War and Understanding

The violence at Kenya’s Westgate Mall over the weekend stirs something in me besides fear and sorrow and pain. There’s also the thump of righteous anger thudding away in me as I read the reports. I’m slower to let it out than I was on September 12, 2001, because I like to think that most of us learned from that moment that such anger, however heartfelt, is ready to be stolen and refashioned and used as justification for many actions it was never intended to endorse or permit.

But even if you can let the anger come out soft and low, there is a part of me that is willing more dispassionately to revisit the rhetoric of a “global war on terror” and ask whether there is anything in that phrase that makes sense. The answer is really, “No, not, given the people who would plan and fight that war”. Because the thing is, none of the people who’ve acted in the name of that phrase really mean it, whether they’re keyboard cowboys who think that writing nasty things about a blogger is the equivalent of landing on Omaha Beach or the actual military and intelligence planners who fire drones, stage counter-insurgency operations, monitor communications, and so on.

The “war” framework is tempting in part because most common alternative rhetorical framing is just as unsatisfactory and often just as inconsistently adhered to in its ultimate implications. I say this as someone who is most likely to indulge in this approach when I’m writing in social media like Twitter or Facebook, and as someone who expects most of his friends and contacts to prefer this style. This response, when confronted like an event like Westgate, moves between anguished reflection about the mysteries of the human condition and a call for understanding, empathy and investigation into the social and cultural underpinnings of mass violence. I’ll come back to the shortcomings of this kind of answer a bit later.


First, war. Calling for a “war on” something (drugs, hunger, poverty, terrorism) typically gives rise to state and civic action that bears little resemblance to any kind of war. It’s really a move that’s meant to protect enormous deployments of resources from any kind of debate and to justify strong uses of official power, often for long-sought objectives that have relatively little to do with the supposed targets of the “war”. “Wars on” are a master class in why metaphors are never “just” words, why metaphorical speech can be in its way as dangerous as a tank full of toxic waste.

If the global war on terrorism was a literal rather than metaphorical war, what would be different? Clausewitz may have been a characteristically modern thinker about war, but at least part of his famous declaration that war was politics by other means was an observation about wars and victors past as well as future. I think the first basic thing that any state or society going into a war would consider is: what would be victory and when might we expect to achieve it? The second thing, following directly on that, is “how”?

Good luck trying to find any evidence that either the keyboard commandoes or our generals and leaders have any answers. Even premodern empires fighting unrestrainedly brutal punitive wars on their frontiers typically have had some sense of just how many sandcastles they’re going to kick over before they go home and stage a triumph. The “global war on terror”, on the other hand, seems roughly as permanent as 1984‘s “always at war with Eastasia/Eurasia”. If your victory condition is, “No one will commit an act of deliberate, ideological mass killing ever again” or even the more specific, “Militant Islamic fundamentalism will be eradicated”, why stop with that, go on to “all sadness will vanish” and “it will always be 75 degrees with a light breeze”.

Much action has been justified by saying that this is a new kind of enemy, a non-state enemy, an asymmetrical enemy, and so on. This is actually nonsense: the weapons and scales of mass violence are new, the global cultural space in which these events are perceived and experienced is new, but large empires or states facing persistent attacks on the safety and welfare of their people and their commerce at their periphery is as old as agriculture itself. Any sense of novelty is a result of the modern nation-state’s inability to understand its own historical oddity. Essentially talking about this moment being “new” is a case at best of modern nations taking their own press too seriously and believing that formal war between the mass armies of centralized, industrialized nations was a permanent achievement in a global march towards progress. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would prefer fully mobilized total wars between nations instead of terrorist attacks. But among our problems is that the big state-to-state wars of the 20th Century have left the impression that most of the time it is possible to get an adversary to surrender unconditionally and even to turn adversaries into allies.

If someone seriously meant, “We are at war with the people who planned the attack on Eastgate” and wasn’t just venting or trying to provide themselves metaphorical cover for some other kind of power play, what could that mean? Could a group like Shabab ever be defeated in a literal rather than metaphorical war?

