The Wrath Bearing Tree

American Sniper and the Hero Myth

by David James

American Sniper, a new film based on the book of the same name, is being released on Christmas Day. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring and produced by Bradley Cooper, it tells the story of Navy SEAL super-sniper Chris Kyle, widely-praised as the most lethal sniper in American history with at least 160 “official” kills, and apparently many more “unofficial” ones. The film’s catch phrase is “the most lethal sniper in history”, and the trailer shows Bradley Cooper undergoing a moment of moral doubt before (presumably) shooting a child carrying a bomb. The Hollywood studio is banking not only on the film’s popularity, but that Americans will want to spend their Christmas Day watching such morally-questionable lethality. The trailer immediately reminds me of another Bradley Cooper role in The Place Beyond the Pines (a much better movie than American Sniper, by the way), where Cooper’s entire character is built around the fact that he killed a man with a young son the same age as his own and felt guilt and regret for the rest of his life.

Digression about the title American Sniper: why are there so many films beginning with “American” something or other? Cooper has already starred in one such movie only a year earlier than this one (American Hustle), and then we have American Psycho, American Beauty, American Pie, American Gangster, American History X, American Outlaws, and many, many  more. I understand that the double iambic rhythm of America’s adjectival form lends an especially strong sound that leads to strong titles, and it is hard to find any other nationality adjectives which convey such emphasis (the few scattered examples are exotic rather than emphatic: The French Connection, The Italian Job, The English Patient, The African Queen, The Manchurian Candidate, The Good German. Even here we see the definite article almost without exception, which is never necessary with “American”). Rather than exotic, titles beginning with “American” are meant to be paradigmatic of something true and universal and worthy of such a phonologically-forceful appellation. We can speculate that Kyle, in choosing the title for his war memoirs, intended to tap into this paradigm with himself representing the ideal Platonic form of “sniper” or “killer” by means of his qualitative Americanness. It is beyond doubt that director Clint Eastwood and the Hollywood producers agreed.

Moving back to the original story, after 10 years in the military and four tours in Iraq, the real-life Chris Kyle left the Navy in 2009 and started a private security consulting firm in his home state of Texas. One of his priorities was supporting wounded and troubled veterans. When his book was published, he donated the entire $1.5 million check to charities supporting such veterans. He was a devoted family man as well as a noted gun-lover and hunter (it remains unclear whether he killed more human or non-human animals).

Kyle, along with a friend, was killed in 2013 by a troubled ex-Marine who shot him in the back when Kyle took him for his own brand of “therapy” at a shooting range. The funeral was held at the Cowboys Stadium in Dallas to accommodate the huge number of mourners. This man was a hero to millions of people in America. My purpose is not to disrespect Kyle in any way, but to point out some of my thoughts and observations about the circumstances which lead him to become such a hero to so many.

It is obvious that Kyle was a conflicted individual, which is perfectly understandable if we consider the inhuman amount of death and bloodshed he was involved in. Many veterans return from war with PTSD, often despite never even firing a shot or being shot at. War is traumatic, and the training and mindset that prepares an individual for war can sometimes be even more dehumanizing. I recognize the goodwill Kyle felt towards other veterans, but should it be considered the wisest decision to bring a suicidal, mentally-unstable veteran whom you had never met to a shooting range? Kyle’s death, while tragic, is not surprising. Jesus Christ reportedly said “live by the sword, die by the sword”. Kyle, a lover of guns, personally killed hundreds of humans with guns. Is it shocking that such a story should end in his own death by gun? Kyle was also a proud Christian man who must have fallen into confusion about the meaning of his Lord’s words extolling pacifism. He had more of a mentally of Crusader-against-the-infidel Christian than a turn-the-other-cheek one. Yet this is beside the point as he was not the first man to justify his violence through his religious beliefs, and he won’t be the last.

Another relevant thing I found out is that Kyle never expressed any regret or doubt over killing people on such a Herculean scale (here is a quote from his book: “It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it. The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.”). One must imagine that it would become quite routine after a while to aim, shoot, and repeat. This is no video game, however, nor is it aerial bombing, artillery, or even run-of-the-mill machine-gun fire. Every one of those kills Kyle would have previously and skillfully planned, calculated, and then witnessed in gory detail by means of a powerful telescope sight. That such a thing would be desensitizing is understandable. I would not take such a job, but if it were me I would also by necessity strengthen my personal convictions about my own righteousness if only as a way to avoid insanity (another quote from the book: “My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job.”).

There appear to be some unsavory parts of Kyle’s story. First of all, I must ask myself why Navy SEALS and other special operations guys call themselves “silent professionals” when there is nothing silent about the stream of lucrative book deals and Hollywood productions involving former Navy SEALS and their ilk telling all the dirty secrets about their work (which is to say, how efficient they are at killing other humans). Kyle’s book and movie are just one of an entire sub-genre which the French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard would label “war porn”, and its popularity in the military and American society as a whole is revealing. Just as in similarly violent video games, the wide-eyed reader/viewer can excitedly imagine himself killing everybody in sight and single-handedly saving the day/winning the war. Such a mindset, while quite common, is psychologically unhealthy for individuals, and politically unhealthy for a democracy.

Kyle also had problems telling the truth. Though apparently no stranger to garden-variety barroom brawls, he invented a story about a bar fight in which he punched out former wrestler, actor, and Minnesota governor (and fellow Navy commando) Jesse Ventura. Ventura sued and was eventually awarded over a million dollars in damages. Kyle also apparently made up a story about killing two guys who tried to rob him somewhere in Texas, which never happened in real life. I wonder why he would feel the need to make up superfluous falsehoods when he was already well-supplied with enough martial anecdotes to win admiration from his armed acolytes. It reeks of the braggadocio and machismo that is all-too-common in the special operations communities. He was also a heavy drinker, like many fellow veterans. Alcohol is one of the most common and most readily available means for veterans to cope with the trauma of war and homecoming. Sadly, we should not be surprised by such a man leading a violent life, even if he is by no means alone.

The idea of the Hero is one that is as old as humanity, and well-documented in the ancient stories of Heracles and Achilles on down the line. Thomas Carlyle famously popularized a theory of hero worship whose exemplars were nevertheless praised as much for their cultural and literary feats as for their martial and political prowess. Likewise, we will not find today’s ersatz heroes in the pages of Nietzsche, whose morally-transcendent, classically-trained heroes would come to rule over the common rabble. The current American myth of the hero is not so sophisticated as its predecessors, whatever their flaws. If we think about Joseph Campbell’s  famous theory of the monomyth, Chris Kyle could, through the narrative of his book and the film, be seen to follow the universal mythical paradigm of departure, initiation, and return. The thing about Campbell’s theory, though, is that it applies to the myths that human societies create, but not to human societies and individuals themselves. In other words, we create the myths that we want to believe. The myth of Chris Kyle and the hero protecting their freedom from evil-doers is one which many Americans would like to believe.

Like I said, Kyle, for all his personal problems, is not himself the problem, but a symptom of a larger problem. He was just doing his job, as horrible as that job was. The real problem is with the segment of society that glorifies this behavior as heroic, holding up Kyle in particular as a super-hero. I think it is twisted logic that holds up people like Kyle, and soldiers in general, as heroes while failing to question the cause or need for war and violence in the first place. In fact, if it has not been clearly enunciated up to this point, I do not care much at all for the term “hero”. Heroes are for people who see the world as black and white, good guys and bad guys, us versus them, without much thought for nuance or second-order effects (another telling quote from the book: “Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy “savages.” There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there.”). I think it is no coincidence that super-hero movies are especially popular at the moment–the desire for super-heroes in adults comes from the same line of thinking, and the same weakness of critical thinking, that produces hero worship. This same line of thinking also enables the propaganda and social and political environment which facilitates war and stifles dissent against it.

