evident in the need for both veterans and the group which packed them off to war to justify even the most unjustifiable policies, and continue to make outrageous claims in favor of them, simply to avoid facing any idea of war as a sacrifice made for nothing or for insufficient reasons. Not only does this phenomenon of sacrifice as its own excuse produce absurdly ingenious mythmaking and self-deceit to perpetuate terrible wars such as WWI, but after wars it buoys political movements and ideologies for years or even ages to come, including nationalist allegiances, religious beliefs, and a host of even more peculiar patterns of thinking which would have been philosophically overthrown otherwise, but receive an unmatched social buttress by virtue of the very suffering that was endured in their name. Certainly this perverse effect of war has rarely escaped notice among warlike political factions over the past thousands of years of governmental society. Thus cynical revolutionaries think they must fight a somewhat bloody revolution or risk a rapid counterrevolution against their apparently superficial impact. Thus warmongers such as imperial ideologues and colonial mercantilists would often seize upon a tragic incident (even a fabricated tragedy such as the battleship Maine disaster) to promote as sufficient justification for war quite aside from any wiser consideration or scrutiny of motive, as they still do today. Thus in peace politicians invariably invoke the sacrifices of past wars out of context, and in war call for new sacrifices — even sometimes extensively propagandizing rather than understating the unpleasantness of new sacrifices to reap their impact. (One of the best examples of such advertisement was Joseph Goebbelsrepresentation to Germans of the catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad. Uncomfortably, another is present-day propaganda on yielding civil liberties and taxed wealth in the USUK coalition for the sake of “the war on terrorism” — promotion which proudly announces inconvenient and intrusive measures like long waits for expensive screenings and searches, or informant networks like TIPS (an overreach), under the auspices of shady bureaucracies like the “Information Awareness Office” and “The Department of Homeland Security,” terminology patently reminiscent of Goebbels in history and Orwell in fiction.)

Having been received from returning soldiers these sorts of habits extend influence deeper among cultural groups. Also, such programming reaches directly among civilian association using the means of media, in a multitude of subtle and blatant forms, only occasionally identified as “propaganda.”

“Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love
of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”
– Samuel Johnson, 1758

 

Centralization and Enslavement

“War is the health of the state”
Randolph Bourne

Bourne’s meaning is clear enough and true enough. But put more aptly: war is a sickness of freedom, a tumor grown of vitality, a virus infecting independent thought, a swelling of subjugation. It is so rarely conducive to health and welfare in any human sense, it is better never to confuse the social transformation it follows and affects with anything salutary, even rhetorically — lest people further confuse themselves and their welfare with group identity and the welfare of central institutions.

Not only does war justify encroaching centralization — the consolidation of power and hardening acceptance toward its abuses among a warring population (as some have noted is typical in modern times) — but historically it has also typically meant enslavement of a conquered population. Between the time of outright and shameless subjugation of the helots by the Spartans in ancient Greece, and the installation of “legitimate” pliable client governments in a conquered nation today, conquerors have imposed various and countless gradations of adulterated colonialism, forged of chains somewhere between brazen and invisible, in systems advertised or at least acknowledged, but justified by mollifying those exploited or captive conquered people with various techniques.

Centralization made possible in war far outstrips any other time for the “victors” and the vanquished, both of whom must yield to a heavier permanent yoke by the war’s end or at the very least for the duration of its influence. During perceived crisis conditions the powerful may successfully impose conditions of subjugation and awful hardship for the sake of war, and the many willfully agree and shoulder to the burden, help the government to suppress the disagreeing exceptions, ask for more control for the sake of security, or even domination for the sake of freedom as long as this comes from their “own” rulers.

systematic

Among people who enjoy any substantial freedoms and the independence of responsibilities not subsumed by the state, usually much of the rapid centralization under any war and excused for the sake of war becomes a lasting legacy of the conflict. Even if nobody wishes to realize it once many have sacrificed for “victory,” after a war a viewer outside of either side might observe that most on both sides lost what they were fighting for, while a few on both sides profited in petty convenient schemes of power and profiteering. Whether in the heady days of fighting or through years of peace long after the clashes of combat, wars mostly offer only the demands of voracious Pyrrhic victory surfeited by injured freedoms, if not fed on a glut of more grotesque harm.

 

Economic Costs

“War is a racket” as General Smedley Butler admitted, for those interests termed “the military-industrial complex” in the modern era by Eisenhower — but always present in the history of governments as some collaboration between the centralized, socialized monopoly of force and the economic activity intimately fused to military activities, supporting war or influencing war. Configurations have varied. Some have been blatant, like Napoleon’s family profiteering off supplying Napoleon’s army. Most in the past several centuries have been a bit more subtle and less monolithic, like “private” mercantilist concerns installed as a monopoly by a trade war and defended by a government’s colonial troops, or subtler, like an unacknowledged practice of lobbying and favoritism in awarding military contracts. Governments always appropriate wealth for military expenditure and deploy military assets for economic reasons; such military-economic arrangements exist to divvy it all up while everyone playing the game tries to maximize their own rewards from arming for war, warring, and dividing spoils, turf, and spheres of influence afterwards.

But for everyone else excluded from those rackets, the conduct of modern warfare is phenomenally expensive to fund and economically devastating to suffer. War impoverishes and destroys wealth, consistently and without par among any other endeavor in human history.

Only the confusion over this reality is new to the naïve democratic age. In every other, it was well known that war is an occasion for exploitation and theft for the select gang of victors, through the establishment of military colonies among the vanquished, by outright pillage or piracy, by direct annexation of new subjects to tax, by extortion, or by acquiring valuable resources. The question was simply whether one would be included or excluded from profit — and if excluded, whether made victim of plunder or victimized by payment. To the realists of the past, profiting from war was generally favored, yielding profit disfavored, although there were certainly occasions of other interests superceding economic ones — by which factors, such as fealty and faith, rulers would eke the finances of war from among their own subjects. But mainly only in the democratic age has the great confusion taken hold, the myth of a whole people profiting from war. And the economically baseless modern mythology of prosperous war that ignores the reality of “guns versus butter” (a synecdoche representing the diversion of peaceful industry and wealth from commerce to military applications) still fuzzes the thinking of a great many and convinces them that such diversions somehow also enrich the peaceful sphere from which they were taken. With such illogic, it is still said that the rapid socialization and appropriation of large portions of productivity in America at the end of the Great Depression in order to produce munitions and supplies for World War II somehow fixed the country’s economic woes at large.

Financial motivations may not provide the real origins of a conflict, although it may be tempting to search for a more understandable and traceable explanation than any found in the dark thicket of vagarious psychology and beliefs. But such incentives do always attend war parasitically, even if they do not instigate.

