30. The End of War

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…].

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