Archive for the ‘war’ Category

Of all the things

The year is 2016. It is the future. Incredible technology exists. It is feasible for all human knowledge to be available to every person at an instant. It is feasible to run all of human civilization on a sustainable basis. It is feasible, technologically, as it has never been before, for advanced civilization to run for a million years. It is feasible technologically, as it has been for a long time, for human society to exist without hunger, poverty, and war. It is even feasible to satisfy all human needs and almost all (maybe all) material desires, with a minimal burden of toil.

We have won. We have triumphed. From here on the technological questions are mere improvements, icing on the cake, and the engineering questions are mere practicalities; as to the possibility of the above, there is really no question.

It is entirely possible now to banish to the annals of pre-modern barbarism all the accumulated damage of the history of the world. Old petty divisions and sectarianisms need not exist. Ancient moral codes of honour, shame and violence can be discarded for tolerance, dignity, autonomy, solidarity, community, diversity, freedom, and justice. The root causes of most human problems can dry up and wither, and flowers may bloom in their place.

Human life will never be perfect; human life will never be without suffering. The pangs of lost love, thoughts in old age of what one’s life might have been, the knowledge of mortality, the contemplation of non-existence, disease, decay, and death — and jealousy, bitterness, anger, quarrels, and the full spectrum of human emotional life when fully lived — the mystery of the universe, our place in it, how it works, our conscious selves — all these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life will never be without these. (Though perhaps some optimistic transhumanists, biologists and physicists might even disagree on some of these.) Existential drama will never cease as long as we exist. But the drama of material poverty, of stunted human development, of resource depletion, of ignorance, of civilization powered by sickening, polluting, dirty fossil fuels — all these can, at least as a matter of technology and engineering, be avoided. In this regard, we really have won, as much as it is possible to win.

There have been past eons of more or less indefinitely sustainable living — epochal climate change, meteor strikes, and supernovae aside. And there have been past eons of peace. There have even been, to some extent, past eons of human societies that were sustainable and, relatively speaking, at peace. But there has not been a human society that had the capacity to do all that, simultaneously with advanced technology, material comfort, and instant total knowledge.

Until now. That possibility exists now. Possibly it existed a decade ago; but renewable energy technology has developed so quickly that we can now say “now” without hesitation.

The future is bright. And yet, it is not. It is terribly, tragically, world-shatteringly not.

But it is only social structures — more specifically, political, economic and cultural structures — that lie in its way. By now everybody recognises the crisis of capitalism, and increasingly many understand the need for a new system. It is the economic system that prevents goods from going where they need to go. And it is increasingly recognised how intractable the problems are, within the present system.

There are a million pressing needs in the present. Wars are continuing right now. Carbon emissions are increasing right now. New coal mines and power plants are being built. Rising carbon, rising sea levels, rising temperatures, warming seas, dying coral, extreme weather. Mass extinctions. Nuclear proliferation. Ethnic violence. Failed states. Marginalisation, dispossession, incarceration, violence against women, poor, black, brown, queer, trans, indigenous, disabled people. Hunger. Unemployment. Precarious employment. Demeaning, soul-crushing, underpaid, sweatshop employment. Religious hatred and extremism. Nationalist hatred and extremism. Anti-religious warmongering. Drone murders. Unregulated weapons exports. War crimes. Impunity. Refugee outpourings. Xenophobia. Media misinformation. Total government surveillance, surveillance capitalism, collecting it all. Governments that treat the governed like mushrooms: kept in the dark, fed shit. Dissent criminalised; whistleblowers demonised and prosecuted. Militarised, racialized, brutal policing. Mass shootings. Domestic violence. Deregulations. Privatisations. IP stealing knowledge from the commons. Defunding of health, education, welfare institutions. Tax breaks for the rich. Trade treaties for multinational corporations. Corporate capture of the state. Unregulated corrupt political donations. Abyssal gap between rich and poor. The 1%. A financialised, Ponzi economy. Mass unpayable debt. International financial markets holding governments to ransom. Greece crushed. Occupation of Palestine. Coup in Brazil. ISIS. Putin in Russia. Authoritarian China. Obama a terrorist on Tuesdays. Trump in the US. Erdogan in Turkey. The House of Saud. EU collapsing. NATO aggressing. Unions in decline. Social democracy in decline. Neoliberalism ascendant. Fascism rising. How many fronts are there to fight on?

And it will continue, it will feed back on itself, it will worsen, if nothing is done.

But the only lasting solution, to at least some of these, is, at least, a new system, a wholesale change in how our society is organised and run — political, economic, cultural. But it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

And yet the future is so close. We have to imagine it, and create it. Despite the poverty of our imagination, it is almost within our grasp. What could it look like? How could things be? These are the questions we must ask, and the answers we must create.

Meanwhile, in the forsaken and privileged south-east corner of the globe, an election will take place shortly for who is to govern 0.3% of the planet’s population. The major issues are whether a tax loophole favouring the rich should be closed; the appropriate degree of shame for politicians to make use of said loophole; and whether an actor in a political advertisement about said tax loophole is genuinely a tradesman. On the fringes, there are occasional murmurs that the gulag archipelago created to punish a tiny fraction of the world’s suffering refugee population, fleeing war and persecution, should be wound down; but such suggestions are largely ignored, drowned out of sight, along with the refugees, by three-word slogans.

Of all the things, this is what our system concerns itself with. This is our current incarnation of democracy. It is time for a new one.


Written by dan

June 21st, 2016 at 1:46 pm

The killing train rolls on

It rolls on with its thousands upon thousands of corpses, it rolls through towns and cities, through prairie and forest, though the mountains and the plains, through heaven and earth, through the valley of the shadow of death, across the meadows with the sunlit radiation of death, and into the towns with the streetlights of death.