I think yes, but it means taking Clausewitz seriously. Talking about a territory like Somalia as a “failed state” is a kind of policy-wonk nonsense at best, narcissism at worst. It’s a non-explanation explanation. But there’s a germ of a point somewhere in that phraseology that’s worth pulling out. Imagine you set as your victory condition, “Make Somalia a territory where joining a group like Shabab and participating in a military assault on a shopping mall a thousand kilometers away would be as relatively marginal a decision to make as hiding out in a cabin in Montana and mailing bombs to ideological enemies”–not impossible, just unlikely. Well, what makes being Ted Kaczynski unlikely even now in the U.S.? (I’m here taking Kaczynski as a person who acted consciously in service to his own convictions, not as a mentally ill person, which I know some would dispute.) What makes most ideological violence an unlikely choice throughout the U.S. and Western Europe?

A “war” against the present dispensation of power and political economy in Somalia that would seriously hamper or limit Shabab can’t possibly be built around the systematic use of military power against enemy targets. Occupation (by Ethiopian, Kenyan, AU or Western forces) is the equivalent of clicking “like” on Shabab’s Facebook page: it’s an endorsement. Killing Shabab members is substituting an imaginary “national” enemy for the one you really have, which is an always shifting, indeterminate potentiality. It’s like saying you’re going to bomb all boxes that might be harboring all Schrodinger’s cats just to make sure than none of them get out alive when the wave function collapses. You could kill everyone in Somalia, which is pretty much the approach that Russia took in Chechyna. You tell me how well that seems to be working in terms of ending a war and letting everyone live in peace afterwards, leaving aside the absolute moral disaster of such an approach and the ethical idiocy of its asymmetry to the provocation. (And you tell me how well that’s likely to work in a region full of porous boundaries, refugee camps and states that have difficulty controlling their own territories.)

If you’re really going to war, and you really have a strategic objective, do what a genuine military leadership does: inventory your weapons, measure your supply chains, assess your tactics, plan a strategy. And I’d think that the only conclusion you could come to is that the ‘war’ is winnable only if Somalia becomes a very different kind of polity, if South Sudan becomes a very different kind of polity, if Eritrea becomes a very different kind of polity and so on. People don’t join a Shabab if their settled social worlds and institutions are providing them more sustenance (financially, culturally, emotionally, ethically) than a nihilistic religious movement can offer. People don’t join a Shabab if there is some real hope of justice and legitimacy and fairness right at hand. They don’t join if they have a future to care about and a stake in the present. And people don’t join, or hesitate to join, if there are people in their lives who have credibility and wisdom who tell them, in languages and histories and forms that make sense to them, that the Shabab are murderers, hateful to God and man and all the spirits and mysteries that lie in between.

You tell me what actual killing weapons win that war for you. If guns are involved, it’s the kind that are mostly kept in holsters so that they can keep the peace. Sometimes they have to come out, because sometimes there are bad men and women who want to keep choosing again and again to hurt their communities, their neighbors, their enemies. You win that war by every villager being willing to call for help if that neighbor or that familiar stranger shows up to cause trouble. To do that they have to believe that when they call, the helpers will not make things worse, will not be simply another kind of terrorist.

If you’re not prepared to mobilize resources and people and effort for that kind of war, that kind of strategic plan, that kind of victory condition, don’t talk to me of war. If you recognize that the resources and people aren’t available and that there’s no model for that kind of war, fine–just don’t substitute some bombing and occupation and shooting because “something must be done”.


But don’t talk to me of understanding either unless that’s an equally driving commitment. The problem here is that my social networks light up after events like Westgate with people who are enormously pained by the pointless, senseless loss of life and are as furious as those who cry “war” with those who did the killing, but who turn to a different metaphorical language to map their response. That language is about understanding, investigation, research, and equally a language that sounds more like my “war” above, of remediation and aid and change.

