12 May 2006

Whatever It Takes

I have some friends who love Dan Simmons' SF novels. At the risk of breaking their hearts, as happens to lefty fans of Orson Scott Card, I want to ruminate at length on a chilling story of his that I found via DeLong.

The Time Traveler appeared suddenly in my study on New Year's Eve, 2004. He was a stolid, grizzled man in a gray tunic and looked to be in his late-sixties or older. He also appeared to be the veteran of wars or of some terrible accident since he had livid scars on his face and neck and hands, some even visible in his scalp beneath a fuzz of gray hair cropped short in a military cut.

The Time Traveller comes from the future with a warning, of course.

“I mean the Century War with Islam,” interrupted the Time Traveler. “Your future. Everyone’s.” He was no longer smiling. Without asking, or offering to pour me any, he stood, refilled his Scotch glass, and sat again. He said, “It was important to me to come back to this time early on in the struggle. Even if only to remind myself of how unspeakably blind you all were.”

The Time Traveller goes on at length about the horrors of the future. A repressive Muslim regime has spread across most of the world, with millions killed in an ongoing war. It should have been obvious to us back in our present that it was coming but, you see, we hadn't read Thucydides.

The Time Traveler shook his head. “You’ve understood nothing I’ve said. Nothing. Athens failed in Syracuse — and doomed their democracy — not because they fought in the wrong place and at the wrong time, but because they weren’t ruthless enough. They had grown soft since their slaughter of every combat-age man and boy on the island of Melos, the enslavement of every woman and girl there. The democratic Athenians, in regards to Syracuse, thought that once engaged they could win without absolute commitment to winning, claim victory without being as ruthless and merciless as their Spartan and Syracusan enemies .... ”

Ah, there it is. Ruthlessness.

Okay, the Time Traveller is right that I have not read Thucydides. But, this being the internet, I have some folks who have right here. Belle Waring, while musing about the madness of advocates for attacking Iran, says that Simmons' Time Traveller ...

... takes grave misreadings of Thucydides to a whole new level, a category in which the competition is stiff ...

... most notably from Victor Davis Hanson, who Matthew Yglasias describes as writing ...

... pretty clear-cut misreadings of Thucydides such that a book about how a once-great country ruined its foreign policy and its own moral virtue in an unnecessary foreign adventure somehow becomes a book about how wars that look really stupid are, in fact, good because they provide a lot of opportunities to show resolve.

Thus Bogged Anderson agrees that Simmons' misunderstanding here is pretty astonishing.

So much for the great books: Somebody claims to have read Thucydides & come away with the message that it's bad not to be ruthless enough.

Wow. Next we'll be hearing about how the Sermon on the Mount really means “kill them all, God knows his own.”

(Update: I cannot resist throwing in a caveat about facile readings of Thucydides from S. N. Jaffe at War On The Rocks.)

I presume that these folks are right, because it's how I responded when I read the Time Traveller's own description of Thucydides' story. It sounded to me not like a parable about the need to be ruthless, but like a warning about the horrific consequences of imperial overreach through war.

But hawkish Right Blogistan loves the Time Traveller's tale, have just been eating the story up. Take a close look, for instance, at what Stephen Green, the Vodkapundit, has to say.

But after 9/11, it became our duty to teach the barbarians that they must cry uncle — that we are willing to do whatever it takes to defend Western Civilization.

We touched on this issue yesterday, after Kevin Drum wondered exactly what “whatever it takes” really means. I said then, and still believe today, that “‘Whatever it takes’ is what we're trying to avoid.” What Simmons has reminded all of us is that just because we're trying to avoid something, doesn't make it avoidable.

There it is, the sneaky fatalistic implication in having a Time Traveller from the future as the mouthpiece, confirming what these folks want to hear. We've been dragged into a grand historical conflict with a billion Muslims. It's unavoidable. It's not because of anything we did or did not do, it's a madness that has already overtaken the Muslim world. All we can do—what we must do, to even survive — is learn to be utterly ruthless, right quick.