 

Legacy Effects

In the above areas of ramification we should always look beyond immediate effects to the enduring. Many of the most important, maybe the most eventually devastating implications of a conflict are much less obvious than the explosive events themselves, becoming most noticeable (but barely recognizable) only years or many decades, perhaps even centuries later.

If a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a million tragedies. War has encompassed maybe a billion of those tragedies since human civilization began, and such personally explosive impacts bury shrapnel later felt as countless other delayed disasters — sorrows, fears, absent descendents of absent generations, lost geniuses, lost accomplishments, traumatized families, epidemics, desperations, displacements, destructions, insecurities, uprisings, panics, devastations, centralizations, reigns of terror, regimes of domination — uncountable unmeasured repercussions from long-silent guns.

Conflicts sow the seeds of new conflicts. The ancient pioneer of history Herodotus realized this, and perhaps fancifully, traced the Persian invasion of the classical Greek poleis through past slights and retributions at least as far back as the Trojan War several centuries before. But the twentieth century includes many gritty examples. Most recently, vengeful terrorism against targets in America, bewildering out of context, can be linked in part to frustrated anger, and that anger linked to retribution for giving Israel American weapons used to attack and corral Palestinians, for uncovered coups, plots and machinations by the US CIA (e.g. the evidence of CIA torture training for the Shah’s secret police which so incensed Iranians during his overthrow), for the aiding of local dictators once including Saddam Hussein, and for other occasions of imperialist interference by the government “representing” those who would suffer terrorist repercussions. Less controversially, historians now often blame the vindictive settlement of the First World War for the Second, and smaller conflicts on the makeshift reformation imposed on the defeated of Europe, such as still erupt in ex-Yugoslavia. But how many Europeans in 1914 recognized beforehand that fighting a war might imply fighting war after war, imposing death upon descendents? How many fathom the repetition of retribution today, when so many still believe they can solve problems with wars?

From winning wars by destroying enemies comes the high price of instability. The mess and disorder among conquered people and destroyed places and traumatized culture becomes a burden. In following years, to guard, to reconstruct, or to exploit all require enormous costs and enormous efforts, changing the character of not only the defeated but the defeating. To become the sort of people who can colonize other people and make them subservient colonial subjects, for example, means becoming just as subservient to exploitation, and differently but maybe more spoiled by the arrangement. Many conquerors have also found that destroying a thousand enemies creates ten thousand more. Those called terrorists and insurgents by governments today have often been the scattered fragments of past armies, ready to adopt some and any dangerous purpose if they do not already have the aim of revenge.

Not all leftover manufactured warriors that can become dangerous to themselves and others and affect others’ thinking by their influence have come from the ranks of those defeated, however. Those eager to create men who kill from boys who do not have often found that, returning from war, these men long accustomed to war cannot unmake themselves for peaceful life. Soldiers can cause much trouble in private life and sometimes public too. The reins of very many governments have been stolen by professional soldiers, like the mighty Mameluke cavalry in Egypt, or more subtly in modern times, like the election or appointment of popular generals to high office who still think militarily and favor military interests, as in Israel.

In terms of war’s effects, the ideals for which a side fights may generally be considered less important than how they fight, not to mention that the manner of fighting may prove the hollowness or soundness of lofty ideals. For instance, the Allies in WWII employed the most brutal offensive methods used in that already brutal war in order to win it. The method of fighting says more than slogans, or exalted statements of principle. But the important exception to this is long-term ideological legacy, in which ideals get the stamp of victory — the effect known by the cliché: the victor writes the history books. If philosophical assumptions and ideas get affirmed and underlined by war, regardless of whether those fighting for them applied them consistently or whether they meant more advertisement and lip service at the time, they may proceed over the many years afterward to become either a foundational institution of some substance, or an institution of lip service in their name. In any case ideals often become significant in the age following the war which promoted them. Sometimes this effect turns out fairly advantageously and sometimes not, but the necessary thing to realize is that the effect is almost haphazard; to most people the victorious position of an ideal in past conflict means much more than judging the ramifications of believing in it and applying it, as though military victory itself proved the validity of the victor’s ideals, when in fact victory may have come from a combination of innumerable factors. After all, the list of history’s righteously successful conquerors is full of the likes of Genghis Khan, a military moralist in his own way, who in his case fought for the universal superiority of steppe-dwelling life and the genocide of resisters to this new order. But despite the senselessness of this standard for measuring ideas, due to the power of a war’s ideological legacy, the religious zealots who win a war may convert millions who would otherwise resist, or a custom of political oppression may become integral in a culture because a battle once seemed to confirm it, and so forth.

And what might be the longest term effect of warfare as a dehumanizing, centralizing force that destroys or corrupts civilization?

 

Ultimate Consequences: Dystopia by War

Without an evolution of the thinking beneath war, the ultimate consequence of modern war-fighting could come in any one of three forms.

One, extinction or decimation of humanity by terrible weapons, probably by accident. This seemed more likely during the American and Russian cold war in the form of mutual nuclear annihilation, probably sparked by miscommunication — but it remains a possibility. In fact it really almost occurred, due to stunning military carelessness from the 1940s-70s which actually favored nuclear war-fighting (when for examples the Pentagon commissioned comically brainless weapons like the nuclear bazooka, and adopted, as a standard doctrine, using nuclear bombs to break through a Soviet front in Europe and directly exposing soldiers to radiation to drive through the gap). Other crises with nuclear risks, and other weapons will yet come, and maybe the mad belligerence of future Curtis LeMays will come along with them in another such heady atmosphere (for LeMay neither apparent insanity, nor role as firebomber of Japan, nor advocacy of a total nuclear first strike as the famous head of Strategic Air Command, presented a barrier against a further career as USAF Chief of Staff and vice-presidential candidate). Essentially very little has changed with everything which has made the sort of systems which “play chicken” to suggest Mutually Assured Destruction could not still happen.

Two, that open conflict between one or more powers should lead not to extinction but to ruination of a quality of life we would prefer to lead, rendering life into pain and suffering and hopeless, brutal existence, a collapse of civilization. This seemed most likely around the time of WWII perhaps, when Orwell wrote 1984. In this story the three world empires, between which there is little difference, perpetuate an endless and hopeless war for their eternal power, forever grinding the individual expression of human life into nothing. Something like this, too, is still possible between two or more empires, if unlikely.

Three, and perhaps most imaginable today, the scenario in which but one conceptually unified power becomes so dominant in the field of warfare (or perceived as such) that it lacks competition, to the extent that no effective resistance regulates the behavior of its political and military decision-makers. Such an extreme situation would leave the abuses of power abroad thoroughly unchecked, and as corruption broadened within the borders of this power, the psychology of arrogance associated with unchecked power could not help but extend to greatly abusing domestic power and centralizing domestic society, complete with the extreme degree of doublethink and conformity Orwell imagined, but without the global rivals (a scenario hinted at by Aldous Huxley in a foreword to Brave New World). Ultimately, the possibility of civilization ruined by war but not in war, and a state of life not worth living, might really come to pass in this form, if not one of the others.

