War is any organized, armed attack or conflict, intended to destroy property and human life, which is directed against other groups. The list of the “types” of war is still growing, because individual wars are cumulative of all preceding wars, but facing new circumstances with each instantiation, giving rise to new technologies, new tactics, and new doctrines. So we hear about total war, general war, guerrilla war, air-land war, asymmetrical war, wars of liberation, et al.
There seems no end to the creativity of violence.
In the 20th Century, more than 200 million human beings had their lives cut short by warfare. That was the approximate world population of humans around the time Jesus was born. But lest anyone believe that our last century was exceptional at war killing, we can be reminded that between 755-763 AD, more than 36 million people were believed to have been killed in the course of the An Lushan Rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China; 13th Century Mongol armies may have slaughtered as many as 50 million; the 14-15th Century saw more than 10 million dispatched by the Turkic Muslim leader, Tamarlane; while the American Civil War was raging, the Taiping Rebellion in China claimed 20 million lives, overlapping with the Dungan Revolt (also in what is modern China), which claimed around 10 million more.
World War II tops all war out, with 73 million dead, around 45 million civilians. In that war, the United States lost around 418,500, or .32 percent of its total population, with the Soviet Union losing the most people, more than 23 million, or nearly 14 percent of their total population. Germany lost nearly ten percent of its population, with around 7 million dead. Japan lost over 3 million out of just over 71 million people – about 4 percent.
Counting deaths from secondary causes, like disease outbreaks among soldiers and refugees, it is estimated that 380,000 people a year, on average, died from war during the period from 1985-1994 – a period when I was very active in the Army.
In addition to deaths, of course, there are even higher numbers of people wounded, many suffering permanent disability; and an untold number of combatants and non-combatants are psychologically scarred by warfare.
The scale might be news to some, but the reality of war’s destruction ought not be, nor men’s continued participation in war (now with a few women). Men love war.
William Broyles, Jr., writing for Esquire (a men’s magazine!) in 1984, in an article entitled “Why men love war,” said:
I'm talking about why thoughtful, loving men can love war even while knowing and hating it. Like any love, the love of war is built on a complex of often contradictory reasons. Some of them are fairly painless to discuss; others go almost too deep, stir the caldron too much. I'll give the more respectable reasons first.
Part of the love of war stems from its being an experience of great intensity; its lure is the fundamental human passion to witness, to see things, what the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the Marines in Vietnam called eye fucking. War stops time, intensifies experience to the point of a terrible ecstasy. It is the dark opposite of that moment of passion caught in "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd/ For ever panting, and forever young. " War offers endless exotic experiences, enough "I couldn't fucking believe it! "'s to last a lifetime.
Most people fear freedom; war removes that fear. And like a stem father, it provides with its order and discipline both security and an irresistible urge to rebel against it, a constant yearning to fly over the cuckoo's nest. The midnight requisition is an honored example. I remember one elaborately planned and meticulously executed raid on our principal enemy--the U.S. Army, not the North Vietnamese--to get lightweight blankets and cleaning fluid for our rifles repeated later in my tour, as a mark of my changed status, to obtain a refrigerator and an air conditioner for our office. To escape the Vietnamese police we tied sheets together and let ourselves down from the top floor of whorehouses, and on one memorable occasion a friend who is now a respectable member of our diplomatic corps hid himself inside a rolled-up Oriental rug while the rest of us careered off in the truck, leaving him to make his way back stark naked to our base six miles away. War, since it steals our youth, offers a sanction to play boys' games.
War replaces the difficult gray areas daily life with an eerie, serene clarity. In war you usually know who is your enemy and who is your friend, and are given means of dealing with both. (That was, incidentally, one of the great problems with Vietnam: it was hard to tell friend from foe--it was too much like ordinary Life.)
War is an escape from the everyday into a special world where the bonds that hold us to our duties in daily life--the bonds of family, community, work, disappear. In war, all bets are off. It's the frontier beyond the last settlement, it's Las Vegas. The men who do well in peace do not necessarily do well at war, while those who were misfits and failures may find themselves touched with fire. U. S. Grant, selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis and then four years later commanding the Union armies, is the best example, although I knew many Marines who were great warriors but whose ability to adapt to civilian life was minimal.