I expect that those folks would say that this is not “what they want to hear,” but their reluctant acceptance of an unhappy reality. There's this tone of sober, grim realism about this difficult, inescapable situation. How sad, that this should be the burden of us in this time.

But if you follow the talk of a grand Clash of Civilizations with “Islamofasists” since 9/11, or you look in Green's post and many of the comments on his comments thread, or you look at the other hawkish sites I linked above, or you read Simmons' story itself, you see that there is an unwholesome satisfaction at the prospect of the Time Traveller's Century War. I see some transparent hungers at work.

There's the old, poisonous idea that of course we could have won the Vietnam War had we just tried hard enough, but those wimpy liberals wouldn't let us Do What It Takes. We won't make that mistake again.

And this plugs into a kind of masculine American Rotary Club Nietzcheism which Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money sums up well in the course of a long post describing how scary this point of view turns out to be.

I think that this is the most important element of the attractiveness of Will to warbloggers, the idea of Will is extremely appealing to a particular construction of masculinity. Toughness, understood as a male characteristic, is more important than skill, capability, technology, etc. The French lose because they are effeminate. The Democrats lose because they are effeminate (and shot through with feminists in any case). The individual warblogger may not have been trained for war, or have any particular physical talents, or have done much more to study war than read and re-read Victor Davis Hanson, but he knows that he is tough, and he knows that this toughness must matter in some way.

Personally, I also suspect that there's a kind of generational hunger at work here, too. I'm a subscriber to Niel Howe and William Strauss' theory that American history turns on a four-generation cultural cycle that takes about a human lifetime to make its circuit. Once each cycle, America decides it's time for a crisis: the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression and WWII. The wheel has turned, and it's that time again. I've felt the call myself, a hunger for national purpose. But the kind of national purpose that speaks to me is very different than what these hawks dream of — their dream is of endless, bloody war.

And that is rooted in the romance that war holds for some folks. Reading Simmons' story, the Time Traveller as a character doesn't stand as a warning about the tragic consequences of the war he describes. Instead, he's a wise, noble, scarred warrior who Sees The Truth. So manly. There's a scent of fascistic psychosexual posturing there, what Arthur Silber calls “The Apocalyptic Crusader: Redemption, Purification and a New World -- through Sacred Violence and Death.” Because, again, we see this not-so-hidden relish in Doing Whatever It Takes, a bloodlust lying close to the surface.

And I see another brother influence to that, the romance of being the vanguard, the most deeply dedicated of all, ahead of your time.

But what do they want to do?

The Vodkapundit alludes to Kevin Drum asking what this “whatever it takes” talk really means.

So: what's the plan, hawks? “Whatever it takes” is just cheap talk. Are you suggesting higher taxes to fund a dramatic increase in military end strength? A draft? A ground invasion of Iran? A permanent military occupation of the entire Middle East?

Jim Wright sharpens the question at the end of a long, dark meditation on military strength and instilling fear.

If the objective is fear, fear to such a degree our enemies will not challenge us, then the only measure is that they don’t. Ever.

It’s about will. Remember?

Imagine such a nation.

Imagine a nation so unassailable, so powerful, so utterly ruthless, so utterly without sympathy or humanity, so willing to use force, willing to carpet bomb entire populations out of existence, willing to torture its enemies, willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters and its treasure, willing to forgo education and healthcare and even eating, to do anything and everything to preserve its security. And to do so to such a degree that no enemy would ever dare to even think about resisting it.

Now, you tell me: what does that nation look like?

The Poor Man answers this question with satire.

We are Americans, after all, and with that comes a solemn responsibility to be somewhat less cruel and evil than the most cruel and evil people ever. This is a valid criticism. But criticism is not a substitute for a strategy. If mass crucifixion — despite its proven record for short-order insurgency-squelching — is too brutal for war hawks to contemplate, I feel that the onus is on them to explain just what positive, proven, non-rhetorical (and preferably non-Canadian) measures might be implied by “whatever it takes.” Because, not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t exactly think the war is suffering from a shortage of pro-war chin music. The war is suffering, as Reynolds so astutely observes, from a lack of resolve. And if war supporters are unwilling to advocate for the methods which millenia of proven are necessary to bring order to the Middle East, then they really have no business advocating these occupations in the first place.