Chris Kyle was no super-hero, let alone hero, though many people (and maybe he himself) saw him as one. The world needs neither fake heroes nor mythical super-heroes with super-human powers or super-human killing ability to be able to solve the world’s problems or kill all of the bad guys. The society that produced Chris Kyle and his unquestioning world view will sustain itself with tales of heroes like Chris Kyle who defend our “freedom” from the bad guys. The thing about bad guys is that, to them, the other guys are bad guys, and they are fighting for their own version of “freedom”. Killing over 200 “bad guys” is just as ineffective a way to peace or freedom as killing two million “bad guys” if there is no reason why and no plan to stop killing them. This false heroism creates more problems than it solves and multiplies the violence in the world. Chris Kyle did not protect or make anyone safer; his story is one small part of immoral (and probably illegal) war that has only increased the vicious cycle of violent retribution that exists in the world. Such a cycle will continue until someone, dare I say one akin to a real “hero”, tries to stop the cycle with understanding, dialogue, and diplomacy. The world does not need heroes; it needs human solidarity.

Yes, We Tortured Some Folks

by David James

By now everyone in the world has heard about the recently released U.S. Senate Torture Report, which details the shocking and mind-numbing inhumanity of the torture program sanctioned by the Bush administration and operated by the C.I.A. after 9/11. With the appearance of this new report, there has been an enormous amount of press coverage and commentary in America and around the world, which must be considered a victory for freedom of speech, press, and information. One representative example of good reporting on this case is this recent New York Times article. The more we understand and discuss this issue, the better we can avoid ever repeating the same crimes* (I use this word rather than the more euphemistic “mistakes”, as in the common newspeak example “mistakes were made”, as can be seen in the C.I.A. director’s unrepentent rebuttal to the report).

The issue of torture is one that has troubled me for some time. At a press conference last year, American President Barack Obama uttered the phrase “We tortured some folks.” While this acknowledgement was a small step in the right direction in admitting the possible existence of responsibility and guilt in the highest levels of government, it is troubling in its own ways. First of all, the phrasing itself is incongruous, with the transitive verb “torture” being followed by the unlikely direct object phrase “some folks”. Obama has most likely been advised by his speaking coaches to use more down-to-earth vocabulary like “some folks” in order to seem less “professorial” and more simple “middle American” (in America, there is a prevalent view that the best way to win votes is to appear as normal and mediocre as possible). Anyway, “some folks” is not a phrase that should follow “tortured”. I have enough trouble imagining people being tortured who may be actual terrorists without also having to imagine the torture of average innocent “folks”.

The second problem with Obama is that he apparently tried to stop, delay, or water-down the Senate Torture Report for reasons slightly mystifying. Obama famously cancelled his predecessor’s torture program in his first week in office and has often said how he disagrees with what was done (notice the use of the passive voice). The only reason he would stand in the way of this report is respectful fear of the intelligence community, namely the C.I.A. And I don’t blame him–the C.I.A. scares me a lot more than any actual terrorist organization. Even as an American citizen who is ostensibly “protected” by the C.I.A. because of my natural born citizenship, I am still somewhat fearful of attempting to openly criticize this organization by describing in greater detail its long criminal history. Its crimes are so widespread over the course of its entire seven-decade history that the only shocking thing is that more people in America do not know or care anything about what is done by such powerful and unaccountable organizations in the name of their security. In fact, in many countries in the world, where the C.I.A. has supported assassinations, regime change, torture, and state-sponsored violence, it is quite strongly believed to be an evil terrorist organization in itself, but in America people still believe the old lie that it protects Americans’ safety and interests. A revealing fact is that for the first time ever the director of the C.I.A., currently John Brennan, has testified in front of a Senate hearing. In a long and sordid history, the governing body overseeing this organization has never resorted to a public investigative hearing until now. What we do know is that not only is this one of the most unsupervised and counter-productive of publicly-funded American agencies, but also one of the most flagrantly dishonest, with lies covering up deceptions covering up misinformation. No matter if it is spinning counter-intelligence abroad or testifying in front of elected lawmakers, we can be sure that the lies run deep. The proper thing to do would be to disband the C.I.A. and start over with a smaller and less problematic intelligence agency.

The details of the torture report, which is 6000 pages in length, of which 500 are declassified, are so harrowing and brutal that I do not want to mention them here. They have been widely reported and the readers are encouraged to look into it further if you have not already. Or just take my word for it that it is worse than you can imagine. There is something about torture that is more emotional and horrifying than anything else we can imagine. Thinking about humans, even ones possibly guilty of some crime or another, being tortured by other humans makes my stomach turn and makes me want to break down and cry. Thinking that it was done repeatedly to humans who sometimes committed no crime at all is too much to bear. Accordingly, this article is being written in a haphazard way, guided by my emotions and my wandering train of thought rather than in well-ordered paragraphs. In his book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Richard Rorty often repeats the claim of Judith Shklar that “liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do…the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear…or the willful infliction of a certain kind of nonphysical pain called humiliation.” That quote has stuck with me, not because of its political context, but because of its ethical ramifications.

For years after 9/11, we heard about how torture was necessary if it allowed us to stop “the next attack”. The word torture was never used–it was defined as “enhanced interrogation techniques” for obvious euphemistic reasons–and the media never challenged the new fear narrative that gripped the country. The use of language can be a powerful tool in the hands of media and politicians, and they knew that there would be less concern about something labelled “enhanced interrogation techniques” than there would be for the much more visual and visceral “torture”. We could similarly rebrand the death penalty as “enhanced state-run life-taking procedure”, or war as “enhanced state-sanctioned attack and defense system”. In this kind of Orwellian newspeak, meaning is both hidden and meaningless at the same time. It is no coincidence that TV programs like “24” were popular in these years. I never watched it, but I am aware of its false glorification and justification of the use of torture because the soldiers around me during my deployments were often prone to become obsessed with certain TV shows and binge watch an entire series in a week. The truth, which we can see clearly now that the fear has passed and some of our rationality has slowly come creeping back, is that torture never stopped the next attack, and that there never was and never will be any legal justification for torture.

Even now, after the release of this report, the torture apologists have crawled out of their caves insisting on the same lies, as though even had all of this torture stopped a single attack, it would have been worth it. It is telling that cowardly men like former Vice President Dick Cheney (who avoided military service at all costs) refuse to acknowledge regret for the black tide of illegal war and immoral acts they duped the country into, yet men like John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, remain firmly against it due to hard-lived experience and certainty of its inefficacy and immorality. It is also troubling that no less than a Supreme Court justice has justified the case for torture using the ticking time bomb situation (Antonin Scalia’s Case for Torture) and saying things like “I think it’s facile for people to say, ‘Oh, torture is terrible.'” Yes, it’s facile because it is terrible, and illegal, and immoral.

The philosophy of utilitarianism derived from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill is a useful and interesting moral calculus for certain types of situations. In certain cases, the best thing to do is the one in which the most number of people will benefit or be happy. We can stretch this even into financial considerations of how to best spend money in a way which will benefit the most number of people. This should be considered one tool among many to weigh the merits and demerits of a particular decision, but not a hard and fast ethical rule. Doing so leads us into any number of thought experiments where we are playing with human lives and trying to decide the most moral thing to do. Utilitarianism is one form of consequentialism, which basically says that the benefit of an action is decided by its consequences, and not in the action itself. Thus, with the famous trolley car thought experiment, we are asked whether we will shift a runaway train onto a track where it will kill only one man instead of five. Though some will disagree, these types of problems are a proverbial “bridge too far” in the field of ethics. Once human life is involved, rather than mere lifestyle or economic questions, the equation changes. It becomes more emotional, more blurry, less calculable. If I was asked to kill one man to save five, or even to save 100, I am not sure that I could do it. That is exactly the situation presented in John Fowles’ book, The Magus. The Nazis on a Greek island (it is also no coincidence that Nazis and torture are our two ubiquitous subjects for testing the extreme limits of various ethical positions) gave the character a choice of shooting three men in order to save the village, but he could not pull the trigger. When we are asked to do the dirty deed, or to unjustly take human life, something changes in the consequentialist calculus and the ends no longer justify the means.

