The Wrath Bearing Tree

The Implacable Modernism of ISIS

by Michael Carson

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If you go to the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas on any day of the week, you will find families clustered around two pieces of twisted metal, staring reverentially up at burnt bent steel. It doesn’t matter that the menagerie surrounding the violated beams – the jackets, dresses, dog collars and bullhorns – has no pattern, no basis in logic, no reason for being there other than the blunt sentimental force of memory. It makes no difference that this metal comes from another city and has little directly to do with the man being memorialized. All that matters is that those pieces of metal exist, and these pieces of tower give everything else in the museum a supremely beautiful and indisputable rationale, one that provides the visitors a moving and profound sense of the past.

The designers of the museum did this on purpose. They used this totem of our common suffering and apocalyptic terror to create a certain historical aesthetic, and rightly so, for in the modern world aesthetics usually trumps reason. In fact, in many ways, the more rationality has allowed us to accomplish, the stauncher our devotion to aesthetics has become. We need art and history to explain and justify a future that reason (and technology) has opened up for debate. The barbaric artifact then, this tangible evidence of fire and brimstone that we experienced, ties tight our tautological knot in the most convenient way possible, and we choose to use this icon of our common suffering as a touchstone, a point of historical departure in minds desperate for direction.

Yet, importantly, this love of the past, our predilection for grotesque historical memorabilia does not make us barbaric (or medieval). In fact, it makes us hopelessly and dangerously modern. It makes us like everyone else living in our fragmented world, everyone living in a world defined by a desperate ambition for history. To be modern means we live in a world with many different pasts and many possible futures, and thus we are continually tempted to forge a relationship between the past and the future through violence, to see an existential anchor in the finality of death.

I bring this up because there has been much confusion in the news recently over what it means to be barbaric, especially with regard to ISIS. Fashioning themselves as lone voices of common sense in a wilderness of cowardice, armchair historians have fallen over themselves to valiantly decry the actions of ISIS as savage. They have attested to the unique and invidious primitivism of these murderers, taking pains to show that they are not, as some have argued, byproducts of the modern world and those in control of this world, but artifacts themselves – testaments to a purer strain of 8th century fundamentalism. Ironically, they argue that ISIS is in fact exactly what ISIS perceives themselves to be: heroic champions of a past that once was, a faithful version of Islam that a stupid liberal world refuses to admit as an existential threat.

These critics of ISIS’s critics go on to imply that as long as we refuse to recognize that that ISIS is the ultimate other, that they are truly enemies of all that is modern and good in the world, and embody all that is archaic and reactionary about it, we will continue to give them power. The logic goes that we need to do something manly and violent, and fast, before they take us back to the Stone Age too. But this type of thinking misses a crucial point about what it means to be modern: namely, part of being in the Post-Enlightenment world is this exact obsession over the past, an overwhelming need to find a tradition to escape the shifting penumbras of a world denied transcendence, the radically contingent facts of our modern experience.

In his Use and Abuse of History for Life, Nietzsche argues that history in the modern context can often be as insidious as it is edifying. Instead of grappling with the past, many historians (and many people generally) seize on historical minutiae, singular facts or totems, “to excuse a selfish life and a cowardly or base action.” Wars rage and instead of discussing the fact of war Germans serve up new stimulants “for the weary palates of those greedy for history.” Faced with so many possible futures, history, Nietzsche contends, has become a neurotic disease, one that, if practiced in this way, seriously threatens the well-being of civilization.

But this should hardly be surprising. One way of knowing you are part of modernity is by how often you point to artifacts and events that prove you are part of a tradition, for only in a culture that knows the radical mutability of history do historical choices become important. For a long time, we have been reinventing histories through similar artifacts, using the contingency of culture itself – our capacity to choose what aspect of history we want to remember and ignore what we do not – to combat the terror of our provisional relation to any other history and the universe. People tend to be confused by this (and this confusion is itself a condition of modernism). They want to say there are people out there who choose to be relativists and those who believe in tradition. They miss the fact that anyone who chooses tradition over relativism implicitly makes an argument in favor of relativism. Their choice for tradition is an ironic rejection of the very values they espouse.

Currently, ISIS is destroying historical artifacts in Mosul and Northern Iraq. Distrubing as this is, it is important to see this destruction as not uniquely dangerous (as the Secretary of State has recently argued), or as the logical outcome of a fundamentalist reading of the Koran (as some journalists contend). Like the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, these pointed historical actions are born not simply of a terrible religiosity but of a terror at the idea of religious choice (historical relativism in other words). ISIS strictly reads certain scriptures, choses artifacts from the whole, and uses them to justify present “cowardly and base actions.” To blame the Koran rather than the actors is to engage in more fruitless iconoclasm. We make choices to read texts certain ways and to act on what we do read. These choices are historical choices made by real people living in this world. They are not in any way constitutive of Islam, nor should they be construed as such by our terror and our own iconoclastic temptations.

Like us, ISIS has a voracious appetite for history. ISIS worships the past and they furiously try to burn and break away the aspects of the past they say they do not like. The fact that they burn and break what our culture holds valuable from a distance only points to how much history dominates their imagination. They too are afflicted with what Nietzsche described as “the historical disease.” Lost in the modern world, deprived of any sense of self and power, they see a path to power and pursue it with the insane doggedness of their fear, for anyone who pursues what is in fact already dead and gone, and with such fanatical ardor, has mistaken the form of history for its substance, and abuses what they should be using to come to terms with the terrible and solemn responsibilities that come with being modern. Tragically, for us and for them, they value the study of the past so much they have degraded human life to the point where it has no meaning at all compared to their particular interpretation.

As I left the Bush Presidential Library on a sunny August afternoon with hundreds of other tourists, each looking for something there to organize their experience, some scrap of the past to make sense of the future, I could not help but think how much better we would be at approaching world problems if we understood we were all in some respects fighting the same fight against and with our temporal fate. If we did, we might be less surprised when Russia found succor in some artifact of its past strength, some fear of Nazis or of NATO, or when Israel or China chose to act out of the chosen artifact, the wellspring of their soul and suffering, rather than through reason or common sense. We might see them for what they are: scared and terrorized by modernity, trying desperately to find some footing, flailing and lashing out destructively at their own impotence. We might even see how we have sometimes done the same.

This does not mean of course that ISIS and others should not be stopped with the methods we have at our disposal (granted that these methods do not simply perpetuate the problem), only that if we truly want to be “serious” about groups like ISIS – as we have so many cheerleaders of the last disastrous war in Iraq telling us we need to be about the situation there today – we should start by recognizing ISIS as products of the same historical experience as us, as fellow travelers in modernity. This strikes me as infinitely more serious approach, to admit that the disease is a universal one, a fact of the world we are all born into, and then to do what we can together to mediate its more devastating epidemics.

Adam Wingard’s The Guest: A Love Note to America’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Michael Carson

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Going into Adam Wingard’s The Guest, I worried Wingard and his screen writer Simon Barrett had created a classic veteran ex machina (a variant of Christopher Orr’s psychopath ex machina). The plot device, beloved by American authors, directors and journalists since at least the First World War seeks to explain violence in the States by tracing it back to an incident at war. “Oh,” the reader says, brow relaxing after two hundred pages of tension and discomfort, “the weird guy is a veteran. That explains why he can’t find work, drinks so much and commits suicide and/or murders someone else.” As you can see, it neatly wraps up inexplicable aspects of human experience by pointing toward a tried and true justification – shell shock, PTSD or just plain trauma – and serves as a useful device to conveniently ignore the fact that everyday there are people in America who can’t find work, drink too much, and commit suicide and/or murder someone else without having been to war.

Yet it turns out that The Guest is one of the only films since the Iraq War to effectively (and entertainingly) explore these very assumptions about PTSD’s explanatory power. Importantly, though, the disorder, the traumatic wound, does not belong to the veteran at all – the American soldier returned from the Global War on Terror to first seduce and then terrorize a family grieving over the loss of their son. It belongs instead to the family itself, the town in which they reside and the country who sent them off to war. There is much trauma to go around in the film, but very little of it is explanatory and all of it is on the side of those who have never seen a dead body much less killed a person themselves.

The movie opens with the Petersons, a middle-class American family grieving over a son who died in combat. We never find out precisely how he died. In fact, we never find out anything about the son at all. We just know that he died. And he has a room, which has not been touched. But this is fine because the movie is not really about the soldier, or soldiers at all, but what we expect from soldiers and what we want soldiers to be. We do find out that the family – his brother, sister and parents – still very much miss the brother in one way or another, and act out their loss in a variety of ways. His death has become for them, especially the parents, an excuse for failure, whether it be at work, in the bedroom or at school. They have lost a brother, a friend, a son, a boyfriend, and drinking buddy.