These are the benign reasons men love war, according to Broyles, reminiscing about his time in Vietnam. There are others.
For all these reasons, men love war. But these are the easy reasons, the first circle the ones we can talk about without risk of disapproval, without plunging too far into the truth or ourselves. But there are other, more troubling reasons why men love war. The love of war stems from the union, deep in the core of our being between sex and destruction, beauty and horror, love and death. War may be the only way in which most men touch the mythic domains in our soul. It is, for men, at some terrible level, the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off the corner of the universe and looking at what's underneath. To see war is to see into the dark heart of things, that no-man's-land between life and death, or even beyond.Stating it plainly, many men who actually participate in combat (actual combat, or un-resisted offensive operations) learn to love killing people. It makes them God; and it makes them alive – as seen by the non-living bodies at our feet. Broyles:
Whenever another platoon got a higher body count, I was disappointed: it was like suiting up for the football game and then not getting to play. After one ambush my men brought back the body of a North Vietnamese soldier. I later found the dead man propped against some C-ration boxes; he had on sunglasses, and a Playboy magazine lay open in his lap; a cigarette dangled jauntily from his mouth, and on his head was perched a large and perfectly formed piece of shit.War culture is a culture of lies; and the most important lie is that men who make war hate war. This is actually the exception. They might hate the discomforts and inconveniences of field life (though now, American soldiers can return to air-conditioned barracks after a combat operation); but they are jacked up by adrenaline and death.
In modern US media, when the kind of stunt described above – the desecration of bodies – happens, the media obligingly parrots the official line: These were bad apples, and they were not representative of most of our ‘heroes.’
The simplest rebuttal is that these things happen in units. “Individual soldier” is an oxymoron. Soldiers operate in groups, and these kinds of actions are group actions. This is a good example of that shopworn phrase, “male bonding.”
As Broyles article suggests, and as experience shows, there is a strong association in the minds of men between violence and sex, and violence is eroticized. Broyles:
Most men who have been to war, and most women who have been around it, remember that never in their lives did they have so heightened a sexuality. War is, in short. a turn-on. War cloaks men in a coat that conceals the limits and inadequacies of their separate natures. It gives them all aura, a collective power, an almost animal force.
Histories of Supposition
War has been around for a very long time. The first recorded war happened around 3000 BC, between Sumer and Elam (modern Iraq). This was not the first war recorded because it was the first war that happened, but because it was the first war that was accompanied by written records. As early as the Late Paleolithic Era, there is archeological evidence for war fought using primarily bows, clubs, and slings.
It seems safe to assume that population densities were lower, and that these weapons did not inflict anything like modern numbers of casualties. The tendency to focus on war technology in the analysis of war can be over-emphasized, however. Key ingredients in warfare are hierarchical social organization and the various incentives for war. Neolithic towns were, as far as we can tell, unfortified, meaning that even with the existence of war, it was not yet generalized.
What was changing, and what would change war from the relatively low-intensity, short-duration affair that it was when people mostly hunted and gathered, was population concentration. Agriculture slowed migration, established fixed communities, as well as created accumulations of wealth that serve as temptations to plunder.
Once war was established by, hypothetically, a raiding military force against an agricultural community, the community itself is incited to strengthen its defense; and so – over time – we see the adoption of specifically offensive and defensive tactics, techniques, and technology. Each innovation is met with a counter-innovation; and this sets up the dynamic of the arms race. At the organizational level, ineffectual leadership is quickly weeded out by defeat, and leadership itself becomes devoted, above all other considerations, to material efficacy.
To be effective in warfare, as Clausewitz says in his schema, there must be something called unity of command – the centralization of decision-making in one person – a commander. When entire societies, then, are placed on a war footing, the entire society necessarily reflects the strict hierarchy of military organization, as well as its cultural authoritarianism.
Given that war has always been a predominantly male enterprise (even though women suffer terribly in war), militaristic societies tend to strengthen the power of males, and the aggression of males.