And as it comes, piled high with steaming corpses, piled high to the heavens, leaden with the limbs and parts of civilians, all good citizens everywhere prepare accordingly.

As the monstrosity of industrial death approaches, the citizens deploy their response.



The people line the streets! All good hearts swell, and joy and pride fill the air at the brave drivers of the train, serving us all, piling more corpses on from afar.

The drivers, indeed, are brave. Consider what’s in the train!

However, there remain some few nefarious holdouts, where the train does not enter to parade its contents. Relentlessly pilloried, ridiculed, the inhabitants remember a shadow of a reason why they once sent the train away — but what were the details again? Some were not born when the train last came. Some never wanted it to leave. Some remember the righteous fire of past glories, and share battle scars suffered fighting over issues which once consumed their lives. But all drink from the river Lethe, and all become clouded as to what is actually wrong with the train. There was something in it, wasn’t there?

Nonetheless, time is short. The train wants to parade, the confetti has already been distributed.

“Not everybody can get on board the train! Discrimination!”

“Getting on board the train means I can’t get off! Career coercion!”

“If I get on board and then leave, I’ll be in debt! Financial coercion!”

“If I get on board, I won’t be able to read everything on the internet!”

True enough, and persuasive, or so it seems.

Meanwhile, from the villages of Pakistan, from the villages of Yemen, from the fields of Iraq, the high scores of industrial-scale remote-controlled video games, civilian charred remains, are deposited onto the carriages.

The train is approaching…


Written by dan

January 27th, 2011 at 7:47 am

Posted in war

without comments

Heroism in War

In contemporary society, perhaps all societies, violent actions are often applauded and labelled heroic — and especially actions in war. And so the question arises: what makes actions such heroic, if at all?

This is a question close to pure moral philosophy. It is really just the question of which actions involving physical violence count as morally exemplary.

The most insular, reactionary answer to this question is the one that applies the labels to acts of might or power by one’s own military, and not to others. This answer, of course, can be dismissed out of hand.

A somewhat more enlightened answer goes along the following lines: heroism and courage know no external context. There is heroism implicit in anyone who, even misguidedly, gives their life for their country. Even if the cause is bad, the action itself is virtuous, if it is brave, even if misguided.

Let us consider this argument.

Well, if we take context the statement about context literally, the argument is ludicrous. How can we even refer to an event without describing any of the context? A bullet entered someone’s body, is that heroic per se? No, clearly not, at the very least the identity of the person whose body was entered by the bullet is relevant, and that is contextual. So the question is better phrased as what contexts can make actions heroic, how broadly do our considerations have to extend; and the argument becomes: the context of serving one’s country bravely is per se virtuous and heroic.

This argument is still indefensible.

If a general orders cannon fodder-soldiers to certain death and they accept it and die, for no good cause other than “for the country”, then I certainly wouldn’t regard that as heroic. Rather, the general is morally criminal and the soldiers are pitiable. The country, the geographical State, is not a worthy moral thing per se in any case.

In fact, the war which most typified this absurd and pointless massacre of cannon fodder — the first World War of 1914–1918 — produced probably the strongest, most graphic and most touching artistic denunciation of this absurdity: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, one of the greatest antiwar poems ever written. The title is half of an ancient Latin adage: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — “it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country”. The adage is given its modern, civilized interpretation: “The old lie”. To idea that dying for one’s country, per se, is noble: this is a lie that has led humanity to untold sorrow, and still does.

That is, in Owen’s poem, this Latin adage is meant, not earnestly or even ironically, but as a bald-faced lie, yet regarded as ancient and venerable, sending millions to their deaths — which it still does.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

So I think that the context of “doing it for one’s country” is not enough.

Another context often advanced is that of “following orders”. Again, this is indefensible. Acting according to orders conveys no positive moral status to an action, let alone exemplary status. Consider the famous anti-militarist passage of Einstein: he specifically denounces heroism and love of country, per se, in this context. (I think this quote is often clipped; the full version, which I believe is the following one, is much better.)

He who joyfully marches to the music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

And I agree: violent action, even “selfless” action which prevents the death of others by whatever means (taking bullets for them, shooting more enemies, etc.), when done purely on orders, does basically not involve higher brain function. Here Einstein by “heroism” clearly means this kind of physical violence. For something to be “heroic”, in the sense of morally exemplary, I would say, it must involve higher brain function. It must be self-actuated.

The counterargument, I suppose, is that actions can be heroic even when not self-actuated; mere “physical courage” can be heroic. Well, if it does not involve higher brain function then it is just the activation of primordial violent instincts, senseless or family-protecting etc, or conditioning to be violent. Perhaps one can
justify violence on the ground that it protects people the family or tribe — or in general, people to whom one has a close emotional connection — but that is an independent moral justification. There is nothing moral about conditioning or violent instincts per se. The inculcation of violent conditioning, especially as refined an art as it has become in contemporary militaries, should be properly regarded as a debasement of soldiers’ humanity. It is of course true that humans tend not to kill each other, even in a war context; there are striking and surprising statistics from various wars that large numbers of soldiers simply did not shoot at each other. So then, an efficient (i.e. efficiently conquering and death-producing) military is one that debases its members’ humanity. Of course this requires ideological glorification of this debasement, which is then called “heroism”.

I can imagine selfless physical violence, taking bullets, etc, to be heroic in certain contexts extending to various ranges of considerations: where the alleged hero honestly believes it is for the greater good, for protecting family or friends, for for the protection of another human being. I can even imagine a motivation “for the country” in certain contexts really being a shorthand for “for independence from foreign domination” or “for self-determination” or “for international law” or “for democracy” or “for socialism”, etc. These are the sorts of things which make actions morally exemplary, because they are moral considerations, whether small-scale ethics (“inner politics”) or large-scale political philosophy. They come from intentionality and will, from higher cognitive capacities.