Wingard extends the circle outward. Although set in the late aughts, the town in which they live, a poor suburban New Mexico backwater, seems to be stuck in the 1980s with a little Breaking Bad thrown in for good measure. People work at diners, sell guns in quarries, get high and go have jobs that go nowhere fast. This is Reagan’s America fetid underside, with the moral lassitude, the searching sense of psychological disrepair that comes with economic malaise (I say this not as a historian but as one who grew up watching movies in the 80s). Not only is the family stuck on the idea of this dead brother, the town itself seems stuck on some vision of the American past to make up for a present that has passed them by. They tap the repeat button not because they particularly enjoy the experience but because it has so severely traumatized them that they come back to unwillingly, unwittingly, one foot in front of the other they dance the same old dance.

Into this desert the apotheosis of heroism runs (literally). Disarmingly handsome, unfailingly polite, manfully empathetic, David, describing himself as a friend of the fallen, provides the family exactly what they wanted from their dead son. He is a walking, talking, smiling middle-class American family’s wet-dream. He helps the mom fold laundry, commiserates with the dad, teaches the brother how to defend himself and takes of his shirt for the sister. The guest is not just their dead son’s friend, or a substitute for their loss. He is what they imagined their son to be. He is what all of America wishes their defenders to be – kind, polite, strong, handsome, and brave. David is the answer to the blight that was their lives, the aimless, stunted existence of bullies, mean bosses and loneliness, of dead-end jobs, substance abuse and bad relationships – he is the possibility of happiness and security in an empty material world.

Unfortunately, an empty material world it remains no matter how much they try to wish it away. No matter how badly they might want to relive their sentimentalities, the past is going to catch up and it will be ugly when it does. When the corpses start piling up, which they must, eventually, the family and everyone else begins to learn that they were not fact moving on when they indulged in this impossible hope. They were actually doubling down on their original trauma, trying to find succor in the same vapid dreams that led them to their situation in the first place. Of course it turns to horror – for what is horror if not holding onto something that is gone, desperately trying to touch the river in the same exact spot? What is more horrible than reliving the dead loved one through a figment of that person, throwing their shadow upon the screen as a sort of replacement for dealing with the actual real life issues that took the loved one away as the Petersons do, or as America has done with American Sniper?

According to the Mayo Clinic, two of the most prominent symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder include “recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event” and “reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again.” This is a movie about these eternal returns, however silly at times. So while the technical explanation for David’s appearance in the Peterson’s home does not make the least bit of sense, this does not much matter. Because that’s not the point. We didn’t need a logical reason for the Iraq War. We didn’t need one to keep on funneling money and life at Afghanistan for fourteen years. We don’t need technical explanations when the soldier, our guest, is himself a spiritual explanation for other kinds of emptiness, the deus in our broken machina. The fact that he turns on us is necessary, logical and inevitable. For how can we indulge in a fantasy to this degree without repercussions?

The movie isn’t perfect. Wingard has brilliant conceits, but has yet to successfully bring them to a close. 2011’s You’re Next suffered from the same lackluster last-minute reveal (though it too plays with expectations cleverly, making the affluent victims so unlikable you actually pull for the psychopaths). His taste for excessive gore undermines moments of otherwise superb irony (David to druggy friend: “I’m not going to pay for the guns. I’m going to kill you.” Druggy friend who is about to die: “Aww, David!”). Fortunately, The Guest makes up for the clumsy late-stage plotting through the masterful manipulation of tone. The Halloween maze/synth soundtrack climax might have been contrived and forced but it was undeniably fun.

Ultimately though, the veteran does in fact turn out to be a psycho killer. It would seem the father’s comic hesitation at the movie’s opening – “maybe he has the PTSD?” – was not entirely misbegotten. Doesn’t this just reinforce stereotypes? Give us another veteran ex machina plot device to neatly explain our troubles away? It could of course, for some, but such an interpretation would require the viewer become as literal as the family and miss the irony at the heart of the movie. When the veteran turns into a killer this is not “the PTSD” – it is simply our fears made manifest, the obverse condition of an impossible and insidious fantasy. If he did turn out to be a hero in the end, the soldier of our dreams born to take us away from our past and deliver us into our future, then this would be simply another traumatic repetition, the same one we’ve been living since at least Vietnam, the same one that dresses young men up like toys and sends them off to save us from ourselves.

Sentimentality comes at a cost. To dream the fallen back or to impose our own sense of loss and unexamined mistakes on returning soldiers is to miss what war is – the way in which it traumatizes not just those who go overseas but those who stay home. And if we don’t find a way to grapple with this reality, with the thousand-yard stares of soldiers and civilians alike, I guess Wingard is right: we should think twice before opening the door to anyone who promises easy answers to our pain.

The Land of the Balaklava

by David James

Unmarked soldiers wearing balaklavas near the Crimean town of Balaklava

Unmarked soldiers wearing balaklavas near the Crimean town of Balaklava

“Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.”

These are lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about the British cavalry charge in the 1854 Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. That war was fought by the Russian Empire to expand its influence into the Black Sea and the lands surrounding it. The moribund Ottoman Empire opposed Russia’s expansion into its “sphere of influence”, and was supported in the war by the British Empire, which wanted to stop Russian naval expansion into the Mediterranean, the French Empire, which wanted to protect Catholic influence in the Holy Land and to gain “prestige” for France and its leader Napoleon III, and the Kingdom of Piedmont, which wanted to gain influence at the bargaining table with France for the establishment of a future unified Italy (which happened four years after this war). For the sake of these many empires, over half a million lives were lost in battle and many more civilian lives were destroyed. The Crimean War, often forgotten, was in fact a hugely important conflict that still has very real consequences today. In many ways it was also the first modern war: the telegraph, railway, and explosive naval shells were first used in war; the field of professional nursing developed on the battlefields from the work of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole; arguably the first war correspondence was written by Leo Tolstoy in his Sevastapol Sketches, which informed his later masterpiece War and Peace as well as his pacifism. The shuffling of borders and alliances during this war ended the post-Waterloo “concert of Europe” and stirred up romantic sentiments of nationalism, both of which helped lead directly to the First World War.

The immediate result of the Crimean War was that Russian imperialism was temporarily checked, but by no means stopped permanently. Russia today is the largest country in the world by far, which is the result of a long and aggressive history of expansion and imperialism that began with Peter the Great and seems to continue today albeit on a smaller scale under Vladimir Putin. The large Crimean peninsula was home to Greek settlers thousands of years ago, and was later settled by Turkic tribes moving west towards Europe. The Tatars, one of these tribes, fought against Russia for centuries and were the majority population of the Crimea until they were forcibly relocated to Uzbekistan by Josef Stalin and replaced by Russian speakers. The possession of Crimea within the Soviet Union was shifted from Russia to Ukraine during the Khrushchev regime in 1954, and this possession was secured by permanent treaty between Russia and Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unreconstructed Russian imperialists and nationalists never forgot that this land seized by force 100 years earlier should somehow be theirs by rights, and the rise of Putin has signaled the return to a revanchist Russian foreign policy. Putin has gradually worked towards his long-term aim over the past 15 years: secure strategic areas bordering Russia that have friendly Russian-speaking populations, thus maintaining buffer states around Russia that are friendly or at worst neutral. Putin built his reputation around brutally subduing Chechnya and generally never backing down from tough rhetoric backed up by armed force when necessary. When Georgia looked west and considered joining NATO it was promptly invaded and squelched, and had two independent regions wrested from its authority that are currently unrecognized by any nation other than Russia. It is worth mentioning that the last time Russian tanks rolled into Georgia was 2007 at the tail end of the Bush administration, which even as the lamest of ducks did not see fit to intervene in this unwarranted use of force for fear of provoking Russia. Another place where Russia used its strong arm and maintains military presence is the sliver of Moldova east of the Dniester River called Transnistria; sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine it does not even border Russia proper, but its citizens speak mostly Russian instead of Romanian.