Even if women were encouraged to fight, which we can’t really know, in most pre-modern societies, adult women spent a good deal of time nursing and nurturing children which reduced their mobility. We do know that gravid women nurse children; and nursing moms are unlikely to seek opportunities for armed combat.
That is not to say women cannot fight in war; they have, often with the same skill, endurance, and determination as men.
That does not change the male character of war. These women, like some women leaders today, were willing to behave like the men who preceded them and to refrain from undermining the essential male character of their enterprise. They became honorary men. In a bizarre scene from the execrable film, GI Jane, Demi Moore’s character comes into her own as a woman undergoing SEAL training when she beats up her instructor, then crows over her vanquished foe, “Suck my dick!”
Aside from the fact that the scriptwriter's sexual pyshcology warrants some real concern here, this scene resonated with viewers, who seldom question the masculine character of ostensibly gender-neutral institutions. The female officer has become an honorary man, as indicated in subsequent scenes where she is finally accepted among the other SEAL trainees, who get the biggest kick out of her phatic remark. In the end, GI Jane shows her stuff by effectively killing Arabs.
Practice Makes Perfect
Men who are soldiers practice techniques and tactics designed to kill the enemy (they always say, “the” enemy, never “an” enemy). The permanence of the state of war is assumed, even if it is not active, in any society that maintains a standing military. Even when they are not in combat, they practice for combat.
With constant practice comes preoccupation with killing others, as well as the reward of high esteem in the eyes of one’s fellows when and if one is successful in war. The good becomes killing, because this is the practical task of the soldier; and so he seeks – out of self-defense, out of peer pressure, out of the desire for greater esteem in the eyes of his fellows, out of a desire to achieve a certain type of masculinity – to be a better killer, as well as a proficient apologist for his actions and the actions of his comrades. The highest virtue in the Heroic and Classical Ages was success in combat.
I could argue that this accounting of virtue still retains its force in US society, where our veneration of soldiers borders on idolatry. In another section, I’ll unpack Harry Stout’s history of the US Civil War, Upon the Altar of the Nation, because that war was pivotal in the development of modern war and in military veneration as a ritual practice in the American civil religion.
The practice of war changes the men who engage in the practice. It forms them. We see today that in any standing military, there is a shocking and abrupt period of basic training in which an intense formative process transforms a civilian into a soldier.
If there were no need for a particular kind of formation for military service, there would be no need for the shock treatment of basic training. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes, with some regret, that mainstream churches in the United States are so subordinate to the US state and so enthralled by modern culture, that the church cannot compete with the Marine Corps for efficacy of personal formation.
When I was preparing to go through Basic Training 42 years ago, I lost count of the men who told me that time in the Army would make me “a man.” Given that I already had the requisite physiology of a male, it is rather obvious that they were taking about something else.
Merriam-Webster defines masculine as “having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man.” The question this raises is how do certain qualities and behaviors come to be associated with men?
We know from our own socialization that masculinity consists of cultural expectations that men seek to live into. What we may not appreciate is how differently masculinity can be constructed from place to place.
Anthropological proof of the malleability of masculinity has given the lie to the idea of some supracultural masculine essence or principle. These ideas have been exposed as fallacious. Our species-nature is sexually dimorphic – we need two to make new. But masculinity is determined by culture and practice.
If and when the archetypical practice of men is war, then those characteristics associated with warfighting men come to be seen as the teleos of masculinity. When the practice is domination and conquest, then the best male is understood to be the male who most effectively dominates and conquers.
In militaristic societies, these characteristics come to be understood as male virtues. Courage and strength, yes, even endurance. But also careless cruelty. Hard-heartedness. The ability to see others as mere objects.
The formative process for masculinity begins almost as the baby boy is expelled into the world during birth.
Development and Resonance
Being and becoming similar are factors which are essential for children’s development, and gradually establish their relationship to the world, to themselves, and to language.
When we watch the formation of small children, we see in them an apparently innate mimetic desire. They emulate our voices, our facial expressions, our particular choreographies of body language; and in doing so, we also see the transformation of mimesis to habit to discovery of context to understanding as the child matures, or as Aristotle might say, “actualizes” her potential.