One can enter, I suppose, into more difficult questions about the relationship between conditioning/instinct and intentionality/will. This is an interesting question for philosophers and for neuroscientists alike. But for practical purposes — even though I tend to think we ought to condition ourselves to act in ways we agree in advance are morally good, and that part of being a developed human being is having developed the habit to act for the good — I think we can draw a distinction between these for present purposes. If one wants to get technical, one should probably say that those actions brought about by reflexive conditioning which is itself self-actuated for moral reasons, can be heroic actions; and now I suppose we are entering a convoluted philosophical realm. But in general it is the intentionality and will which makes actions moral.

Anyway, these are some considerations. They are very different, I assume, from the considerations the military uses to award its medals.


Written by dan

November 5th, 2010 at 3:36 am

Antiwar and queer liberation politics

The antiwar and queer liberation movements are natural allies. Yet the focus on “don’t ask don’t tell” threatens to turn the queer liberation movement pro-militarism.

The two perhaps most important specific LGBT-related issues in recent times — gay marriage, and “don’t ask don’t tell” — are both in a sense actually quite reactionary. They amount to promoting marriage, and promoting the military. These cases are instances of the following general scenario. Marginalised populations (women, queer peoople, jewish people, muslim people, black people, indigenous people, etc. etc.) have long been unjustly excluded from respectable institutions in society (voting, marriage, military, universities, parliaments, corporations); respectable institutions usually being conservative or reactionary, attempts to end this exclusion run the risk of promoting conservative or reactionary institutions. The most liberatory position is to say that the exclusion is unjust; but the inclusion only affirms the conservative/reactionary institution. Taking this position pushes the envelope and promotes critical thought and struggle in the movement, but runs the risk of alienating the movement and losing more mainstream elements.

Emma Goldman, that great defender of the rights of queer people, and much else besides, distinguished sharply between marriage and love. Marriage may have been something a little different in her day from what it is today, but she opposed marriage with such vehemence that she proclaimed above it that motto Dante inscribed on the gates of hell: “abandon all hope ye who enter here”.

In fact, at the widely attended rallies against proposition 8, I never heard a word against marriage; rather there tended to be strong — and passionate and genuine — statements of how one should be able to marry the person one loves and wants to spend one’s life with, and how in this regard queer people should be treated no differently from hetero people. This is deeply moving and touching. It is also, however, rhetoric that if they were made in a heterosexual context, would amount to highly conservative “defence of family values”. For myself, I don’t think the State has any place in marriage at all, regulating people’s private lives in that way; and the historical baggage of women’s oppression through marriage makes it a deeply troubling institution. If I want to spend my life with somebody, I hardly think I should need to get some certificate from the State or Church to authorise it. Proposition 8 was to be opposed, in my view, not in defence of the regressive institution of State-sanctioned marriage, but in opposition to discrimination and bigotry. I think the best one can say about it is, “State-sanctioned marriage is an oppressive institution, but if you want it, you should be able to have it!”

Similarly, the military is an oppressive institution, but if you want to join it, you should be able to!

In this sense, the homophobic policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US military is to be opposed, and its end is to be welcomed. But this should not amount to promoting miltiarism, or promoting the horrors of US military actions, or promoting reactionary patriotism. Those queer people who want to sign up for the US military, just like straight people who sign up for the same, should heed the warning of Goldman, that they are, amongst many other concerns,

assum[ing] that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.

The inhabitants of the other spots reason in like manner, of course, with the result that, from early infancy, the mind of the child is poisoned with bloodcurdling stories about the Germans, the French, the Italians, Russians, etc. When the child has reached manhood, he is thoroughly saturated with the belief that he is chosen by the Lord himself to defend his country against the attack or invasion of any foreigner. It is for that purpose that we are clamoring for a greater army and navy, more battleships and ammunition. It is for that purpose that America has within a short time spent four hundred million dollars.

It is a lot more than four hundred million dollars today.


Written by dan

October 23rd, 2010 at 7:17 am


By jingo, it’s ANZAC day, Australia’s favourite nationalist/gambling holiday!

Time to put aside pro-war ANZAC “lest we forget” mythology, which amounts to forgetting everything important in history.

Lest we forget Australia’s role in maintaining British, now American, domination of the world.

Lest Australians forget not only their own suffering, but also those slaughtered by Australian troops — slaughters scrupulously avoided in most patriotic rhetoric, even anti-war songs.

Lest we forget that the most recent glory of the ANZAC legend was the invasion of Iraq, an aggressive war, the supreme crime against humanity, in which Australia was an enthusiastic co-perpetrator.

Lest we forget the imperative to get out of Afghanistan and let all peoples determine their own destiny.

Lest we forget that Australia is one nation among many, an artificial political creation, a genocidally-colonised island, a small planet in an unfathomably vast universe.

“And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.”

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda


Written by dan

April 25th, 2010 at 11:07 pm

On militarism

During the US wars in Indochina, a tumult of protest and activism at Stanford brought many momentous changes to the university. Among these was the banishment of the ROTC from campus. But recently, the suggestion has been made in the faculty senate that the ROTC return to campus; a committee has been formed to investigate the matter. These developments have provoked much discussion, including among current and former campus antiwar activists.

In this discussion, even among activists, I have been a little surprised as to which arguments have and have not been made. In particular, one argument seems to have been missing: the argument against militarism. This is a glaring omission, and the argument should be made. And so I think it is worth chiming in with my view, to present my version of this argument. As I consider anti-militarism an involved question, this is long; read in your own time!

* * *

At present, one of the main arguments keeping ROTC off campus is its anti-queer prejudice, enforced through the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. But it would be deeply deficient, in my view, to oppose military recruiting, ROTC, etc, on campus merely for such reasons. It may be enough to add in the history of US foreign policy, as some have noted: what the US military does, has done, and will do if things continue on their current course — these are all shocking and reason enough to oppose its presence on campus anywhere.