In the system of ethics devised by Immanuel Kant, “duty” ethics, a man is called to do his duty by acting so that his action will make a universal law. This so-called categorical imperative calls for us to never treat someone as a means to an end, but rather an end in himself. There are holes in this line of thinking, especially that it is too categorical (for example, Kant would have us tell the truth even if a lie protected a loved one from harm), and that what a man wills can differ from person to person (for example, what was willed by the Nazis into being universal law is not what we want to represent our infallible sense of morality). What I take from Kant’s system is his dignity for humanity and for each person existing as an end rather than a means. This is important. Paradoxically, torture cannot be justified in a Kantian system of ethics since it violates personal sovereignty and dignity, yet National Socialism could be justified if it was willed into being as the representation of universal law by a society.

Back to modern times, this brief synopsis was intended to give some philosophical perspective, but I must insist, against certain consequentialist philosophers, some film and TV producers, and some politicians that there is no situation in which torture can be justified. Ever. A situation will not arise in which torture is necessary for any reason. There is no ticking time bomb. There are no lives to save. It is all dissimulation in order to maintain some sense of power and control by the torturer. “The torturer”, in this case, must be understood to represent not America as a whole, but a certain specific regime that controlled America for some years before losing democratic election. Since torture is not only immoral in all circumstances, but also illegal according to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and many other national and international laws, someone should rightfully be held accountable for such crimes. In comparable historical contexts, I would not hold the modern countries of Chile and Argentina accountable for the crimes and torture inflicted by the authoritarian regimes of Pinochet and Videla, to name just two examples; the responsibility is of those who held power and made decisions first and foremost. On the other hand, these countries renounced the crimes of their dictator regimes and prosecuted anyone who was involved whenever possible. This raises the question of prosecuting members of the Bush administration and the C.I.A. leadership for crimes against humanity. It is an open question in which I will leave to the legal authorities and scholars whether it is legally possible or politically wise, but I think it is safe to say that the torture report is a step in the right direction, but seeing high-ranking abusers of power on trial would be an even more powerful statement than a partially declassified report.

It is also troubling that while Obama has refused to prosecute anyone for admitted crimes, saying things like “it’s important to look forward and not backwards” (do they ever say that about any other situation where someone committed a crime?), the only person who has been prosecuted in the C.I.A. torture case is the person who leaked information about it to the press. His name is John Kiriakou, and he is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence for leaking information about illegal activity, while the illegal activity itself goes unpunished.

Lastly, I would like to briefly speculate on the principles behind the practice of torture which, in my opinion, comes from the corrupt desire to exert complete power and control over another living being. One of the best books I’ve read that deals with torture is the novel Waiting for the Barbarians by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Bertrand Russell, in his 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, attempted to define a new sociology based on power being the supreme guiding principle of social science. He says, “The ultimate power of the Law is the coercive power of the State. It is the characteristic of civilised communities that direct physical coercion is (with some limitations) the prerogative of the State, and the Law is a set of rules according to which the State exercises this prerogative in dealing with its own citizens”. Here, we can understand his “direct physical coercion” to include not only torture but police brutality, war (including the violence it brings to combatants and non-combatants alike), and the death penalty. Most of these things are done legally because it is the prerogative of the state which makes its own laws. Torture, though illegal according to the U.N. Charter of Human Rights and many international treaties, is the only form of violence which is exercised merely as a form of total control over an individual. This key characteristic of totalitarianism comes from the corrupting influence of unchecked power. As Dostoyesky (a former prisoner) once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” While this quote could easily apply to modern-day America, we could paraphrase it by saying “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by how those in power treat those without power.” If the answer is to torture with impunity, then we are no longer living in civilization but in hell.

Against Obvious Racism

by ahbonenberger

We’ve been under the mistaken impression, for some time, now, outside the ghetto, outside poverty-stricken areas and urban centers (I’m using white code for places that black people live) that America is a fundamentally just society. We thought that we had judicial mechanisms sufficient to satisfy all segments of the population – if not equally, at least on some kind of sliding scale. Black comedians, rappers, and religious authorities seemed to be ministering to the disproportionate attention young black men attracted from police. Culturally, we’d accepted, on a broad level, that being black meant that you were more likely to go to prison or have trouble with law enforcement. We accepted similar things about the Hispanic population, and rarely thought anything about the Native American communities – they were wisely placed on reservations many years ago, and given responsibility over themselves, which meant that what happened to them was their fault, and not ours. Recently, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. We’ve seen behind the curtain. And the truth is not pleasant.

When I was in Afghanistan, one of the most remarkable lessons was that justice, and governance, were largely arbitrary – matters of aesthetics. One village would be ruled by a pro-government militia (Afghan Police and Army rarely patrolled, much of what we called “government controlled” land in Afghanistan was, in fact, militia controlled). The militia would collect taxes of 10% or 15% from the population, and would take responsibility for adjudicating tribal disputes. In other words, they acted like the Police, and tribal mechanisms (elders, etc.) acted like our judiciary. Another village, across a road, or some other terrain feature, would be ruled by the Taliban. The Taliban would collect taxes of 10% or 15% from the population, and would take responsibility for adjudicating tribal disputes using Sharia law – a Mullah would interpret crimes and, having established guilt or innocence, would impose punishment based on the Koran.

Whether a village accepted militia or Taliban rule was a combination of self-interest, security, group preference, and other variables that I do not claim to have understood, as an outsider. The important takeaway, for the purposes of this article, and understanding the role justice plays in our own society, is that literally any mechanism was preferable to none, and that the role of “justice” was to keep the peace, was to ensure social stability, and an absence of strife or struggle within a given community. Otherwise, war resulted. Without justice, tribes would go to war against one another over disputed resources, in a heartbeat. This was the situation on the border of Pakistan, territory the government didn’t even have the strength to dispute in 2007, let alone manage.

Our American justice system has been failing for a while, now, and the only reason it hasn’t been more obvious is that it’s only been failing certain portions of the population. For those individuals who are angry about this fact – that it took the well-publicized deaths of three consecutive black men under suspicious circumstances, and the refusal of a Grand Jury to acknowledge what our eyes and ears have shown reasonable people to be true – all I can say is that one knows what one knows. I can’t take responsibility for the past, but I can acknowledge the present, and agree with the obvious, logical assessment that things are not correct, things are not just. The system is creating unrest where it should be resolving unrest. The American justice system – and American society in general – is, in as fundamental a way as one can imagine, broken.

The problem is not the police. I take great exception to the wealth of anger and opprobrium heaped upon our policemen and policewomen. The police are here to enforce our social standards, and they do so, quite effectively. Instead, we should be observing our own actions, and looking in the mirror to assess whether or not the problem lies within ourselves, the people of America. When you see a group of young black men, does part of you worry, does it provoke some nameless anxiety that is not felt when you’re around a group of young white men? When you’re sitting at a bar and a black man walks in, do you react differently from when a white man enters? Do you see a group of Hispanic people at a bus stop or in a parking lot and immediately draw conclusions about them, their motivations, their histories?

Of course you do. And when a young black man who stole a $5 pack of swisher sweets cigarillos from a convenience store is shot by the police, when you breathe a silent sigh of relief: “one less scumbag who might get rape my wife and blast rap music loudly,” that’s not an indictment of the police, that’s the police doing what you hoped they’d do. Ditto the hell-kid with the pistol replica, and the criminal giant who was blackly and horribly selling loose cigarettes for profit, illegally, on a street corner. Not in my town, you think. Motherfucking property value killing monkeys.

You can lie to me all you want, and you can also lie to yourself, if that’s important to maintaining whatever fiction you’re perpetuating. But a lie is a lie, and the truth is this: you’re fine with the police hassling black people, because you think black people are criminals, and you want the police to hassle criminals. I feel the same way. We’re in a safe place here, we can be honest with each other. I’m scared on the train when black and Hispanic people get on board on Bridgeport or Stamford – they rarely have tickets, and always have some cock-and-bull story about misplacing it, or moving seats, or who knows what. My hypothesis? They’re on the train to rob employed (this is white code for “white”) people of their money and tickets.