The Ukraine, on the other hand, is a large and important state dominated by Russia since the Napoleonic wars which closely shares a culture, history, and language with Russia. Indeed, the first Russians actually came to power in 13th century Kiev before moving east to Vladimir and later Moscow. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 for the first time in centuries, the country was divided into two main camps: those who wanted to stay closely aligned with Russia, mostly in the eastern provinces, and those who wanted a more western and liberal government, in Kiev and the western provinces. From 2004 to the present, the two groups traded power mostly between the presidencies of Victor Yanukovych (the Russian-friendly party) and Yulia Tymoshenko (the west-leaning party). Eventually Yanukovych fled the country and abandoned his post of president in 2014 during a protest movement against his corrupt regime and his move away from the European Union in favor of Russia. Putin, left without his political ally in charge of Ukraine, set in motion a plan to take Crimea by force and gradually send enough men and arms to the eastern provinces to effectively establish an “independent,” Russian-friendly state there as well. Everything went according to plan when Russian soldiers suddenly took control of bases and infrastructure across Crimea, followed by a dubious referendum that showed Crimean residents voted in favor of Russian annexation. Things are not going as smoothly in the eastern regions of Ukraine where fighting between separatist rebels and the federal government has continued unabated for over a year. Putin continues to maintain the most transparent denial ever in saying that Russia is not supporting the rebels.

Like the cardigan, named after the British general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, another garment derived its name from the Crimean War–the balaclava. This black cloth cap which covers the entire head except for the eyes and mouth has been a staple of cold weather troops and bank robbers ever since its namesake 1854 battle. Most recently, it has been seen on the “unmarked” soldiers who appeared suddenly in great numbers to secure Crimea’s government buildings and Russian military bases. Likewise for the groups of organized rebels using advanced weaponry against the Ukrainian government in the east of the country, where there have been daily reports of military equipment and personnel convoying in from Russia. Even after a civilian airplane was shot out of the sky causing European countries to begin sanctions against Russia, Putin’s resolve to arm and support the rebels has been unwavering. Western countries easily condemn the conflict and Russia’s part in it, but Putin knows they are not willing to go further than a few economic sanctions–a mere slap on the wrist compared to the prestige in his homeland of bringing historic Russian lands back into the fold. What Putin could not expect is the drastic drop in oil prices, which has depleted Russia’s substantial monetary reserves and will eventually cause a full-scale crisis in Russia when the government funding for bread and circuses dry up (bread, in this case, representing subsidized food, and circuses representing either the Sochi Olympics, the image of their president as the most macho man in the world, or the sad tradition of cheap vodka and alcoholism). Putin’s power and popularity are due to fully exploiting Russia’s vast natural reserves, including oil and gas, at the expense of any other development of his country. This is a much bigger threat to Putin’s one-dimensional authoritarian regime, and Russia’s economy, than the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, especially considering that the ongoing conflict is draining Russia’s coffers at the same time as its main source of income is drying up and its currency is collapsing.

There has recently been a temporary ceasefire agreed to by Ukraine and Russia, mediated admirably by France and Germany. This does not mean that hostilities will not continue by the “independent” rebels anyway, or that Putin will not use this to his advantage to further cement his gains in eastern Ukraine. In fact, only days after the “ceasefire” there were reports of more arms and equipment moving across the border, more shelling in disputed towns, and even possibly some artillery fired from inside Russia. This means either that Putin has no control or influence over the rebels, or, more likely, that he is just playing for time and hoping that a formal truce will earn him support within a divided European Union. There are calls by America and some European countries to arm Ukraine and give more substantial military support. This is a bad idea and will only escalate a conflict which has already been long and violent and destructive enough. Ukraine could never compete with Russia militarily even with some extra help from America, and will further only give more excuse for Putin to drop his shabby alibi and move Russian units and arms into Ukraine more openly. It would also feed into his rhetoric about the West meddling in “Russia’s sphere of influence”. Stephen Walt has written a convinced article along these lines here. Let’s not forget that wherever America sends weapons to influence its favored outcome, trouble surely follows and the problem inevitably becomes much larger than it was at the start (Afghanistan of the 1980s is only one of many such examples). Instead, America and Europe should continue the economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia in lieu of reaching a more permanent pragmatic agreement that can end the bloodshed. Russia, despite the carefully crafted image and blunder of Putin, is a weak and declining country–the kind that often has the least to lose during the heated days before a local conflict becomes a greater regional or world war.

America and Europe should also give further economic aid to Ukraine and help build up their institutions as far as possible, not necessarily to be a future NATO member (the thing that most infuriated Putin in the first place, and rightfully so), but to avoid being a large failed state at their doorstep. It obviously does not set a good precedent to let countries invade others, even when done with “unconventional forces”, and to change borders at will, but in some cases it can be the best outcome from a bad situation. Frankly, it is not worth the escalation of a bigger European war against a paranoid, desperate, and declining country which also happens to have the most nuclear weapons in the world just to support a losing cause against some impoverished eastern regions of Ukraine that have always been happier being considered Russian than Ukrainian. For those that think that anything less than full armed intervention equates with appeasement, a la Germany in the Sudetenland, I would tell you that not everything is comparable with the Third Reich, and more weapons and tension do not automatically improve violent situations where power and prestige are at stake–history bears this out whether it be imperialists and war-mongerers from the past or opportunistic autocrats of the present like Putin. In this case, as usual, the best hope for a peaceful resolution is continued dialogue and increased economic aid for Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors, and the best prospect for stopping Russian imperialism is not on the battlefield but with a patient economic and diplomatic approach. Since the first Crimean War, many things have changed, but many other things have stayed the same. Another line from Tennyson’s poem reads “someone had blundered”, which is something that can be said about every war in history (including several of America’s own recent adventures). Sending more soldiers and arms to die in this valley of death in the name of prestige, power, and spheres of influence is bound to fail–let’s at least try to avoid a blunder this time.

On Gun Violence and the Second Amendment

by David James

America has a problem with violence, and specifically gun violence. This is a fact, not an opinion, and is confirmed with a glance at the statistics, backed up as well by abundant anecdotal evidence. On any given day or week I can cite the latest example of the most publicized gun shooting or campus massacre. This week, for example, three Muslim students studying dentistry at the University of North Carolina were shot in the head execution-style by a gun-loving lunatic and “second amendment rights advocate” apparently because of an argument about a parking space. It’s hard to see how the presence of guns in situations like these do not escalate arguments into tragedies. For every absurdly awful example we hear about like this, there are dozens more happening the same week that do not even appear on the news. Gun deaths, for the first time ever, have just passed car accidents as the single most common cause of death in America. There have been at least 107 school shootings since the 2012 massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school (source here). There is, on average, one mass shooting incident a week in America, and this type of killing is only represents a small percentage of the overall number of gun killings. America is by far the most violent of the developed and rich countries, and is one of the most violent even among all countries. There are so many gun deaths that they are literally impossible to keep track of. After the Newtown massacre, the online magazine Slate attempted a thorough crowd-sourced project to keep track of every single gun death in America in real-time. Not only did it prove overwhelming, but they quit after tracking over 11,000 gun deaths in a year, which are only about one third of the estimated number. Including not only murders but also suicides and accidental shootings, there are 30,000 gun-related deaths in America per year, an astronomical number which is highest in the world by a long distance. Are we supposed to assume that it is a completely unrelated fact that America also has the highest number of guns, and guns per capita, in the world–somewhere around 300 million guns in a population of 310 million–almost one gun per every man, woman, and child in the third most populated country in the world. We have often heard the dismissal of such figures by gun activists and lobbyists with quaint slogans like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” That such a facile line could gain traction and still carry weight with many people shows the depth of the gun problem in America. To those who love guns and defend the right to bear arms, I would encourage you to hear me out. After all, the violence that plagues America is most likely to happen to those who have guns (as this other article in Slate also shows).

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is commonly believed to mean that every individual has the right to own any and all type of firearm he so desires. As we know, this law was written in the late 1700s in a new country with a dangerous frontier and a weak central government, and where the latest firearm technology was the long rifle. It is not difficult to understand that the maintenance of personal firearms was allowed for defense against Indians and also to ease the financial strain on the small federal government which did not even have a standing army yet and would hope that state and local militias could procure their own equipment at their own expense. Anyone who thinks that the right to bear arms can somehow protect individuals against government tyranny, one of the main interpretations of the 2nd amendment, is living in the past. The differences between 1790s America and 2015 America are many, but they include the the presence of well-armed local and state police, National Guards, the most well-equipped military in the world, and a countless variety of federal intelligence, spy, and investigative agencies. No citizen can hope to have a fighting chance against such an array of centralized force of arms, and I think we have to assume that America is fairly secure in its borders and its democratic system of government; it is this that has to be appealed to for grievances and rights, not the fact that you carry a rifle or handgun. Anyone who thinks that the short line of text which calls for a “well-regulated militia” to mean, in the 21st century, the limitless right to stockpile highly lethal rapid-fire rifles with armor-piercing bullets and concealed handguns with enormous magazines probably missed the point. Even if I agreed that an endless supply of guns and bullets were necessary for self-defense against criminals or a potentially tyrannical government (which I don’t), I would still at least hope for some serious limits and controls on who can buy guns and where. No such controls exist on the federal level, and each state has different laws and regulations, few of which are very strict (and if one’s state has stricter regulations, by chance, there is no obstacle whatever to going across the state lines or using the internet to get any weapons you want and need).

