9 June 2008


Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:41 am

It’s certain that at least some of the soldiers who went to Afghanistan or Iraq believed they really were liberating the people from tyranny and extending democracy into distant parts of the world. It’s equally certain that at least some of the soldiers regarded themselves as ambassadors of what they deemed a superior Western form of life, with its pop culture, its commercialism, its globalization, its Christianity. Many of them may also have eagerly looked forward to joining forces with others of like mind in common pursuit of a noble cause.

Whether these motivations for engaging in warfare were justified or not, circumstances on the ground haven’t lent much support for their realization in either the short or the long term. The soldiers find themselves feared, even hated. They’re barricaded apart from the local populace, further entrenching the us-versus-them nature of the occupation. They are encouraged, even commanded, to wield force against the locals without concerning themselves overmuch with whether this particular target is or is not controlled exclusively by the enemy, whether this particular Afghani or Iraqi is a civilian or an insurgent. The situation may seem to get better over time, but it’s an artifact of the militarily enforced partitioning of the country into ethnically cleansed Bantustans.

Of course the occupied territory is stressful and dangerous; of course it elicits anxiety and rage and depression and guilt. Pursuing any cause in the teeth of strong opposition is liable to produce the same reactions. But if you feel like you’re working toward something worthwhile, something that might even override one’s own safety and happiness, maybe you regard your own physical and psychological scars as “collateral damage” justified in pursuit of a higher good.

But what if the biggest commitment you’ve ever made in your short life turns out not only to have been a failure but a lie? The cause wasn’t just; it didn’t justify anyone’s idealism or sacrifice; it wasn’t worth any of the lives and money and collective energy that got squandered. If you manage to survive, how could you ever again take seriously any sort of call to a cause or a commitment that puts your own safety and happiness at peril? If one were entirely cynical, one could speculate that part of the government’s mission is to discharge the potentially dangerous collective zeal the young are capable of mounting in support of worthy causes.



  1. As I considered the last phrase, “one could speculate that part of the government’s mission is to discharge the potentially dangerous collective zeal the young are capable of mounting in support of worthy causes” brought to mind two sections of 1984 that I had just read a few hours before:

    1984 by George Orwell

    Part 2, Chapter 3

    With Julia, everything came back to her own sexuality. As soon as this was touched upon in any way she was capable of great acuteness. Unlike Winston, she had grasped the inner meaning of the Party’s sexual puritanism. It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship. The way she put it was:

    ‘When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simpIy sex gone sour. If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?’

    That was very true, he thought. There was a direct intimate connexion between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account.
    (emphasis added)

    Part 2, Chapter 5

    In some ways she was far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda. Once when he happened in some connexion to mention the war against Eurasia, she startled him by saying casually that in her opinion the war was not happening. The rocket bombs which fell daily on London were probably fired by the Government of Oceania itself, ‘just to keep people frightened’. This was an idea that had literally never occurred to him. She also stirred a sort of envy in him by telling him that during the Two Minutes Hate her great difficulty was to avoid bursting out laughing. But she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life. Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her. She believed, for instance, having learnt it at school, that the Party had invented aeroplanes. (In his own schooldays, Winston remembered, in the late fifties, it was only the helicopter that the Party claimed to have invented; a dozen years later, when Julia was at school, it was already claiming the aeroplane; one generation more, and it would be claiming the steam engine.) And when he told her that aeroplanes had been in existence before he was born and long before the Revolution, the fact struck her as totally uninteresting. After all, what did it matter who had invented aeroplanes? It was rather more of a shock to him when he discovered from some chance remark that she did not remember that Oceania, four years ago, had been at war with Eastasia and at peace with Eurasia. It was true that she regarded the whole war as a sham: but apparently she had not even noticed that the name of the enemy had changed. ‘I thought we’d always been at war with Eurasia,’ she said vaguely. It frightened him a little. The invention of aeroplanes dated from long before her birth, but the switchover in the war had happened only four years ago, well after she was grown up. He argued with her about it for perhaps a quarter of an hour. In the end he succeeded in forcing her memory back until she did dimly recall that at one time Eastasia and not Eurasia had been the enemy. But the issue still struck her as unimportant. ‘Who cares?’ she said impatiently. ‘It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.’
    (emphasis added)

    from an online copy of the book


    Comment by blueVicar — 9 June 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  2. —what if the biggest commitment you’ve ever made in your short life turns out not only to have been a failure but a lie?—

    i suspect this disposition is pretty common. Flags of the father, and all that.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 9 June 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  3. Thanks for the 1984 citations, BV. It’s somewhat surprising to me that the local high school assigns this as the first novel of the year for high school freshmen. It’s not just the radical critique of politics and warfare; there’s also the subversive sexuality, as highlighted in the first passage you quote. It’s an interesting case Orwell is making through Julia, that all warfare is sublimated sexual energy. The implication is that without governments (or corporations or revolutions), people would just naturally fall into hedonism. I wonder how Orwell came to that conclusion. It’s distinctly Freudian, and it does support the presumption of individualistic pleasure-seeking that’s promised by the marketplace. I think this is one of the reasons why Orwell, an anarchistic socialist, gets appropriated by the libertarians.

    Thanks DS, I just added Flags of Our Fathers to my Netflix movie queue. One has to acknowledge that the difficulty of recovering from failure and lies saps a lot of the energy from any sort of political or economic resistance to the status quo.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 June 2008 @ 2:52 am

  4. is there a movie called flags of the father?


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 11 June 2008 @ 4:06 am

  5. yes indeed, there is. directed by Clint eastwood no less. i’ll get it as well and tell you what i think when it appears here


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 11 June 2008 @ 4:09 am

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