The ability to act socially is acquired mimetically in cultural learning processes. This has been shown by a large amount of research conducted during the last few years. The culturally variable human abilities of play, of the exchange of gifts, and of ritual action, are developed by means of mimetic processes. To be able to act “correctly” under given circumstances, people need practical knowledge gained in sensual and corporeal mimetic processes of learning which take place in the corresponding fields of action. The characteristics of social action in a given culture, too, can only be grasped by approaching them mimetically. Practical knowledge and social action are to a large extent the result of cultural and historical conditions. (Wulf, pp. 60-61)Non-mimetic actions like mental reflection, analysis, even routines, are built fundamentally on a mimetic foundation. Prior to the capacity for conceptual practices and the development of routines, mimesis makes one more and more similar to certain others; and thereby, mimesis is also the basis for making one less and less similar to others.
Most of us have observed this direct transmission of culture and identity, even and especially in its current state of flux. Consider any familiar white middle-class culture in any place in the United States. At the same time, consider a working class African American family somewhere nearby. Children in each setting grow up imitating the speech, gestures, emotional cues, and customs of their families of origin. And there are distinctions between each. Now, consider that the children of these two families attend the same school. To a significant degree, each group of children is likely to see a degree of self-segregation, especially among those who have had the least contact in the past with the ‘other’ group.
The similarities that characterize each group constitute an identity that is learned mimetically (and with profound emotional attachments and resonance!). Each culture is, likewise, established in the mind of a child that in forming one similarity, it accentuates another difference.
Consider also, given that this has been a trajectory since legal segregation was abolished, that many of the same kids today, through cultural transmission, especially through electronic media, may begin to imitate one another, and thereby take on some of the cultural characteristics of the other.
Mimetic learning, according to Wulf, is simultaneously the “appropriation of the world and the constitution of the subject.” There is no functional separation between self and world, as liberalism would have it. The subject is constituted directly through that appropriation, and that appropriation is aimed at belonging.
Belonging is a particular and crucial kind of recognition. Linda Kintz, in her book Between Jesus and the Market – The Emotions that Matter in Right Wing America (Duke University Press, 1997), makes one more pertinent point, and that is that each of these formative experiences, mimetic and supra-mimetic, is also associated with the belongingness of the home and the affirmation and nurturing that took place there from infancy. In this, the formative behaviors and attitudes of any subject are accompanied by a deep emotional, or as Kintz calls it, affective, resonance. As people grow into legally recognized adults, the practices and attitudes they learned prior to their conceptual development still remain, powerfully influence, and in many ways defend a subject’s identity. This affective resonance is primary.
“The intensity of mattering, while ideologically constructed, is nevertheless ‘always beyond ideological challenge because it is called into existence affectively’” (Kintz, p. 61) (italics added).Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek describes the intersubjectivity of this resonance in formation:
The desire staged in fantasy is not the subject’s own, but the other’s desire, the desire of those around me with whom I interact: fantasy is an answer to “You’re saying this, but what is it that you effectively want by saying it?” The original question of desire is not directly “What do I want?”, but “What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for the others?” A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations, he serves as a kind of catalyst and battle-field for the desires of those around him; his father, mother, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, who fight their battles around him, the mother sending a message to the father through her care for the son. While being well aware of this role, the child cannot fathom what, precisely, an object he is for the others, what the exact nature of the games they are playing with him is. Fantasy provides an answer to this enigma: at its most fundamental, fantasy tells me what I am for my others. This intersubjective character of fantasy is discernible even in the most elementary cases, like the one, reported by Freud, of his little daughter fantasizing about eating a strawberry cake: what we have here is by no means the simple case of the direct hallucinatory satisfaction of a desire (she wanted a cake, didn’t get it, so she fantasized about it). The crucial feature is that, while voraciously eating a strawberry cake, the little girl noticed how her parents were deeply satisfied by seeing her fully enjoying it. What the fantasy of eating a strawberry cake really was about by the parents) that would satisfy her parents and make her the object of their desire.It is in this emotional sojourn of early childhood formation that sexual desire is competitively mentored, as is the apprehension of those norms that will constitute sexual identity… meaning here more than something called “orientation.”