It is much easier to get a gun than a driving license, for example. One may argue that cars kill people too, and even in greater numbers (well, until last year when guns overtook them), so they should be regulated more. I am not arguing against regulations for cars and driving licenses — I’m perfectly happy with how things currently stand in that area; I am, however, arguing for more regulations and checks for guns. While the sole purpose of cars is a means of transport (which just happen to kill many people in accidents during normal use), the sole purpose of guns is to fire high velocity bits of metal into other things, living and non-living, to kill and destroy them. That is quite a significant difference of purpose, and negates the argument about how “people kill people” or how a variety of other things are also used to kill people, intentional or not (such as knives, cars, baseball bats, almost anything you can imagine); the difference, of course, is that only guns exist solely to kill people and animals, while all of the other things have other primary purposes as functional tools of some sort. I may be able to kill a person with a knife if I happen to be a murderously-inclined person, but it would be much harder to kill many people with that knife before I was stopped, unlike with high-powered guns with endless ammunition. And by the way, I happen to have many knives for cutting vegetables, opening boxes, and other dangerous daily tasks, but somehow do not feel any danger in owning these tools. Let me relate an anecdote: exactly the same day as a maniacal young boy shot and killed 26 people in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a maniac with a knife attacked and injured 22 people in an elementary school in China. The attack in Newtown killed almost everyone who was shot, including mostly children, while in the attack in China, also involving all children, every single victim survived. This goes to show that while there will always be a certain number of crazed and murderous people around in any society, their murderous actions can be either very deadly or merely very disturbing but ultimately unsuccessful depending on the lethality of the weapons at their disposal. I think you can see that guns do, in fact, kill people. Lots of them. Nowhere as much as in America.

There are obviously good and bad aspects about any particular country, and America is no different. There are many great things about my country that I appreciate, but many things that I am uncomfortable with and ready to openly criticize, as is my right to free speech and free expression. I currently live in Italy, where my two young daughters were born. I imagine a return to living in America sometime in the future, but one thing that truly stops me in my tracks is the incredible and horrifying number of school shootings, and the apparent ubiquity of violence in general. This is not normal in a supposedly advanced, rich, and “free” society, and it does not occur anywhere in Europe or any other developed country for that matter. At this point, I can still say that it is almost impossible for me to imagine going back to an America where my children would be enrolling in schools that could be attacked by a demented lunatic at any time. It is not normal and not satisfactory. It is unconscionable that there has been no new legislation from the U.S. Congress at any time since the 2012 Newtown shooting, not to mention 13 years earlier at Columbine High School, the first school shooting that showed up on people’s radar. At least after Newtown there was a huge public outcry and some initial movement on the issue, including the president saying that things must change immediately and there can be no more Newtowns. Well, nothing has changed, and there have been over 100 more Newtowns.

Here is another point of comparison: in Australia, in 1996, there was a mass shooting spree similar to the ones that happen in America every week, and 35 people were killed. The Australian government, with pressure and support from the citizens, passed a strict gun control law immediately after that incident and there have literally been no more mass shootings since then, gun homicides have dropped 60 percent, and gun suicides have dropped 75 percent. I doubt that the Australian people feel any less free for being thus safer than their American counterparts–in fact, the new laws, regulations, and a gun buyback scheme had the support of 85 percent of Australians.

That brings me to the point of freedom. America talks a big game about freedom, but actually there is so much talk about it that the word has basically become meaningless in most cases. We hear about people who actually want freedom to limit other people’s freedom, for example. When someone talks about freedom to have guns, I think about my preferred freedom from being around people with guns. Does someone’s right to have a deadly weapon outweigh my right to not be threatened or killed by these weapons just by living nearby? That is what we are facing in America. The number of guns is so high, they are so widespread and easily obtainable by anybody, and the limits and even consequences for using them are so non-existent, that I would not feel safe returning to America. You may say, “Fine, stay in Europe, we don’t need you here.” For the moment, that is exactly what I will do. I feel no danger whatsoever of people with guns, or the possibility of school shootings, in Italy (I also have free national healthcare, but that’s another story). Anyone who wants a gun can go through the proper procedures and get one legally, usually for hunting, but the numbers are minuscule compared to America. The gun-related deaths are, unsurprisingly, also miniscule. Sometimes there are other rich countries with a high number of guns that are compared to America–Switzerland, for example, or Israel. These countries still have less than half the number of guns per 100 people than America, and they are much more regulated, or, in the unique case of Israel, used for a de facto military-police state where large numbers of conscripted soldiers walk the streets with their rifles. Even with a large number of guns per capita, these countries have a much lower incidence of gun deaths than America. So is America, in addition to being absurdly awash in guns (remember, almost one for every man, woman, and child in a country of over 300 million), also more violent and willing to use these guns than other societies? There must be a cause and effect relationship, though it is hard to tease out exactly the effects from the causes, which probably both influence each other.

Humans are imperfect and sometimes violent, but when someone becomes enraged for some reason, it is going to become much worse and have the possibility to escalate quickly into a deadly situation when there are guns readily available. Many gun owners think they will be safer, but I would argue that actually the opposite is true. A significant portion of gun-related deaths in America are due to accidental firings, even involving young children playing and killing a parent or sibling in a tragically high number of cases. There is a thought experiment in game theory called the Prisoner’s dilemma, in which two prisoners receive different sentences based on if they betray each other or remain silent. If A and B betray each other they will each serve 2 years; if A betrays B but B remains silent, A will go free and B will serve 3 years (and vice versa); if A and B both remain silent they both serve 1 year. By choosing logically in one’s self-interest the prisoner would appear to have the best chance of going free, but if both choose based only on self-interest it would actually be a worse outcome for both. The point is that cooperation and some sense of shared fortune or fate is often a better choice than pure self-interest. This relates to guns in the following way: it is commonly believed that having a gun makes one safer from harm, but if everyone believed this then the community actually becomes less safe. The more guns there are, the more chance for gun violence, as we have seen with the statistics I gave earlier. If some people make a choice to not own guns, and be apparently less safe, it will actually make the community as a whole safer. I choose to not own guns, and I think my stance does in fact support the overall safety of a community, though an individual with a gun may possibly be safer on his own.

Despite so much killing, and mass killing, why are there not new laws and restrictions on guns in America? One of the most shocking factors may be that the daily and weekly occurrence of gun crime, week after week, year after year, is often unreported, and when it is reported it has actually stopped being shocking to people. After all, humans can only take so much bad news before they inevitably start to tune it out and seek other distractions.  There was a brief point of time after Newtown in 2012 when many people were again awoken from their unconcerned slumber and the forces were aligned to actually discuss gun control in a real way and maybe even do something about it, but soon most people lost interest and the moment passed. This brings me to the firearm manufacturing industry and its powerful lobby, represented by none other than the National Rifle Association. This lobby is highly skilled at the art of forceful persuasion of politicians to not attempt any gun control law, nor even discuss it. The NRA is possibly the most powerful lobby in the country and has been relentless in stopping all attempts at making the country safer, despite increasingly crazed and heartless rhetoric from its leader Wayne LaPierre about personal freedom that would make Jefferson and Madison blush. The fact is, its not about freedom–when 30,000 people a year get killed by something we cannot say it protects freedom–but money. The arms industry is extremely profitable, to say the least, and it is obviously in their interest to insure that new customers continue to purchase new guns with no obstacles standing in the way of their profit. We see a similar thing on an even larger scale with the entire military-industrial complex, in which huge arms producers are always looking for the next war and the next huge government contract. With guns, the industry appeals to private individuals as well as state and federal agencies, police forces, and the military, which all need to constantly stay highly armed with the newest models and accessories. Local police across the country are more highly militarized than some of the army units I saw during two years in an actual combat zone in Afghanistan. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Violence leads to more violence, and the guns flow only slightly more freely than blood. In this environment, paranoia reigns and people who already have guns or consider having them will be convinced that they need to get even more before the big bad government comes to take them away and limit their freedom.

America, get yourself straightened out. This violence is not acceptable, and the people should not accept it any longer. People need to wake up and get involved. The cycle will continue until it is stopped. In the words of Johnny Cash, don’t take your guns to town, son; leave your guns at home, Bill; don’t take your guns to town.