None of these three most horrific final effects of war need occur. But avoiding them requires fighting future war differently and fighting against war as we know it for the sake of the future.

We can get a partial impression of what the world could expect from possible future dystopias, and how the people of the world may still bring themselves to that eventuality of Promethean failure, by studying dystopic precursors and microcosms in certain social arrangements which have already occurred on earth and which people still desire, those on occasion recognized and given names like militarism and empire to which discreet proponents object vociferously, but which others adopt proudly, both serving as unwitting militarist and imperial harbingers of future dystopia, although they little imagine that fool’s part they play in finally derailing civilization.

But now, again, lest we lose sight of even the “smallest” but most immediate effects of war in our sweeping view into the potential future, I return to the individual. The consequence of killing is personal if nothing larger, which alone is enormous.

Whenever one kills, one destroys a life, and one destroys a world. A world of perception. A world of experience. A unique world. The enormity of this consequence, however justified, however necessary, must never be forgotten. It never goes away.

The realization that war is becoming untenable to the survival of a culture, a society, or the planet is not a new one in the modern era. However it offers a frank and simple observation that recommends its repetition, when this idea has the power to convince through alarm where other ideas about war could not. But the further, more accurate realization that war has always been untenable for individual people, whose whole world of life war fills with suffering or snuffs out indifferently — this idea might have much more power. At least it encompasses something far more real to a human being than eventual ruination or demise of humanity, something visceral, something now.

 

Advantageous Effects?

With respect to Siegfried Sassoon, who reportedly said:

“Let no one ever, from henceforth say one word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell, and those who institute it are criminals. Were there even anything to say for it, it should not be said; for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

nonetheless the effects of war should be considered fully, in my opinion — and I will now cross the line drawn by Sassoon to do so.

What, if any, advantageous effects can we expect to result from war?

Depictions of war make much of the ability of some people fighting as combatants or weathering war as noncombatants to face hardships with magnificent courage and resilient conviction, and some credit war for bringing out these qualities and augmenting them. (See Mrs. Miniver for a home front propaganda archetype.) Yet to be able to cope during war with dignity, stoicism, grace, and even some joy in the face or terror, horror, loneliness, and despair shows if anything undiscovered potential. Such feats of balance testify to deep resources within those human beings who manage them. In no way do they demonstrate a deepening effect that war supposedly has on the human soul. In no way should these people who suffer war remarkably thereby recommend it to us. We should not mistake greatness in them for greatness in suffering.

As noted above, if fighting in wars improves soldiers we have seen little evidence of this. Despite some attempts to cultivate and propagandize the gentleman soldier, and some real exceptions to negative stereotype, warriors throughout time have rarely been known for their excellent behavior whenever released from the pressures of discipline. Among foreign civilians or domestic, even their own families, soldiers among civilians are known for boorishness, recklessness, brutality, rape and other acts of violence, only worsened by any license shown them by their authority, as happens in mass rapes of defeated populations which often occur in history. Perhaps this is because the kind of man who has been trained to kill in a moment simply when ordered, even kill those who have done him no harm, or present no threat, could easily find that his entire sense of balance has been lost; other acts, brawling, vandalism, stealing, even rape or wife-beating, may lose their relative weight. As noted above, soldiers returning from war with psychotic conditions are well known. For the extremity of war scars and traumatizes, and makes weaker. Such an effect does not recommend considerate or beneficial behavior from a soldier toward himself or those around him.

Further, war dulls finer senses, the sensibilities of high civilization. Soldiers are trained by instruction to become insensate to considerations besides their orders. They learn by experience of the rough labors of the day, the unsubtle manuals and regulations, the sergeant’s bark, the ration, the bomb blast, the atrocity of stinking blood and the ugliness of wreckage, to slowly lose the ear, the taste, the nose, the touch, the eye for finer things. The exception, generally well-educated and unusually bright officers disposed to resist dulling, and subject to less as officers, still amount to remarkable exceptions; for every T. E. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen, a thousand unremarkable commissioned dullards might populate even an officer corps undergoing war, making the cultured stand out so much more and surprise expectation. [9] Most soldiers in history would sooner think how best to demolish architecture than improve it, sooner loot art than apprehend it. To look to the care of soldiers for the protection of museums, literary works, ancient artifacts and cultural wealth after the recent fall of Baghdad was as naïve as any similar hope in other wars of history.

It seems Sassoon’s line did not much need crossing, then? And yet, in the interest of fairness at least as far as war deserves it, the fairness possible from taking the long view of life over centuries and millennia and not just feeling life’s pains at the moment of this age, I would not like to limit myself to firing volleys at war. War in the future might become nobler. It might become necessary, it might become defensive, it might become individualistic province of heroes fighting against machines of death, not poor soldiers eaten alive within them. Fighting war in the future might become Promethean. But it is not, yet.

One of the most difficult questions of foresight is whether the fabled heroism, and the ennobling of war — if ever it consisted of more than mythmaking in the past — can be kept or reborn even now in the age of industrial killing, mass motivation, mundane war. Much would have to change, that much is clear. Or can war be replaced in this role and otherwise finally ended? To this end it might be helpful to make a distinction between need for conflict as ennobling competition, and organized war — the meat grinder — with its incidental effects. [10]

The most laudable effect of war so far is the reaction against its terrible effects, the social phenomenon of war opposition created and inspired by war, but truly determined to limit or terminate it (and thus distinguishable from establishment pretense at humanitarian war-fighting reforms). As such antiwar psychology and behavior is really an inseparable part of war, especially in modern times, when it became a distinct and noteworthy part of culture in its own right, to match the cultural significance of war itself in all of recorded history. If this contrary reaction develops to become a mature awakening sufficient to alter the character of warfare and the course of increasingly disconcerting military history for the future, the dystopian eventuality need not come to pass and instead, war as a source of terrible effects humanity must endure and suffer might pass away. (See the next part of this series.)