With few exceptions, nothing in a child’s development is more relentlessly policed from an early age than his sexual identity. I specify the male pronoun here, because male sexual attitudes and male identity are the subject of this thesis. Male formation differs from society to society, even as several features of military masculinity tend toward homogeneity – a function of similarities in military practice that are reflected in values and attitudes.
Wulf emphasizes the moral ambivalence of mimetic learning.
Mimetic processes are ambivalent; an impulse of becoming similar inheres them, which can also take place independent of the value the world they refer to has. Therefore, the subject can also make itself similar to something obsolete and lifeless, which can interrupt or misdirect its inner development. Mimesis can degenerate into simulation and mimicry. However, it can also lead to an extension of the subject into the surrounding world, and forge a link to the outside world and to new learning experiences. The mimetic approach to the outside world is characteristically non-violent. The mimetic process is not about forming or changing the world. Rather, it is about development and education resulting from the encounter with the world. (p. 65)That characteristic non-violence is undermined by desire, as Rene Gerard describes. Mimetic desire begins as the imitation of desire, but upon learning to desire the same objects as those from whom one learned, the role model and the mimetic-learner come into conflict.
One artistic formulation of this is Oedipus; but the object is not always sexual. It can relate to any desire – one learned by mimesis. This dynamic of conflict over shared desires gives rise to social fractures, which Gerard believes led to the custom of scapegoating, first with an actual goat, but now with sacrificed humans. For Catholic Gerard, this is a demonic phenomenon, and it figures heavily into his Christology.
Mimesis is a form of learning that is deeply embodied, because it is fundamentally practical. We do mimesis with our bodies. Which brings me to another point from Wulf:
Sexual desire is awakened and developed in mimetic processes. There, sexual difference is experienced, and sexual identity is learned and acquired. (Wulf, p. 63)
Virtue ethicists in the tradition of Aristotelian-Thomism have always asserted the importance of role models, well before that term was invented for psychologists. A kind of apprenticeship develops character – the internalization of certain virtues related to certain practices.
Every parent I know, myself included, has seen mimesis in action. Imitation, habituation, and finally, understanding. At two, a child will imitate a parent sweeping the floor. At ten, she has incorporated this into here routine chores. At fifteen, she knows when a floor needs sweeping, and has an appreciation for the value of the before and after difference.
Self-help schemas, especially for communities that are experiencing certain social crises affecting the young, emphasize the importance of role models, whether women modeling for girls, men for boys, or adults of one ethnicity or another for children of that same group. In particular, we hear a great deal about boys needing better male role models.
What we don’t hear, of course, is the underlying rationale for why a particular kind of role model might be good, and another not. There is generally the presumption that men who conform most closely to the expectations of respectable society are those who are most worthy of emulation; and the call for better role models is also deployed as a defense against various kinds of “feminization” of men.
The American Boy Scouts were founded in 1910 on this notion, when the migration from country to city was perceived to have a deleterious effect on boys’ individualism and patriotism. Many of the early scout leaders were former military men, and the male mythos they promoted was what has been called frontier masculinity, with figures like Daniel Boone as archetypes. Scouting was strongly encouraged by those same people who had begun to refer to themselves as “progressive,” at the turn of the Century, when the futures of nations were identified with eschatological yearnings, and radical technological optimism was the order of the day.
Boys growing up on farms more or less consistently learned at the hands of a father about how to be a farmer – more often than not in the US, that meant a nationalistic farmer, a Protestant farmer, and a white farmer. In 1910, African American farmers were not seen by the dominant culture as normative; and with the assistance of the USDA, the number of actual black farmers plummeted (another story).
Migration to the more pluralist city confronted boys with a lot more potential role models, many of them perceived to be dangerous to the optimization of young men, in a period where optimization of human beings was the modern preoccupation – to the point where the ideas of eugenics were wildly popular among the “progressive” US intelligentsia.
