Escalation to Mayhem
We Are the Savages
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, January 8, 2007
Not quite a whoop of peace
“[W]e reach the zone where the front begins,” Erich Maria Remarque has his hero say in All Quiet on the Western Front, “and become on the instant human animals.” Armies and their nations still pretend that there can be conventions to play by, that civilized nations “don’t do barbarism,” that atrocities are the exception, when in fact the act of war is itself the founding atrocity from which no one can escape, least of all its perpetrators. A war is by definition subhuman in the sense that its exclusive goal is to annihilate what is human (the metaphorically inhuman targets of a war aside), and by whatever means necessary. The notion of “conventional” as opposed to “unconventional” weapons is one of those absurdities civilized nations like to hide behind (the way nuclear powers like the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, China continuously hide behind the hypocrisy that in their hands weapons of mass destruction are “safe” as they wouldn’t be in those of “rogue” nations or groups; but what’s the only power that’s used nuclear weapons to date?). In the end, and to those being killed (which is what matters most and is usually of least concern to the judges deciding what is and what isn’t just in warfare) there is no difference between a killing by small-arms fire and a killing by mustard gas. The scientists James Bryant Conant put it this way in his autobiography: “I did not see in 1917, and do not see in 1968, why tearing a man’s guts out by a high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs or skin. All war is immoral. Logically, the 100 percent pacifist has the only impregnable position. Once that is abandoned, as it is when a nation becomes a belligerent, one can talk sensibly only in terms of the violation of agreements about the way war is conducted, or the consequences of a certain tactic or weapon.”
The irony is that Conant was writing this in defense of his involvement in poison-gas research during World War I: In 1917 the United States built its first chemical warfare plant in Edgewood, Maryland, at a cost of $35.5 million, the equivalent of $600 million today—in other words, the equivalent price of an American embassy in Iraq. The plant employed 10,000. “By the end of the war,” Richard Rhodes writes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, “it was capable of filling 1.1 million 75-mm gas shells a month as well as several million other sizes and types of shells, grenades, mortar bombs and projector drums. ‘Had the war lasted longer,’ [a] British observer notes, ‘there can be no doubt that this centre of production would have represented one of the most important contributions by America to the world war.’”
So what about “the way war is conducted, or the consequences of a certain tactic or weapon”? The most lavishly pro-mayhem argument goes like this: warfare is fine so long as its targets are military, not civilian. The premise self-destructs, because there has yet to be a war, any war in any age, no matter how “civilized” its perpetrators, where civilians weren’t the overwhelming casualties. (Those semi-mythical wars of the Middle Ages when only mercenaries engaged in battle? The civilian casualties were secondary but widespread, from the chronic impoverishment wrought by recurrent warfare). Obviously, as wars have become more total their direct reach into civilian lives have become more devastating. But has that made them more barbarous?
“The immunity of the civilian,” Orwell wrote in May 1944, “is one of the things that have made war possible, has been shattered. Unlike Miss Britain , I don’t regret that. I can’t feel that war is ‘humanised’ by being confined to the slaughter of the young and becomes ‘barbarous’ when the old get killed as well. As to the agreements to ‘limit’ war, they are never kept when it pays to break them. Long before [World War I] the nations had agreed not to use gas, but they used it all the same.” [And as the Edgewood plant in Maryland proved, were ready to use them on clouds of Wilsonian ideals, too.] “This time they have refrained, merely because gas is comparatively ineffective in a war of movement, while its use against civilian populations would be sure to provoke reprisals in kind. Against an enemy who can’t hit back, e.g. the Abyssinians, it is used readily enough.” [To put it in more contemporary terms: It was fine for the United States to wage war against crumpled and unthreatening modern Abyssinias like Afghanistan and Iraq, but it would be unthinkable to go after North Korea, China, and Iran, unless Israel would like to oblige.] “War is of its nature barbarous,” Orwell continued, “it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are, some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable.”
We see ourselves instead as bringers of peace, liberty and democracy while we drop 15,000-pound bombs we call “daisycutters” (the infamous BLU-82B), stock 10,000 nuclear warheads, carry on research for their tactical use in “acceptable” settings, develop fresh new “hybrid” nukes for the twenty-first century, call ourselves civilized, then wonder why they hate us. There are differences in savagery. But when the savagery is disciplined, well-uniformed, technologically lusty and shielded in the right honorable rhetoric, it comes across as just. Meanwhile the enemy’s savagery, because it is nakedly self-destructive, fanatic, classically atrocious (the suicide bombers, the invisible guerillas, the terrorizing and extortionist militias) comes across as merely barbaric, supposedly inexplicable and therefore not only dehumanized, but demon-like. If there are differences in savagery, they are differences of degrees, but also of method and ideology.
There’s no question that the ideology behind the insurgency in Iraq is nakedly savage, while the ideology behind the American intervention is, quite defensibly well-intentioned, even noble if one disassociates it entirely from history and its oily foundations. But this hasn’t been a war of ideologies but of means, of methods. And in that regard, the savagery has differed between the two sides (or however many sides there are) only in terms of effectiveness. The range of suicide bombers and “IED”s is limited, the lethality more sensational than effective. The range and lethality of the American military is limitless, and its targets have been inevitably devastating to civilians. The early days of the war had a momentum of justification. That momentum died, I’d say, about the time President Bush strutted on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare all major combat over, on May 1, 2003 . It was, in retrospect, the declaration of a different kind of war.
The only thing left now is that entrapment of all wars desperately clinging to that phantom of necessity: The fear of losing face. In the words of The Economist in the fall of 2004, “a loss of nerve and a humiliating retreat might also, in the words of Osama bin Laden, turn America into a shadow of itself—with consequences that would be felt well beyond the Middle East.” And so onto Bush’s next move: escalation and the promise of a “long war”.
But after the WMD deception, after Abu Ghraib, after Guantanamo , after 3,000 on “our side” and 50,000 or 100,000 on “theirs,” after the continuing rise of Islamists pretending to play by democratic rules in Baghdad and Taliban mutants furiously not playing by democratic rules elsewhere, what is left of American prestige but shadows? The savage-hunters have become the savages, the rules of war have been upended, or rather defrocked, the conventions shown to be untenable. Iraqi insurgents may live up to our expectations of them every day. But in the eyes of the world and certainly in every eye from the Maghreb to the Indonesia—Islam’s half-Crescent hold over the globe—we have created expectations that did not exist five years ago. We have destroyed the image of the United States as a nation apart, a nation above, a “City on a Hill.” We have stooped. We have lost face, and lost a world’s faith. We are the savages.