Tuesday, August 25, 2015

War and not-quite peace

War is something most of us have been forced to realize is something huge and hard to grasp. Not least due to the plethora of movies to be found on the subject. Some of them try to depict war as something glorious and heroic, making heroes of young men, giving even the scrappiest of lads a chance to perform great feats in the name of the State or the Nation (or Virtue, or whatever). Other movies give a different account, less optimistic and more realistic: open wounds, maggots, death, decay, psychic trauma, extreme stress, exhaustion, uncertainty with regards to as to whether there will be a tomorrow, the constant presence of very lethal and very mobile things with every intent on closing the distance, and, worst of all, bad food.

If I had such a bent, I'd quip about this second image being unnervingly close to everyday life. However, that would be making light of the topic, and that simply would not do.

Even everyday life is described in different ways, in movies and in other mediums. Just as in the depiction of war, there are cheerful rosy accounts insisting that there is goodness and beauty to be found even in the smallest of God's creations, should we just keep our eyes open. And, conversely, the opposite: the depiction of the relentlessly grey Monday mornings with their brutal disdifferentiation of past, present and future into a brutal-eternal now, where the prospects of anything ever changing are engineered out of the realm of possibility. (That is, until the protagonist meets a manic pixie dream girl who changes everything. But still.)

If I at this point would say that there is an inherent similarity between war and everyday life, I'd be somewhat disingenuous. The fact that both war and everyday life have been depicted in similar ways at different times doesn't say anything about either war or everyday life, and to compare these discourses is more of a discourse analysis than a comparison proper.

There are thinkers who have endeavored to connect war and everyday life in a more concrete way. Paul Virilio writes in War and cinema about how the ways we use to communicate with each other - radio, cell phones, internet, the works - were invented by the military for military use in wartime. Which might seem a simple restatement that war is the mother of all invention, and that when inventions have been invented it's hard to uninvent them, and that they might as well be put to use by those who need them. Which, to be sure, isn't much to phone home or tweet about. Virilio's twist on this is that the military paradigms that these inventions were first used in - the paradigms of war - slowly but surely are bleeding over to everyday life and civil society, along with the inventions themselves.

Before we continue this line of thinking, let's turn to Clausewitz. In his monumental book On war, he discusses just about everything there is to discuss about war. He gives us the rather counterintuitive definition of war as the continuation of politics through other means. This might seem odd, but think about wars happen. It's not because two people hate each other - the hate tends to be a product of the war, rather than the other way around. Rather, war happens when a state sees something it wants in/of another state, and use the military to procure these things. Politics through other means, as it were.

He then continues to differentiate between two types of objectives, present in every war. The first kind is the political objective, which is to say what the government of the attacking country (and the defending country, to be sure) wants to achieve, whatever it might be. The second is the military objective, which is what the military needs to conquer in order to secure the political goal (fortifications, strategic locations, transport networks, supply lines etc). If these objectives coincide, as when the objective is the annexation of territory, then achieving the one achieves the other. If the political goal is more diffuse, then the relation between political and military objectives is less clear. In either case, the projection of military force is a means to an end rather than an end unto itself.

The overall military objective, in any war, is to destroy the enemy. Or, rather, to destroy their capacity to enact and project resistance. If the enemy has been effectively and totally incapacitated (ponder this word), then they have lost. By definition, there is nothing they can do. When this happens, the only option is to surrender and give in to the political demands, whatever those might be.

We see here how politics and resistance are intrinsically linked to war as such. Politics is to want something, and if this want is to procure something someone else has, then this someone else can either mobilize a resistance to this will, or give in to it. There is no third option.

Returning to Virilio. The military inventions, first used in wars and related situations, have ever so slowly found their way into civil society. And along with them, the paradigm that necessitated and facilitated their use. The military has an endemic interest in keeping its troops ready to either attack or defend, to either overcome resistance or mobilize it. The ability to quickly and effectively organize large numbers of people has always been a key military interest, and is a critical component of every hostile situation.

As these military technologies become civil, military thinking has as well. We all carry cell phones, and we have grown accustomed to changing our plans whilst out in the field. Or out on the town. We do it more or less automatically these days, and feel strangely incapacitated whenever we - for any reason - can't do it. When our phone runs out of battery, it's not just our phone that's lacking in functionality. A part of who we see ourselves as is no longer operational. Which, incidentally, is how we see people who for whatever reason choose to live outside our infotechnobubble - nonfunctional people.

The thought of organizing ourselves in collective and efficient resistances (plural) became manifest in the wake of Gategate. [A Swedish 2010 event concerning two policemen demanding that a recording of them acting objectionably be deleted. The recording was subsequently recovered and spread far and wide through social media. The name denotes the fact that this took place near the gates to the Stockholm subway, which is to say a literal gate.] Before this, the possibility of quickly organize a response to government abuse was latent, dormant; after, it became something of a civic duty to document and signal boost these whenever they occurred. Whilst it is not always clear what these resistances attack or defend, it still weighs heavily upon us as an imperative in our daily lives.

Now, this is not to say that this is necessarily a negative thing. Being able to resist the inherent totalitarian tendencies of the state is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Being able to quickly organize a meeting on short notice in order to discuss what is to be done in a crisis situation can save lives. But it is worth pondering that while it is true that this country [Sweden] hasn't been in a formal state of war for over two hundred years, there is still a constant presence of war in our everyday lives. Not as a heroic adventure or a sudden onset of post-traumatic panic, but as an ambivalent gray something which is neither this nor that. It's in the air, but it's not something we usually think about. It's just there, waiting, a latent possibility inherent in being. The constant readiness to mobilize. At a moment's notice.

It is sometimes said that these new communication technologies have changed our lives beyond recognition. I think we've barely even begun to scratch the surface of this statement. Or even begun to suspect how many kilometers this surface extends. Old virtues become incommensurate with new realities; old imperatives subsumed by new ones. "Be a good person", they used to say. "Be able to resist", we now say. But resist whom, in whose name? What new objectives are posited by our politically mobilized selves and communities?

What even is this new everyday life we are suddenly living?

Originally published February 23, 2010

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