So – but it’s too obvious, now, that’s the real problem with Ferguson and Eric Garner and “I can’t breathe.” The jig’s up – people know who we are (white people, and specifically white men), and they know what we want, because they see our desires accomplished through our police. We need to make a change, so people stop rioting and burning the franchises that white people own, like CVS and Rite Aid and Family Dollar. We need to give the blacks justice – even if that means occasionally sacrificing a police officer to a kangaroo court. After all, this is really about our safety, and our ability to hold onto the grudges and stereotypes we cherish. If we don’t feed the occasional officer to the wolves, it’ll all be too obvious, and we’ll actually have to change how we think about black people, and women, and Mexicans, and Chinese, and homosexuals. Police officers understand why they get paid overtime and hazardous duty – it’s not so they should be safe – they’re keeping us safe. And sometimes that means we have to hang a police officer up high, by the neck, to prevent the rabble from rioting, from getting on the train and stealing and looting and burning.

War is Not Ironic

by Michael Carson

At one point during my deployment to Iraq, I asked an odd question. A soldier had been shot in the head. I was trying to get him back to the base hospital. I liked the soldier who had been shot. I did not want him to be shot. But shot he was and this is what I whispered to myself, under my breath, with gritted teeth:

“Are you happy?”

I could not sleep that night. The full extent of my complicity in this absurd war kept me awake. I finally gathered what was wrong and what was wrong was me. I saw clearly that I had done and had participated and no matter how earnest my contrition about the horribleness of it all, now that my friend and soldier had been shot, I would be a liar, because what had happened was not in the least ironic. I had expected it.

But, in my defense, all Americans expected it.

Paul Fussell’s literary history The Great War and Modern Memory seems to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts lately. In it, Fussell more or less argues that the war made European culture ironic because it was an ironic war. Nothing turned out as expected. As there has been no shortage of jaded war literature since the war, this sounds good. It makes sense from a literary perspective. Problem is, from a historical perspective, this is not in the least true. A quick glance anything other than Owen’s poetry and Graves’ angry fusillade against British culture (written ten years after the war and which he later expressed regret for) will tell you that the decades leading to the Second World War will show anyone that the people of America, Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union were not especially ironic or anymore ironic after the war then they were before. This was the age of freewheeling capitalism, of communism, of fascism, of religious revivalism and soldier worship. If anything, The First World War ushered in an age of earnestness (Read Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning for a historian’s take on the question) that made hash of a vibrant pre-war culture.

Great War

Some British war literature did build on a rich satirical tradition but anyone who has read Dickens and Thackeray can tell you that World War One did not invent literary irony. This irony helped them endure the war longer than most belligerent nations, to look away and laugh as it sucked away their entire population and destroyed their economy, but it did not emerge in this awfulness. The Wipers Times, a satirical trench newspaper – forbearer perhaps of sites like the Duffelblog – is a great example of this, and nothing in that famous satirical paper does not build off the foundation of irony established well before the war. France and Germany had very few war ironists during the war. All Quiet came well after the war, ten years in fact, when everyone decided to play at irony as a last ditch effort against the main legacy of the war: seething anger, delusional stab-in-the-back romance and despair.

Fussell’s observations are correct and insightful insofar as they focus on the war poets – the Owens and Rosenbergs – who, ironically, did not survive their war. I think this renaissance of Fussell’s work has much to do with not only the First World War’s hundredth anniversary but with the volunteer nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We soldiers and Americans in general – so this version of events goes – are suddenly like Owen because we did not get what we expected. We went in as starry-eyed idealists after the towers fell and became hardened ironists through the brutality of a war we had no way of knowing could be bad. This movement from innocence to hardened wisdom makes for a great story, a sense of growth, of progress. Sentimentalists love a specious sense of closure, and this movement provides us this.

Yet it is not true.

Unless we were born in a cave (no, I take that back, even if one lived in a cave), everyone knows that when you go to war you kill people and are killed. You can’t possibly plead ignorance as a boy born on an Arkansas farm might in 1917 (and even this I find doubtful). Wars are about killing. And every war has people die and be killed. This is their appeal. It is an end to civility, a giving up on the norms of reason and accountability. Only a literal moron would think otherwise. For accounts of such morons, see Ambrose Bierce’s brilliant “Chickamauga,” narrated by a mute and dumb boy, or the psychopathic Ronald Weary of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Very few deaf and dumb mute people fought in Iraq in Afghanistan and very few deaf and dumb mutes voted for the war. There were admittedly a couple Ronald Wearys running about the halls of Congress and the Army and Marines but they were in no way the majority. So what gives? How is everyone so surprised when war turns out to be horrible and boring and as stupid as we thought it would?

Now there is the argument that we do not know really know what we claim to know or expect about war. We can say “war is horrible,” but we do not really understand it until we have seen it ourselves. There is some truth to this. But this is actually an argument against wartime irony. In this version, the full impact of its horror somehow breaks the civilized veneer of cynicism, which has become, so the logic goes, enervating to our sense of moral clarity. Experience or at least faith in something breaks down the distracting and consuming paradoxes of knowledge. Famously, the fall of the towers supposedly ended our irony, so we could see clearly again, and the first thing we did with our newfound earnestness is go to war against evil incarnate because we were sick and tired of the dissimulations and tongue-in-cheek circumlocutions of civilized discourse. War, we understood with reptilian logic, is where irony goes to die. We wanted it dead, and we killed it good.

In “What I Saw at Shiloh,” Ambrose Bierce, recounting the hideous forms of the Union dead, professes that he “cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who got exactly what they enlisted for.” This is harsh – they didn’t call him “Bitter Bierce” for nothing – but I think Bierce’s observation is less an accusation than an acknowledgment that part of war stories, part of the appeal of war, and part of those who adore war stories, derives from a false sense of ignorance on part of the civilians, readers and soldiers. War, we want to pretend, surprises us with its violence. This is part of the appeal, for being surprised with death is much more exciting than plowing crops from dawn to dusk, working at a Connecticut insurance company from nine to five or just lounging around all day at the local bar.


Gallant gentlemen at Shiloh

We go to war because we want to be surprised and we are duly surprised by death, human meanness and degradation. War is reliable in this respect. People forget how many of the modernists, those supposedly darkly ironic men, who for the most part turned after the war toward Christianity (Eliot), fascism (Pound) or Marxism (Brecht), saw in the First World War an antidote to peacetime banality, soullessness and ennui. The wasteland isn’t in Flanders but in London. The war confirmed their suspicion about existence and gave them a great metaphor; it did not teach them anything of note.

Phil Klay’s collection of short war stories has just won the National Book Award. The award is well deserved. His stories of various marines – from grunts doing jumping jacks on buildings to draw fire, to chaplains looking for true faith in the crucible of fire, to award writers filled with shame at the stories they are forced to make up about men under fire – touch on the way which the war gives us exactly what we expect, not how it surprises us, but how we are always stunned when we get what we thought we wanted and now no longer want.


Klay’s work is what we need because it deals with the problem of expectation. And yet there are already a series of writers and critics seeking to place Klay’s work within a tradition it is not really part of – as a proud entrant in a long line of ironic war art, whose original honorees would likely refuse the honor. They want to see the writing of his stories as a catharsis, a triumph for art over war, because they are sick of thinking about the war and this is how the story has always gone, and, most simply, this is what they expect.

But this is a lie, that old lie, as Owen might say, and we should react to the horror in Klay’s work not with surprise, not with blather about catharsis, and happy talk of how war art endures and triumphs over the barbarity of war, but admit that on some level when we went to war we as a country and as individuals expected the emotional, psychological and physical barbarity that would follow. And if this is true, if we do look toward war to answer questions we already know the answer to, then we need to really ask ourselves one thing and one thing only, the same question I asked and the same question we should ask after every war: quite simply, are we happy to get exactly what we expected? And – if we are not – maybe we need to start looking for novel and less catastrophic affirmations.