 

Part Two Footnotes:

1. Cf. especially Human, All Too Human I. 477, “War indispensable.” Possibly Nietzsche’s most considerable failure (especially as herald of the future) was his lack of appreciation for the increasing potential in war for devastating, blind indiscriminate effect, wiping away the riches of individuality and proud human resources which he so valued (and thought war augmented, as one of man’s noble risks). This stands out as an uncharacteristically unimpressive mistake particularly as war would increasingly become nothing but blindly disastrous, and a political tool of the imperialism he also despised as he despised the waste of potential. The next massive European war after his death, WWI, would become the epitome of that waste, and war still encompasses that waste far more than the heroic contest Nietzsche conceived of when he talked of warfare, and used as an idealized metaphor for a willingness to engage life energetically. He mellowed somewhat in his martial enthusiasm in later writings but continued to adopt war as primarily a positive, empowering image tied deeply to a love of duty and amor fati — the acceptance of what is necessary without resentment. Nietzsche’s rare blind spot for war can surely be traced to, and excused by, his living in the 19th century, before WWI changed Europe’s and the world’s understanding of war, as a symbol and a reality. WWI taught the world at large where war could go, and where it was going. Devastation of worth was the new lesson, one he would never witness — not the heroism Nietzsche and the pre-20th century martial consciousnesses of many others had celebrated. [back]

2. For an extended disproof of Clausewitz which has been instrumental to this series see John Keegan, A History of Warfare. Keegan better deserves the influence Clausewitz has accrued as an expert on war studies, if only for demolishing Clausewitz’s cultural and presentist myopia. [back]

3. Referenced in What Every Person Should Know About War by Chris Hedges, p. 7. [back]

4. Not necessarily Darwinian natural selection, but whatever selection processes produce the ordering of life, sometimes called “negentropy” versus entropy. These selective processes must include the healthy competitions of ideas and abilities among cooperative individuals which develop people and sort the natural order of cultural relationships, e.g. occupational roles, as well as the more celebrated but less critical genetic selection, whether Darwinian, punctuated equilibrium, etc. The exact character of such selections in any case is entirely beside the point except to realize that life depends on some or various ordering principles, and that we can expect war to often wreak contrary havoc. [back]

5. But perhaps, even less favorably, the events of war will even punish those who never intend war more than those who do; soldiers fight without making policy, politicians do not fight, and generals but rarely. (Soldiers get drafted, too.) Privileged, powerful people may receive better protection. Military industry lobbies which agitate for “preparedness” profit from arming for war. Kowtowing mainstream press and rabid warmonger “pundits” pushing orthodox jingoism need not pay for their words with their own blood. Etc. If it represents any natural selective force at all, war apparently rewards the bloodthirsty parasites of a social group for exploiting others in an unstable, unsustainable, perhaps universally extinctive pattern. [back]

6. Referenced in What Every Person Should Know About War by Chris Hedges, p. 75. [back]

7. As referenced in What Every Person Should Know About War by Chris Hedges, p. 90. [back]

8. As referenced in What Every Person Should Know About War by Chris Hedges, p. 20. [back]

9. Note that I would not necessarily make this claim about officers who have not suffered through a grave war experience, and who have not had to resist having their cultural perception and personal sophistication diminished. Many officers in some militaries have shown themselves quite civilized — just as many have demonstrated otherwise, but that may be consistent, in some places and times, with the population at large, or even describing a higher ratio among officers than civilian population. (After all, aristocracies have generally provided the origin of officers.) I merely claim that experiencing the rigors of warfare as an officer, but particularly as an enlisted man who undergoes common and rough training and usually gets the worst of fighting, must surely decivilize human beings to varying extents and leave few noticeable exceptions. We should not make the mistake of extrapolation from these exceptions. Because many have become famous, we sometimes forget how relatively few great authors there probably really were composing in the trenches of WWI, for instance, considering the many millions fighting. And if the three examples, Owen, Sassoon, and Lawrence and other particular men did not obviously lose their creativity during and from war, which is our way of measuring their continued cultured sophistication despite war, this does not mean that war causatively augmented anything — aside from furnishing a powerful subject and endangering a circumstantially great generation of British writers — and all three of my examples would likely have agreed. In any case, Wilfred Owen, who wrote “cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns” in his poem Insensibility, did lose his life shortly before the Armistice and thus, his creativity was snuffed out in the bluntest manner of war. [back]

10. The main commonality between war and healthy competition today is probably war-themed gaming, which (as most war gamers realize) really has very little to do with real war, fortunately — except when video games get used for military training. [back]

 

Selected Sources, Additional Reading and Inspirations

(Listed in rough order of relevance and recommendation for this Part, with the most highly recommended or important sources and inspirations for the series listed in bold.)

A History of Warfare by John Keegan

What Every Person Should Know About War by Chris Hedges

Wars, Massacres and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century at Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century by Matthew White

Antiwar.com

Grave of the Fireflies (film) directed by Isao Takahata

Letter From Israel columns by Ran HaCohen

Ludwig von Mises Institute e.g. articles by Thomas DiLorenzo

CounterPunch

selected articles in The Peace Archive at lewrockwell.com

1984 by George Orwell

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Pentomic Era: The U.S. Army between Korea and Vietnam by A.J. Bacevich

On War (Vom Kriege) by Carl von Clausewitz translated by Peter Paret

The Civil War (documentary miniseries) directed by Ken Burns [Note: there are surely more reliable historical sources on the American Civil War and Lincoln especially, but for me as a youth, seeing this was a seminal education in the personal horrors of war.]

Apocalypse Now Redux (film) directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Second World War by John Keegan

The First World War by John Keegan

War Is A Racket by Smedley Butler

FirstWorldWar.com

The Poems of Wilfred Owen edited by Jon Stallworthy

World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, and Others edited by Candace Ward

War Poems edited by John Hollander

Enemy at the Gates (film) directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

You and the Atomic Bomb by George Orwell

Human, All Too Human and other books by Friedrich Nietzsche

Paths of Glory (film) directed by Stanley Kubrick

How To Make War by James F. Dunnigan

Combat Effectiveness: Cohesion, Stress, and the Volunteer Military by Sam Sarkesian

Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel by David Fraser

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II by William Blum

Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower by William Blum

Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life by Alan Schom

Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War by S.L.A. Marshall

SLAM: The Influence of S.L.A. Marshall on the United States Army by F.D.G. Williams

Yale University Genocide Studies Program

Armenian National Institute

Freedom, Democide, War by R.J. Rummel

Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War translated by Roger T. Ames

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

The Art of War in the Western World by Archer Jones

Times Concise Atlas of World History edited by Geoffrey Barraclough

The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 by Geoffrey Parker

German Propaganda Archive

This Is War and War Against War! at The Memory Hole assembled by Russ Kick

On Killing by Dave Grossman

The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories edited by John V. Denson

Photos of the Great War assembled by Ray Mentzer

Siegfried Sassoon’s War and Other Poems assembled by William J. Bean

Vergil’s Aeneid edited by Clyde Pharr (or translated by Robert Fitzgerald)

Homer’s Iliad translated by Robert Fagles

Americans Against Bombing

The Chronological Atlas of World War Two by Charles Messenger

Harper Collins Atlas of the Second World War

Great Battlefields of the World by John MacDonald

Great Battlefields of the Civil War by John MacDonald

Jane’s Information Group

The Impressionists – The Other French Revolution (documentary miniseries) directed by Bruce Alfred

The Histories by Herodotus

 

Part Three

Fighting Future War

 

As with any subject, the first Promethean question about war must concern its desirability or undesirability in terms of the advancement of life. War as currently and historically practiced we can readily recognize as almost wholly undesirable based on its effects, not only its inhibition of personal and shared human advancement, but also its imperiling of survival itself. The many reasons why are worth elaboration, and there are many different ways of proving the point, although all descriptions for the horrible detriments of warfare necessarily fall short. Nonetheless the inevitable conclusion becomes manifest using any of a number of reliable approaches to it, and so we must proceed accordingly from the idea that to those who fight for life, war deserves abomination. Our Promethean approach must involve the amelioration in human terms of the effects of war, or its elimination.