Brian Williams, Chris Kyle, ISIS and the Lie of Authenticity

by Michael Carson

There is a superb moment in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when Nick describes the aftermath of Myrtle Wilson’s premature death. A curious crowd forms and little boys “search for dark spots in the dust” while “some garrulous man” tells them “over and over what had happened, until it became less and less real even to him and he could tell it no longer, and Myrtle Wilson’s tragic achievement was forgotten.” It is a sad scene not just because we forget about the woman killed by the pretty rich girl (who will of course get away) but because we realize that we too are reading a story of tragedy and we too are participating in this process of forgetting. In other words, Fitzgerald (or at least his narrator) seems to be suggesting that tragic stories – and perhaps stories in general – might be more about forgetting than remembering.

This of course runs counter to contemporary assumptions about memory. For many today, stories provide us a record, hard evidence of the facts of historical experience, and are very much part of our sentimental heritage, so it seems counterintuitive and possibly dangerous to claim the opposite. If we go around arguing that we should not record disasters, or even suggesting that to render violence is to obviate it, then we might very well make space for those who rather disclose nothing at all about this or that tragedy, from vehicular manslaughter all the way up to martial manslaughter. Then no one will know about the disasters, no one will work to fix the horror, and many more people will suffer. Worse yet, we will have blessed off on ignorance, given the keys of our past to anyone with temerity to write it for us, and write it they will.

And yet the debates surrounding Brian Williams, Chris Kyle and ISIS have me wondering once again if Fitzgerald was on to something. Not only do the various commentators in each of the controversies seem to “have had the experience and missed the meaning” like T.S. Eliot’s narrator in Four Quartets, but also argue about particulars at the expense of the meaning. The resulting babble, this squabble over facts and authenticity, is, more often than not, actually worse than forgetting, a history with all the trappings of memory and none of its costs.

For those of you caught up in the Brian Williams debate over the authenticity of his war experience, you might have forgotten the one we had had last week over Chris Kyle. Then, as with Williams, accusers from both the left and the right spent much time debating and laying out the accuracy of violent claims versus the traumatic reality – what was said to have happened in memoirs and retellings and what actually did happen. In other words: who died or almost died and in what way they died or almost died. There is nothing wrong with having a conversation about war experience, and it should go without saying that it is far better to have a conversation than to not have one. The problem is that all the participants simply assume the base line of their investigations to be reality itself, and that this violent truth has a moral value of its own. They operate under the assumption that if we can get the story right all will be all right in the world, yet the mere recitation of the facts does not imply truth any more than a talent for memorization denotes intelligence.

Let’s say what happened to Williams happened as he had said. The RPG hit his helicopter instead of the one in front of him. I mean it was a war zone. It could have happened. And if it did, theoretically, this would allow us to trust Williams, because he had experienced the tragedy first hand and related it back to us perfectly, right? We would have to swallow his traumatic story with respectful awe and whatever its message was simply because he had participated in and witnessed violence (as we had until recently). Now that we suspect him of not participating, we are suddenly critical and discerning. Likewise, if Kyle had actually experienced the tragedies exactly as he had and nothing in his relation were false, then we would be forced to trust him because he had accurately rendered experience, right? I don’t think it’s that simple. Even if some writer or reporter were God and could render experience accurately in real time, just because something happened a certain way does not ipso facto make it the best way to convey experience. And just because it was an inordinately violent moment in the community’s life does not make the simple expression of the facts exhaustive or intrinsically edifying.

Arguing that violence happened a certain way with an absolute air of authority and using the authority to justify the experience’s value only muddles an already muddied conversation. Not only do such assumptions ignore how everything we do is always mediated in one way or another, either by the one telling the story or the one experiencing it, but this compels the listener to take as the base line of truth the mere repetition of violence. It turns the fact of horror and fear not just into a useful tool to construct arguments, but the moral basis of the argument itself. We have stopped talking about what Williams was doing cheerleading an invasion and Kyle shooting looters and have made the issue, the import, revolve around the fact of its happening or not. To mistake the experience for the moral is to miss the point of experience. Most simply: we shouldn’t be thinking about whether or not Kyle shot looters but why he wanted to shoot looters. We shouldn’t be talking about whether or not Williams was shot at but why he participated in a military invasion.

Media is complicit in assisting the spread of ISIS authenticity

Media is complicit in assisting the spread of ISIS authenticity

Further, and perhaps more disastrously, by privileging this sort of grotesque empiricism, we implicitly give the debate over to those who least deserve control. ISIS burned a man to death earlier this month. They taped the whole horrible spectacle, and directed it in an extraordinarily theatrical way. This does not change the fact that a human being was really burned alive. In a way the best way to forget this man was to put him on video. Now he is not a man at all but a thing, an idea, a free-floating concept in the service of propaganda. If I make my condition for truth an accurate reflection of violent reality, if my aesthetic for tragedy requires I simply capture death as it happened, then ISIS must be considered the premier artists, journalists and story tellers of our times. A man did burn to death. This happened. And other men put him in a cage and lit the flame so they could tape him burning to death. ISIS is the closest things we have to a Kubrick today and they don’t even know it. Where is their Peabody? Their Oscar?

Of course any thinking person can see what ISIS does is not art, history or any other kind of record. It is propaganda. But any aesthetic based on realism and realism alone ultimately becomes propaganda, something to be used in the service of a cause rather than reflected upon and considered. Fifty years down the road if I assumed the basis of art was this sort of trivial authenticity, this allegiance to experiencing violence rather than debating it, I would be forced to teach children through the ISIS video. I would have to say that this was the most effective piece of journalism from 2015, because it accurately reflects the tragedy. But that’s not right, is it? That’s not the history of our moment. That is not our moral truth. That is not the life of Moaz al-Kasasbeh. It is his death. And if we keep showing the video, it might very well be ours as well.

So, pace George Packer’s shallow New Yorker article on ISIS (my favorite analytical gem: “They are idealists—that’s what makes them so dangerous”), the Islamic State is not terribly hard to understand. We worship authenticity as we define authenticity through violence. By this logic, ISIS is by far the most authentic group in existence right now. It has taken control of tragedy and possession of the real and plays it for us daily. We tune in – all of us. It is Chris Kyle, Hillary Clinton, and Brian Williams without the cowardly dissimulations, the sense of dissonance and inauthenticity. They stride across the gap between the videos we watch and the authenticity we covet. They have taken possession of our truth – our fear and love of it. If we worship realistic tragedy, it only stands to reason we must respect those who wield it so effectively, and we must believe them as well. And with the authority duly invested to them, they will work hard to make us forget the people who are actually being killed.

A veteran myself, this grotesque empiricism is a problem for me as it should be for all writers who derive at least some of their authenticity and audience from witnessing or participating in violence. Our need to act as a witness to the tragic events we participated in and in many cases facilitated cannot simply be ignored. So what is a writer to do? Obviously, silence is not an option, and neither is elision of our own biography, for the former ignores the future and the latter denies the past, both of which eliminate the possibility of conversation. But simply reciting the events like supplicants in the church of violence events is not much better. How we talk about our experiences and what we say about them is as much if not more important than merely acting as a conduit for the event and then debating the accuracy of what it is we relate. This fetish for the real is worse than forgetting, worse than Fitzgerald’s old man. It is amnesia with the delusion of memory, authority based on a farcical parody of history. Nothing could be further from the tragedy than this. In fact, it might very well be the tragedy itself.

Preparation For The Next Life – What We Want Is Not What We Will Get

by ahbonenberger

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 7.20.57 PMAfter war, most societies look for love. Instead of dealing with the various manifest issues that remain after years of chaos and wanton murder, they seek the understanding and hope that can only be provided by stories based on faith, something greater than the brutal logic of expedience. A certain type of story presents love as a gift to the audience, a sanctuary from the tension brought about by strife, a coherent conclusion. A happy ending. It seems, from reviews of Preparation for the Next Life, as well as the recent reception of American Sniper and the relationship between Chris Kyle and his wife that forms its logical heart, that many Americans feel that they deserve such a story as well.

Preparation for the Next Life is not about love – it’s a terrifically clever and realistic accounting of the ways in which people seek escape from life at the bottom of a capitalist society. The plot’s logic depends in part on offering readers the catharsis of a conventional love story, then switching the terms of the bargain without losing any momentum. By the time readers realize that Preparation for the Next Life uses love like toreadors use their capes, it’s too late. And instead of salvation, readers encounter a tragic tale of poverty and paucity that leads into a scathing indictment of the choices Western culture has made over at least the last fourteen years. More, if one counts Chinese communism, itself a product of Western culture.

