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Saturday, August 19, 2006

war culture in the heraclitean framework

After it became apparent that the Israeli strategy of using air power to make Lebanon Hezbollah-rein had failed, a curious paen to air power appeared in the Washington Post, filed by their military analyst, William Arkin.

“If you've been reading my commentary on the Israel-Hezbollah war here, you know that I am a fan of airpower. To me, modern precision airpower is the epitome of discriminate warfare, which is to say, that it uniquely allows armed forces to discriminate between combatants and civilians. That is, short of two armies consenting to deploy to an unpopulated battlefield -- sort of like what Saddam Hussein did in 1990 after his invasion of Kuwait when he dug his army into the Kuwaiti and Iraqi desert.

I've heard the howls of protest -- Dresden, Tokyo, London -- before, but again, to reiterate, modern airpower, with its new precision weapons, allows an unprecedented degree of discrimination.”

There are many interests that converge in the War Culture, and one of the most difficult tasks for the analyst is to separate them and sort them by their various ‘degrees of discrimination’. And if this task wasn’t difficult in itself, there is a philosophical difficulty that is rarely mentioned, at least by historians, foreign policy think tankers, and political philosophers. The difficulty goes back to the standard assumption that war is derivative from the State. First we have the state, then we have the wars between states, just as first we have teams, then we have baseball. However, that assumption is rarely argued for. In LI’s opinion, you could just as well have war first – ontologically and historically, Hobbes’ war of all against all – and then the state. In this view, states derive from war, rather than the other way around. Just as Mallarme thought that everything strives to be written in a book, every war, striving to be part of the one war, leaves in its path fragments of itself. Those fragments are states. But war is the shaper. The more powerful the state, the more the culture becomes a war culture.

The philosophical warrant for this goes back to Heraclitus. The Heraclitean view is expressed in a cluster of fragments recently re-translated, along with the whole corpus of Heraclitus’ work, by Charles Kahn in The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. Fragment 51 reads: “Homer was wrong when he said “Would that Conflict might vanish from among gods and men!” For there would be no attunement without high and low notes nor any animals without male and female, both of which are opposites.” 52 reads: “One must realize that war is shared, and Conflict is Justice, and that all things come to pass (are are ordained?) in accordance with conflict. And 53, the most famous of the fragments on war, reads: War is the father of all and king of all; and some he has shown as gods, others men; some he has made slaves, others free.”

Kahn’s commentary on these fragments is interesting. According to him, the criticism of Homer is that he, like most men, cannot see how, behind appearance, there is a hidden fitting together of all things. According to Kahn, in these fragments, Heraclitus formulates four responses to the question: ‘What is it that most men do not comprhend.’

1. “One must realize that War is common (xynos, shared)’. “…in the place of the familiar thought that the fortunes of war are shared by both sides and that the victor today may be vanquished tomorrow, Heraclitus takes xynos, ‘common’ in his own sense of ‘universal’, ‘all-pervading’, ‘unifying’, and thus gives the words of the poets a deeper meaning they themselves did not comprehend. The symmetrical confrontation of the two sides in battle now becomes a figura for the shifting but reciprocal balance between opposites in human life in the natural world…”

2. “Conflict is Justice”. “Vlastos is clrearly right to insist that Heraclitus’ conception of cosmic justice goes beyond that of Anaximander [one of whose phrases is echoed in Heraclitus’ phrase], since he construes dike not merely as compensation for crime or excess but as a total pattern that includes both punishment and crime itself as necessary ingredients of the world order.

3. ‘All things come to pass in accordance with conflict.’ Kahn points out that this echoes the notion of all things coming to pass in logos. Come to pass can also be understood as birth – which then gives us the strange reversal of the 53rd fragment, since birth here comes from the father, not the mother.

4. “And all things are ordained by conflict.” Kahn thinks that the word for ordained is corrupt. But if it is ordained, he sees the ordination as that proper to an oracle.

If one has the heraclitean framework in mind, the idea that war solely serves the interests of states gives place to the question of what interests are being served by war. And this is a useful thing, insofar as states are not homogenous units. Although we are familiar with trans-national corporations, we still seem to grope when trying to understand transnational interests, which are usually attributed to the hegemonic ambition of a given state. And then, too, there is the definition of wars. We like to count them as distinct things, having beginnings and endings. However, we all know that wars might well have continuities disguised by the ceasefires or intervals of peace that supposedly define them into separate wars, and sometimes we acknowledge this by talking of world wars, or of the sixty or hundred years war.

I hope this isn’t a too utterly philosophical introduction to the topic I am going to discuss in the next post – William W. Ralph’s essay, in the latest issue of War in History, entitled: “Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan,” which argues a thesis that might well explain the motivation for Arkin’s column – or at least one abiding, institutional motivation within the American War Culture.