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”
[Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country]

– Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), first century BC

two millennia of war later…

“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, World War I

The first feeling of opposition to warfare probably began as soon as war became truly and consistently dangerous to warriors. Perhaps the first far-seeing ancient to name “the horrors of war” lived in our obscured, now theoretical prehistoric past described by anthropologists, when most of humanity exceeded merely hazardous “pre-military” warfare.

That is, usual human fighting practices mutated from forms of combat which still bowed to individual “primitive” instincts — both the auxiliary reluctance to kill humans perceptibly akin to oneself, and the even more primal wiring for self-preservation. We see similar instinctual combat in the behavior of fighting animals: averse to the gross and brutal resort of killing, posturing and scrapping to settle feuds, preferring to submit and yield territory rather than die. We would not recognize pre-military war as the concerted endeavor-in-itself we know as warfare, for it instead probably took the form of half-ceremonial battles for adjudication of group disagreements between competing minor tribes, as some remnant tribes have still pursued in recent, historical times. Rarely deadly, pre-military engagements were subjugated to other needs, not purposes unto themselves. They were likely fought by the original militias, hunters dabbling as warriors, not by martial specialists, soldiers.

From these roots human fighting practices mutated to engage in post-instinctual combat which no longer did follow but bent instinct, “military” warfare, war by militaries in which even self-preservation was expected to yield to the culturally-imprinted needs and aims of a military and that military’s valued form of warfare. Slowly and inconsistently dispensing with pre-military habits and niceties, militant people moved on to the specialized, organized business of dealing death to “the enemy” according to the demands of a military ethic, such as entered a new era in Europe with the ancient Greek phalanx of hoplites, but which first began more anciently, along with the first territorial-political states concurrent with the domestication of agricultural crops in the Mideast and then India and China. Eventually any social group resistant to any stage of this change would have felt pressure to adapt in order to resist invasion and exploitation by those who embraced becoming military warriors. [1] Gradually and in fits and starts, that first military revolution of war would have followed from more complex military invention [2], local cultural cohesion, the productivity of specialized occupations (division of labor) accelerating around population concentrations — and most of all, from the first hierarchical organizations which might have resembled government.

war chart

If this sketch is accurate, it seems some of the “primitive” traits of the pre-military stereotype may need to be recreated for the future in order to evolve warfare again. Notice that some of these traits have not been made obsolete along with the technology and lifestyles associated with pre-military war in the past, but instead depend on which of timeless human philosophical principles one has taken to heart in mind-and-body; for example the choices among those assumptions concerned with relating individuals to groups, or those concerned with cultural beliefs, or those concerned with instincts and interests.

So, in a way the type of warfare we still know today in the most inclusive sense, political in motivation, social in mentality, territorial in psychology, governmental in organization, and dangerous in effect, has been with us as long as the parallel sort of civilization we still know today (broadly speaking, and disregarding variations in the degree of bureaucratization, ethnic context, etc.). And with that type of warfare, has come a limited but undeniable ancient tradition of reaction against war. Perhaps this mainly involved war mourning, exemplified by elegies, lamentations or dirges, which need not object as much as despair. To generalize, the ancients were enormously conscious of the sorrow which they found in the death of young soldiers and other casualties of war (especially women and children), despite the strong ancient tradition celebrating glory. But it appears the reactions also included isolated protests, such as performing Aristophanes’ antiwar comedic plays The Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata, but more often, at least a skepticism based on knowing the early horrors of war (e.g. the graphic violence and sacrifices depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid in order to make Rome possible), even if it did not manifest as principled opposition to a war, or against the practice of war in general.

Still, millennia were required before antiwar movements became widespread and really influential — during the past century. More accurately understanding the effects of war, thanks to the accelerated development of a number of studies such as statistics, social science, economics, and history, may have made the development of greater antiwar sentiments almost inevitable in the modern era. And, political and social movements oriented around these modern sciences embraced often limited explanations for warfare based on supposedly deducted scientistic doctrines, further advertised antiwar ideas and capitalized upon opportunities to exploit antiwar sentiments to further their causes. Marxism-Leninism held that expansionist warfare followed from capitalism as a fight over markets (an insufficient and erroneous theory with precedents in writings of imperial advocates [4]), and most famously Russian communists successfully used opposition to the suffering of the eastern front of WWI as a springboard to power.

Conversely an economic support for antiwar ideas and behavior also arose with the industrial age, once peaceful business and trade began to promise more than before to those young men who compared profit to risk. Instead of a poor farmer’s son or disadvantaged young aristocrat leaving home to profit from wages or plunder (and to seek adventure, maybe also making a reputation, or gaining the prestige and pension of rank), a choice typical in Europe from the time of the Christian crusades through the 18th century regiments, many prospective soldiers from the age of industrial capital economies could expect more and safer opportunity in civilian life. Volunteering for war, and certainly being drafted unwillingly, became somewhat less enticing to lower-income youth for this reason; however the modern phenomenon of nationalism also arose and often functioned as a counter, motivating enlistment for patriotic reasons rather than personal ones. (In Europe that answer to self-interest began in France after the Revolution, first under the Jacobins when France’s whirlwind democracy found itself surrounded by enemies and desirous of converting them by force, and then under Napoleon. But the argument could be made that the American Revolution had truly set the precedent, and inspired the later exploitation of ideology for mass recruitment in France and elsewhere.)

But perhaps more influential or at least more generative than any of these other antiwar engines, the nineteenth and particularly twentieth centuries have also seen both dynamic invention and the human cost of invention as applied to war. The cause of the increasingly devastating and dehumanizing price paid for war has ostensibly been that wars have been fought with progressively more technological capability. Thus in the twentieth-century, growing antiwar movements have very often formed around a negative reaction to specific weaponry, and even modern technology and the scientific discoveries which made it possible. Anti-nuclear movements, whether against nuclear weapons or nuclear power, have been especially salient in this, as understandably follows from a technology so powerful. But for some, even the fact that efficient statistical technology was employed in WWII genocide imparts a taint to it. This anti-technology reaction is a trend that far exceeds any one instance.

