July 12, 2006

On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility (II): The Culture of War, and the Culture of Chicken Shit

In the first part of this series, I introduced some general considerations relating to the concepts of evil, guilt and responsibility, and concerning the proper use of those terms. I offered one very basic test for the commission of evil--the unjustified taking of another's life when that act is not absolutely required in one's self-defense; and I put forth a subsidiary example of evil--torture, the intentional infliction of agony on another person for no legitimate reason whatever, in other words, sadism for its own sake.

Given world events at present, these concepts come up most frequently in discussions about war, and what constitutes the "proper" conduct of war. Before we can make assessments about certain more complex categories of guilt and responsibility, we need to consider the nature of war itself in further detail. In a number of essays, I have discussed many manifestations of our widespread and very deep-seated cultural denial. More particularly, this denial concerns the reality of the pain experienced by another person. As I have indicated, relying on the invaluable work of Alice Miller, this denial arises out of an earlier one: the denial of our own pain. We all grow up in a culture that teaches us in countless ways to avoid and suppress the nature and reality of the pain we experience, and almost all of us are raised in accordance with child rearing methods that instill this denial from the first days of infancy on. (See the introduction to this essay for a brief description of how this mechanism operates.)

One of the innumerable results is the emotional stupor and dullness that permits the great majority of Americans, including our elected leaders, to avoid the horrifying deaths and injuries that occur daily, if not hourly, in the carnage of Iraq. We very rarely focus on the details of the lives destroyed or altered forever, whether the lives are those of our own military personnel or, in an unendingly repellent example of our national narcissism, those of Iraqis. It is this same emotional deadness that allows us to have a national conversation about whether torture is a "legitimate" tool in this war -- a conversation, I submit, that would never occur in a genuinely civilized society. (See my series, On Torture, for the full explanation of my views on this subject.)

The fundamental disconnect between most of our discussions about war (and foreign policy generally) and the reality on the ground is further revealed by the ludicrous proliferation of the "armchair warrior" class. These are the pundits and bloggers who view themselves as demonstrating notable courage and bravery because they pour forth endless words extolling slaughter and bloodshed, and who ceaselessly demand death and destruction on an ever-widening scale. Many of these armchair warriors are of an age where they could certainly lend their aid in the tragically real war they constantly praise for the glory of its purpose, which is (as they tell it) nothing less than the saving of civilization itself -- yet they offer weak and unconvincing excuses for remaining at their keyboards, while the bodies of others are savagely ripped apart. It is safe to say that most if not all of these dedicated warriors -- warriors who insist on the inherent nobility of their right to restrict themselves to the use of words as weapons -- would be rendered helplessly traumatized and reduced to trembling masses of mindless protoplasm within seconds, if they were ever to find themselves in the middle of a battle zone.

Paul Fussell is the author of one of the handful of indispensable books about World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory. More critical to our purposes here, Fussell served in World War II. As he describes it, he is "a superannuated, badly wounded, former infantry lieutenant, a one-time rifle platoon leader who fought in World War II in Europe, and commanded 40 terrified young Americans, many of whom were killed or cruelly wounded."

In 1994, Fussell gave a speech entitled, "The Culture of War." A transcript of that presentation will be found in a collection of valuable essays, The Costs of War, which I strongly recommend to you. Fussell explains that he uses "culture" in "a quasi-anthropological sense," the way T.S. Eliot used it in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. In brief, Eliot and Fussell use culture to designate "the general forms and usages and techniques of a given society including military society," and "all the characteristic activities and interests of a people."

Fussell writes:
The truth is that very few people know anything about war. In an infantry division, for example, fewer than half of the troops actually fight, that is, fight with rifles, mortars, machine guns, grenades, and trench knives. The others, thousands upon thousands of them, are occupied with truck driving, photocopying, cooking and baking, ammunition and ration supplying, and similar housekeeping tasks. Now those things are no doubt necessary, but they are hardly bellicose: they don't provide the sort of experience required to define what the word "war" might mean. This is the reason why most combat veterans tend to smile cynically and sardonically at veterans reunions when those reunions are attended by very large numbers. Very few of those attending, the real veterans know, deserve to be there.
Fussell goes on to tell the story of how he was contacted by a New York City lawyer in connection with a course for West Point cadets the lawyer was conducting. The course dealt with "the deformations of language required for the registration of non-rational violent behavior." The lawyer wanted Fussell to discuss "after-action reports from combat units, and he wanted me to indicate what problems I had experienced in writing my after-action reports."

Fussell says that he "suffered an outburst of extreme anger" as the telephone conversation went on. Of course, the lawyer responded to Fussell's question about whether he, the lawyer, had ever been in combat in the negative.
I then explained, with elaborate sarcasm, that I never heard of such things as after-action reports from small assault units. Perhaps they had some existence at battalion or regimental level, but not down where the fighting was. How, after all, could one pull oneself together to compose an after-action report with pencil and paper when you had the following after-action features to attend to: first, the question of what to do with the six German prisoners the assault has just yielded. How can one keep a very angry private who had seen his buddy's eye shot out from doing what he really much wanted to do, to kill all the prisoners? Second, after-action you had to clean up the mess. ... Third, after-action you had to reposition your soldiers to repel a German counter-attack, and you had to jolly them up to make them work to continue fighting in the prescribed manner. Fighting the war after-action is going to be very difficult because your sergeant is over there crying. Fourth, how could a junior officer, like me, write an after-action report when his hand was covered with the blood of one of his men whose wound in the back I had ineffectively tried to bandage while the bullets and shell fragments were flying around? ... The point is that producing after-action reports is the privilege of leaders who are non-combatants, and are useful only in works of fiction.

