Brian Williams Is Right: War Is Beautiful, And We Are Fascinated By It

Brian Williams has offended many with his invocation of the ‘beauty’ of the weapons fired into Syria on Thursday. But he is right: war and its weapons are beautiful, and we are surrounded by them; we succumb all to easily to their embrace, to the clarion call of war, precisely because we find them beautiful. As I noted in a post about the phenomenon of Israelis pulling up lawn chairs to watch the bombardment of Gaza in 2014:

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatant can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN…and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay….They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

Or, in a post on John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’:

we were spectators and consumers of [the Iraq war]; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life….War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Or, in wondering about the political consistency of Christopher Hitchens’ views:

[W]hy would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may…be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

There is a caveat, of course:

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

When Brian Williams offered his views on the sight of cruise missiles being fired into a dark night he was articulating a sensibility which lies deep in the nation’s spirit–“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; he was merely articulating what many others felt. I say ‘we’ above again and again, because I do not think we can simply condemn Williams and leave ourselves out of the picture.

Missile Firing Day: The Republic’s Inaugural Day Is Here

There is a popular and enduring American fiction that the US President is sworn into office on something called Inauguration Day, which is commemorated on January 20th in Washington DC. Seasoned students of the Republic are well aware, however, that the actual, truly meaningful, Inauguration Day is not so rigidly anchored to a particular freezing day, a particular locale, one that makes it decidedly inconvenient for most Americans to participate in any meaningful way. Instead, Inauguration Day is a floater; it takes place on a select day later in the year following the elections–when the President-elect decides that the time is right to launch a few missiles–or perhaps a long-range bombing raid or two–at distant targets. Such an inaugural method offers some distinct advantages over the model commonly supposed to exist.

First, the firing of the missiles prompts an almost immediate civics lesson as curious citizens hear–for the first time–about things called ‘Presidential war powers’ or ‘Congressional approval for declarations of war.’ Some devoted folks even open copies of the US Constitution; most others use this as an opportunity to learn about the relationships between the different branches of the government. Admittedly, the judicial branch is somewhat shortchanged in this context; no Supreme Court Justice is required for the swearing in, and there is little talk of it in connection with the President’s war powers.

Second, on a related point, the citizens of the American republic also enjoy the benefits of many history and geography lessons pertaining to the historical and spatial location of this particular act of missile-firing. Where is this country that we have just attacked? How many times have we attacked it before? What sorts of reasons have been adduced in the past for similar attacks? Small children learning how to count can also be profitably engaged by teaching them the serial number of the latest instance of bombing; ‘forty-one, forty-two…what comes next? Forty-three!’; obviously, such counting would have to be restricted to just post-WWII instances to make it less intimidating for our little ones.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the nation comes together in a fashion quite unlike any other. The traditional Inauguration Day often features demonstrations and protests by disgruntled losers; Missile Firing Day produces effusive proclamations of patriotism and calls to ‘support the troops.’ Political pundits, much given to expending considerable ink from their poison pens in attacking the Presidents, now lay them down and term the President-elect ‘presidential’ (c.f. the related phenomena of hailing the parading of war widows as ‘presidential.’)

Missile Firing Day, the 2017 edition, is here. This time, the US has launched sixty Cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. (After courteously and politely informing the Russians so that the Syrian military could also move its military assets out of the way.) President-elect Donald Trump has now, in the words of at least one former critic, just ‘become President of the United States.’  These missiles’ most effective vanquishing will be that of former critics of the regime. A nation united can never be defeated.

Inaugural Day is here; long live the Republic.

The Post-Apocalyptic World Of The War Refugee

A year or so ago, in writing about classroom discussions centering on Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, I had noted that the homeless–whom the Man and the Boy most resemble–live in a post-apocalyptic world of their own:

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk….the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered…they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night….the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

There is another way to think about the Man and the Boy in The Road: they are refugees. They have lost their home; their family is devastated; they are fleeing violence; they are seeking shelter and food and warmth; they are, as their name implies, seeking refuge. The world they knew is no more; they seek another world, one in which they might, perhaps, begin life anew.

