Sunday, June 29, 2008

War Nerd

Have you ever heard of General Butt Naked of Liberia? It sounds rather like the punchline of a joke, but if so, it's a pretty grim one. Apparently, to quote from Gary Brecher's new book of collected columns from the online journal eXile ("Mankind's Only Alternative"), War Nerd: "at the age of 11 he had a telephone call from the devil who demanded nudity on the battlefield, acts of indecency and regular human sacrifices to ensure his protection."

So, before leading my troops into battle, we would get drunk and drugged up, sacrifice a local teenager, drink their blood, then strip down to our shoes and go into battle wearing colourful wigs and carrying dainty purses we'd looted from civilians. We'd slaughter anyone we saw, chop their heads off and use them as soccer balls. [104]
"We were nude, fearless, drunk and homicidal," the general summed up, in a recent press conference in front of the world's assembled media.

Is this stuff for real? Apparently it is. A quick Google search reveals a Wikipedia article about one Joshua Blahyi (aka "General Butt Naked"). He's repented now, though, after killing approximately 20,000 people during his rampages.
In June last year God telephoned me and told me that I was not the hero I considered myself to be, so I stopped and became a preacher.
Well, that is reassuring. A bit like George Bush Jr. giving up being an alcoholic loser and family ne'er-do-well and deciding to enter politics instead.

War Nerd, sent to me from Canada by my friend John Dolan, is full of such fascinating anecdotes from ancient and modern history. Its author makes no secret of the fact that he gets off on the whole subject of war, and considers virtually any form of violent and excessive human behaviour preferable to sitting in rush-hour traffic in downtown Fresno, where he works as a downtrodden data-entry clerk.

His reflections on the details of human conflict over the ages are, admittedly, disreputably fascinating, but I guess what interested me most about the book as a whole was how difficult it was to dispute the basic tenets of this war-ophile.

Earlier this year I had a go at reading Robert Fisk's monumental tome The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. It was a library book, unfortunately, which meant that I had to read ever faster and faster, hundreds and hundreds of pages of massacres, betrayals, genocides, bombings, burnings etc. until the whole gallimaufry began to spin around my head. Finally it had to go back, all possibilities of renewal exhausted, with a good 400 or so pages to go.

I still haven't given up on it. Bronwyn's bought me my very own copy now, so I will adventure down that intrepid path again one of these days when I'm feeling mentally strong, but I guess my point is that Fisk's tome would appear to confirm the view that Brecher is the one who's on the straight and narrow - it's the rest of us with our idealistic notions of the universal power of peace and fair play who are out of step.

And I don't mean to imply, either, that Brecher's book is somehow "justified" by this comparison with Fisk's more sober-sided, serious trawl through contemporary events. I guess my problem with Fisk (and John Pilger, and various other noble-minded crusaders for truth and justice) is that their position gets increasingly paradoxical as they go along, and yet they never actually go back to square one and examine their own basic postulates about politics and human nature.

The trouble with reading a book by Pilger or Fisk is that they first describe, in grim detail, a whole series of appalling injustices, and then vaguely imply that it should be somehow "set right." Set right by whom? What is the norm in human affairs: Assyrian Kings decapitating their foes, Aztecs tearing out human hearts, Spanish Conquistadors working their Indian slaves to death - or tea parties in Mayfair and Manhattan?

Personally (of course) I'd rather be at the tea party, but I soon as I start to dig a little (what we old-fashioned humanists used to call "thinking"), the motives of the waiting staff begin to present themselves as emblematic of an essentially exploitative top-heavy rewards system. Who cleans up the tables after the tea is drunk? Who carries off the trash? Where does that trash end up? Who lives next to (or on top of) the rubbish-dump? And so on.

Mind you, I certainly respect Fisk and Pilger's moral indignation, but I'd rather they did a more grass-roots, Thoreau-style analysis of their own being-in-the-world. Who folds their sheets? Pays their expense accounts? Why do their books get published and distributed? Because they have the end result of supporting the status quo by implying that wars and genocides are occasional, aberrant - though still distressingly frequent - exceptions to the normal run of affairs in late Capitalist society, rather than "politics continued by other means" (von Clausewitz)?

Brecher's a kind of a humourist, I suppose. At least he certainly writes amusingly. And yet he dares to ask these difficult questions and follows through on the answers. He admits that he'd love to be a warlord, that he sees nothing "irrational" in low-profile, grass-roots guerilla wars. It's funny, yeah, but it's also food for thought in a way that Messrs Chomsky, Fisk and Pilger aren't. They fall back on invoking old-fashioned codes of decency, when the world they describe clearly no longer has the remotest use for such bourgeois scruples.

I'd prefer to live in their world than Brecher's, but the picture he paints makes disconcertingly better sense. And, you know, his analysis of the likes of General Butt Naked (whom it 's hard to imagine even accommodating in most conceptual universes) rings bitterly, horribly true:

The sad part is, I can imagine my folks going to see the bastard preach and getting all sentimental when he starts talking about how the Devil captured him at age eleven ... General Naked may be preaching the Gospel now, but that's the kind of job-change psychos like him can do without breaking a sweat. and they can go back to the old psycho-killer job just as quick when the time's right. [105]
In a world where you can still meet people who feel indignant at the "persecution" of that poor old man General Pinochet, when he was finally arrested in Spain and asked politely to attend a non-binding tribunal to inquire into certain crimes against humanity which had been alleged against him; where immaculately-suited, well-fed media commentators seem genuinely unable to explain why Robert Mugabe doesn't simply renounce the Presidency of Zimbabwe, crying out: "Lord, I done wrong!" under the withering hail of "international opinion," I think it might finally be time to get just a little real.