There are two main characters in Preparation for the Next Life. The first to whom readers are introduced is Zhou Lei, an ethnic Uighur from the northwest of China. The Uighurs are Muslims, and the ethnic (Han) Chinese tend to dislike or hate them, which leads to her being alienated in her own country. Zhou travels from the type of crippling poverty one encounters in the third world to America (land of opportunity), where she is still viewed as an outsider by the predominantly Han Chinese immigrants. Despite the many hardships in her background, Zhou is defined by an inexhaustibly optimistic nature. This optimism draws its power from the myths her mother tells her when she’s a child, and is framed logically by her father, who believes in 60’s-style nationalistic, pro-Chinese propaganda. It’s interesting to see how easily this propaganda fits into Zhou’s idea of herself succeeding in the context of Western capitalism, as well.

The book abounds with stories and myths that the characters hear, and which they tell each other – they form the novel’s life-blood, and are simultaneously vital to the plot and empty of all meaning. The myths that Zhou Lei’s mother tells her, for example, serve as touchstones that readers can follow like signposts throughout the narrative. In one, offered in the beginning of the book, Zhou’s mother explains that distant mountains conceal a land of plenty. Much later in the book, a tired, hungry, and distressed Zhou finds herself talking with an Uzbek Afghan grocer, who has seen the same mountains from his native country of Afghanistan. The Uzbek offers her food and water, and Zhou experiences momentary relief, which leads nowhere. In another of Zhou’s mother’s myths, a girl travels to the faraway land of plenty with nothing but seven seeds to sustain her. The girl burns her feet while travelling over an iron desert, but makes it through to a blue river, where she’s healed. The occurrence of blue and injured feet later on in the book at various points offer useful guideposts on Zhou’s actual journey – or, at least, gives readers a sense of how she views a given situation; in keeping with the book’s relentless realism, these signifiers are logical to the narrative and unto themselves, but don’t actually deliver any more profound truth. Read the rest of this entry »

The Philosopher Hero: From Socrates to Scranton

by Michael Carson

“The truth of war,” Roy Scranton announces with not a little irony in his recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay, “is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.” By offering up an individual soldier to War Truth, Scranton argues, America heals its war wounds and leaves the actual victims forgotten. Scranton calls this “the traumatized hero myth” as opposed to “the hero myth.” The former, he believes, is as destructive and ultimately conservative as the latter, as they both allow us to forget the true victims of war, the ones we killed; and both, he contends, are predicated on the false epistemology quoted above – a pathological obsession with war experience that hijacks and makes impossible honest conversations about war’s morality.

This is a good, timely argument, worth thinking about, especially considering the American Sniper phenomenon. But there’s a problem. This isn’t a new argument. Philosophers of literature have long pointed out the way in which we use memory to forget. Paul Fussell – one of the authors whose argument the essay implicitly rejects – has been derided by historians since at least the 1990s. The wealth of literature historicizing trauma compares roughly to that of literature surrounding war itself.  So the argument’s resonance can’t be Scranton’s erudition, impressive though it is; it must be something else, some epistemological basis that Scranton has and these other philosophers and historians don’t. Yes, you guessed it. Scranton is a veteran, a veteran of the Iraq invasion who, in the public’s imagination, has stumbled upon “a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.” We listen to Scranton because he has the authority borne not of his intellect, robust as it is, but of his experience.

In the spirit of Scranton’s essay, I will describe a third myth: the Philosopher-Warrior-Hero Myth (or PWH Myth for short) – one who has gone to war and seen through the narratives that others abide. It too has a history, a much longer one perhaps than even the trauma one. In fact, a good case could be made that the trauma myth is simply a modern adaptation of the older variety, with us since that curmudgeonly-old-veteran Socrates. Yet it stands to reason that if the Hero and Trauma-Hero Myth are bullshit, so is the Philosopher-Hero Myth, and we should then be just as wary of its evangelists as we are of those who find succor in the idea of the traumatized hero.

Scranton’s essay gains most of its momentum by desacralizing veteran literary texts, and he does so by giving them a history, removing the works from the literary canon and building an archaeology as Foucault would say. But again: these works have been torn every which way by eager scholars already (just Google historicity and war trauma). What is new here is the fact that Scranton is a veteran indulging in iconoclasm, and when someone who has seen the truth destroys the temple, we listen. When he describes Tim O’Brien as mystical nonsense or “negative theology” that makes language impossible, we don’t blink because we understand that he has seen what O’Brien saw and wrote about and has a right to dismiss O’Brien’s (admittedly troubling) interpretation. Likewise, when he tells us that Wilfred Owen screwed up royally by grounding his critique of the war in experience (were there no research libraries and annotated bibliographies at Craiglockhart?), and “put the issue of war beyond debate,” we are inclined to take him at his word, no matter what Owen’s text might have meant or done in that particular moment of history, because most of us have not been to war and who are we to question the Truth of one who has?

Throughout the piece, Scranton points out exactly how long each of the writers he discusses experienced combat and the type of combat they experienced – Hemingway for only a few weeks and Klay was a public relations officer. I realize that these observations are meant to point out that people do not need to see war to talk about it, that experience does not in fact matter, but the effect is the opposite: it seems to say that their accounts are somehow less for not having experienced more and if they had stuck around instead of running off into literary fantasies, they would have paid more attention to the victims, to the only ones who have a right to say anything and the ones who should be talking. One gets the idea from Scranton’s argument that these other writers are cowards of a sort, and that while they went to war, they did not really go to war. Egoism, stupidity or some combination of the two keeps them from seeing the truth that Scranton managed to gleam from his own war experience.

Scranton goes on to claim writers like Kevin Powers (who Scranton describes as too untalented to know any better) and Phil Klay (who Scranton describes as sophisticated enough but sheepishly manipulated by the powers that be) gives the audience the conventions of traumatic revelation because the audience is “more interested in war as myth than in war as reality.” This sounds nice and I’m always up for bashing ignorance, but his language begs the question: who has a grasp of this reality? Who defines the real and not real? What is it exactly in Scranton’s experience that allows him to break through the conventions that have so muddied the waters since at least The Charterhouse of Parma? It’s not his PhD coursework alone, I’ll tell you that.

The truth is Scranton’s authority to divide and order reality and non-reality derives from his own experiences as a soldier at war – the truth truth that the audience can’t handle because they’re blinded by mythology. Scranton despises the fact that we are not talking about the other side, the country we destroyed and the Iraqis we killed. He wants more acknowledgment of the fact that many American soldiers have blood on their uniform (though I feel this is pretty much the message of every non-American Sniper war story I’ve read and seen so far). This for him is truth and he is upset no one understands the truth that he experienced as reality, which, I hasten to add, includes what comes after war as well as what occurs during it. We are, if nothing else, a product of what we choose to believe about our experiences as much as the experiences themselves.

Scranton’s New York Times essay, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, a prelude to his forthcoming book, makes his epistemology more explicit. It begins:

Driving into Iraq just after the 2003 invasion felt like driving into the future. We convoyed all day, all night, past Army checkpoints and burned-out tanks, till in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: Flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories, and narrow ancient streets.

Scranton saw Baghdad burning. Scranton saw not only the truth of war but that of a future of war. We did not see Baghdad burning. Ergo, he has the epistemological upper hand on the rest of us, and we must respect his authority. His tale continues to unfold, using his war experience as a guide:

Learning how to die isn’t easy. In Iraq, at the beginning, I was terrified by the idea. Baghdad seemed incredibly dangerous, even though statistically I was pretty safe. We got shot at and mortared, and I.E.D.’s laced every highway, but I had good armor, we had a great medic, and we were part of the most powerful military the world had ever seen. The odds were good I would come home. Maybe wounded, but probably alive. Every day I went out on mission, though, I looked down the barrel of the future and saw a dark, empty hole.

Not only did he experience death, but he also contemplated the “dark, empty hole” every single day. This is a man who has pondered what it means to die, not because he wanted to but because circumstances (conveniently unexamined) put him in a Humvee and he witnessed a civilization already dead (or, rather, one which had been recently blown up by American soldiers like Scranton and myself). Quoting Simone Weil, he even argues that “the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” This “face of death,” Scranton claims, “was the face I saw in the mirror, and its gaze nearly paralyzed me.” Thankfully for us, the uninitiated, it did not. Jeremiah has seen the destruction of Jerusalem and has come back to let him bear witness, to his vision and what the vision has wrought, which he promptly does:

The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

Whatever the particular merits of Scranton’s argument, it only makes sense that this would seem the biggest problem faced by a young man who has been through war and who then uses his experiences to build a philosophy about climate change. This does not make what he says about climate change any less true. But that’s not the issue. The problem put forward at the start of the LARB essay is not whether the people who have been traumatized possess truth at all but the false and insidious ways we bear witness to truth using war experience. Should we throw out his entire climate change argument because we now know that he too manipulates the Trauma-Philosopher-Hero narrative to his advantage?