But these are the easy arguments. The argument against militarism is a bit more difficult to make, strategically, I would say, but it is a deeper one and in the end it goes to the heart of the system we oppose in opposing wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody has yet made the argument against militarism per se, but I think someone must. Such an argument may appeal to activists more than others. But I think that is not just a quirk of us strange creatures. I think it is because this argument is correct, because we are right when we make this argument. It is an argument that is deeply offensive to received conventional barbaric wisdom: there are formidable propaganda forces at work to instill and indoctrinate the population with the opposite view, and formidable cultural forces at work to demonize it. Anti-militarism is a dangerous set of ideas, threatening to power, poorly understood by the population at large, and easily demonized in current cultural conditions. Reactionaries will have no trouble trying to paint anti-militarism as a bunch of “hippies” making peace signs and drawling “war is bad” as their sole argument against militarism. But that is all the more reason to make the argument, make it clearly, and make it well. In my view there will be no end ot the vast worldwide injustice and destruction such as currently seen in Iraq and Afghanistan until not only these particular wars, but the systems and institutions supporting them, are all effectively opposed and neutralised. Militarism is an integral part of this system.

So, why oppose militarism? The argument is much stronger than the mere observation that war is bad.

* * *

When we speak of militarism we speak of many things. Perhaps it is not even a well-defined term. I am afraid I cannot give you a one-sentence definition of militarism. Let me give some overview of what I mean when I say I oppose militarism.

Militarism is integrally connected to a substantial part of the State apparatus, the Congress, and the economy at large. It is a principal instrument of State foreign policy; indeed, for the US, the principal instrument. In this sense the US State is heavily invested in militarism.

Militarism plays a prominent role in culture. Its operations are affected by, and in turn affect, gender relations, race relations, class, and sexuality. In general, the size, freedom, and legitimacy of a military is a measure of a society’s readiness to embrace illegitimate force: it is therefore a measure of uncivilization. As the US is a nation of about 1/20 of the world’s humans and 1/2 of its military spending, the level of uncivilization is clear.

Militarism is fundamentally connected to authoritarianism; and its obverse, obedience. The military is the instrument of brute force at the international level, and it often acts lawlessly (more on this below). As long as there is a strict chain of command, ideal soldiers in existing militaries are mindless automatons carrying out orders. Even when the orders are pure murder. Albert Einstein put this best:

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

Militarism is fundamentally connected to patriarchy and homophobia. This is hardly a controversial statement, at least at the cultural level. By its nature, any culture of fighting wars and killing will celebrate aggressive, macho aspects of human nature. With that comes the entire cultural-historical legacy of women’s oppression and queer oppression. There is a fundamental cultural, psychological, and philosophical connection between militarism, patriarchy, and homophobia. But to attack only the most obvious aspects of this homophobia, such as the “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy, must necessarily rest upon the most anaemic of analyses.

The military’s daily duties are to train killers and to find the optimal implementation of destruction and murder. In this sense, institutional and habitual, there is a fundamental and obvious connection between militarism and death — spiritual death as well as physical destruction of property and of the living organism. As a military acquaintance of mine once said, “What we do is kill people and break their stuff.” The military is a machine for the creation of monsters — and I think many within the military realise this. There has been a long process within the military of optimizing the process by which the instinct to avoid killing another human being can be overcome — or better, overlaid with conditioning to kill without thinking, without the impulses of humanity kicking in, leading naturally to massive psychological trauma.

This process of monster-creation is not just obvious from the training sessions where recruits yell “Kill kill kill!”. The military is the cultural and institutional embodiment of death. And a culture of worship of the military is a necrophiliac culture. The unthinking applause for a marine is not only applause of reflexive obedience and willing subjugation to authority and the State — it is also applause for death. It is human society cheering itself into its own grave.

All of these give rise to deeper questions. The antipathy towards mindless murderous obedience must necessarily give rise to an uneasiness between anti-militarists and the military, and potentially the individuals within it. And it leads to some deep reflections on the nature of the military, as an institution, and its legitimacy. So let me make some comments on these questions, which are somewhat involved, but I think some things can be said.

* * *

In general, the relationship between the anti-war movement and the military has always been somewhat uneasy. On the one hand, the testimonies of anti-war soldiers are often powerful and moving. A soldier telling of their experiences, participating in atrocities, forced into impossible moral decisions, stumbling upon catastrophe, ordered unwillingly into barbarism, is powerful to hear. Nobody knows the horrors of war more than the people who participate in them. Moreover, anti-war soldiers appeal powerfully to mainstream audiences for whom the military is a sacred institution and the (false) patriotism of “serving one’s country” is the highest moral virtue. And, even if they may have initially signed up for reason of this false, barbaric moral anti-virtue of flag-waving patriotism, anti-war soldiers are in general deeply moral people: they have come to oppose an institution (or at least its practices) to which they signed up voluntarily, and they have suffered all the consequences of opposing a powerful institution from the inside. The testimonies at the Winter Soldier conferences in the US, over recent years, were powerful beyond words. (Of course, this is the reason they were blacked out of the mainstream media.)