Peace in the Middle East (by Christmas 2014)

by ahbonenberger

I have the solution to the full-blown crisis in the Middle East, and as usual, America is the only country that can do it right. Russia has the resources, but let’s face it – they’re too fundamentally disorganized and sentimentalist to make it happen the way it needs to. No, only America can solve this human catastrophe. Sweet, rational, reasonable, capitalist America can do it tomorrow, and for good.

Here’s the problem: there are two more or less evenly-matched factions, with a host of smaller groups that are forced to affiliate with one faction or the other, or risk destruction. They have the full array of modern means by which to kill each other – arsenals that would put Hitler’s Wehrmacht to flight several times over. They are, the two interests opposed in the Middle East and on into Afghanistan, a perfectly-honed killing machine, and they will slaughter until some third party intervenes to arrest the slaughter, only to resume again after the third party leaves. As soon as one side gains an advantage sufficient for victory, someone steps in with just enough authority to prevent a necessarily bloody, one-sided religious and cultural annihilation. The problem has plagued the area since at least recorded history, and probably longer, and all attempts at a peaceful solution have met with failure.

Until now.

The only reason the United States and Soviet Russia didn’t end up going back to war almost immediately after WWII – five to ten years, tops – was fear of the nuclear bomb. We almost went to war several times afterwards anyway, pulled back from the edge by the certainty that destroying each other would be foolish and useless if the only thing that we accomplished in so doing was our own destruction. So here’s the deal – we give every group of at least 10,000 members within every faction five hydrogen bombs. For you laymen out there, a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb clocks in around 500 kilotons (“Little Boy,” the truth-nugget America dropped on Hiroshima for the unthinkable crime of obstinacy, clocked in at 16 kilotons), enough to level a medium-sized city. That includes Nusra, ISIS, Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds, Assad’s regime, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the Taliban – everyone. Everyone gets enough nuclear ass to wipe the other portion off the face of the earth, plus a little bit left over to use as they please.

If everyone in the Middle East could destroy everyone else, they'd be peaceful instead. Photograph by Paddy Dunne

If everyone in the Middle East could destroy everyone else, they’d be peaceful instead. Photograph by Paddy Dunne

Now I know what you’re thinking. “We’ve worked so hard to prevent these groups from getting nukes – what’s to stop them from using them irresponsibly, against each other, or against us? They want to destroy our freedom, and freedom is notoriously vulnerable to atomic weaponry.” That’s a valid concern. But while it’s possible that our gift to the Middle East of enough fire and anger to destroy itself several times over, with the push of a button, another possibility exists: peace.

I said it. It’s possible – even likely, I would argue, that, faced with the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation – total destruction, the kind where nobody gets anything, and in such a way that your soul gets trapped here on earth by the blast, do not pass go, do not ascend to heaven – each faction would look to make peace with each other, and with us. Nuclear weapons have a strange way of inspiring even the biggest zealots among us to exercise restraint. Zealotry is usually tied to egotism and a fear of being destroyed – a desire for sex and procreation and the assurance that one will be free to make children who can in turn make children. Arm everyone with nukes, and we’ll all be safe.

What’s the downside? Well, it’ll be a tough sell for some countries. Israel has been justifiably concerned that if Arab countries and Iran get their hands on nukes, that they will use the nukes against them, and wipe them off the map. Surely, however, this is rhetoric – the Arab countries and Iran really just want Israel for themselves. And, once again, 2500 kilotons would destroy Israel utterly – nobody could have it. No, I think Israel would be safer, if anything, were it to be surrounded with suddenly-responsible people. Nukes are like the philosopher’s stone of radicalism, causing the most hardline beheaders to morph into paragons of conservatism and restraint. It should be at the point where there’s at least one nuke in every city in the Middle East, pointing at some other city. Sure, it’d be terrifying – but nothing would happen. Guarantee it.

And just to make sure, we could enable a trigger mechanism with a GPS function that would detonate if anyone screwed with it, and detonate if it was moved out of the Middle East. We can build cars that drive themselves. We can make a GPS nuke that won’t travel. It’s not rocket science.

We’d do it all at once. Make an announcement: “Check it out. Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Yazidi, Kurds, Turkey, Hezbollah, Armenia, Hamas, Kuwait, Taliban, Afghanistan, on December 1st, at 1200, we’re going to be flying planes full of nuclear anger into your countries. Resistance is futile. If you shoot at the planes they’ll just drop the bombs instead and see how you like that. Take possession of the nukes – they will be attached to simple trigger mechanisms that require only the push of a conveniently big red button – and let our planes fly away, in peace. Good luck and godspeed.”

This is a fine and workable idea. I will get some good sleep at night – mighty good sleep – as the fire burning the Middle East is put out for once and for all. Faced with the abyss, rather than platitudes – there’s no honor in getting destroyed for nothing, without the chance to even think of Allah or God or whomever – people would settle into the same boring, quotidian routines that we’ve come to resent.

Recalcitrant Natives and the Problem of Accountability

by Michael Carson



The age-old question: How do you teach the congenitally irresponsible to act responsibly?


According to SIGAR’s latest quarterly report to Congress, released October 30th, 2014, the American and international community’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are not going as well as we had hoped. It seems that the 104 billion dollar reconstruction resulted in 411,000 full-time equivalent jobs for the Afghanistan opium industry; the insurgency’s supporters – those on which we have spent many more billions fighting – would be one of the prime recipients of reconstruction contracts and government largesse; and enormously expensive irrigation projects in Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Kunar provinces actually helped increase opium-poppy cultivation.

This is admittedly bad. At the same time, this corruption on the part of the people of Afghanistan just proves what some of us always suspected – namely, you simply cannot trust uncivilized and backward people to do the right thing by themselves. You have to train them to be responsible and accountable like the West. Once they see how we always take responsibility for our actions, and how we always ensure our every dollar goes to where it needs to, then they will inevitably follow suit.

I have some experience with this. I deployed to Iraq, a smaller country with a smaller reconstruction budget of only 60 billion. Still, we did what we could with what we had. We spent it on berms, on contractors, on schools – benevolent projects that were supposed to be used to protect, give jobs and educate people. We were always extra careful to spend it only on undertakings that made us feel warm and fuzzy inside, on berms and buildings we associated with civilization. This struck us as scientific because science had at one time been used to create the projects we were building and we used a lot of scientific jargon to describe the projects. Fortunately for us, there were plenty of such projects to complete, as the sudden influx of suicide bombers and IEDs had destroyed the city’s once functioning infrastructure.

The Iraqis never thanked us. All they ever wanted was more propane. What do you want gas for?” we asked. “We’re trying to build you a school. Don’t you want to be scientists like us?” No, they wanted gas, something about having no reliable power source since the invasion. But even when we gave them gas, they would just sell it to line their own pockets and feed their insatiable greed. Their audacity knew no limits. You would give them gas out of the goodness of your heart to help run their military bases and they would turn around and sell it to some landlord. What kind of country, what kind of people mind you, would put the sale and capitalization of energy products above the interest of their own people? What kind of hard-hearted Neanderthals would be more concerned with making money off of oil when their infrastructure crumbles around them and people are in poverty?

Having studied the Vietnam War through movies about the war, I saw clearly that you needed to temper violence with creative and confidence-building projects, or else you might lose the people’s respect. You had to show them that they should like you and want to be like you. The problem, though, is you couldn’t trust any of them to come to this logical conclusion. They had no sense of history. You could give them all this stuff, all the money, power, and weapons, and they would just fitter it away on contractors, jihad and trinkets. They had no real dignity, no self-awareness. If there was one thing I learned from my year driving around in someone else’s town, barging into their houses, tearing apart their rooms, scaring their children half to death, and handing out paychecks to pay for the damages, it’s that you can’t make a man self-aware through force and money. People either have self-awareness or they don’t, and the people of these primitive countries most definitely do not.