I don’t think so. I rather like Scranton’s ideas about both climate change and the Iraq war. I too use my war experiences to make arguments that need to be made. People would have little interest in what I or he had to say without these experiences. I simply believe Scranton should exercise a little humility when accusing others of using their war experience (or lack thereof) unjustly. We cannot draw lines in the sand about false and true epistemologies. When we do, we end up condemning vast swathes of very different authors and stories to the dust bin of self-help nonsense. It should be acknowledged that these stories can be dangerous, that they can be used to forget war experience, to exclude that of others, but we also have to admit that they can be used to remember. To dismiss them as tools of forgetting is to miss how closely forgetting and remembering actually are to one another, how forgetting involves remembering and remembering forgetting. It is to be both ahistorical and illogical. It is to create another myth.

Towards the end of the LARB essay, Scranton mentions his own work within the veteran community, and his hope that people hear other perspectives, not just Klay’s, which he has somehow, through this discussion of myth, grouped with Hemingway and Owen. This strikes me as no different than George Packer’s article, which Scranton seemed to have disliked as much as I did. But where I took issue with the lazy grouping of wildly disparate authors, Scranton takes issue with the benevolent reception of their work. Packer’s arbitrary list of traumatic truth-tellers is no less arbitrary than Scranton’s list of traumatic lie-perpetuators. In fact, they are one and the same. Yet Owen, Hemingway, O’Brien, and Klay are not part of the same archeology no matter if the country has decided to have them represent their particular wars in one way or another. It’s unfair to let Packer’s gross misunderstanding of war literature excuse our own casual inversions, to make someone else’s stupid mythology our own by turning it upside down.

The larger point here is not that Scranton is wrong. I agree with much of what he says, at least insofar as he sees the trauma narrative worth criticizing. It’s about damn time. I’m even okay with his being a philosopher-hero, and wish him luck. My issue is the creation of a new mythology to dismiss the old. Go out and debunk the myths, yes, but please don’t ignore the part your own epistemology plays in these myths and the way we constantly work to create new myths. For when we pretend to absolve ourselves of this all too human tendency, we cease to empathize with any experience but our own, and we not only use our own experience for authority but also use this authority to deny others their experiences.

American Sniper’s Uniquely American Kitsch

by Michael Carson

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Since the release of American Sniper, those I hadn’t heard from in years took the time to text me and tell me I really needed to see this movie. They said: “you owe it to yourself to see this movie.” “I don’t really want to,” I responded. “Why don’t you want to?” they asked me archly, as if my refusal to see the movie hinted at some deeply-seated and conveniently unexamined perversion. “Well,” I said, “I guess I didn’t much like Chris Kyle’s book and his general attitudes about the Iraqi people.” “Watch the movie,” they said with all wisdom that comes with seeing a movie that someone else hasn’t, especially one of political and patriotic import: “It really makes you think.”

Maybe I was being unfair, I thought. Maybe I did it owe to someone – whom, I’m still not quite sure – to pay ten dollars and watch this story that had roused a nation from its intellectual lethargy, which had inspired old friends to start thinking about my movie-going patterns.

To my surprise, I did not hate the movie. I nodded off two or three times, wondering how old Clint Eastwood was exactly and whether or not they he and Scorsese had reached some kind of artistic dementia unique to directors, but I did not hate the film, or even actively dislike it. If I saw it on Lifetime one afternoon, I would change the channel, but not out of spite, simply because it does not seem different than any other Lifetime special. Far from being authentic and gritty, the sentimentality in the film is perhaps only exceeded by that of Linklater’s Boyhood, its competition at this year’s Academy Awards. Both are drearily episodic American bildungsromans that manipulate the idea of authenticity to play on the audience’s mawkish assumptions and aspirations about history and art. Further, and not coincidentally, both are predictable and safe, working hard to ask uninteresting questions about once interesting subjects.

This boredom genuinely surprised me. I read countless reviews of American Sniper before seeing the movie. Almost unanimously, they took time to point out its essential authenticity, its suspense, the immersive immediacy of the action and the audience’s consequent titillation. Even those who hated it passionately did so with a fervor that suggested the movie annoyed them due to its undeniable cinematic excellence, whatever its ideological failings. For this reason, I had ceded its basic entertainment value going in. But I shouldn’t have. Despite all the violence – or, rather, precisely because of all the formulaic and orchestrated violence – the movie is boring and the movie is boring because everything in it from the love story, to the jokes, to the war story is pure unadulterated kitsch.

How best describe kitsch? Milan Kundera, a man who endured a regime that used this aesthetic to propagate its peculiar sentimental balderdash, puts it this way in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

At its most fundamental level, kitsch is a poorly constructed or mass produced object or work of art that elicits a predictable and abstracted emotional response, something like a Pavlovian bell that releases saccharine into the viewer’s gut while shutting down the brain. Yet, contrary to popular belief, kitsch does not only apply to the warm and fuzzy feeling we get when children run in the grass and play with dogs; it also applies to the warm fuzzy feeling when we watch children being gunned down my morally conflicted patriots. The first tear says: how nice it is to see this perfectly decent man wrestle with what it takes to protect his friends and countrymen. The second tear says: how nice it is to be moved, together with all mankind, by watching a perfectly decent man do whatever it takes to protect his friends and countrymen.

Never one for subtlety, Eastwood wants tears, lots of them. I feel Eastwood took bits and pieces of every American war movie since Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back, chose the most hackneyed moments and then tried to make them even more generic, sappy and palatable. Starting with, of course, a lovable loser looking for purpose in life, the movie proceeds to a training scene where people of different race and class backgrounds come together in harmony, the courting of a supposedly cynical girl just out of a break up (which of course turns to be a girl in need of a real man), the initial battle enthusiasm (Yay! War! We’re going to win!), an evil super-enemy to provide some complexity to the countless legions of brown bullet fodder and a triumph somewhat (but not truly) diminished because of dead friends (whose names we forgot the moment we heard them).

If American Sniper wasn’t based on real events, we would likely laugh it off as a poor man’s Full Metal Jacket. Yet our uniquely modern kitsch privileges authenticity to such a degree that it mistakes authenticity for art; worse, it excuses bad art through the lie of authenticity. Our superficially ironic modern audience knows to feel warm and fuzzy about a girl running through a field (or a heroic marine-saving SEAL) is a little old fashioned and silly. But if the event really happened, the audience can feel warm and fuzzy (or angry and titillated) without any guilt for the obviously contrived sappiness. This child really does run through the grass just like my child so my feelings of joy and warmth at watching this child run through the grass is real and true and profound. This man really did kill 160 people and save soldiers and help veterans so my complete emotional investment and sense of solidarity with my fellow movie watchers is not only justified but an act of political courage. Right?

Not quite. Eastwood’s Kyle is nothing like the Kyle of the memoir – a person of infinitely more interest, an American gem, a fantastic and fascinating mass of contradiction, absurdities, and hypocrisy, worthy of much more than this movie gives him. Instead, this movie manipulates substandard genre tropes to produce an innocuous and utterly uninteresting character study, turning a once breathing man into a figment, an avatar of our lazy imaginations. All the characters beside Kyle are interchangeable – hard bodies and strong chins, except for the broken and mutilated men, with soft bodies and soft chins – which is impressive considering Kyle himself is but a shadow. The sentimentality in the film’s opening and final moments reaches near criminal proportions. The shootouts are loud and repetitive, the enemies cowardly, sadistic or – hold it – cowardly and sadistic. They and everyone else in the film are no more true to life than the targets Kyle practices on. It’s as if the fact that they existed gives the director the excuse to make them as uninteresting and stereotypical (or unreal) as possible.

I should say here that the problem of kitsch is not unique to war films, or films beloved by Red America. Boyhood, the Academy’s likely Best Picture winner, is nothing if not an egregious attempt to confuse an audience into accepting bad fiction as profound art through the sophistry of authenticity. It suffers from the same sense of confused profundity, and critics have fallen all over themselves to celebrate a movie that amounts to little more than a glorified reality TV show, replete with incredibly banal dialogue and moralistic tripe. We are supposed to celebrate this and shed tears because we lived it, but I’ll save my tears for a movie that give me more than pop-cultural touchstones, a face aging in real time and platitudinous white angst.

