Sunday, September 19, 2004


More on war

"Is that you, my brother? Is that you?" -- An Iraqi civilian to his injured brother, shortly before being shot and killed by an American helicopter

"The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save." Psalms 33:17 (NRSV)

War is hell. On this point, most people agree, especially after wars have begun or after they have ended. And yet wars continue. Why? Many explanations are given; alleged justifications for war (and hell) abound. But my question is not one about arcane theories of "just war." It is simpler than that: why do people who would quickly agree that war is hell if it touched them directly, nonetheless accept its continuation?

The answer is partly psychological, but it also has to do with a powerful repertoire of metaphors and assumptions that people use to romanticize war and lend it legitimacy. Most people who believe in war do not rationalize their belief with complicated theories about justice and history. Rather, they reason in favor of war by appeal to imagined commonalities between large-scale conflicts and smaller acts of violence, acts that are less likely to be questioned. For example, whenever a strict pacifist or principled advocate of nonviolence talks for long with someone who believes in war, she will inevitably be faced with some variation on a "self-defense" metaphor, which goes something like this. What if someone with a shotgun broke into your house and pointed the gun at your child? Wouldn't you be justified in acting violently--in killing to save? The emotional power of this scene is so overweening that the defender of war does not need careful logic to bring the point home. That's what war is, he can argue--killing to save.

I find the shotgun story troubling and compelling. It highlights the rhetorical power of "self-defense" as a rationale for violence. And it spotlights the visceral nature of violent acts. No amount of calm debate about the moral status of violence could possibly prepare one for the horrifying experience of looking down the barrel of a shotgun in the presence of one's child. As someone who leans very hard in the direction of pacifism, I am still suspicious of pacifists who say they know how they would act in that situation, even if they have beliefs about what they should do.

But I am also suspicious of the leap from this "self-defense" metaphor to justifications for war. The metaphor works as a defense if and only if war respects the parable's pellucid boundaries between the aggressor and the victim, the guilty and the innocent, the attacker and the defender. The implication is that we can sometimes go to war with the same confidence and clarity with which a father would defend his son from an armed intruder. In fact, however, war is hell precisely because it seldom (if ever) offers this kind of clarity. And when it does, it often clearly reverses the story's roles. The metaphorical "father" who goes to war to defend the metaphorical "child" ends up, in reality, being the one pointing a shotgun at another father's children.

This lack of clarity in war is especially clear in Iraq. Last week, American helicopters fired on a crowd that included unarmed civilians, killing or injuring dozens of civilians, many young boys. The crowd was swarming around a burning Bradley armored vehicle. A military statement identified the crowd with "anti-Iraqi" forces who might have looted the Bradley, and said that helicopters defended the "loss of sensitive equipment and weapons."

Do you see what has happened here? Who is the proverbial "parent" in this war story? Who is the proverbial, unprotected "child"? Who is the intruder holding the "shotgun"? These questions cannot be unproblematically answered. At this point, the defender of war will clutch the metaphor, try to prevent it from slipping away. "But someone in the crowd draped a terrorist flag on the Bradley ..." or "But there was some small-arms fire coming from the general vicinity ..." Go ahead, grope for the parallels. They simply are not there. Look at the picture of the wounded pre-teenagers, and tell yourself that they are terrorists. But they are not, though they may be now. Tell yourself that "small arms fire" pointed at an armored helicopter is the same as the shotgun pointed at the child. But it is not.

In fact, if you want to map the metaphor to the reality, to achieve a prefect one-to-one symmetry between what happened and the parable of the parent, it would have to be this. The "child" being protected here was a Bradley vehicle's "sensitive equipment." The "persons holding the shotgun" were children. Or were the "persons holding the shotgun" the helicopters? The metaphors crumble like houses of cards.

Yet the metaphors continue to stand up for many people. For every clear proof that war is a hellish fog, in which one's "duty" can be to kill in order to protect weapons, there is some other case that makes the metaphor seem right. This is why the American media reports every instance of a kidnapped American or European, but glosses over Iraqi civilian deaths by burying them in body counts. Images of hostages correspond more exactly to the metaphor: the hostages are innocent, the terrorists are shotgun-toting villains, and we are the preternaturally enraged parents. But of course, images like these also correspond well to the metaphor, except the children are Iraqis, and "we" are sometimes the ones with the shotguns.