It is easy to imagine–as we voraciously consume products of the post-apocalyptic genre in literature and film–that the post-apocalypse is a fantasy, a possible world about which we can safely speculate from a distance. But we forget all too soon that apocalypse stalks this world of ours; it is present in the lives of many. For zones of  war are zones of apocalypse. ‘Normal’ life is no more; daily existence is subsistence. Homelessness and sudden, violent death is the norm for civilians. Abandon all hope indeed, ye who enter here, and ye who dare escape.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this as we think about this war-stricken world’s refugee crisis. And in particular, of course, about the refugees fleeing the four-year old Syrian war. Over four million are now displaced, and many more will be, for the conflict shows no sign of abating. Most, if not all, have lost loved ones; all have lost their homes. They too, have passed through landscapes not too dissimilar to the ones depicted in The Road. Their life is reduced to the most elemental of all missions: food, shelter, clothing.

Perhaps this world might stop fantasizing about survival strategies in an imaginary post-apocalyptic worlds, and think about how it might address the problems of this all too real one.

Bernard-Henri Lévy And The Problem of ‘Selective Outrage’

You, sir, are a knave and a hypocrite. You protest and fulminate when X assaults–or otherwise inflicts harms on–Y, but not when A assaults–or otherwise inflicts harm on–B. Yet the crime is the same in each case. Your outrage is selective. I do not, therefore, trust your motives, and will ignore your crocodile tears, your faux expressions of concern. They must not be sincere, for if they were, you would visibly and vocally demonstrate the same deep moral concern for the assault in both cases. I suspect you have some animus against X, some deep-rooted hostility that you are covering up with your morally inflected bluster.

I presume this litany of accusations, this suggestion of intellectual dishonesty, sounds familiar. In most cases, the accuser is sympathetic to X‘s stated reasons for harming Y; his accusations of selective outrage–made against those who do not find X‘s stated reasons convincing or persuasive–are intended to constitute a rhetorical disarming of their critique of X.

Here is the latest instance of such an accusation of selective outrage. Bernard-Henri Lévy writes in the Wall Street Journal:

About the crowds on Friday in Paris chanting “Palestine will overcome” and “Israel, assassin”: Where were they a few days earlier when news broke that over the previous weekend Syria’s civil war had produced 720 more dead, adding to the 150,000 others who have not had the honor of demonstrations in France?

Why did the protesters not pour into the streets when, a few days before that, the well-informed Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed that so far this year Damascus’s army, which was supposed to have destroyed its supply of chemical weapons, carried out at least 17 gas attacks around Kafrzyta, Talmanas, Atshan and elsewhere?

Prima facie, accusations of this kind have no force whatsoever. A smoker who tells me to quit smoking because it would cause me lung cancer is presumably a hypocrite, but that does not affect the content of his argument in the least. Does smoking cause lung cancer? Are the reasons provided by the smoker for not smoking good reasons? If they are, you should consider quitting. If they aren’t, don’t. The smoker’s continuation of his smoking habit, his continued patronage of the modern-day merchants of death, should be irrelevant to your evaluation of his argument. The argument above should proceed along similar lines: Are X‘s reasons for assaulting Y good ones? Are they morally justified? If they are, X is justified in continuing with the assault; if not, then X should cease and desist. The person accused of selective outrage might be accused of inconsistency, and perhaps of hypocrisy, but that has no bearing on our evaluation of X‘s conduct.

But we do not always evaluate arguments in such purely logical fashion. We often accept them because we find them persuasive or convincing on non-logical, rhetorical grounds. And in such cases, the context surrounding the argument can make a crucial difference to the argument’s persuasive force. An accusation of selective outrage can thus be quite damaging, and deserves a response that does justice to its non-logical, rhetorical, force as well.

