Thursday, March 30, 2017

Wars, lies, and peace movements

Viet Thanh Nguyen's Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War uses his inescapable habitat between nations and memories, both trapped and enriched, to try to make sense of the horror that is war.

In this post I will share some of his insights, necessarily simplifying what is nuanced, cutting, and heart-wrenching.

As signs along freeways announced during the height of George W's excellent Iraq adventure, war is a lie.

It is almost impossible for a citizen not to be complicit [in our wars.] ...Thinking of war as a isolated action carried out by soldiers transforms the soldier into the face and body of war, when in truth he is only its appendage.

Nguyen writes this while discussing the work of a U.S. artist during the heyday of our Vietnam invasion who painted a suburban housewife pulling aside her curtains to reveal a burning village. The contemporary U.S. way of war is to separate the rest of us even further from experience of combat -- combat which is seldom directly the role even of most members of the military. But it remains ours -- we pay for it, we enable it, we ignore it, we enjoy its fruits when there are any, and we experience the distortion of our "civilization" that becomes the content of permanent war.

Just as we are all complicit, we are also all among the victims. No male writer I've ever read on war has been quite so consistently discerning of war's particular injuries to women. Nguyen returns to this theme again and again, in the writers whose memoirs he dissects and in his own observations. War is rape; rape is war.

... ["good"] war stories lead boys and girls to dream of being soldiers, but no one dreams of war's costs, or of being a civilian caught in a war, an orphan, a widow, or a refugee. Children playing soldier may fantasize about glorious death, but probably not dismemberment, amputation, shellshock, inexplicable and debilitating illness, homelessness, psychosis, or suicide, all of which are not unusual experiences for soldiers and veterans.

And does anyone fantasize about being raped by marauding soldiers, which is an inevitable consequence of war? If war makes you a man, does rape make you a woman? ... Rape is an inevitable expression of the collective masculine desire that drives to war, for while not all soldiers are rapists, every army rapes. Despite the endemic nature of rape in war, few would enshrine rape in those many sterile memorials dedicated to victorious war. ... Nations are more likely to acknowledge the murders their soldiers commit than the rapes soldiers have done. Rape is embarrassing

... rape and sexual trauma are as damaging to its victims as the experience of combat, but while soldiers are at least honored for their sacrifice, no such succor is granted to the women these husbands, brothers, and sons raped. The experiences of men raped by men are even more invisible and inaudible, anomalous to the entire notion of war as a rite of heterosexual passage. Rape destroys any lingering ideas of heroism, masculinity, and patriotism, those oily notions that keep the gears of the war machine running smoothly. ...

So what is to be done? Nguyen has thought a lot about this:

Antiwar movements oppose and react. They can repeat the logic of the war machine, when, for example, antiwar activists treat victims of the war machine strictly as victims, taking away the full complexity of their flawed (in)humanity in the name of saving them. When a particular war ends, so may the antiwar movement opposed to it. Understanding that war is not a singular event but a perpetual one mobilizes a peace movement. This movement looks beyond reacting to the war machine's binary logic of us versus them, victim versus victimizer, good versus bad, and even winning versus losing.

He outlines what a peace movement is up against today:

Perpetual war no longer requires victory in warfare, as what happened in Korea, Vietnam, and now the Middle East shows. Stalemates or outright losses -- if not too dangerous -- can be overcome. The war machine can convert stalemates or losses into lessons for future wars and reasons for future paranoia by the citizenry, both of which justify continuing psychological, cultural, and economic investment in the war machine. While victories would certainly be wonderful, the war machine's primary interest is to justify its existence and growth, which perpetual war serves nicely. An endless war built on a series of proxy wars, small wars, distant wars, drone strikes, covert operations, and the like, means that the war machine need never go out of business or reduce its budget, as even some conservatives admit.

Nguyen reminds that peace is not about hearts and flowers.

A peace movement is required to confront this inhuman reality. This peace movement is not based on a sentimental, utopian vision of everyone getting along because everyone is human, but on a sober, simultaneous vision that recognizes everyone's unrealized humanity and latent inhumanity. Powerful memory from the low ground presses our noses against this inhumanity in a negative reminder of our capacity for brutality. This memory activates our disgust and revulsion. Powerful memory from the high ground reminds us of a more transcendent humanity that can emerge from looking at our inhuman tendencies. It does so through promoting empathy and compassion, as well as a cosmopolitan orientation toward the world that places imagination above the nation.

