The “Forever War”

When I first started hearing the rhetoric right after 9/11/2001, that we were in a “war on terror,” I really didn’t want to be difficult. I mean, it was a horrible thing, people were passionate and grieving, and yeah I wanted revenge, or justice, or something.

But when I heard that, I thought, “I hope that’s just a rhetorical flourish, and not an actual policy … because how the heck can you fight ‘terror’?”

Now, four years later, I wonder why more people (the press especially) didn’t challenge the administration on this? But, like all of us, they undoubtedly wanted to believe in our leaders, that they would lead us properly and wisely, in spite of all the signals to the contrary.

Even a war on “terrorism” or for that matter “Radical Extremist Islam” is absurd. You cannot fight ideas and win. Ever. Not as a war. All you can do is provide better ideas, which have never in human history taken hold of people’s imaginations and cultures with any permanency at the point of a weapon.

The quotation below is from an article [Taking Stock of the Forever War – New York Times] linked by JJG recently. He points out how the article shows just how “open-source” and nodal the terrorist networks are. They’re the brutal pioneers of social network technologies. (Of course, from the perspective of the ancient native cultures of the Americas, European explorers could easily be seen as ‘brutal pioneers’ of nautical technologies, but I digress…)

I liked this bit especially because of the metaphor at the end … I’m a sucker for visceral metaphors:

Call it viral Al Qaeda, carried by strongly motivated next-generation followers who download from the Internet’s virtual training camp a perfectly adequate trade-craft in terror. Nearly two years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a confidential memorandum, posed the central question about the war on terror: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” The answer is clearly no. “We have taken a ball of quicksilver,” says the counterinsurgency specialist John Arquilla, “and hit it with a hammer.”

Yeah, we kill off or capture leaders in the organization, but because it’s not a strictly top-down/hierarchical organism, new leadership sprouts up very quickly. Every bit we prune sprouts two more bits. In the face of this kind of nimble, ant-hill-like phenomenon, the US feels like a lumbering elephant being tormented and devoured by insects.

Think of all the Science Fiction and War genre movies and stories where the plucky Americans win because they think on their feet, while the totalitarian enemy topples because of failure at its top. We still cast ourselves in this role, not realizing that we’ve become the new (in relative terms) stiff-limbed abomination, the super-monster trying to devour the world. This is how we look in the eyes of many. We want to think of ourselves still as those plucky underdogs, but we’re not the underdog, not by a long shot. And we’re no longer so nimble.

Also, last night, I watched Weapons of Mass Deception, a documentary about how the thought police and incestuous corporate media interests sold us on the war. Unlike Michael Moore’s sniveling, quack-fest “Fahrenheit” movie (lots of good potential there, but his immaturity and simplistic conspiracy-think crippled it for any truly thoughtful observer), this one actually documents what it says, and backs it up over and over again.

The truly creepy thing about what is going on isn’t that it’s the result of some Illuminati crowd of puppetmasters smoking cigars and drinking cognac in a secret room in the basement of the Pentagon. It’s that the whole system is so huge and complex and self-interested, that the entirety of it all dooms us to certain outcomes, unless we hack the system. It also makes clear how important things like regulated media really are — how what seems like a harmless, capitalistic/democratic move (let the media companies do what they want! don’t hinder commerce!) can change the entire character of how “truth” is created and propogated in a society.

At any rate, I think I’ve officially hit the point where I no longer can trust my country’s leaders to be safe and sane. I know I was naive to even think that to begin with — not that it was a totally conscious choice, more of a feeling leftover from childhood about any parental or authoritative figures, perhaps? I really wanted to believe that at least more than half of what was going on was being handled with some competence. But the more I learn about how the Iraq conflict came to pass, how personal pockets and careers have been bloated on other people’s misery, how deep the lies and self-deceptions and insidious ideologies really go, the more I … well, I’m not sure. I suppose the more I want to just go to sleep and hope it goes away?

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  • Billie Mandel

    Hi Andrew –

    You said:
    “The truly creepy thing about what is going on isn’t that it’s the result of some Illuminati crowd of puppetmasters smoking cigars and drinking cognac in a secret room in the basement of the Pentagon. It’s that the whole system is so huge and complex and self-interested, that the entirety of it all dooms us to certain outcomes, unless we hack the system…”

    Yep. It reminds me of one of the most powerful books I read back in my previous incarnation as a Political Science PhD student – _Modernity and the Holocaust_ by Zygmunt Baumann. The core concept: that the main cause/enabler of the Holocaust was not the Powers of Evil, but the bureaucratic structure of Hitler’s government and the distance between those who made the decisions and those who herded people onto trains/into gas chambers. The structure of the organization, the division of labor normalized a full-scale atrocity into a series of decentralized acts.

    Certainly puts a different spin on possible impact and ethics for those of us who analyze and recommend changes to organizational structures for a living. Those labels and workflows suddenly seem a lot less innocuous.

    – Billie