Tuesday, October 2, 2007

On the fetishization of violence

Like most of you, probably, I've been thumbing back through Sun Tzu's The Art of War lately. (Actually, I've recently gotten into downloading public domain books in mp3 format for my digital player.) My paperback copy has so many pages marked with dog-eared corners it won't lie flat anymore.

Consider the following:

Ch. III: 1-10:

Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this.

To capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a battalion, a company, or a five-man squad is better than to destroy them.

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy;

Next best is to disrupt his alliances;

The next best is to attack his army;

The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative.

To prepare the shielded wagons and make ready the necessary arms and equipment requires at least three months; to pile up earthen ramps against the walls an additional three months will be needed.

If the general is unable to control his impatience and orders his troops to swarm up the wall like ants, one-third of them will be killed without taking the city. Such is the calamity of these attacks.

Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.

Ch. II: 5-9:

When your weapons are dulled and ardour dampened, your strength exhausted and treasure spent, neighboring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act. And even though you have wise counselors, none will be able to lay good plans for the future.

Thus, while we have heard of blundering swiftness in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged.

For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.

Thus those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so.

Those adept in waging war do not require a second levy of conscripts nor more than one provisioning.

Ch. II: 19-22:

Now there are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:

When ignorant that the army should not advance, to order an advance or ignorant that it should not retire, to order a retirement. This is described as "hobbling the army."

When ignorant of military affairs, to participate in their administration. This causes the officers to be perplexed.

When ignorant of command problems to share in the exercise of responsibilities. This engenders doubts in the minds of the officers.

Doesn't really seem that complicated, does it? Better strategy and tactics than what we've seen in Iraq and the middle east is available for $4.95 at any decent used bookstore. It might almost be funny to watch Team Bush bungle every one of these time-tested military principles--if it weren't for the lost lives, the wasted billions, the damaged national reputation, and the harm to our national security. Even by neocon standards--controlling the oil and projecting our hegemonic power--the Iraq war and occupation has accomplished nothing good.

Glenn Greenwald brings up much the same question today, and argues that the answer is not political or military, and only vaguely ideological, but rather psychological:
[Consider the question of] why we continue to fight one of history's most absurd wars ever, whereby we occupy Iraq indefinitely even though the original justifications for invading have long ago vanished and even those who want to stay have no idea what we are trying to accomplish. It is the same dynamic that fueled so much of the intense and obsessive hatred for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and which drives the insatiable quest for new Enemies to attack, including what looks increasingly like the new War with Iran.

Bombing and killing Muslims is the only path for avoiding the humiliating scenarios which our nation's war cheerleaders carry around obsessively in their heads, and which are currently filling my inbox. They're not going to be the ones on their knees, begging. They're not going to be the "faggots." Instead, they are going to send others off to fight and bomb and occupy and kill and thereby show who is strong and tough and feel protected.

And, he argues, Iraq isn't the first war (or even the first "Bush war") built around fears of a wounded national masculinity:
It mattered little that Panama is a tiny country with a military that was an absurd shadow of U.S. military might, a country that could never remotely threaten the United States. What mattered was the display of strength that, in American political culture, comes from war, no matter how senseless the war is, no matter how weak the enemy. That need among those who feel a lacking of power and strength -- to send others off to fight wars so that they can feel powerful -- is insatiable and far more potent than any rational arguments about "national interest" and "just wars."

That is a major reason why -- despite the endless debates and overwhelming public sentiment -- we stay in Iraq (because to leave would be to "lose," to suffer a "humiliating defeat" at the hands of a laughing Al Qaeda), and it is why war with Iran is so appetizing for so many -- we need to show the world who is boss. It is warped psychology masquerading as political belief. And that is why nothing triggers hysteria of the sort in the above-excerpted post more than challenging the notion that it may not actually be necessary to wage Permanent and Endless War on Muslims. Arguing that is virtually tantamount to advocating that our nation's vicarious war cheerleaders be deprived of food, water and oxygen.

Greenwald describes some of the email he's been getting on the subject, and it's worth taking a look. As a general rule of thumb the farther you move, among fervent Iraq/Iran war supporters, from the actual front lines to the safely ensconced denizens of FOX News to the the National Review to the Hannitys and Limbaughs to the anonymous comments at right-wing blogs, the more eerily detailed are the humiliation scenarios associated with "failure" in Iraq, and the more you'll find a masculine love of a certain kind of oily muscle.

Matthew Duss calls it the "fetishization of violence."

(Can you begin to understand the spittle-flecked terror these people experience at the thought of a President Hillary Clinton? Imagine having to take orders from a gurl.)

And as for Sun Tzu, his advice would be clear:
Ch. 1: 15:

If a general who heeds my strategy is employed he is certain to win. Retain him! When one who refuses to listen to my strategy is employed, he is certain to be defeated. Dismiss him!

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