My interactions with Iraqi children always brought this last point home extra forcefully. The soldiers and I liked to give them candy and stuffed animals and take pictures with them. Everyone had a grand time. At least here we were making Mosul a better place so the next generations of citizens would look fondly upon the American occupation. I know I would think the same thing if the Russians invaded my hometown. “Thanks for building the vodka distillery,” I would tell the Russians. “Thanks for all the neat Matryoshka dolls. My kids love them.” There is nothing that better serves to increase civic-mindedness, patriotism and personal accountability then invading a country and telling them what to do with their lives. This gave me some consolation, the hope that the next generation would be more responsible than the present one, and that the Iraqi people would forever stay like their children. Of course, it didn’t quite work as planned in Iraq because we left them on their own. And everyone knows you never leave children by themselves.  Still, I for one still cherish these memories and hope for a day when all Iraqis, men, women and children alike, will again smile and cheer obligingly when I give them candy.

Until then, we still have work to do in Afghanistan. The fact that the Afghans are using our money for their contemptible and singular drug habit, and that they are lavishing our hard-earned resources on self-serving contractors, is indeed worrisome and reminds me of our difficulties in Iraq. But this doesn’t mean the war is a failure. Not in the least. It simply means we should double down on the money we have left (15 billion according to SIGAR) and perhaps ask Congress for additional appropriations to hire more enlightened contractors of our own, as we should have done in Iraq. These people will never learn the importance of taking responsibility for themselves unless we continue to blindly justify our past mistakes through half-hearted and haphazard investments. For the fact is nothing teaches a backward and benighted people to be responsible with money and accountable for their expenses like acting responsible and holding every guilty party accountable for our own.

America’s Middle East Policy: The Great Post-Persia Hangover

by ahbonenberger

We never meant things to get out of hand the way they did in Iran. Let’s agree about that to begin with, let’s agree that the CIA’s role in replacing a democratically elected but left-leaning leader in the 1950s with a dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was understandable in the context of Persia’s vast oil fields, and the widespread belief at the time that we were on the strategic defensive against an ascendent and nuclear Soviet Union. Let’s agree that yes, there were excesses, as there often are, even in our society today. There was CIA-condoned torture – a lot of it – so much so that if you were to ask an Iranian immigrant from that time about the Shah, he or she would likely tell you that life under the Shah was about as bad as it later became under the Clerics – but Persia was right next to the Soviet Union, and this was an existential fight. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, especially when the free world is on the line.

Iran was supposed to be a lock, for us, like it had been for the British. And the thing about America is that it’s better than Britain – in many ways, it’s just Britain 2.0. More freedom. Better PR. Hotter chicks, with better teeth. That’s the promise of America – bigger, beefier, less nonsense, and we can tell the difference between a bad guy and a good guy. Above all, the implicit bargain between America and its overseas pals is simple: you love us, we’ve got your back.

The type of revolution that occurred in Persia, coming when it did, after Vietnam, was unthinkable. A safely pro-US country turned its back on us, and started calling us “The Great Satan.” Worse than couching its rhetoric in a language we shared, the language of religion, they didn’t even ally with the Soviet Union. A defection along rational lines from our system to that of the Soviet Union would have stung, but was also easy to rationalize – we’d just allowed ourselves to get beat by the Vietnamese, because of weak and liberal politicians. In other words, had Persia gone Red like everyone else, well, that’s because we were beating ourselves. We were too weak. That was the national narrative at the time. And when you’re losing due to some decision you made, when you’re losing due to omission, it’s almost like you didn’t lose at all, right? It’s not like fighting fair, mano e mano, and getting slapped down by someone stronger.

This kinda looks like how things are shaping up in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc. Coincidence?

This kinda looks like how things are shaping up in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc. Coincidence?

But Persia went for something new, and pre-enlightenment. They went in the opposite direction of the Soviet Union. They rejected Western systems entirely, and embraced a pre-colonial, theology-based organization instead. It’s pointless to debate the merits of their system – anyone who’d claim Iran ended up better off as a theocratic despotism is either an extremist, an ideologue, or a buffoon. They slapped our hand away, and that of the Soviet Union. They said, essentially, that they hated us so much, they were willing to invent their own model, to hell with our science, to hell with a better life, to hell with all of it. If they were going to torture their own citizens, they were going to do it their own way, by god, and they did. The smack from that hand-slap has resonated, awfully, throughout our foreign policy ever since.

The greatest sin you can make against the United States of America is to hate us. Is to reject our love. Iran compounded that sin doubly – by threatening Israel, which is still a part of their official rhetoric, and by the aforementioned bad timing of their revolution occurring on the heels of our defeat in Vietnam.

It doesn’t take a genius to draw parallels with the current situation in Iraq and Syria. In ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or Daesh) we see a similar impulse: a group of people who have discounted and rejected American assistance, save in a way that is supremely irritating (taking the plundered ammunition, vehicles, and weapons of our fallen proxies). To a certain constituent group with which we’ve become acquainted these last two decades, that we never suspected existed before, ISIS and Iran represent a clean break with the West, a positivist assertion of a moment in history when ethnic and religious social groups could exist outside a post-enlightenment, post-rational framework, and the colonialism and exploitation that went along with it. To ISIS and Iran, there’s no fundamental difference between America and the Soviet Union.

I’m against intervening militarily in Iraq and Syria, and have written why at length elsewhere. Regardless of whether you think I’m full of s*** or not – many feel that way – one has to acknowledge that America’s behavior in the Middle East has been desultory, reactionary, and short-sighted, which is why, in part, we keep encountering groups that profess to hate us. Once we begin to acknowledge that we were partly (although again, understandably) responsible for creating the conditions where a thing like Iran or ISIS could exist in the first place, we will have taken the first necessary step toward avoiding the mistakes that we will, left to our own devices and current foreign policy, create again in ten or twenty years, and then again after that. The lesson of Iran shouldn’t be that we must be at loggerheads with an entire people – but that time heals all wounds, and it’s okay for a group to not love us without America going ballistic in response.

These Colors Don’t Run: Afghanistan Edition

by ahbonenberger

It’s sad when you already know what people are going to say when you tell them that staying in Afghanistan today is as stupid and pointless now as it was in 2003, or 2009, or 2011. They’re going to say “but look what happened in Iraq,” relying on their audience’s lack of understanding of or interest in the two countries to allow that logic to stand as a reason why we should continue keeping boots on the ground. They’re going to say “but what about the Taliban,” as though a grassroots organization based in Pakistani territory – never reachable, wholly beyond our ability to control or solve – has anything to do with “Afghanistan’s” problems. They’re going to say “we can’t let Afghanistan fall apart like Iraq,” although our first move in Afghanistan was to install a truculent, overtly partisan Pashtun who did everything in his power to prevent regional Tajik and Uzbek warlords from getting wrapped into the official security apparatus.

When a region has a problem, and that problem is a longstanding crisis of confidence in a population’s political leadership, owing to that leadership being perceived as a bunch of crooks who’ve sold out to various Western powers over the last century (Britain, America, France, Russia), the symptom is an outraged local movement focused inwardly, and interested primarily in isolating itself from foreign-minded politicians, as well as foreign countries’ influence. In Afghanistan that was the Taliban. In Iraq and Syria, obviously, the “people” have flocked to extremist organizations like al Nusra, ISIS, the Mahdi militias, and similar outfits. In America, it’s the libertarian party and the Tea Party – tired of America’s continued hyper-involvement in other countries’ domestic squabbles (the Western power to which we’ve sold out, according to party members, is ourselves – American politicians and big business, as represented by Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton).