It never ceases to amaze me that in the media hype over Fahrenheit 911, reviewers returned again and again to "My Pet Goat" as the most disturbing and damning scene. For me, it was infinitely more disturbing to watch American soldiers, equipped with night goggles, raid an Iraqi home and point their machine guns squarely at the head of a terrified child. Or the scene in which an Iraqi woman wails to Allah about the destruction that has befallen her because of an American air strike. But then, I know why these scenes do not garner attention: because they too deeply challenge the tidiness of our war metaphors. Or rather, they are tidy examples of the metaphor, but with Americans playing the wrong roles.

As lamentable as it is that Americans screen out these images that disturb their metaphors, it is especially disturbing to me that American Christians do this. Christians who support war sometimes do not even trouble themselves with the parable of the parent. They have recourse to an easier and even more glib justification: war happens, they say. It's in the Bible. Right there in the "Old Testament." God willed it. So be it. War happens.

Earlier this summer, I remember standing on a street here in Baltimore, passing out flyers against the war in Iraq. A very friendly woman politely explained to me that there has always been war, and always will be. She believes in the Bible, she tells me, and Israel fought wars. There's nothing we can do about war, she argues. It's been around forever.

I wish I had been more articulate in my response. I wish that I had pointed out that the same argument was offered in defense of slavery--it's in the Bible, and it's been around forever. ("Writers, by nature, tend to be people [who] ... are always thinking of the perfect riposte after the moment for saying it has passed. So they take a few years longer and put it in print," wrote Louis Menand. I haven't even waited a few years.) But I wish I had also said that the Bible's narratives and commentaries on war also fail to support the simplicity of the parable.

How to deal with ancient Israel's conquest narratives is a sticky theological and historical question, and I don't want to get stuck there now. What I want to point out is that alongside the Bible's chronicles of war, there are very incongruous statements about its futility and waste. There is not a consistent glorification of battle and valor, of the sort you might find in Homer's Iliad. Far from providing extended paeans to flashing helmets and bronze shields, Israel is often chastised for placing faith in chariots, or seeking military alliances. Israel is told by its liturgical songs not to trust in mighty armies or in war horses, not to rely on military prowess to save. Chariots are usually identified as belonging to the enemy--to Pharaoh, to the Canaanites. And yet, American Christians--while thumping the Bible--uncritically valorize our war horses with an unthinking fatalism. Now, we not only trust in "chariots," but are willing to kill in order to protect their "sensitive equipment."

That's what happens in war. Glib metaphors do not work. You can talk about defending your child from the guy with the shotgun, but in war you'll end up killing to protect the shotgun. In war, you'll end up being the one who points the shotgun at the child. In war, the man pointing the shotgun at you will be the parent whose child you have killed. And in war, you might kill the villain only to end up pointing the shotgun at the one you set out to save. So do not use metaphors--do not use my emotional intuitions--to dismiss pacifism. There seems to be a presumption in our culture that the pacifists are the bleary-eyed utopians, the ones who cannot see things clearly. It seems to me that the opposite is true: it is those who believe that war is an act of self-defense who are fleeing from its realities and pulling the metaphor over their eyes.

Perhaps, however, the metaphorical defender of this war in Iraq will return to the ultimate argument, and urge me to remember September 11, 2001. But even here, the metaphor does not work as well as you want it to. The group around the Bradley vehicle is not identical with the group who massacred Americans on that day. And even if they were, by what moral calculus do deaths cancel out deaths? In the first official accounting of the amount of civilian deaths in Iraq, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has reported, based largely on hospital tallies, that "3,186 Iraqi civilians, men, women and children, [have] died as a result of either terrorist incidents or in clashes involving US-led multinational forces." And that is only since April of this year.

Can you defend those deaths with hypothetical situations? Can you draw lines of causation that make them any more justified than the deaths of men, women and children on September 11? War confounds causation, and it refutes hypotheses. War is, simply, hell.

Collective Improvisation:
Caleb, excellent meditation on war. Have you seen Chris Hedges' book on war?

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/22/2004 10:58:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks, Carlos. I had not heard of Hedges, but I appreciated the article you linked to on your blog.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 9/23/2004 09:04:00 AM : Permalink  

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