Men are direct models to boys, and to other men. Men featured in local narratives are indirect models for boys and men. Men featured in cultural narratives are indirect models to boys and men. Men invented and portrayed in modern mass cultural production are indirect, but often hegemonic, models for boys and men.
Praxis and Formation
War is a counter-church. It is the most determinative moral experience many people have.
That many, and mostly, men have, though women can be as nationalistic and militaristic in their beliefs as men – often under the influence of a dominant male in the family.
Role models alone do not account for the type of person one becomes. Once the imitation of the mentor has progressed into mastery, the specific practices of a person exert a formative effect on his personality and character. This should not be controversial; and if it is, that is because noxious actions in a community might emerge from practices the community deems essential. If the public hires an executioner, for example, people should be unsurprised that the actual person performing executions exhibits otherwise antisocial behavior. People know he is formed to some degree by his practice; yet they do not want to make the association lest it cast doubt on the practice of executions, which they desire out of fear of social chaos.
When I was in the Army, even when I was out of uniform, and even when my grooming standards were relaxed for specific occasions, I was still recognizable as a soldier by other people in the GI town of Fayetteville, NC. My attitudes, my comportment, my speech, etc., were those of a soldier where around 35,000 soldiers roamed through the streets.
When I was reclassified as a Special Forces medic, I was sent to a year-long indoctrination and training course as an SF medic, then placed on a team. Within a year on the team, I was different than I had been in the infantry.
I thought like a medic, practiced as a medic, and began to see the world more biologically than I had before. A new part of my job was nurturing, though in the Army we’d have been loath to call it that. And I became more attentive to the needs of others than I had in the infantry. People are formed by practices, and the practices themselves, when they conform to the standards of a community of practitioners, are praxis – practices consistent with some theory or set of norms. People are not inevitably determined by praxis, or else there would be no possibility of redemption for anyone from malevolent practices; but praxis is powerfully influential.
Alasdair MacIntyre has drawn out the relationship between community, practice, and institution, and has further described how they contribute to the development of character in the individual.
Each practice has certain rules and values, which facilitate certain goods. For example, if one is a chess player, a practitioner of chess, one uses the framework of rules and values that make chess what it is, and the good for the practitioner is the satisfaction of mastery over the many aspects of the game.
In MacIntyre’s account, as in Aristotle’s and Aquinas’, this kind of satisfaction – the satisfaction of mastery over the practice – is what he calls an internal good. The direction of increasing mastery for practitioners is toward excellence, and in each practice there are excellences – or forms of excellence.
A basketball player might become highly proficient at three-point shots, so much so that she is recognized at the top of her sport. Other basketball players who have not achieved that accuracy and consistency nonetheless practice more frequently to improve it with an eye to excellence. Excellence becomes a loadstar for practice. Something to aim at.
The connection between the practitioners, the preservation of the practice’s rules, values, and traditions, and the development of many practices seem to require some institutional framework. At certain scales, all human organizations articulate structures that administer, manage, and articulate the values of a practice. The pickup basketball shooter at the city park may not have any direct affiliation with basketball institutions, but she relates to her sport through them and the most excellent players, who institutions support.
But there is a contradiction in the kinds of goods available through practices of any kind. The chess player that took pleasure in her mastery of the game received an internal good. If that same chess player began to play in the park and win money, she might still enjoy her mastery of the game – but the additional good, money, is an external good. She can get money elsewhere than playing chess, and money works as money independent of chess. Internality and externality describe two different moral dimensions, even if they are not either in themselves inherently moral. There is a general recognition that sometimes external goods can become corruptive of internal goods. A government official who accepts a bribe (an external good to his practice) is therein compromised in his ability to correctly and diligently execute his office on behalf of the public (which might be an internal good – a personal satisfaction).
Moreover, institutions themselves are oriented to external goods. In administrative, managerial, and entrepreneurial enterprises, material support for the institutions themselves is required, and so the acquisition of money becomes a very compelling external good. The people who staff the institutions confront situations where the good of the practice and the good of the institution – in particular as it relates to the self-interests of institutional staff and executives – can come into conflict. This tendency is built into institutions and is constitutive of them. Institutions are inherently corruptible.