My point is not that we did not write such reports; rather, my point is that the lawyer, a very representative human being, suffered from an extreme naivete about the facts of war. One would expect a lawyer, in New York City especially, to be quite sophisticated about the facts of life, but here is one who imagined that the conduct of combat was rational. ... Those who find it hard to understand how often soldiers kill their own comrades during friendly fire episodes are victims of the same intellectual and emotional error. The culture of war, in short, is not like the culture of ordinary peace-time life. It is a culture dominated by fear, blood, and sadism, by irrational actions and preposterous (and often ironic) results. It has more relation to science fiction or to absurdist theater than to actual life, and that makes it hard to describe.
All of this is of the greatest importance and, as I indicate above, it is entirely neglected in most of our discussions about how much longer to continue the utterly futile, horrifyingly bloody occupation of Iraq, or which country to attack next. But Fussell makes several other, broader points of equal significance.

He further analyzes the divide between those "serious survivors of war" who know what war is actually like and the "optimistic onlookers" (our armchair warriors of today), and he then notes how the sanitized, cleaned-up version of war must always be the version offered to the general public. With regard to the following, I note that official censorship is not required for these effects to follow; the kind of voluntary self-censorship that is endemic to contemporary journalism (discussed recently here) leads to the same very dangerous results. Fussell observes:
[The culture of war] has other regrettable aspects, one of which is censorship. War kills people; the culture of war does not, but the culture of war kills something precious and indispensable in a civilized society: freedom of utterance, freedom of curiosity, freedom of knowledge. Recently, an official of the Pentagon explained why the military had censored some TV footage depicting Iraqi soldiers cut in half by automatic fire from U.S. helicopters. He explained, "If we let people see that kind of thing there would never again be any war." ... It is obvious that censorship of that type is a necessity in any modern war. It is usually rationalized by the need to keep the enemy in the dark about our plans; it is also valuable to conceal military blunders and war crimes from a public that, in the absence of censorship, might learn to be critical of the military's actions.

Now my point is simple: if you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further and learn to be uncritical of government and authority, and even to be uncritical of all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitions prevail at the moment. ... I wonder if the habit of unthinking obedience is a good one to instill in young Americans. For one thing, what is clear about the culture of war is that it is necessarily an obedience culture. In armies, as one critic has noticed, where there must be unquestioning obedience, there must necessarily be passive injustice. And not just that--the obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social dishonesty.


During the Gulf War, friendly fire caused a large share of the American casualties. ... Of course, blunders are the very essence of war, which is why the culture of war is so far removed from the culture of predictability and rationality. Soldiers know that mistakes are the essence of war, because they know what is likely to happen when you arm a lot of frightened boys with deadly weapons. But the public must not be told, lest their simple faith in military authority and rationality be shaken.
And here are some of Fussell's concluding observations. He refers to conscription in the following, which is a singularly great evil we are fortunately spared today. But the absence of a compulsory draft does not detract in the least from the truth of Fussell's more general thoughts. About a draft, I will briefly note that most of its advocates and defenders will never acknowledge what compulsory national service of any kind actually is: slavery. If the government, backed by brute force and the threat of legal penalty (either imprisonment or in any other form), has the power to compel young men and women as to how they must spend several years of their lives -- and if the government can even order them into battle, perhaps in a cause they absolutely oppose, and possibly to be killed -- then individual rights have been obliterated at the most fundamental level. This kind of servitude to the state is slavery, pure and simple. Compulsory national service of any kind, including a military draft, is one of the greatest evils known to mankind, and it is no wonder that its defenders absolutely refuse to identify its true nature.

Fussell writes:
It is customary to maintain that American wars are all fought on behalf of freedom, but few notice that for the sake of freedom millions of young men are enslaved for years, Shanghaied by conscription into a life whose every dimension is at odds with the idea of freedom. Flag, uniforms, bugle calls, band music, and all the trappings of military glory hardly suffice to persuade the hapless conscript that he is involved in the defense of freedom, especially when his weekend pass has just been canceled at the last minute in retribution for a heartfelt satiric remark which his sergeant has just overheard. To invoke a rude term which I hope will offend no one here, the culture of war is hardly separable from the culture of chicken shit.


Now, the final thing I want to point out about the culture of war is that it is necessarily adversarial and dualistic. We are here, the enemy is over there, and a no-mans land, either literal (geography) or figurative (ideology), divides us. The divisiveness at home occasioned by the Vietnam War is an example. That divisiveness almost ruined the United States. You remember how it went--if you opposed the war you were dishonoring the flag and were practically a traitor. If you favored the war you were a true American. You had to be either a dove or a hawk--take your choice. There was no room for compromise, conciliation, or even very subtle discussion. If you were not for the war you must be for communism. It was that attitude that finally brought down the Nixon White House.

Earlier in our history, invasion or physical pressure against American territory were provocations leading to war. During the Nixon era, the U.S. became "Kissingerized." No longer requiring threats to American territory, threats to American "national interest" became a sufficient reason for sending the troops into bloody action. National interest is an interesting term because it is legally meaningless and constitutionally undefinable, hence popular. The term "national interest" is the best gift ever awarded to those Americans who are neurotically bellicose, but who, like Henry Kissinger, always seem to avoid being on the frontline, preferring to serve their country by getting others to drop bombs on people. Of course, the people they drop bombs on, and this is notable, are always more primitive and unfortunate than themselves. They are always smaller in stature. They usually have darker skins. That is what the current culture of war seems to amount to. Clearly, we should abhor it.
Many of Fussell's comments intersect with themes I have discussed in earlier essays, and with ideas I will be exploring further. But this is long enough, so I will leave this discussion here for the moment.

Some Related Essays:

Mythic War and Endless Enemies

The National Myth that Sustains Us -- and Its Inevitable Racism

Endless War, and the Destructive Search for "Meaning"

Folly Marches On -- and Seeking a New Direction