But on the other hand, there is no getting around the fact that every soldier is a trained killer. And, in the absence of conscription, in the absence of aggressive external military threat, every soldier is a trained killer who willingly signed up to be a trained killer, for reasons that may be difficult to justify. Of course the reasons given are usually not sadistic: but even commonly-given reasons like “serving one’s country”, “patriotic duty”, or family tradition, all collapse upon the slightest examination. It is trite to have to say in the 21st century that we should have no loyalty to any country but to humanity, to justice, to the moral good; that you don’t have to do what your dad did; that patriotism in the form of worship of a flag is a moral idiocy; that nationalism beyond the liberation of oppressed groups and societies, and the preservation of cultural heritage, is provincial nonsense — but we must continue to say it. Of course this is not a complete set of reasons why people join the military. Given the absence of economic opportunities for people in many parts of the US, the military offers good prospects. Given the general level of ignorance about the history of US foreign policy, it’s not surprising that the military is regarded as a noble institution: it offers discipline, it abhors waywardness and indirection, it knocks you into shape. In lands of unemployment, drug use, and street violence, military violence and adventure is hardly a worse alternative. In peacetime, it is a safe (physically as well as economically) way to get through university or college. Many people in the military, even in the US, I am sure could not give a rat’s arse about flag-waving bullshit. Of course I cannot second-guess the reasons of every military recruit. But the point remains: there is tension between any soldier and antiwar politics.

This tension is a source of continual struggle for movements against war and militarism; but struggle is good, struggle maintains vitality.

Soldiers themselves are one thing; but they are individuals, and they are often good people. In opposing militarism, however, we focus more on the military institution itself, than the soldier as individual. In general, in all social analysis, we must draw a distinction between institutions and the people who occupy them. This is an obvious point but it is often lost, and usually missing from mainstream analysis — institutional analysis goes to the root of the system, is inherently radical, and it leads to too many disturbing conclusions. In opposing militarism we are not prejudiced against soldiers. In opposing the State we are not prejudiced against every public sector employee. In opposing turbo-capitalism we are not prejudiced against every bank employee. In opposing capitalism per se we are not prejudiced against every property owner, manager, rich person or boss. People are people, and if nothing else they are redeemable; institutions, being the systems, habits, roles occupied by people and to which they must conform, require no such sympathy. Militarism is a point of view against certain institutions, roles, and cultures within society, rather than individuals, and although this is a difficult point for many people to understand, it is an elementary one. All institutional analysis is, formally at least, independent of the individuals holding positions within that institution.

Thus, if the military, as an institution, causes horrid effects on the individuals within it; tends to engage in atrocities, violence, overthrow of legitimate popular governments — these are good reasons to oppose militarism; they are in my view largely valid reasons. But we can say something more fundamental about the nature of the military itself.

* * *

Having made the qualification that we speak of institutions rather than people, let us make no bones about it. What is the military, as a social institution?

The military is the State’s will to power. It is, by definition, the instrument by which the State exerts brute physical force over the world. All force is prima facie illegitimate — reasonable minds may differ, I would say, about when physical force can be justified; they may differ on whether it is ever justified on the scale writ large of war. At the small-scale level there are clear situations where physical force can be justified, for instance pushing a person out of the path of an oncoming train. But the burden of justification on those who advocate force is always heavy, and it is rarely borne out. Any military institution is, therefore, a prima facie illegitimate institution. Its right to exist depends on proof that the world, at the international level, is so savage that standing armies are required. Indeed the world at the international level is savage, but much of this is caused by the US military, not prevented by it. Peacekeeping efforts are another matter, and may even bear out the need for a military. But anyone who says that a military is necessary must do so with a heavy heart and a tear in their eye. Anyone who says that a military is a desirable institution is confused or sadistic.

Therefore, the military is dangerous; it demands massive institutional checks and balances on it. As long as it exists, the savagery of the military’s animating purpose must be tamed by some countervailing dynamic. We must ask: what are the countervailing dynamics against violence and the use of force? We see these from the smallest interpersonal level to the most global scale. I think that analysing this question at the individual scale has important implications for the question at the global scale.

At the interpersonal level, violence is prevented by many mechanisms. In the first instance, it is prevented by social norms, habits and social respectability: it is not polite to start arguments, or to fight. And while social respectability, in its more class-based and elitist forms, may be putrid, at a minimum it prevents the use of force. Beyond that we have psychology and social dynamics, reason and culture: we have evolved as social animals, we know instinctively how to get along, or at least avoid the worst confrontations; and we can be convinced to avert them. Beyond that again we have the law, acting upon society to restrain it: in most quarters it is stronger to say that someone is breaking the law, than to say that they are behaving badly; note that the force of law, while resting upon the threat of judicial punishment, acts quite independently of the State which implements it. The law, in this sense, is not a moral code of what should and should not be done, but a set of prohibitions on the worst deviations from moral conduct; this is as juridical law should be, for not every immorality deserves judicial punishment. But as a final sanction against violence, there is State authority, acting with its usual brute force — and often worse violence than that which it is supposed to prevent — through its constabulary or para-military forces. The need for a police force, like a military, can only be justified upon the basis that society is not yet sufficiently advanced to be free of violent conflict of its own accord; since most societies are shockingly unjust, such conflict is inevitable, and the role of the police force will be to maintain power and privilege. The argument for an *armed* police force, however, is much weaker than the argument for a police force per se; recall that many of the most peaceful contemporary societies are those in which most police are routinely armed with nothing more than a stick. In a good society, the withering away of the State precisely means that there is no need for police to repress conflicts arising from injustice; that the law is internalised, and acts through the force of individual reason than through coercive State action; that people take control over their own lives and learn to live with each other. It is in this sense that anarchism is the highest possible form of human social organisation, and the most optimistic political philosophy. It may be a vision unlikely to be achieved except in the long term; but it is a positive vision nonetheless, a direction towards which we aim.

But the same applies at the local level of police forces and sheriffs, as at the global and international level of national militaries. The State institutions supposedly designated to prevent violence — the police, the para-militaries, the courts — may not achieve their goals, and they may often cause more violence than they prevent. But in the democracies, the State’s coercive power over its citizens is severely curtailed under the law. If the State wants to punish you, it must have a clearly defined crime to charge you with; it must tell you what you are charged with; it must inform you of your rights; it must provide you with a lawyer; your must be heard in public before an independent judge and a jury of peers; you must be able to testify or not testify in your defence; the burden is on the State to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that its charges are borne out, and otherwise you are free. These are fantastic achievements of centuries of struggle, limiting the violent apparatus of the State, civilizing the State from its natural condition of lawless authoritarianism.