Finally, there is the question of the practice itself. One might have been a proficient overseer on a slave plantation in the pre-Civil War American South. Where is the referent to which we might turn to establish the good or evil of practices, regardless of the coherence and institutional stability of the practice?
As a practice, war inherently embraces the ethic of pure consequentialism – the end always justifies the means. Might literally makes right.
The Logics and Strategy of War
Mark’s Gospel was a war gospel, written around 68 AD, just months before the Romans burned the Temple in Jerusalem. Hebrew rebels had made some significant advances against the Romans, and young Hebrew men were under tremendous pressure – not least from their own pride in Hebrew military successes against Roman soldiers – to join the rebellion. Mark’s Gospel was likely written as part of an effort to dissuade the new and (then) pacifistic followers of Jesus from joining the armed struggle.
Mark may have recognized, as a follower of Jesus during a time and in a place of constant warfare, that was definitely lost on subsequent men leading the church, is that the practice of war is inherently corrupt and corrupting to any ethos that is not military in origin. That includes, with special emphasis, a Christian ethos which is opposed in the most essential way to domination and violence – the very essences of war.
To explain that, I will begin with the French Jesuit intellectual, Michel De Certeau (1925-1986). De Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life, described a difference between strategy and tactics. In his particular case, he altered the military meaning of tactics – which is a subset of operations/which is subset of strategy. De Certeau used the term tactics to describe something opposed to strategy.
In military parlance, tactics are a subset of strategy, not it’s opposite. If a small unit, a modern light infantry platoon, were part of a counter-insurgent strategy – strategy being those concerns that relate to national objectives – then the various units above the platoon will organize campaigns as the first subset of strategy. And as part of that campaign, there will be engagements, or battles. The techniques employed to win battles is called tactics, and it is a subset of the campaign.
In our exemplary platoon’s case, we will situate them on a long range patrol. When they establish a patrol base to rest and plan, or even during temporary halts, this platoon will establish a perimeter.
A perimeter is when the members of the platoon face outwards, establishing interlocking fields of fire. What that means is the sectors that are observed by individual members cross one another to create a kind of ring of death. If anyone enters into any member’s field of fire, that person is subject to be killed. In the center of this perimeter, the command element establishes a little position to supervise, communicate, and plan.
In military parlance, the security perimeter is a tactic.
In De Certeau’s terms, this is a highly strategic action.
Strategy, for De Certeau, means a self-isolating calculus. That is to say, strategy begins with an enemy (even if that enemy is seen as a “target population” or a “client”) who is the object of your intentions, and upon whom you desire to impose your will.
The assumption for any cogent strategy is that the strategist actually has the capacity to achieve that imposition of will. This is an essential part of every strategic calculus.
A strategist also requires a place – some segregated dwelling for the strategy’s executors. Strategy requires a base of operations, some place that is on the inside – committed to the execution of the strategy, and separated from the surrounding environment, which is not committed to the strategy, and therefore yet another part of the strategic calculus. Isolation is a strategic necessity.
Look at our light infantry platoon. Look at the actual headquarters for Monsanto, Lockheed-Martin, Yale University, the Vatican, or sometimes the suburban family. There is a barrier separating us from them. There is planning to impose some will on someone else – a “target.”
Institutions often embody strategic logic.
We have built an entire edifice of business, teaching, medicine, transportation, food production, and politics based on the isolationist logic of strategy. Homo economicus is a strategic isolate. In his abstractly narrated universe, he is alone, competing with others for scarce resources, and suspicious.
There is a presumption of existing power that is available to the strategist, at least enough to preserve the barrier between us and them. If that presumption is absent, then a person will necessarily become tactical, in the way De Certeau describes tactics.
De Certeau saw institutions – as did Ivan Illich – as strategic redoubts against “the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.”
The tactic is the way a person or persons take what is given by institutions and culture, then make it their own by creatively re-employing what they are provided from the system. These tactics, which De Certeau calls bricolage, are actually subversive of institutions, because they undermine the meanings attached to institutional imperatives.
Bricolage is not a strategy for De Certeau, it is an anthropology – the real way of the world of human beings that stands as a contradiction to strategy, which always seeks to bend people to a purpose not their own.