I'm appalled by the brutal world that Brecher paints, but I'm increasingly unable to pretend that he's making it up as he goes along. Give him a listen. And after you've stopped laughing at all those witty asides, you might do worse than start to think about what he's actually saying.


Richard said...

This is an in interesting post Jack.

This is right on it:

"Mind you, I certainly respect Fisk and Pilger's moral indignation, but I'd rather they did a more grass-roots, Thoreau-style analysis of their own being-in-the-world. Who folds their sheets? Pays their expense accounts? Why do their books get published and distributed? Because they have the end result of supporting the status quo by implying that wars and genocides are occasional, aberrant - though still distressingly frequent - exceptions to the normal run of affairs in late Capitalist society, rather than "politics continued by other means" (von Clausewitz)?"

Yes. I like Pilger and would like to read the Fisk -
but as an "answer" somewhat (there is probably never any answer pr se; and indeed we are all capable of -well our hands can ".. murder or create")) but/and I/ came across two books more or less by chance - one is by Joanna Bourke. here is the name and link to review of it:

An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in 20th-Century Warfare. Joanna Bourke. New York: Basic Books, 1999, 400 pp.

And this book is very fascinating (the writer has read Bourke's books.)

The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War by David Livingstone Smith

Here is pretty good review of it:

I can understand your reluctance to dwell on these (often nauseating) areas...

I have read some of Pilgers books and his docus are great - one of his more recent books however lead to be angry (or a bit obsessed with war and politics etc) all the time so I stopped reading it.

BTW I frequently - in fact often have books half read or I read them in "bits" (I do read some books right through but many I kind of "peck at so - hmm... I know youn love finishing everything. But don't feel too bad! - huge tomes I find a bit intimidating...

But I tend to read as if I am reading one infinite book I start on one - got to something referenced in that - and so on!!

But those books above are very very insightful. Neither writer has any political bias as such - as far as I know.

Harvey Molloy said...

I admit to being a little unsettled by this post. "They fall back on invoking old-fashioned codes of decency..." OK, but what else is there? The abyss? Maybe morality is nothing more than the extension of an impossible to formulate sense of good manners and (groan) the sense of fair play. But I think it's better than the other option: there is no morality that I need to abide by & it's OK to be a warlord.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I'd be rather worried if you weren't unsettled by this post, Harvey. That's really my point.

When you watch documentaries (I have in mind two of Pilger's) about how people actually live - or rather subsist - in Gaza, or how factories making gear for rich Westerners operate in the Philippines, I'm afraid it's hard not to conclude that the abyss has already arrived.

An old-fashioned sense of fair play no longer seems adequate to the occasion, I'm afraid. The last thing in my mind is to play holier-than-thou, though. I'm one of the guests at the tea party, too - but I admire attempts (such as Brecher's) to dramatise our predicament so that we finally wake up to it.

I'm sure he's (secretly) no more interested in being a warlord than I am, but he recognises that the war is already here, that the West has sown the wind, and is now about to reap the whirlwind.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, it's not that we're choosing the abyss, but that the abyss has already chosen us.

Anonymous said...

The best possible paraphrase for Nietszche in this context is located here:

Seriously though, I don't really buy either position. Isn't it a sort of Kurtz versus Marlowe dichotomy - oh no, war versus woo-hoo, war! - in which either position works to cover over the material basis at which you're hinting here?

- liv

Dr Jack Ross said...

Kind of puts me in mind of that old Punch cartoon which shows two portly, well-fed men tied up against a wall in a devastated city with ragged looking guerillas combing through the ruins on all sides. They're obviously about to be executed by a firing squad, and one is saying to the other, "Of course, when we advocated class warfare, we never thought that sociological theorists could be regarded as a class."

I guess I'm getting increasingly suspicious of that automatic Academic de haut en bas reflex, thempting (and sometimes necessary) though it may be.

Anonymous said...

"and dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise" ?

Fair enough; I agree... nevertheless, it doesn't follow that wallowing in one's complicity is any better, surely? Or even very different? Both of them (and I'd add guilt to this list) seem to me like ways of maintaining a status quo. I like the bit of your post that Richard picked up on, though.


Dr Jack Ross said...

You are, of course, quite right, Liv. I really don't know what is best to do any more than anyone else -- and quite see the futility of wearing sackcloth and ashes and sitting in the wilderness crying woe -- but I still find Brecher's book an interesting take on the subject of how to live in the early twenty-first century.

I'm certainly no opponent of innocence per se, though -- just wary of historical analogues with our present position: 18th-century apologists for slavery, 19th-century proponents of empire, etc.

Olivia Macassey said...

Hmm, I'm not sure I understand the terms of this discussion...? I wasn't suggesting sackcloth and ashes are futile; I think they fulfil their real purpose admirably, which is the problem.

I have to admit that until now my familiarity with Brecher is largely second hand i.e through references to his column that one sees from time to time. But I find his curent offering South Ossetia The War Of My Dreams rather nauseating - and a symptom of U.S cultural consumption of what's now dubbed the Military-Industrial-ENTERTAINMENT-Complex.

I've lost your phone number, by the way. :-(

- Liv

Dr Jack Ross said...

I guess my point -- whatever point I had back in the mists of time -- was that Brecher seemed to me to function as a kind of Archie-Bunker-style parody or reductio ad absurdam of the military industrial complex. Others may read him differently, but that's the most I have to offer. I haven't read his latest column, but will do so.

will email you with the phone number -- it's a new one, for the flat, not the old one for the bach.