This is not to say there are not inspired moments in both movies. In American Sniper, most occur on Kyle’s return home. When he yells at the nurse to stop his baby from crying, I paid attention. There are times when his very obliviousness makes Kyle into a heroic sad sack, just way in over his head in a world that does not allow for heroes (Cooper is a superb actor). But, still, these were flashes, a few well-timed complexities in a movie of explosive sappiness. By the tenth gunfight and the slow build to the inevitable confrontation between the evil brown sniper and good white sniper, I looked around to see if anyone else was as bored as me. I wanted to ask someone if they realized the way in which every character seemed to be playing a part in a movie, and how nearly every one of them played it badly. But there were no takers. They all wanted to see what happened next.

Of course, these failures in themselves point to a reason to celebrate the movie, and Boyhood as well. Their unique kitsch corresponds perfectly with recent American history, which is essentially a series of moments where we let sentimentality drive our actions, all the while unaware of (or maybe just unconcerned with) how those in power manipulate our intellectual indolence to their perpetual advantage. The Iraq War was an absurd proposition from the start, whose disastrous prosecution and consequences should have been obvious to any country not driven nearly insane by saccharine nonsense fed to them in movies that informed American Sniper (Rambo, Saving Private Ryan and An Officer and a Gentlemen for example).

So while most of us do not live violent lives like Kyle, we do, like Kyle, live lives of violent sentimentalism. We do live in fogs like the characters in these movies – irresponsible, lost, and drunkenly emotional. But just because we live such lives, lives of exceptionally cartoonish renderings of reality, replete with stereotypes, racism and an absurdly simplistic and insidious sense of history, does not make an accurate recording of our human failure art; these movies are, in truth, only glorified documentaries, which serve their purpose and have their uses, but cease to do so when considered something sublime and magical, exciting and profound. At this point, they then become in many ways a gesture of collective despair, an implicit admission that we can no longer achieve anything but a fickle emotional bond in dark theaters, eyes rolling, tears dripping down our cheeks like Dollar Tree communicants.

But when it comes down to it, no one escapes kitsch. It is part of us – this substitute spirituality, a farcical aesthetic we live and breathe as pre-capitalist societies used to live and breathe God. But we can, as Milan Kundera, the author of the earlier quote, once argued, be at least open to the fact that we are indulging our maudlin fantasies. At least movies like Nightcrawler or The Edge of Tomorrow have the courage to point out the obvious – to make us aware of what it is we do when it comes to violence and cinema – and to do so in an entertaining way. As for those who argue American Sniper is the only movie out there really tackling trauma: watch Babadook and tell me which of the two has something to say and which one just repeats what we want to believe in predictable and cowardly monotony?

Towards the beginning of American Sniper, Kyle’s father tells him that there are three types of people in this world: wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. The sheepdogs, his father says, protect the sheep from the wolves. Kyle is supposed to be a sheepdog, protecting us. Maybe he was. Neither a Navy SEAL nor a think-tank fellow, I can’t really speak to the success of his guardianship. But I can say with some authority that it is the kitsch in movies like American Sniper and Boyhood that turn us into sheep, and no one will be happier to see the bleating masses fattened by this sentimental drivel than the wolves.

How to Really Defend Free Speech

by Michael Carson

After Al Qaeda destroyed the twin towers, we declared the death of what the towers represented if they represented anything beyond money-making office space: the freedom to think outside accepted narratives and assumptions about the way the world works, to break with and challenge traditions and petty tribal affiliations, to think through the stupidities of the past and start a new, more free and dignified, world. In other words, we gave in to Al Qaeda’s demands. We automatically reaffirmed their ancient and imbecilic worldview by inverting everything they believed and just switching sides on the chessboard. We went to war. We still are at war.

The same happens after each terror attack – London, Boston, Ottawa, and Paris. We find solidarity in slaughter. We hold up candles, pens and flags. We prepare to march. But surely this is symptom of defeat. The terrorists are terrified by complication and contradiction. It offends them so much they are willing to kill to make it stop. The sad fact is that they are incredibly successful. When they kill, the ambiguity of the modern world evaporates. Stunned, the world holds their collective breath, little realizing that when they do they neither think nor reason any longer either. It lasts for a moment, but long enough it seems to set the wheels in motion for another war, another campaign of censorious silence and another satisfied prejudice. The forces of stupidity and authoritarianism get a little more freedom. Propaganda becomes a little easier. A new cell phone surveillance program is born.

Since the Charlie Hebdo murders yesterday, I have heard a thousand and one paeans to free speech. Suddenly venues that despised critiques of the military, police force and the founding fathers found themselves swept in the defense of a bunch of willfully offensive and sensationalistic cartoons. It did not matter in the least what these men who had died had written – only that they had died for what they had written. This sounds noble. To a certain degree we should respect our capacity for these sentimental associations, for standing proudly and respecting the fallen. Unfortunately, I feel most get swept up simply because they do not really want to consider what the men who had died wrote. It is much easier to celebrate free speech if one doesn’t have to pay attention to it. These unthinking celebrations of the right to say whatever you want actually undermine the right to say anything worthwhile at all. But maybe that’s the point.

I’m not a French citizen so I can’t really speak to the role of Charlie Hebdo played in their intellectual and popular culture. I can speak for The Interview, which only a few weeks ago had Americans lining out the door of independent theaters in support of Seth Rogan’s right to say what he wanted about North Korea. Luckily for us, North Korea is not fanatical Islam, so our trip to the theater was not nearly as dangerous as Hebdo’s cartoons. Yet the way we rallied to a cause of free speech with no real desire to critique that speech speaks not to our courage but our laziness. By giving up on our right to criticize, we gave a victory of sorts for North Korea or whomever challenged Sony not to show the movie. They hated it so we loved it. But we never thought for a second that the movie itself was not worth hating or loving, and that its poor quality even by Rogan’s standards should have given us pause.

The loss of life is bad enough. Do we also have to choose between free speech and the ability to think, to individually choose among different speeches, and to decide on what speech we think best for us as a culture, country and person?

Free speech is nothing without dialectic, without challenges, thought and reasoned criticism. To celebrate free speech as an end in itself is to celebrate the death of speech. All the screaming voices collectively looking for some bandwidth to sell more products or market their brand should not be wholeheartedly and unthinkingly embraced as champions of the Western world. We should be allowed to make discriminations, to wade through the babble and make sense of it through thought as well as speech. The inability to seriously contemplate structural problems within important social institutions – dissected brilliantly in Fallows‘ and Coates‘ articles on the military and the police respectively – stems not from a lack of free speech but a lack of cogent, critical, speech.

They say the cartoonists and writers of Charlie Hebdo followed in the tradition of Voltaire. I respect Voltaire. But I do not worship him. It is my right as a supposed product of Enlightenment culture to defend my right to criticize him even if royalists or the Church had killed him. Voltaire himself would have found his martyrdom or that of his protégés comical. I’m a writer who gave up on the sword, seeing it as ineffectual and ultimately self-defeating. I know from personal experience death and slaughter does not make things people said or did inviolable. Turning the dead into martyrs makes the use of the sword all that more attractive over that of the pen. I will not go down that road again. Neither should we.

One perpetrator has been captured and the other two are likely hours from being apprehended. Terror wins when it makes us see the world simply because that is exactly how they see the world. While I mourn the loss of life, while I feel for the people of France, I refuse to hold up my pen. For if I’m holding up my pen, it means I’m not writing, not exploring contradictions and interrogating the world around me, not exposing hypocrisy or giving voice to the voiceless. It will mean I have stopped thinking, and in a world without thought, free speech sounds a whole lot like silence.

Top 4 Contributors on Wrath Bearing Tree, 2014

by ahbonenberger

With so much incredible, breakthrough writing happening at The Wrath Bearing Tree this year, the editors wanted to set a moment aside from their around-the-clock analysis of emergent (and urgent) intellectual issues to publish a curated list of the site’s best contributors this year.

The editors used number rankings that took a great number of objective variables into account, you may take their word for it.

1) Mr. James – a dependable source of philosophically grounded, inspired literary and social analysis, James proved himself as one of the site’s very best contributors.

1) Mr. Carson – indisputably tied for best contributor to the Wrath Bearing Tree, Carson’s regular and well-thought-out essays (often too “edgy” for mainstream media outlets, but occasionally not) engaged his readers, and brought crucial attention to serious issues that others lacked the fortitude – or curiosity – to tackle.

1) Mr. Webster – contributed a thoughtful essay about his time in Iraq as an embed with the 82nd – a Wrath Bearing Tree first.

1) Mr. Bonenberger – if one were to look for glowing adjectives to describe Bonenberger’s work, one could not do better than to begin with the entire group of superlatives.

And there you have it – the top 4 contributors to The Wrath Bearing Tree, 2014. Congratulations to all on an excellent year, and may 2015 be twice as prolific and useful.

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