Here is one response, especially relevant to the American context, and perhaps also in those cases where protests are taking places in the cities of other Western allies of Israel. To wit, I am expending my limited political energies in protesting Israel’s policies, because my government, which actively funds and supports Israel, does not appear to share my concern; it does not seem to think Israel’s behavior needs emendation; its inactivity results in aiding and abetting Israel’s actions. In the other cases you mention, I know that my government joins me in my critique, in my condemnation: it is engaged, on perhaps the diplomatic front, or perhaps via sanctions or other punitive actions, to condemn and punish the perpetrators of the outrages taking place elsewhere.

Bernard-Henri Lévy has a response to this defense, which I’m afraid I do not quite understand:

Will the protesters claim that they were rallying against French President François Hollande and a policy of unilateral support for Israel that they do not wish to see conducted “in their name”? Perhaps. But conducting outward politics for inner reasons—converting a large cause into a small instrument designed to salve one’s conscience at little cost—reflects little genuine concern for the fate of the victims.

Henri-Lévy mysteriously concedes the point with a grudging ‘Perhaps’ but then goes on to suggest that ‘outward politics for inner reasons’ does not reflect ‘genuine concern.’  This is incoherent. I do not know what ‘inner reasons’ are when the only reasons being stated are ‘outer’ ones, manifest in speech and action. The suggestion that this political action is being taken merely to provide some healing balm to a guilt-stricken conscience–for having elected our leaders, I presume, or perhaps for not protesting elsewhere too in the shape or fashion Lévy desires–is an ad-hominem claim, one grounded in some mysterious mind-reading ability.

He then goes on to say:

Even more pointedly, should not the same reasoning have filled the same streets 10 or 100 times to protest the same president’s decision, likewise taken in their name, not to intervene in Syria?

As for intervening in Syria, Henri-Lévy conveniently ignores an entire Middle Eastern context, the history of Western military intervention in that domain, and its unpredictable side-effects. But that is another topic altogether. (But see this post on Syria, written in response to the call for bombing in response to chemical weapon use.)

Bernard-Henri Lévy then concludes, a little predictably, by leveling charges of anti-semitism against those who protest Israel’s policies in Gaza. The presence of anti-semitism in anti-Israel protests is reprehensible and outrageous, and has rightly been called out by many; it has no place there. But Lévy’s brush tars a little too broadly and carelessly. I suspect that were he around in the 1960s, Lévy might have accused American civil rights activists of being hypocritical, white-hating fanatics. After all, they weren’t agitating on behalf of India’s untouchables, the Dalits; they weren’t conducting sit-ins, and marching in giant rallies in support of their cause. That must be it. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hypocrite too. He only put his body on the line for American blacks and not for colored people everywhere else.

‘Prohibited’ and ‘Acceptable’ Weapons and Targets in War

In my last two posts on Syria on these pages–here and here–I’ve tried to express my discomfort at the threat made by the US to launch cruise missile strikes in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. In them, I was trying to make a distinction which I did not clearly articulate, one whose provenance goes back to the debates over nuclear deterrence at the time of the Cold War, or to be more precise, the 1950s, when the threat of mutually assured destruction was first made manifest:

[T]he crucial distinction in the theory and practice of war [is] not between prohibited and acceptable weapons but between prohibited and acceptable targets. [From: Michael WalzerJust and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illuminations, 3rd ed., Basic Books, New York, 2000, pp. 276]

Indeed, insofar as a ‘prohibited’ weapon is to be viewed as such, it is because its effects are likely to be–or have been–disproportionately borne by ‘prohibited’ targets i.e., non-combatants, civilians, innocents, bystanders, call them what you will.  The use of a tactical nuclear weapon, say in the Second World War, on a battlefield, perhaps against massed infantry or armored formations, or out at sea, against a massive fleet of warships, would have provoked considerably less angst than its actual use against the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. (Despite Paul Fussell‘s–sometimes ad-hominem–dismissal of critics of the decision to use the bomb, there are good arguments to suggest it was a criminal act c.f the Walzer reference provided above, and especially the discussion on pages 263-268.)