Beginning with the First World War (also once known as “the war to end all wars” and “The Great War”) warfare became a practice so dangerous that an entire generation of soldiers could be decimated by advanced artillery, machine guns, poison gas and other by-products of innovations otherwise innocuous. It became conceivable that civilian populations could be reduced substantially in extended conflicts, especially once Second World War era aerial bombardment followed, sometimes nearly erasing the line between active soldier and civilian non-combatant. Then the terror inspired by all of these weapons was overshadowed by the implications of atomic weapons. Seen as the ultimate destructive weapon in existence, atomic bombs did change the character of war, toward limitation — but perhaps even more markedly, the prospect of atomic war solidified anti-war sentiments, as befits a technology able to extinguish all human life when employed in total war-fighting (and which nearly did enable the desolation of the earth according to one prevalent doctrine in the Pentagon, that of first-strike).

When the antiwar impulse grew from those barren Flanders fields ripped and harrowed by new weapons, one diverting model above all began to lead those bearers of antiwar banners not already given to serving a political end above antiwar interests toward another dead end of unfocused thinking and ineffectual effort. They have very often inextricably identified the aspects of warfare they detested with modern technologies, whether they have sought safety and morality in the practice of war by restricting application of specific technology, or with pacifism admitting no necessary wars even against aggression, have sought to prematurely end any and all warfare (due to somewhat presentist bias based only on the sort of war they have known, understandably blinded by the pointlessness of wars like Vietnam or WWI for examples). Since the trenches of WWI and especially in the last half-century (the atomic age), the psychology toward military technology has vastly changed, toward encompassing wariness or outrage as well as the more usual fascination or celebration. Many support attempts to ban or limit certain weapons in an effort to improve war, such as ill-defined “weapons of mass destruction” or weapons seen as unduly cruel. Today, even the use of (low technology) land mines receives major attention. Most drastically and perversely, the advocates of “gun control” seek to pacify fellow citizens on the basis of fearing and hating a combat technology itself — which certainly looks like a transmutation of the antiwar anti-technology zeitgeist with its objection, on behalf of the personal sphere, against what weapons used for the sake of authority do to persons, into an affirmation of a combat technology monopoly for authority transgressing against the personal sphere, and in a context removed from organized warfare.

But the whole anti-technology premise is quite muddled. What is really at issue, and deservedly, is the practice of war itself — especially unnecessary war, and war which destroys lives and ruins them uncontrollably or to a fearful degree. It is this character of modern era war which has really provided the substance to inspire the strong 20th century anti-war response (though often via misidentification of technical cause): the insufficient reasons for fighting, the frequency and scale of fighting, the potential violence and carnage of the battlefield, and certainly the intrusion of the battlefield, and preparations for the battlefield, into civil life.

And contrary to dogma both pro-military and anti-military, technology is not directly responsible for the character of war, and controlling it can fix nothing fundamental. Aside from the more compelling reason I will discuss next, we may also know this because in fact overwhelming evidence supports the supposition that relatively mundane weapons have caused and will continue to cause most of the suffering, casualties, and deaths in warfare. Most combat deaths and injuries in modern warfare have come from artillery shells. The basic principle of artillery is certainly not a new innovation, despite its gradual improvement. The same is true of small arms, the secondary killer. In fact, the carnage in lower-technology wars has on occasion compared unfavorably to higher-technology wars, if only because more potent technology may become decisive by being a more efficient killer (as long as the war is asymmetric, unlike WWI). Also, history proves that genocidal wars can be carried out with substandard weapons in modern times. [5] The same was certainly possible with pre-firearm weapons in prior times. [6] Finally, supposed “weapons of mass destruction,” with the exception of atomic weapons, have generally presented less of a danger than “conventional” weapons to combat troops, and contributed less to those dangers blurring the line between civilian and combatant. Some of the most deadly bombing runs against Japan employed nothing more sophisticated than oil-soaked rags for firebombs; with these hundreds of thousands were burned to death. More died by fire in one night in Tokyo (about 0.1 million) than from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings combined.

But more on point, those involved in the anti-war movements have often confused the importance of weapons with the importance of the thoughts of the people who deploy them. In those beliefs of individual persons we will find the crux of the matter, and the authentic means of change. Technical means are inevitably tangential and superficial with regards to the deeper issue of conceptions. The psychology and various mindsets consigned to drafting technologies as killing tools rather than helpful or salutary tools must be addressed instead of the tool itself, with the same sense of perspective that realizes that we need only worry about a knife in the hands of a mugger, not a cook. Otherwise antiwar efforts can only expect a similar level of success as we might expect from a movement seeking to end knifings by banning knives. Furthermore, political interests (one subset of the thoughts of people who war) must be subordinated to the greater, more important interest of ending or ameliorating war, not the other way around. And once this becomes a given rather than a pretense, those opponents of war with political biases, loyalties and interests must ask themselves fearlessly to hold up their ideology to the light, asking: does this or could this comprise part of the psychological pattern of conflict I seek to erase? — and: do politics in general enable and contribute to conflict?

Antiwar movements have made mistakes, if they really want to curb war’s effects on human beings. Many opponents of war have paid more attention to technology than personal aspects. Others have paid more attention to sociopolitical aspects than personal and individual. Focusing on opposition, antiwar opponents have typically not considered the importance of war in some sense as a necessary practice, or have neglected the possibility that mastering war might end war, through adopting and promoting individualism in the military sphere. Antiwar thinking has rarely focused on understanding either root causes of war, or causes of war’s character; premature conclusions made to address these questions have all too often been superficial to philosophical basis, which has led to superficial activism (such as moralistic attempts to defend the principle of international law from transgression, by Noam Chomsky et al.).

We will not see the end of war shortly. The reason: basic ideas too many accept as self-evident. The existence of war as we know it depends on collective division organized under political powers supported by the principle of force (most commonly, under government). This system is certainly not about to disappear from the earth soon, given that today, few people think to question it.

But the character of war might also be improved in the meantime, and war-making might become limited to serving really necessitated causes — in short, conflicts to defend actual individual people (and not their notions of collective allegiance) — if we identify the roots beneath wars and beneath the character of wars more clearly, roots grounded in the culture born out of ideas.

War reflects culture, culture reflects war — really, culture and war are integrated in a pattern of beliefs. Thus if beliefs can change, war might be changed too. If war could evolve from pre-military hazard to military holocaust because ideas about desirable means and ends changed, and thus culture changed, then there seems no reason why another revolution is not possible, a fundamental evolution which abandons modern military warfare as we know it, preserving what must be preserved such as some professional specialization to match the profound complexity of human culture, and leaving behind what we no longer need or desire, such as everything which can make maelstroms. And, if war in its undesirable forms is within the accessible purview of ideas not immutable genetics, it might actually be ended. The reasons people fight or have to fight, and how they fight, are closely linked internally within us, in the domain of beliefs where ideas rule.