Advocates of ongoing military intervention in Afghanistan, and expanded intervention in Iraq, and propping up regimes like Yemen’s, and the type of meaningless, low-level provocation in Ukraine that will only encourage Putin to take more in the months and years to come, and selling out protests like the student demonstrations in Hong Kong – advocates of violence as a means of solving external local problems would have you believe that their method will resolve movements like the Taliban, and ISIS. That by killing over years and decades, we can kill enough of the people that oppose us that the opposition will simply vanish, and in its place will be compliant and responsible citizens who are friendly (or at least neutral) to our political system, to the West.

This way of thinking is naïve in the extreme. In no culture ever have people have been whipped or bullied into submission. It’s never happened. There have been events where this type of behavior between cultures escalated to the point where one side essentially annihilated the other, or demonstrated its willingness to do so – but I don’t think anyone’s advocating that America or the West exterminate the populations of nations where significant portions of the population hate us, replacing those populations with American or European settlers. Even if this were practical or possible, the act itself would damn us more completely than our lazy and casual large-scale murder campaigns have over the last decade.

So why are we staying in Afghanistan? Only the most tortured, rhetorically disingenuous flip-flopper could contort our accomplishments in that war-torn land to the point where our continued presence makes any kind of sense for our strategic interests, or those of our European allies. Saying that “The Afghans” want us there is similarly misguided – the product of deeply blinkered reports from Kabul and Mazir-e-Sharif, or the product of those think-tank and consulting groups whose diseased minds were responsible for getting us into that mess in the first place.

And if it feels like what we’re doing in staying is “stabilizing” Afghanistan, take a look at SIGAR’s website. If stability is demonstrating to the Afghan people and the rest of the world that we can’t manage tens of billions of dollars on boondoggles and graft, then, yes, we’ve achieved a ton of stability in Afghanistan recently.

But if not – if we haven’t actually stabilized the country – if what we’ve done instead is committed ourselves to a longer, more explosive slide into violence than anything we’ve seen in the Middle East so far – if staying in Afghanistan is just deferring the inevitable, as well as adding to an expense bill we can scarce afford at home – well, then why are we doing it? Is this actually the best idea we have, the status quo? Are we so bankrupt of creativity and intellectual power that we’re just kind of riding it out, seeing what happens? This is the worst type of intellectual dishonesty, and Potemkin governance. But it’s what we expect from ourselves –no surprise it’s what we expect from others. If only the populations of these other countries would cooperate with us, instead of hating us.

Shock and Awe Fatigue

by Michael Carson


The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’s brazen acts continue to fascinate the West. Videos of their dramatized beheadings, car chases and firing squads proliferate on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Journalists and newscasters compete with each other for the most demeaning superlative. Neocons have emerged from wherever it was that they went to tell us we brought this on ourselves in our weakness, and security moms dust off their minivans to vote for the neocons. Texas politicians swear they see cells of Jihadists just south of the Rio Grande and the President is no longer allowed to go on vacation. But what is it specifically that offends us so? People are killed in war all the time. The outpouring over death in the Ukraine has been desultory at best. I can’t remember the last time I stumbled across an article on Central American gang violence. But the actions of ISIL have us not only squawking like disturbed birds, but also oiling up our not-so-rusty bombers for another go at the desert.

So why this outpouring of vituperative and fear? Why do we have nearly every autocracy, democracy, plutocracy and autocratic-democratic-plutocracy in the world rallying to a banner in the face of a common enemy? We endure all kinds of transnational horrors – typhoons, exploding nuclear reactors, child-sex trafficking – with the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius but pull out our hair and gnash our teeth at these videos? If violence in that region and throughout the world is not in fact new, then it stands to reason our reaction stems from the type of violence they practice – namely, we are horrified not by the fact that they kill but that they do so openly and eagerly. This terrorism terrifies us not because we really fear for our lives – though this plays a part of course – but because it seems to reject the cherished illusion of modernity, of progressives throughout the world. We fear ISIL because they kill openly and joyfully where we do our best to do so secretly and reluctantly.

We in the modern world believe in our heart of hearts that we kill out of necessity. We in the West have large standing armies and manufacture over 50 percent of the world’s weaponry but we do not do so willingly. No sir. We shake our heads sadly at man’s fallen state as we open yet another munitions factory and sign up another seventeen-year-old infantryman. “It is terrible to live in such a world,” we say, “but such a world it is and we must defend ourselves our die.” Paradoxically, we do not want to admit the world is as terrible as our bombs and rifles make it out to be. We work very hard on clever euphemisms to deny that this violence even happens, and we are always surprised when others seem to relish what we reluctantly and sophistically embrace. We are much like Christ in this respect, except our right hand cuts funding to Syrian refugee camps and instead sends expensive bombs crashing into people’s houses.

And yet we were not always so squeamish about violence. Only a few short years ago, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, we did not hide our willingness to kill and destroy behind weak-kneed euphemisms. This might be lost on us now after the interminable drone strikes and mountainside patrols that no one knows or really cares to know about, but the war in Iraq, the theory of it, was built upon the idea that violence should not be disguised, but openly acknowledged and eagerly embraced. The “Shock and Awe” idea has become something of a joke now, and yet that is exactly what we, in all earnestness, hoped to do – shock and awe the world with our willingness to annihilate our enemy. Instead of hemming and hawing about international law and collateral damage, America would show on international TV, for the entire world to see, that we would not be pushed around. We would terrorize them for once. The Tigris and Euphrates would turn red with the blood of our enemies. Terrorists throughout the world would faint for fear of our wrath.

Well, the rest is history as they say, and, yet, in some cruel and utterly unforeseeable irony, it seems those in the ghettoes of Brisbane, London, Paris and Miami – second brothers and petit-bourgeois failures, the taproot of every revolution from time immemorial – carefully watched and replayed what America did in one lovingly detailed and realistic video game and movie after the next. Now, instead of toppling statues of Hussein in the streets of Baghdad, they are toppling statues of Abu Tammam in Jasim. The fact that the people of the world are not really sympathetic to Abu Tammam’s poems or care all overly much about his statues is a nicety of no real importance. What is important is violence and destruction. What is important is that people are shocked and awed by a man’s willingness to be violent and destructive. They hope as we did that we will do something stupid from fear, overextend ourselves, panic. How little credit they give us!

Some will argue that our actions were categorically different than the barbarians in the desert. Our saturation bombing campaigns, to these folks, are like executing a criminal through lethal injection – painless, efficient and immune to human error. Everyone wins. Perhaps. But we can’t deny that many of the barbarians come to Syria from our ghettoes, which we wrongly thought we had effectively sealed off through zoning, frisking and by arming the police with riot gear, sniper rifles and tanks. This is an increasingly not-so-rare chance to get your war on, to live out the fantasies of violence and manhood played out in movies and video games since Mortal Kombat. And once your war is on, isn’t it a little precious to get caught up particulars like whether or not you should kill everyone in the village or just some of them? Or, perhaps, to use a historical anecdote, whether you should invade a country that actually houses terrorists over one that does not? Isn’t it a little quaint, old fashioned even, to discriminate between one country or village of brown people and the next when it comes to War?

Albert Camus once said, “the man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” We seemed to have learned this lesson the hard way and lost a lot of good coffee along the way. Once the body bags started coming back from our own attempt to scare the terrorists silly – not to mention the credit card bills – we begin to rethink the logic of such a campaign. We decided it much wiser to speak euphemistically and carry an armed drone. We are, in truth, rather sick of being shocked and awed and shock and awe in general. We want to enjoy our coffee. Unfortunately, no one told the barbarians, who persist in using our own passé tactics against us, and who do not seem to appreciate the fine subtleties of modern war, which privileges both a nice cup of coffee and the dispensation of justice at the same time. But then again, they are medieval savages, with little sense of history and no discernment, so what did we honestly expect?


The Wrath of Islam

by ahbonenberger

I read a piece on Vox recently (compliments of former roommate and exceptional human being Damien Spleeters) the point of which was to disabuse readers of “myths” surrounding the Islamic State. The piece had a useful goal: to educate readers about the Islamic State, presumably so the reader could make more reasonable decisions about whether or not to support military engagement, or how to help resolve the problem of the Islamic State. I read the piece, twice, and while I found it better than much of the analysis elsewhere in mainstream media, it failed to disrupt the broader myth of the Islamic State. I want to continue the dialogue here, by examining what we hope to accomplish, and why.