This distinction, once established, now lets me make more explicit the incoherence in our attitudes toward war and weapons that I had suggested in my earlier posts on this topic. Drawing a so-called ‘red line’ around the use of chemical weapons seems arbitrary and hypocritical when those that have charged themselves with the enforcement of a supposed norm against such use are:

a) confused about the right norm to be observed;

b) guilty of violating the appropriate norm themselves.

A ‘limited’ US cruise missile attack on Syria–one committed to no other objectives other than the preservation of the ‘red line’–then, would have been problematic on both these counts. It would have flirted with the implicit claim that the slaughter of civilians is acceptable, or tolerated, so long as it is carried out by conventional weapons;  it would have established that the US, which is guilty of violating the norm against killing noncombatants in its drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan, was taking upon itself the responsibility to enforce its confused reading of it elsewhere.

In response to the cries of ‘What do you want us to do while civilians–prohibited targets–are being gassed?’, I’d suggest that in this case–this Syria, with its warring parties, at this point in time–all options short of armed retaliation be explored first, especially when such an action is likely to cause further loss of life, destabilize the region and perhaps invite retaliation by Assad, using conventional weapons this time, against the same non-combatants. (My post at The Washington Spectator alluded to some of these possibilities.)

Note: I realize that recent diplomatic maneuvers involving Russia have made a US attack less likely, but the threat has not completely receded, which suggests this discussion is still relevant.

Chemical Weapons and the ‘Unnecessary Roughness’ Rule

Fans of the NFL will be familiar with the unnecessary roughness rule; it’s one of those features of America’s most popular game that  sometimes causes bemusement, even to those who consider themselves long-time devotees. In a game memorably described as ‘young men running around risking spinal injury’ or ‘an endless series of head-on collisions’, there is something rather charming about a rule that attempts–with only limited success–to circumscribe its mayhem.

I am reminded of that rule’s strictures as I observe the anguished reaction to the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict in Syria. A ‘red line’–a moral one–has been crossed, and punishment for the offenders is in the offing. But I do not yet understand fully what marks this line out for us, how its boundaries are to be observed.

It cannot just be the associated violence or the loss of life. Conventional weapons also flay flesh, gouge out eyes, destroy limbs; they drive red-hot metal into your abdomen, your skull, tear out your intestines; they will kill your children just as effectively as chemical weapons will. Do chemical weapons cause more pain? Reading reports of children ‘writhing on the ground and foaming at the mouth’ might make one think so, but this is delusional. If your entrails are ripped out by the shrapnel from an artillery shell, and no aid is forthcoming, your death is very likely to be a prolonged, miserable affair. Moving on from guns and cannons, shells and bullets, how about a knife to the eye or a bayonet in the neck?  (Ever heard that gurgling sound someone stabbed in the neck makes?)  Are we against slow deaths and for quick ones? How slow is problematic? And why should that make a difference?  And clearly, the loss of civilian life does not seem to bother too many; if the rationale for the positioning of the ‘red line’ is to be taken seriously, killing civilians with conventional weaponry–laser guided bombs? drones?–would be just fine.

You can ban the use of napalm but you cannot stop civilians burning to death when a high-explosive shell sets their house on fire. That same ban will not prevent children seeing their parents die in front of them, or parents their children. Being buried alive should sound like a pretty horrible death to us; that can easily be brought about by those conventional weapons whose use is approved of by our laws and morality.

Our civilization’s qualms about the use of chemical weapons betray a certain inconsistency: if the death of innocents and causing gratuitous pain to them is our central concern then all forms of armed warfare should constitute a ‘red line’ not to be crossed. But like the NFL and its endless concussions and spinal injuries, we like to keep the dogs of war handy, straining at their leashes, ready to run out and dispatch their prey, and reserve the right to turn up our delicate noses when they cross some arbitrary bounds of savagery.

War, apparently, is inevitable. We just don’t want to get our hands too dirty with it. We are a fastidious species.