The unifying central thrust then of this series Fighting Future War is that its twin themes of fighting war and fighting against war in fact comprise one Promethean enterprise: an evolution of beliefs to simultaneously improve and surpass war, calling upon ourselves to fight only as demanded by the necessities of life, to fight only to advance the cause of life, and to seek methodology that values life (only including but not limited to reconsidering technology employed) — and otherwise to cease employing war to solve problems, for war is itself a mortal problem. Contrary to most real expectations of those in the military establishments of the world, or most expectations of their antiwar adversaries, the path of war can become a path of graduation transcending its limits and dangers, but only by evolving the path, not simply abandoning it, nor simply following it.

 

Part Three Footnotes:

1. A forcible conversion to military war happened to numerous of the more prosperous civilized populations during the second millennium BC, when Old Kingdom Egypt, Sumer, the Indus valley, and other fertile cradles of civilization were captured by skilled charioteers of poorer pastoral neighbors. For example, until they were forced to develop more professional militaries including chariots of their own, and crown warrior-pharaohs as generals to throw out the victorious Hyksos, Old Kingdom Egyptians still employed remarkably indeliberate soldiers and mostly ceremonial combat — despite having one of the most highly specialized, technically-advanced, centralized, disciplined and bureaucratized cultures in the world at the time. Egyptian military hierarchy seems to have stayed well behind other social hierarchy such as the administration of inundated agriculture, and clubs seem to have remained a principle weapon despite having the means to utilize deadlier weapons — all probably because Egyptians were sensible enough to not want war to become deadlier, until they were made to compete with practiced, efficiently-killing warriors. [back]

2. However, even the most primitive weapons such as clubs can be used as both pre-military/hazardous and military/deadly weapons. Weapons like simple bows, clubs, and hunting spears have often been the transition weapons used during the cusp between essentially pre-military war and essentially military war, as happened with clubs in the case of Easter Island; see An Easter Parable. [back]

3. The envisioned defensive aim of military warfare may be collective-preservation and perpetuation (the envisioned offensive aim being collective-empowering and enlargement), but the inescapable security dilemma means that people subjugating themselves to any military-fielding social collective risk struggle against significant rivals. This combined with the high attrition, destruction or cultural dissipation possible in any military war-fighting makes for wars capable of destroying collectives, including both cultures and social groups, whether by killing those subscribing to them or by altering their defining beliefs. Those engaging in military war intend to protect the social collectives to which they direct their loyalty and sense of belonging, but they can and often have destroyed the collective by preparing or pursuing war, with its unintentional tendencies to wreak havoc among the individuals composing a collective. [back]

4. This and any exclusively economic explanation of origins is insufficient if only because of the countless historical examples of ideological or religious conflict even contra financial interests, including several expansionist wars instigated by communist regimes. It is erroneous because it depends on the refuted notion of capital surpluses (declines in the rate of profit) in advanced economies requiring colonies to create new investment opportunities, a fiction refuted by economic experience that both shows a tendency toward expanding opportunities for profitable investment over time and exposes colonies as economic liabilities for both colonized and colonizer peoples, except for select monopoly interests. The surplus theory later adopted by Lenin was promoted originally to prove the supposed necessity of empire by 19th century British Empire advocates including John Stuart Mill, and later by American imperialists around the turn of the 20th century. [back]

5. E.g., Rwanda (including machetes), and the Cambodian civil war, and the Biafran War, in which the worst weapon was blockade with the consequence of famine — in fact blocking the hungry from trading has long been, and still remains a recurring candidate for the worst weapon of war, as recently with sanctions leveled against all people living in Iraq which has killed more than in Biafra and by all accounts far more than conventional weapons in the recent Iraq wars. [back]

6. E.g. the recently uncovered near-eradication of Australian aboriginal settlers in the prehistoric new world by Asiatic invaders (whose distant descendents are now called “Native Americans”), the Mongol invasions which are said to have destroyed entire great cities, and the suicidal internecine war of Easter Island. [back]

 

Selected Sources, Additional Reading and Inspirations

(Listed in rough order of relevance and recommendation for this Part, with the most highly recommended or important sources and inspirations for this series listed in bold.)

A History of Warfare by John Keegan

Antiwar.com

selected articles in The Peace Archive at lewrockwell.com

CounterPunch

Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War by S.L.A. Marshall

The Art of War in the Western World by Archer Jones

Combat Effectiveness: Cohesion, Stress, and the Volunteer Military by Sam Sarkesian

Ludwig von Mises Institute e.g. articles by Thomas DiLorenzo

The First World War by John Keegan

The Second World War by John Keegan

FirstWorldWar.com

The Poems of Wilfred Owen edited by Jon Stallworthy

Grave of the Fireflies (film) directed by Isao Takahata

Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life by Alan Schom

The Pentomic Era: The U.S. Army between Korea and Vietnam by A.J. Bacevich

How To Make War by James F. Dunnigan

Times Concise Atlas of World History edited by Geoffrey Barraclough

On Killing by Dave Grossman

Letter From Israel columns by Ran HaCohen

The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 by Geoffrey Parker

On War (Vom Kriege) by Carl von Clausewitz translated by Peter Paret

War Poems edited by John Hollander

books by Friedrich Nietzsche

Paths of Glory (film) directed by Stanley Kubrick

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel by David Fraser

Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War translated by Roger T. Ames

Vergil’s Aeneid edited by Clyde Pharr (or translated by Robert Fitzgerald)

Americans Against Bombing

Guerrilla News Network

The History and Culture of Ancient Western Asia and Egypt by A. Bernard Knapp

excerpt from The History of the World Conqueror by Juvainî collected in The Islamic World edited by William H. McNeill and Marilyn Robinson Waldman

The Chronological Atlas of World War Two by Charles Messenger

Harper Collins Atlas of the Second World War

Great Battlefields of the World by John MacDonald

Great Battlefields of the Civil War by John MacDonald

Jane’s Information Group

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The Test of Consistency

consistency-key

August 13, 2005/August 23, 2005

by Phoenix

How can we judge the comparative worth of ideas? Can we find any common means for comparing them? Confusion on this point is probably a major reason why so many people seem to have decided ideas don’t really matter. They may suggest otherwise when they argue, but when it comes to the way they live their lives, it often seems that their ideas do not inform their actions. Nor do their experiences necessarily inform their ideas. They hold widely varying and even conflicting ideas in mind from one context to another, and rarely pursue connections between them.

One guiding concept would resolve the situation for ideas which can be applied and tested empirically (that is, evaluated in practice). I also believe it would shepherd quite a few individuals with haphazard ideas to appraisals of the world very similar to those I approached when I embraced this guiding concept, through the methodology I used to get there (more or less). I speak of the principle of consistency.