This is all fine–I clearly think that’s closer to an answer. The problem is that many of the people who light up my networks with this package of metaphors don’t apply it evenly. I don’t apply it evenly. This is as much confession as accusation on my part. If we’re talking drone warfare or the building of a surveillance state or torture in Abu Ghraib or neoconservative war planners, we skirt right past the part about engaging the human landscape from which such activities arise, we don’t call for understanding the “roots of evil”, we don’t look for how the actors involved in those activities might have been searching for their own lost forms of security and comfort. We don’t usually imagine that they are caught up in the same indeterminacies that resolve down into a young man taking a gun to kill shoppers in a mall or getting a young man to raise his children and make his community a better place. But they are or could be: there could be a moment where an official decides it is wrong to interrogate a fellow citizen for hours at a border, a moment where a finger poises over a kill button and refuses to press, a moment where a pilot spots a wedding and decides it is better not to bomb even if somewhere in the crowd an insurgent might slip away free. A moment where a leader says not today or a judge says not this time. We don’t think very hard about how to give them a village that makes them love the plow more than the sword.

But even before we get to those moments, the commandment to investigate, to know, to understand, has to weigh heavily in all directions and to all things. As Inga Clendinnen argued, even to Henreich Himmler. If we say it for the Shabab, say it for everyone and everything in all the world and mean it. Which, I grant you, is a hard thing to live up to–but then our snark, our anger, our dismissal is not altogether that different than the moment where someone else’s composure slips and he or she says, “Exterminate the brutes!” The work that’s done in the world by those moments is very different, one relatively harmless and the other sometimes brimming with potency. But the thing about a commandment is that it is the worst when you lay it heavily upon others but forgive yourself an endless series of light trespasses. The injunction to understand, mind you, is not a call to love or affection or sympathy. It’s just about the deeper and harder truths inside of things, a trust that we don’t know as much as we ought but that what we ought, we can.

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5 Responses to War and Understanding

  1. “modern nation-state‚Äôs inability to understand its own historical oddity”. Well, most nation states (with the exception of Switzerland maybe) today have just supplanted their former kings with an elected king, most noticeable if they’re presidents, less directly visible if they’re called prime ministers or chancellors. But even these names point to a king, as these positions were conferred by sovereigns. Without the sovereign the prime minister runs havoc. And the people are not the sovereign, they are a disparate group who the actionable intelligence is withheld from. Imagine a sovereign who’s constantly being told he/she has ‘no need to know’. No informed decision, no governance. Hence war ensues and no one knows how they got into it.

  2. Withywindle says:

    And yet, if you were willing to argue the other side of the question, it would be interesting to read your five-page memo on which uses of force would best aid us (in a larger strategy) against our various Islamist foes.

  3. In the provinces says:

    Your comments about Al Shabab run in the direction of asserting that such terrorist groups are a consequence of poverty and despair. But there are well-funded backers of terrorism in places like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. The global spread of Wahabbi Islam, which is closely related to the founding of groups that do things like hijack airplanes, blow up buildings and shoot up shopping malls, has been very well financed. So your analysis needs some expansion and emendations.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Provinces, I think that’s a very good and challenging observation, and a fair critique of the rhetoric of this post.

    I suppose I would say that even if there is considerable money and privilege involved in some of these networks, they are also fed in some places by feelings of marginalization and despair–both al-Shabab and Boko Haram, for example. But there is something bigger here. I really, really do not think it is Islam. I think instead that there’s a kind of sensation of alienation that is spreading worldwide even in ostensibly liberal or wealthy societies, a sense that nothing we do matters, that the powers that rule the world are no longer responsive to their own people or to anything principled. That feeling of despair is expressed very differently in different places and has different consequences within different local and regional histories. If I argue that Somalia etc. need a different political dispensation as an outcome of a “war” against terrorism, I do not mean in the simple sense of a chicken in every pot or freedom from want. What they need are communities that feel that they matter, elites who are part of the wider society, a government which is responsive to its people and has a genuine vision of a better future. They need it, we need it.

    The “war” in some sense may need to be the next campaign in what William McNeill referred to as the endless struggle against “macroparasites”. I’m edging uncomfortably close to Negri and Hardt’s Empire here, a book that I really do not agree with, but their diagnosis of the global moment has some things to recommend it.

  5. Edwin says:

    I agree that the “war on” PR term is dead and does not elicit the type of awareness and community action necessary to deal with a problem. I mean, who wants to go to war?

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