Empathy, compassion, and cosmopolitanism guarantee nothing, but all are necessary to break the connection between our identity and the war machine.

Yet all those fine sentiments can't be just about letting ourselves off the hook for the wars -- the hatred and cruelty and desire to dominate -- for which we cannot escape our participation, however attenuated.

... while compassion may allow us to disavow our complicity, without compassion we could never move the far and the feared close to our circle of the near and dear.

... Cosmopolitanism also underestimates how many of us remain viscerally attached to our nations or cultures, which compel real love and passion in a way that cosmopolitanism does not. To some, cosmopolitans seem to be rootless people, more inclined to love humanity in the abstract than people in the concrete. ... At the same time, cosmopolitanism's Western origins, arising from the Greeks, may mean it is unattractive to non-Western societies opposed to cosmopolitanism's global ambitions and belief in individual rights and liberties. ... The terrorist who does not want to talk with us tempts us to take up arms ourselves, even preemptively. Armored cosmopolitanism is the new spin on the white man's burden, where the quaint idea of civilizing the world becomes retailored for culturally sensitive capitalists ...

Living as humanely as possible requires accepting and embracing complexity.

[Yet] without cosmopolitanism's call for an unbounded empathy that extends to all, including others, we are left with a dangerously small circle of the near and dear. ...Understanding that the violent ones, our enemies, are motivated not only by hatred but also by compassion and empathy -- in other words by love -- gives us a mirror to recognize that our own compulsory emotions are just as partial, prejudiced, and powerful. ... Cosmopolitanism and compassion magnify these glimmers of peace. Just as warfare needs patriotism, the struggle for peace needs cosmopolitanism to imagine the utopian future. Without such an imagination and without the expansion of compassion beyond the borders of our own kin, we resign ourselves to the world we inherit.

... [Novelist Maxine Hong] Kingston goes on to say that "peace has to be supposed, imagined, divined and dreamed." This kind of dreaming will not happen without cosmopolitanism and compassion and their persistent, irritating reminder that waging war is easier than fighting for peace. If peace begins with the individuals, it is realized collectively with peace movements, for peace is not simply a matter of praying or hoping, although they, like dreaming, do not hurt.

Instead, peace happens through confronting the war machine and taking over the industries that make it possible ... [He points particularly to the "industries of memory" -- memorials, song and story -- which perpetuate myths of heroism and national virtue.] The strength of weaponized memory is why appeals from the high ground alone cannot stop war or realize peace. ... This is why a need remains for memory that looks at our inhumanity, which we might wish to deny.

Nguyen's book is profound; my summary does not do justice. Read and ponder if you dare.


Rain Trueax said...

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, I said that the promise-- that we'd fight them over there, so we didn't have to fight them here-- was a lie. The blood comes home in many ways. The idea that we have been the world's mercenaries and it's our duty is another lie. Violence begets violence. I won't say war is never needed given the nature of despots and their goals, but it's mostly not needed and often could be circumvented if dealt with in time. So we have an increasingly violent society where road rage is settled with a gun, and we think it has nothing to do with our wars around the globe... Obama's and now Trump's drone hits on civilian populations might be how it has to be given the soldiers hide among the civilians; but it's not without cost-- there or here.

Hattie said...

Maybe the people who are fixated on money would be anti-war if they understood that wars destroy wealth. Piketty explains this in *Capital.*

Brandon said...

The tagline of

I've never read, but have heard of this book: The Worth of War, by Benjamin Ginsberg.

"Although war is terrible and brutal, history shows that it has been a great driver of human progress. So argues political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg in this incisive, well-researched study of the benefits to civilization derived from armed conflict. Ginsberg makes a convincing case that war selects for and promotes certain features of societies that are generally held to represent progress. These include rationality, technological and economic development, and liberal forms of government.

"Contrary to common perceptions that war is the height of irrationality, Ginsberg persuasively demonstrates that in fact it is the ultimate test of rationality. He points out that those societies best able to assess threats from enemies rationally and objectively are usually the survivors of warfare. History also clearly reveals the technological benefits that result from war—ranging from the sundial to nuclear power."

You can debate if nuclear power, for instance, is beneficial or not. And you can debate if rationality is beneficial (see Adorno, et al.). Here's the Publisher's Weekly review.

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