To those who are interested in making an effort to live their lives consciously, I offer this suggestion for a really enlightening experiment: test your ideas in practice. But don’t simply try your ideas — try your ideas consistently. Here is a basic method for the exercise:

First, ask yourself, what ideas do I think I live by, or believe? Make a list. But do not worry if at first you cannot make a long list. Your understanding of your own operative ideology need not be comprehensive at first, and unless you are already adept at knowing yourself and doing philosophy, you may not be able to isolate more than a few ideas. (For an exercise in beginning to notice your own ideas which you may take for granted, read the article Stuck in the System: Noticing Our Own Labyrinths and Tracing Possibilities, especially the Note on Further Brainstorming.) Do not worry if you are not sure about some of the ideas that come to mind. You’re about to find out whether you really do live by them, and give them a solid test in practice.

Second, select one of the candidates you list. Perhaps it is an idea you’ve chosen at random, but more than likely you’ll be more interested in one idea than the others. Ideas you may have some doubts about, or ideas you think you already live by consistently for their reliability are both informative and sometimes revelatory choices.

Third, whatever you choose, really test that idea, and evaluate it. Try it conscientiously, and thoroughly. Do not limit it to the exclusive, and quite likely speculative and abstract place which it has occupied in your mind and behavior so far. Perhaps you think of it during academic discussions. Or maybe this idea is keyed to action for you, but only by a select string of events. Or perhaps it remains typically unexamined in your mind, but you realize that in the course of your daily habit you assume it. But now, act according to the idea consistently. Try assuming it, absorbing it, and applying it to any context that presents itself. Remind yourself to live it, look for opportunities, and keep track of the results.

If you do this conscientiously you will soon see the ramifications of your idea, not as you would like them to be, but as definitively as you can ever evaluate anything realistically. You would have to fool yourself quite actively to mess with the results. In the vernacular, you will soon see whether your idea is any “good” or not.

Remember, if following your assumption to its logical conclusion seems about to get you into trouble, such as producing a dangerous or unwanted situation, it’s time to stop the experiment. Likewise if your idea in conscious practice is producing results quite different from what you wanted or expected, you can conclude the experiment. Your idea may have failed the consistency test, in which case you have learned something quite valuable. As Ludwig von Mises remarked, “There cannot be too much of a correct theory.”

This is not to say that every “correct” theory must apply well to every sort of context encountered in life. For your idea to pass the consistency test, it need not work in absolutely every situation, or describe everything. On the contrary, an accurate theory should accommodate realistic limitations for its applicable context.

Limited problems in your consistency test may not demonstrate the utter failure of your idea, so much as they indicate more realistic provisions for its profitable application in the future, suggesting how you might redefine your idea as a limited principle fitting for a certain use, or as a model descriptive of a particular context. For example, an understanding that the practice of war generally causes destruction, loss and misery might also allow for reliance upon fighting in strict cases of self-defense. (In a more inclusive sense of all violence, some may recognize this as the “libertarian” non-aggression principle). And, deliberate personal optimism as a remedy for depressive thought patterns might allow for reasonable self-evaluation, rather than lobotomized perkiness, without compromising itself. And, a policy of polite, gracious treatment of other people might allow for stern rebukes in certain conditions, such as when dealing with a manipulative person.

The wisdom of making such modifications and exceptions depends on the results you observe. The performance of ideas is the standard of judgment, not their over-simplicity, which some mistake for “purity” of ideals with implicit overtones of truth. Remember that consistent ideas need not mean overly rigid rules or simplistic principles. The point here is to get the results you desire from the things you believe, not to simply follow ideas. Make your ideas work for you. After all, individuals should have ideas to serve their needs and interests, not simply to follow.

Some assumptions of context for the application and limitations for the play of certain ideas must be made in order to venture ideas at all. (Such assumptions are known as axioms, in mathematical terms.) But, consistency remains a most valuable guide for finding reliably advantageous ideas — the Great Ideas, or at least the ideas great for one’s individual needs. Within a context, we can judge what works, or what describes that context accurately. Our own experiences offer us a very reliable and convincing framework of “case studies” for guidance, provided we approach them consistently.

If you follow the life practice of consistency over time, you will begin to internalize it as a habit. You will no longer have a need to formalize consistency testing in order to make sense of your ideas compared to life. It will simply occur to you when you’re taking some action that diverges from your usual principles in life. You will take notice of experiences which challenge your typical interpretations and impressions of the world around you. You will live according to your ideas naturally, test them continually, and update them to take account of changing feedback from yourself and your environment.

Of course, an open reading of history provides many such case studies, including those we cannot personally try, in vast numbers and in a variety of contexts, providing us with instruction well beyond the significance of our own tests. The unique value of personally-conducted tests rests in their applicability to us personally, and their persuasive power. But history saves us time and extends our scope beyond shortsighted limitations of personal sense information, and the biases of isolated judgment. Can we expect centralized planning to run an economy, or ruin it? No need to debate abstracted theory — read history. Has American foreign policy more consistently supported democracy or autocracy? Leave moralism behind and look at the record.

Certainly one must read history which does not omit facts providing important context, and in which the historian’s bias and inevitable predisposition to interpret does not also edit out the value in the information; one might have to read differently-biased historians for a parallax view. But accurate history, history which reflects the pitiless tests of practice in the apparent world of phenomena, is replete with innumerable practical case studies of human experience. These are useful for supporting or debunking cherished theories, and sometimes inspiring their invention. (For a brief exploration of useful history and one case study used in this way, see An Easter Parable. Unfortunately, this and other examples from history show that people frequently do not stop their grand experiments with ideas simply because of dangerous situations.)

What the macrocosm demonstrates, generally the microcosm will also, and vice versa (according to induction). That is the assumption behind much experimental science, and common intuition. However, the wider scope has advantages that estimating from personal experience does not offer. A person only has spare, limited experience personally dealing with, for example, the repercussions of central planning (if one is fortunate), and while that experience may lead one to conclusions about the principle’s worthlessness similar to those obtainable historically, clearly history furnishes the scope to more easily appreciate the failure of central planning. This is particularly the case because an individual will usually not be trained to recognize the sort of subtle ramifications which nonetheless reverberate extensively throughout society, for example, widespread increases in relative costs of doing business or buying necessities. That the individual may evaluate from a distance others’ experience with trying an idea, including potentially very dangerous or troublesome ideas, provides us with a great tool of consistency testing. We need not enroll personally with socialized economies or industries, any more than the extent to which we are already forced to deal with them.

In effect, consistency testing, whether personal or historical, offers us a bulwark against our own delusion. But even more so, it offers us a great guide to our own happiness and success. To a great extent, our lives consist of our ideas and their application in practice. The errors we live by spoil our chances for happiness and success, and work against us. Additionally, even our most advantageous principles cannot help us if we do not follow them as much as we might. By rooting out the erroneous assumptions we have made in our daily lives or in our more abstract theories, and replacing them with more reliable ideas in word and deed, we can come that much closer to consistently realized living.

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