In a similar way, while militaries still exist, as a minimal step, they must be tamed by force of law, the law governing the use of violence in international relations. International law is only minimally developed; it is still in embryonic form; the world at the global level lags centuries behind many nations in its political development. But it has already developed a minimal set of rules for the use of force; these exist in customary international law, in various national and international court judgments, in treaties and conventions and the UN Charter. Moreover its content is appropriate and mostly defensible: it takes the minimal position that the use of force is prima facie illegal, unless some justification can be found. The only justifications recognised are self-defence and the vote of the UN Security Council — these are not without their problems, particularly the Security Council — but the general prohibition on war is sound.

There is no supra-national State to enforce international law; this law, by its nature, it must depend upon its internalisation and political pressure, rather than State coercion, for its implementation. International law is constrained to act only in its most legitimate form, by the power of its moral force. There are increasingly judicial mechanisms at the international level, but these are still embryonic.

In every national military, then, this force of law must act. It is true that there are some checks on the US military, included under the US Constitution: the military is under civilian control; Congress is given the power to declare war; and so on. Needless to say, these are utterly ineffective today. Every general should be a professor of international law, not just a connoisseur of the forms of destruction and domination. Every soldier should be given courses on not only international humanitarian law and the laws of war (as occurs in some militaries now) but also the public international law of when force can and cannot be used in international relations. Every soldier, every officer, and more importantly every general, should be put on trial or court-martialed for every violation of the UN Charter and conventions against the use of force in international relations. Every soldier should be free to refuse to participate in a campaign or an operation breaching these laws — and arguably should have even more personal freedom over their own role in the military. Operational considerations aside, every order within the military must rest upon consent. Every army should not be a formation of automatons under arms and mindlessly obeying orders, but a free citizen militia, in the original sense of the word, implying individual choice and autonomy. This is all, of course, only to the extent any standing army should exist at all, as long as the world remains barbaric at the international level.

As long as a military does not possess these basic features of civilization, it should be regarded as an illegitimate institution. At the very least, it does not belong in any other civilized institution, such as a university.

* * *

If nothing else, we should remember the following: the abolition of ROTC from some university campuses, such as Stanford, was an awesome achievement, an advanced achievement, far more advanced a victory than would be, say, not permitting torturers and instigators of aggressive war to teach classes celebrating their crimes. It may be true that the victory was in part a lucky turn of history, caught up in the details and the currents of the time. That does not diminish the scale of the victory. If, thirty, forty years later, all the arguments have been forgotten, all the activists have moved on, and everyone has gone to sleep while we regress backwards to militarism, what hope is there?

Have no doubt about it: the fight for a better world is a fight not only against the most obvious injustices like aggressive war, war crimes and torture. They may be in one’s face at Stanford but they are very much the tip of the iceberg. The fight for a better world is also a fight against militarism, against patriarchy, against homophobia, against racism, against class division, and against hierarchies of illegitimate power — not only the tyrannical military chain of command, but also the tyrannical orders of the boss in every capitalist workplace all the way through to the web of mechanisms by which State and corporate power holds the world in economic and spiritual chains.

Whether to focus only on the tip of the iceberg, or to focus on deeper aspects of the system, is an important and difficult strategic choice — the question must be constantly revisited and the approach re-negotiated within a movement. I understand that antiwar groups often focus on the easy questions at the tip of the iceberg. There is good reason for that: with political action, one wants to win concrete gains. Educating the population in a culture of obedience and worship of authority, where dissent is marginalised and ridiculed, is a difficult process, and one does not want to alienate the audience immediately by proceeding first to the most challenging questions. Starting with a radical critique may do more than alienate the mainstream; it may lead to marginalisation and a loss of perceived legitimacy among the more establishment sectors of progressive movement — even if the analysis is sound, even obvious, even correct at the level of scientific truth.

Much conventional wisdom collapse upon the slightest examination. We all know that we live in a world of Sunday truths, repeated unthinkingly, utter nonsense. Reflexive support, admiration, veneration of the flag, the geographical nation, the State, the military, are among the worst of these. They must be overcome.

And war is bad too.


Written by dan

March 16th, 2010 at 9:07 am

Self-determination and Afghanistan

Self-determination is a central principle of international law.

In the case of Afghan self-determination it’s probably also useful to point out that there is a sizeable Afghan peace movement, very courageous and principled, which the antiwar movement in the US should support. Malalai Joya, one of the leaders of this movement, has to be one of the bravest women in the world, confronting warlords, living under constant death threats, but continually speaking out against war and occupation. If Afghan self-determination is to mean anything, it must include voices like hers.

If the US government is to have any policy inside Afghanistan, it should include measures to (legally!) strengthen the position of those like Joya, rather than undermine them by propping up the Afghan “government” and escalating violence. The US decision to escalate seems to have come after much deliberation as to which type of bombing, which type of killing, which military tactics will serve US interests. the deliberations seems to have included all possible voices except those who advocate withdrawal and de-escalation, including the Afghan peace movement, the majority of the US population, and (I understand) most of the Afghan population. Obama’s escalation has come precisely without considering the position of the Afghan peace movement, which is for an escalation in hospitals, schools, economic assistance, and aid.

That is, the decision to escalate is only possible because the US debate entirely excludes the voices of those on the receiving end of the policy; vastly increased levels of violence and military operations,  now similar to the height of the Soviet occupation, are only possible on the condition that self-determination be excluded as an axiom of US foreign policy, just as it is included as an axiom of international law.