Fact number one: Americans love violence. We love it in our movies and literature. We buy it en masse. The best television dramas aren’t just full of violence – they depend on it, without violence (and especially that most acceptable acts of violence – revenge, or retributive, or just violence) much of our entertainment would cease to make any kind of sense. This is true for American-made, American-written stories in a way that it is not for almost every other culture in the world, with the current exceptions of Chinese and Japanese cinema and literature, which are similarly saturated with violence, rape, and murder. Unsurprisingly, Japanese art has a large and enthusiastic following in America – unsurprisingly given our politics, Chinese art does not.

Fact number two: American love for violence extends into the political sphere. This is accomplished by adventurers who are wearied by peace, and bored by long-term projects to increase sustainability in communities, foreign and domestic. It is accomplished by cynical career politicians like Hillary Clinton and Karl Rove, both of whom understand that being seen as a powerful leader is part of what makes a good political candidate. And whereas there used to be a dominant isolationist, business-oriented, violence-sublimated strain to American politics – the old Republican Party, the boring, sober, clear-eyed realists of American politics that largely went extinct in the 70s and 80s, replaced by the current group of wild-eyed missionaries and Kulture-zealots. The Democratic Party still benefits from the perception that its constituency helped end the Vietnam War – they did not, it was the old, extinct Republican Party, Democrats began and expanded our involvement in Vietnam – but utopians on the left have always been the biggest proponents of foreign intervention on a small and large scale. Only recently, again, have utopians on the right begun to appropriate that narrative for themselves. For personal and professional reasons, as well as owing to the fact that journalism is a profession like any other, and there is no licensing process for thinking or talking or writing, most of the media coverage of every international event will be slanted toward creating the perception that American intervention is absolutely necessary.

Fact Three: American military intervention in other countries’ affairs usually makes things worse – occasionally much worse. Sometimes it doesn’t make things awful. That’s what we’re playing for, in the real world. It’s like that time on The Simpsons when Homer is asked to relate the particulars of some event – in his mind, he’s a tall, buff man, talking with the President of the United States, while (for no good reason) he is surrounded by aliens. Marge is exasperated by this obviously impossible account of events, and shuts him down. Advocates for military intervention are always prone to being Homer. Marge doesn’t exist. Let’s glance over big-ticket American military interventions over the last century:

Spanish American War – we freed Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spanish hegemony. That was such a staggering success for us and for our foreign policy that each of those three countries are… oh, right. Currently in shambles.

WWI – we beat the Germans, so the English and French could win WWI, because we liked their uniforms better (or something – there is actually no good reason we became involved in WWI and anyone who wants to dispute that is welcome to do so in the comment section), and then Europe was peaceful forever after that. WWI kicker – intervention in Soviet Revolution, against Lenin. Huge win for U.S., made everything better.

China in the 30s and 40s – we helped the Chinese resist the Japanese, which was cool, by supporting a monomaniacal tyrant who was happy to exterminate large swaths of the Chinese population, which was confusing because Chiang Kai-sheck could’ve looked like Tojo with glasses. What, they all look the same! Anyway, our support for the Chinese made everything better in China forever.

In World War II, we armed and equipped the Soviets and British to fight against Germany, then fought on the Allied side when Japan declared war on us. Defeating the Japanese actually did make things better over there – the Japanese may be the one place and time where our intervention actually helped. Our interest in doing so was tied to fear of the Soviets, who, despite our help during WWII, didn’t like us very much, as anyone with half a brain could’ve predicted going in. Germany’s life did not get better as a result of our intervention in WWII, they lost more of their territory, which made France and England happier, were split into two, and occupied. Sadly, everyone with some exposure to Soviet documents now understands that the Soviet Union was expecting us to attack them, and were never in any position to take over Europe, making the Cold War at least 50% our fault. Crazy when you think about it that way, but there you go.

Korea was a push – we made South Korea, run by a brutal dictator into the mid-eighties, look a lot like Japan. Life in North Korea after our military intervention did not improve – it actually got worse, to the point where it is actually a cliche that describes how awful life could be.

Iran – If you want a really sad, depressing accounting of how overseas, please read the official account of the Iran coup of 1953. Makes you feel bad for Iran, and bad about us. Eisenhower’s weak link as a president was British, and despite history assigning the responsibility for this one to us, it really was a British screw-up.

Vietnam – the less said, the better. We intervened militarily and things got so much better, it hurts even to think about it. Excruciating irony kicker – after arming or allying with South Vietnamese to fight their North Vietnamese cousins in order to protect them against Chinese and Soviet communism, the newly-reunified Vietnam fought a bitter, vicious war with China just a year after we closed our embassy. How’s that for gratitude – they could’ve at least pretended to be friends so as not to hurt our feelings. I mean, that’s one insanely useless war!

Cambodia & Laos – I don’t know much about these places, but am told that what happened after we intervened militarily helped their tourist industry. You’re welcome, Cambodia and Laos. Can’t wait to visit.

Africa – strongest continent on earth!

Iraq I – made things better for Kuwait, by keeping that territory out of Saddam Hussein’s hands. Were it not for our actions, the one quarter to one half of Kuwait’s population that’s actually Kuwaiti, and not some kind of slave, would have had to call themselves Iraqi instead. And as everyone knows, being an Iraqi sucks.

Somalia - We did not improve Somalia.

Afghanistan - Has life gotten better since the Taliban left? Well – it hasn’t gotten much worse. That’s gotta be worth something.

Iraq II – Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who terrorized the Middle East until we deposed him. He massacred 30,000 Kurds, which is awful. Unfortunately, things didn’t get better in Iraq while we were there, until we hired 20% of their population as security guards. Sort of disingenuously, Republicans and neo-conservatives have made it sound like it was having U.S. soldiers on the ground that was keeping Iraq safe. All I’m saying is, we had a lot of soldiers on the ground there while not paying off 20% of the population and we got attacked all the time. Had a lot of soldiers there while paying off 20% of the population and things got real quiet. In any case, shit’s out of control there right now.

Libya – Don’t bring up Libya. It’s fucking horrible there right now. A nightmare in every sense of the word.

Iraq III and Syria – shipping arms to militant groups we like at the moment has a way of burning us. It’s always the same story, too – they’re heroes when they need weapons, and then they’re awful, raping, human-rights-violating criminals afterward. Putting boots on the ground will not lead to a long-term deterioration in security, it will do so at the expense of American lives. Airstrikes are worse than useless, although they seem to make us feel better about ourselves. The Islamic State is a group that is using Western-style propaganda videos, and speaking to us, and encouraging us to become involved in Iraq and the Middle East right when it looks like we’ve extricated ourselves. Why? Because they know that our involvement in the Middle East will make things better for their cause! Why can’t we see this? Why do so many believe, against all visible proof to the contrary, that involvement in Iraq or Syria will improve anything in those countries? The counterargument – well, we can’t leave them to the Islamic State, that’d be horrible, distorts reality. However horrible it will be for Iraqis, Kurds, and Syrians to face the Islamic State alone, it will only be worse if we intervene by arming proxies, or by deploying soldiers and carrying out air strikes. I know this, and can say so definitively, because I have two eyes, and a brain, and am literate, and was paying attention to what happened over the last fifteen years.

Meanwhile – just so we know how the Middle East perceives us – the place we want to stabilize through the creation of a client-state in Kurdistan, or through Iraq, or – I’m not sure what our plan is because all the options are so bad – in any case, our reputation is so shitty in the region that as The Huffington Post reported recently, Middle Easterners believe that the CIA is funding the Islamic State. We are a myth to the very people we insist on helping – a nightmare – why are we so insistent on participating in yet another bloodletting? When they’re both expensive, and do no long-term good?



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