Considering the campaign of torture we are already doing, that many Americans approve of, satire is quickly becoming impossible.

Billmon also, in a more serious tone, grants the effectiveness of ruthless occupation.

it's no good arguing that massive and indiscriminate casualties — inevitably, of civilians and combatants alike — won't defeat a popular insurgency or uproot a terrorist network. That's the polite fiction, but the record tells us otherwise: Given a sufficient level of murderous efficiency, it is possible to do both, as the French proved in Algeria and the Guatemalan Army and its U.S. advisors demonstrated in the highlands of Guatemala.

He asks what the actual methods are. He observes that the increasing turn toward air power that the occupation is taking won't do it.

Moral questions aside, the practical problem is that the preferred American instrument for inflicting state violence on a grand scale — air power — isn't very useful for this purpose. It's true the British had some success with air tactics (using both conventional bombs and poison gas) during the first Iraqi anti-colonial rebellion, in the '20s, but airplanes were new and had shock value back then. Subsequently, there hasn't been a single example of a country or a people surrendering simply because they were bombed back into Stone Age. And while modern “smart” bombs may be devastating against conventional targets, or even irregular infantry (as the Taliban learned) their ability to terrorize civilian populations into renouncing, and denouncing, the guerrillas in their midst is unproven. As for poison gas, well, that would be a bit much, wouldn't it, after all that fuss we made about Saddam gassing his own people?

So what do we do, in the Whatever It Takes scenario?

No, for that kind of work you have to go in and look people in the eyes as you burn their houses and slaughter their livestock and rape their wives and torture their children. You have to make very visible examples out of “enemy” villages, and let everyone know you'll be around and watching. That takes ground forces, far more than we've got, even if our troops had the stomach for that kind of butchery on the necessary scale. It also takes first class local intelligence, and we don't have that either.

And there you are, making real the worst fantasies of American imperialism that the Bin Ladens of the world have been warning the Muslim world about. These evil jihadists have tried for decades to convince the Muslim world that the West is at war with Islam, but they have so far failed, else we would already be at war on terms that no one could dispute. But with our help, providing them with daily news of American soldiers killing Muslims in Iraq? With our help, spreading our attacks to Iran or elsewhere, as we Demonstrate Our Resolve to Do What It Takes? Can you doubt that the voices of the Bin Ladens would win over entire nations?

The horror here is that in believing that a wrenching, endless war with Islam is inevitable, in rushing to be as brutal as possible to show that we will Do Whatever It Takes, we can create a Century War with Islam. In this, the Bush Administration's mad postmodern solipsism becomes real. The President sincerely believes that we are fighting “World War III.” His words, not mine. If we believe that the entire Muslim world is at war with us, and so invade Muslim countries at random, torture Muslim people at random, brandish nuclear weapons for long enough, we will turn that belief into reality. By accepting Simmons' apocalyptic vision, we will create it.

Then may God have mercy on these United States. Though I hear that the God who shapes the American destiny is not merciful, but just.

1 comment:

TheWayOfTheGun said...

Like many insidious falsehoods (Scientology, the George Foreman Grill), Simmons idea has an element of truth.

Simmons is quite correct that if one is going to engage in violence, one must be more ruthless than the other party. The moment the other guy is willing to take it farther than you, you have lost.

However, there is a lot more to the equation than that.

For starters, only fools prepare to make war without remembering their Sun Tzu. Don't fight a battle you cannot win. The elements must be decisively in your favor before the conflict even begins. "The Powell doctrine" is essentially the Sun Tzu doctrine.

Of course, all of this distracts from the most important question of all: should we be making war in the first place?