Written by dan

December 3rd, 2009 at 10:48 am

The antiwar movement in the large, and measuring it

I read this article and thought it was interesting. I had some comments on it, which pertain to the antiwar movement at large, so I thought I would share them. Make of them what you will.

1. Measuring is good when possible!

Being a scientist (and a mathematician at that), I like data. Observing and measuring is good. If you can find things to measure, more power to you.

However, I can see some difficulties in the context of the antiwar movement. In particular, some things are hard to measure; and more, some important or essential things that an activist group should be doing, might have completely zero short-term measurable effect. Some details follow.

2. The scale of antiwar goals.

To stop, or even prevent, a single war is a massive, world-historic event. To reduce the US national military budget, say to a level comparable to the rest of the world, even more so: that amounts to a total restructuring of the economy. To stop militarism, more so again: that is a culture and an economic and institutional inertia written deeply into american life. And, to stop jingoistic patriotism — the insane loyalty to a single geographic region with some arbitrary boundaries denoting the fates of long forgotten kings, emperors and imperialists who once carved up the earth for themselves — indeed amounts to a complete change of american life: so that every wave of the flag is met with curiosity or stupefaction, rather than with cheers and tears; so that the “american” in american life it more or less ceases to exist, to the extent it denotes anything more than a geographic location.

Make no mistake, the antiwar movement has these as goals, and not just in the US, but everywhere. They are not complete goals — a world with all these achieved might still be one of rank inequality, authoritarianism, and thwarted human life. One might argue they are best pursued alongside others — perhaps it can only be done along with a restructuring of the rules of international trade, greater international economic and political integration, debt forgiveness, the satisfaction of humanitarian and economic needs and so on; or more radically, the restructuring of the global economy, economic democracy, north-south reparations, finding a better economic alternative to capitalism, etc.

Nonetheless, the broad antiwar goals are goals for the long term. They chart a course for human history. Their time-frame is measured in centuries — even as the insanity and potential for catastrophe is so great as to demand that they be achieved now. Thus, one expects progress to be slow, even negligible; but one wishes, and needs, it to be done now.

Of course there are more local and immediate goals too, but the big picture must always be kept in mind, where measurable progress can be expected to be indistinguishable from zero even in the best possible case.

3. Sometimes vast changes happen unpredictably — in the meantime, ideas are important.

Events like the founding of the United Nations and the end of the cold war were world-changing — and entirely unpredictable a few years beforehand. Nobody would have advocated the second world war, or (say) the invasion of Afghanistan, in order to achieve these goals. The end of the second world war was indeed the impetus for the founding of the UN, but it is a superficial reading of history to regard that as the sole cause. These were not mere elite decisions, not merely the brokering of power by beloved leaders.

The creation of the United Nations built upon a century of pacifist organising and activism, the advocacy of various schemes of international integration, agitation for the outlawing of war (achieved in 1928 by the Briand-Kellogg pact, and today binding on all nations as customary international law), and the work of organisations like the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom. Nobody could have measured any progress whatsoever towards international integration until the first world war led to the League of Nations; and after its demise, again, until the second world war led to the UN. History is unpredictable, but the course of history depends upon the ideas and institutions that are in existence; the power of those ideas; and the balance of forces those ideas and their supporting institutions have at their disposal. By measurability standards the WILPFs and the Bertha von Suttners of the world are clearly zero or close to it. By the standards of history, they are monumental.

The conclusion must be that in political activism, the mere propagation of ideas — perhaps even the mere existence of active organisations working for those ideas — is of value in itself. Having an organisation, having people willing to meet regularly, putting time into the cause, in itself is something. Of course, the more people doing it, the wider the ideas spread, and the more clearly they are formulated and powerfully they are expressed, the better. Some of this may be measurable. But much of it surely cannot.

In any case I think, in the activist context, the proposition that no measurable effect implies no political effect is not always true.

4. Sometimes vast changes happen after long struggles — at the beginning, nothing was measurable.

An insistence on measurability would have stopped people speaking out against the Vietnam war for many years — as I recall, Kennedy first sent troops in around 1963 but the protest movement did not pick up until the end of the decade. Recall the stories of Chomsky and fellow activists going to speak every weekend, I think at the Boston Common — with a significant police presence, not to beat up the antiwar protestors (as we see more usually today!), but to protect Chomsky and company from being beaten up by pro-war onlookers. An absolutely hopeless situation — and disorganised at that — but without this sort of persistence, the later massive movement could never have arisen.

More generally, the situation for most serious activists — those antagonistic to power, to received ideology, and not subservient to some faction of power (like the CAP Shwarz refers to) — almost always seems hopeless. Power is strong by definition, it has legions of unthinking supporters, and no shortage of subservient academics, pundits, and intellectuals. Challenging a political and intellectual hegemony is tough work! The best approach however seems clear: have a realistic analysis, but do what is required for the cause and for the good. As Gramsci put it: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

History shows that it can be done. And, often it is drastic. The pace of change can quicken, dramatically. Ideas can be widespread, and regarded as good, just as impractical. Many people are not prepared to act until they believe that others are prepared to act. Political action is self-referential, at least at first, its philosophy is logically circular, as with much of social life — but it happens. And it cannot happen without an impetus that is non-measurable up to the instant it occurs, collapsing the nesting of logical brackets, and making a reality of the common knowledge that we think other people think we think they think.

