In 1066 William the Conqueror hacked down a few British natives and did a neat takeover job on merry England. He wasn’t the first or the last to throw the dice for glory like this. These days his kind is best kept amused by building, raiding, marrying and betraying those virtual kingdoms known as business corporations. The teeming hordes of career officers and foot soldiers, whose sexual fantasies are met by serving some other master, are also corralled behind the corporate logos of companies great and small.
The remaining testosterone of the swaggering male is mostly mopped up in a hardy trek between the fridge and TV couch, as vicarious heroes slog it out in mass spectator sports, and cinematic muscle-men practice mass slaughter in Hollywood or its badge-engineered TV studio clones from Shanghai to Buenos Aires to Timbuktu. The shadow of female aggression half overlays the male version, like a Venn diagram, and half arcs into its own silk and frilly version of sexual conquest, competition and exploitation.
Well all this modern containment of animal instincts has kept a few generations of the human creature more or less under control, in most places, most of the time. Breakouts to mass hysteria occur occasionally, and individuals routinely slide into a downward spiral of fast food, prescription drug and alcohol addiction, then an antiseptic exit in the tiled corridors of a district hospital.
In earlier times, other methods of life management were tried. Subsistence agriculture, and its upmarket derivative, serfdom, were pretty effective life-users. Another favoured panacea for earthly boredom was religion in various flavours. Vedic philosophers came up with some smart improvements on the human mental condition two and a half thousand years ago, based around self-management and self-knowledge. It got written into Buddhism, but turned out to need too much self-discipline and introspection for most ordinary people. The history of popular religions since then has headed towards the lowest denominator, assigning responsibility to an unseen god, endlessly demanding obedience to authority, and in some interpretations of Islam (for example) prescribing the most minute details of body management, down to bum wiping. At these extremes, the scope for human initiative and innovation is hugely circumscribed, This is the mentality of the jail-house, and it still finds favour with large groups of people in every culture.
While most folk nowadays get on with having their fantasies managed by the television moguls, someone still has to handle the old problem of actually running the tribe, or the country. Candidates for this job across the ages have always been a doubtful crew of adventurers, pirates, murderers, extortionists and con-men, plus an occasional well-meaning naïf who actually thinks he’s there to serve a common good. Keeping this lot from making life a misery for everyone, or even wiping out whole populations, has never been easy. In fact, it has never been seriously possible to control abuses of power in any institutional way. This is because those who seek power will wear the disguise of whatever ideology has a hold on the common mind at the moment.
There have been endless attempts, of course, to devise ‘good’ systems : the separation of church and state, the separation of secular powers, putting the ‘rule of law’ above the ‘rule of men’, democratic election, the public sanction of mass media, and so on. They have all helped to improve matters at various times, but they are all easily corrupted. In fact there is overwhelming evidence that such devices for good government are no sooner studied and understood, than they are systematically corrupted themselves.
Which brings us to the matter of war. War is when all that Hollywood violence turns into real blood. Since Hollywood violence is no more than a validation and magnification of the private psycho-dramas of every humiliated man and woman on the planet, this is no huge leap. How many people get through a day without lapsing into some personal revenge or dominance fantasy ? Who doesn’t daydream of suddenly having superman control when their private agenda is rudely interrupted? So the evil old men who bring us war can help us to live out our fantasies, just as Hollywood helps us to live out our fantasies. We eagerly accept their soothing words of dying for a noble cause, striving for glory, love of the country or the tribe or the culture, and the final clincher, asserting our right to survive against an evil enemy.
Well in the world of 2004, when this was written, we’ve run just run a war script for the umpteenth time in human history. We’ve proved that as a group we’ve learned nothing whatsoever from all the scripts which proceeded the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on Iraq’. Particular individuals have learned something, even the populations of particular countries have wanted nothing to do with the George Bush American script, but the war machine has rolled on regardless with the democratic support of a majority of Americans. The palpable failure of the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on Iraq’ has done little to improve the judgement of that majority of Americans. It has been thus for most of recorded history. Good strategic judgement is not a majority attribute anywhere.
Something has changed though. What has changed is the sheer amount of physical damage which can be done, and by whom. For some time so-called authorities — the characters in physical command of mass resources in nation states — have had the power to wipe out all life on the planet. We have a legitimate worry about which one of them will go off the rails first and actually do that. In spite of, or because of, their immense hubris, we have a particular worry about the likelihood of some American administration wiping out a large part of life on earth. However, it is now clear that private groups, however misguided or crazy, can access the public resources of the industrial world and easily assemble the machinery to lay waste to the civilized life of whole populations. That machinery of destruction can be simple explosives, it can be electronic sabotage, it can be mass misinformation directed to misshape the ideas and hence actions of huge numbers of people.
The truth is that the surveillance required to contain rogue destruction by disaffected groups or free-lancers is just not possible. Any effective attempt at such intrusive surveillance could only destroy the very way of life we are trying to protect. Indeed, it could only corrupt those with the power of surveillance, as if they are not corrupt enough already. In 1945 the atom bombs used by Americans seemed to make any future atomic wars between states unthinkable (not that the leaders of nation states have ever stopped thinking about just that). Now any failed state with a chemical fertilizer factory can probably achieve the same devastation. Now indeed anyone with a religion to sell, or a grudge to settle, can achieve the same devastation if they can raise the cash or win the minds of a few skilled people.
We are at a point where the easy realization of ultimate violent fantasy must lead us to question the culture of violent fantasy, root and branch. Not for the first time, we are face to face with our own animal and sexual nature. Will the instincts which preserved us as an animal species finally destroy us in our synthetic world? The old style religious solution has been tried and failed, again and again. The Hollywood/mass sports solution has not been enough to keep us under control.
Command-religion and cinema were both a kind of projected fantasy. The reversion to a 5th Century desert Bedouin culture demanded by Islamic extremists is obviously no solution, not even for religious fundamentalists. Yet as early Buddhist philosophers found, ordinary people on the whole are not up to life-long disciplined self management of their minds and bodies. Moreover, they are born ignorant of history, and mostly remain unable to learn from its lessons. Even those leaders who claw their way to the top of the ant heap, like Bush and his administration, tend to arrive ignorant of the limits to their power.
Still, something has changed. The change is our naked vulnerability. And that change means that he who sows the seeds of violence, of war, must know that he or his children will reap the whirlwind. The Russians created the Chechen crisis, and now they are living with its legacy. The Americans effectively created Saddam Hussein as ‘their bastard’, and now they are living with their legacy . They or their proxies created the conditions for Islamic extremism in Palestine and Iran, and now they are living with their legacy. The Americans and their proxies effectively created the Taliban and Osama bin-Laden. Now we are all living with their legacy.
Just imagine another major war between major states – America, China, Russia, Japan, India, the Europeans etc. Or even a real war as unbalanced as the Iraqi conflict. Could a modern William the Conqueror get away with it? Not a chance. Sure, you could melt down any number of national capitals. But every career you destroyed, every baby you slaughtered, every parent with vengeance in their heart, would have the potential power to lay waste to your own corner of paradise.
So is this the end of war? [Don’t hold your breath…].