5. The local situation may also make measurability hard.

None of this is to say that measurable effects should not be noted where possible, just that good work may not always have short-term measurable consequences. For campus organising, I can think of some sorts of measurements that could be made. But thinking about it, the same problems seems to apply even to goals local to a single campus. Getting the local war criminal prosecuted would be monumental in US history. Stopping, or placing further institutional limits on, military research would be a massive shift in the direction of the whole university — one can well argue, at least to a first approximation, that Stanford built itself into a world-class institution precisely by taking government money for military-related research. Moreover, current military research on campus is institutionally protected by white-washed reports and “academic freedom” and runs together with the vast sums of “defence”-related money supporting the economy of not just Stanford, but the entire country — military Keynesianism.

In addition, arguably the low-lying fruit (no classified research on campus, no ROTC on campus, for example) have already been won by movements long ago (well, the 1970s!).

But, the general idea seems fine. Activist groups should have identifiable goals, visions, and so on. And activist groups should not be wasting their limited time and resources by doing things which do not help their cause — or by not helping their cause as much as they potentially could.

I would just say to be on guard that too much of a focus on short-term measurability could potentially detract from the sort of cultural and ideological change that is, in the long run, central to any antiwar, or anti-imperialist, or pacifist mission, and which seems nigh impossible to measure objectively.


Written by dan

October 31st, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Rice’s nonsense on torture

Oh wow, I only got around to watching this video now, and from some of the comments I thought she must have been making some half-convincing arguments… nope!

Well, first we upgrade al Qaeda to tyrants, okay. Then one gets the impression that the US homeland was not attacked in WWII. Those little incidents at Pearl Harbor and on the Aleutian islands are called bombing and occupation, to most people.

Then we are informed that 500,000 deaths in WWII is “no!” Why? Perhaps we should have got the figure correct to the precise soldier?

The problem with the internet is that you can actually find obscure references instantaneously. In this case, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report on Guantanamo. Turns out, with ten seconds of google:

* the OSCE people were only allowed in on the condition of not actually interviewing any detainees! These same conditions were rejected by other human rights organisations, like Amnesty.

* and, the guy who led the OSCE team, Alain Grignard, with the Belgian federal police, thought detaining prisoners for years with trial was a form of “psychological torture”.

“Did you know that? Alright, no, well wait a second, if you didn’t know that, maybe before you make allegations about Guantanamo, you should read.”

But it gets better!

CR: “The ICRC also had access to Guantanamo, and they made no allegations about inerrogations about Guantanamo. What they did say is that they beleived indefinite detention…”

What sort of access did the ICRC have? Does anybody remember? Like, there were some prisoners that were deliberately kept away from the ICRC? And, like, this was such an official policy that it was actually written into the operating manual for the prison, there was an official level given to each prisoner, and the top level were kept away from the ICRC?

In fact, you can read various versions of the manual online.,_Red_Cross_Muzzled_at_Gitmo_in_2004

In any case, with its access, the ICRC did write a detailed report, which was leaked recently. Perhaps you might actually like to read what the ICRC *did* have to say.

From the introduction, the very first paragraph:

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has consistently expressed its grave concern over the humanitarian consequences and legal implications of the practice by the United States (US) authorities of holding persons in undisclosed detention in the context of the fight against terrorism. In particular, the ICRC has underscored the risk of ill-treatment, the lack of contact with the outside world as a result of being held incommunicado, the lack of a legal framework, and the direct effect of such treatment and conditions on the persons held in undisclosed detention and on their families.”

It’s clearly a glowing report, with sections entitled “Suffocation by water”, “Prolonged stress standing”, “Beatings by use of a collar”, “Beating and kicking”, “Confinement in a box”, “Prolonged nudity”, and so on. And clearly none of this involves any allegations about interrogations, surely.

And here is an example of non-allegations about interrogations, from the summary, section 1, page 5:

“as outlined in Section 4 below, and as concluded by this report, the ICRC clearly considers that the allegations of the fourteen [detainees interviewed] include descriptions of treatment and interrogation techniques — singly or in combination — that amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Can’t you see there are no allegations about interrogation?

And this is fantastic:

CR: “By definition, if it was authorised by the President, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

I didn’t know we had monarchists left in this country!

Hmm, I wonder which article of the Convention has the “President said so” defence? Dang, that could have come in handy for Pinochet’s lawyers when he was being extradited for torture under the same convention! Pity he didn’t notice that provision, having been President of Chile and all, since by definition anything he authorises doesn’t violate the convention!


Written by dan

May 1st, 2009 at 2:56 am

Civilian Casualties in Iraq?

We have a densely argued discussion of the available evidence andliterature review in footnote number 30 of our open letter:

(Why does the link for footnote 30 ends in “note-29”. I think I blame computer scientists who like to begin counting at 0 rather than 1.)

(If you go there, all the references are hyperlinked, they are not here)

See Opinion Research Business and Just Foreign Policy for these estimates. This far exceeds the Iraq Body Count number of around 90,000, which only counts deaths reported by multiple crosschecked media reports: see their information page. The US government has not made any serious study of deaths in Iraq during the war and occupation. Perhaps the closest is Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, Report to Congress by Department of Defense, September 2008, at p.22. However, as noted in the December 2007 version of this report, there are many deaths for which “the Coalition does not have visibility, in particular, murders and deaths in locations where Coalition forces are not present”: at p.18. See the Congressional Research Service report Iraqi Civilian Casualties Estimates, Hannah Fischer, January 12, 2009, for some further discussion. The Just Foreign Policy figure is an extrapolation of an epidemiological-style cluster study study published in the prestigious British medial journal The Lancet, which obtained a figure of 426,000-794,000 for the period March 2003 – July 2006: Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy et al., “Mortality After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey,” The Lancet, October 21, 2006, 368 (9545), pp. 1421-1429. The UK Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific advisor called the survey “close to best practice” and “robust”: High Death Toll Backed, Newsday, March 27, 2007.

The Just Foreign Policy website estimate is currently 1,320,110… it’s a rough estimate based on extrapolation from the Lancet study.


Written by dan

April 29th, 2009 at 3:41 am