One member of our platoon might want to heat his rations, but have nothing to make a smokeless fire. He might crack open his Claymore mine and dig out a little ball of the C-4 explosive, which will ignite without exploding (explosion requires heat and shock simultaneously); and our troop might light the C-4, which burns hotly and without smoke, and cook his rations. An instrument produced to kill is transformed into cooking fuel. This has actually been done by soldiers who carried Claymore mines. This would be called, by De Certeau, a tactic, a making-do, bricolage.
De Certeau’s characterization of strategy is not the military’s use-definition related to national objectives. While I am dispensing with the military’s doctrinal definition, the De Certeau-derived “strategy” is central to both the organization and the practice of the military, as well as to most enterprises in modern metropolitan society, where the strategic orientation has been assured by the dominance of the competitive market in structuring social relations.
The prime directive is isolation.
An organization of agents seek to isolate themselves for the purpose of imposing their will on the outside world. The separation of co-agents from “the outside” is integral to the characterization we are using here for “strategy.” So strategy becomes twofold in its action by virtue of being a strategy: first, there is the goal of imposing the institutional will on “the outside,” and second, there is the need to police a boundary between us and them. These are not the same goals; but they are inseparably bound to one another as strategic axioms.
For now, I want to focus more closely on an actual manifestation that proceeds from the “us-them” strategic separation – that is, I want to focus on the organizational logic of strategy, because this military concept has so thoroughly colonized modern thought.
A military organization – just as many enterprises that have been built on models of organization inherited from the military – has staffs at various levels. Going back to our notional infantry outfit, we have a Battalion Commander. This Battalion Commander has a staff. He has a Captain in charge of administration, and another Captain in charge of intelligence, and another Captain in charge of logistics, and another Captain in charge of operational planning and coordination, and he might even have one Captain who does “public affairs,” that is, a kind of press agent.
And there are Brigade staffs, Division staffs, Corps staffs, though since my time, those designations may have shifted. And the ranks vary. But they are staffs, which are redoubts – official cliques. Staff officers are segregated from the subordinate units. A staff person in an artillery unit might never get within a hundred feet of a cannon. A staff is an organizational redoubt.
Each of these staff officers has a team of enlisted people working for him. Each of these staff subdivisions has proven over long practice to have been necessary to sustain, train, and even deploy the unit. So it might merit a quick analysis of each field of action in light of its particular function in the service of strategy.
One staff function is personnel and administration, keeping track of what people are in the organization, recording the daily status of each, maintaining records, and disbursing pay.
Another function is logistics, which sometimes includes communications, and sometimes communications is a separate staff function. Logistics generally is what the army calls “beans and bullets,” supplies and structures. Communications manages with the various official lines of communication and communications technology.
Intelligence is a staff function for the distillation of strategic assessments based on the analysis of information, and the maintenance of information archives.
Public relations is, well, public relations – the people who “spin” the news for the military at every level.
Finally, there is operations – which gets all the attention and ink because operations is about the planning and execution of the missions themselves – be they maintenance missions, training missions, or combat/combat support missions. Operations makes schedules and plans; and the other staff functions are understood as in the service of operations.
Then there is some kind of commander over each staff, and between him and that staff, there is some kind of executive officer – who is the commander’s gofer, attack dog, and chief coordinator.
The commanding officer and the executive officer are another organizational redoubt.
If all this looks familiar, it is because a similar idea of staff, flowing from a similar idea of management, is strategically oriented. It is this strategic orientation that merges most effectively with enterprise of every sort in modern metropolitan culture, where the market and its competitive logic has been allowed to predominate.
The agonal logic of the battlefield easily overlays the agonal logic of competitive markets. The difference is that this logic is applied to accumulation of economic power on the one hand, and to imposing direct violence on the other.
Because this paradigm is common to men who have been formed in a warlike culture, any actual description of it from outside the paradigmatic logic is incomprehensible to the same men. This is reputed to be the way of the world, which, under current direction, appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet bricolage – the tactics of everyday life – not only keeps the social order afloat in unacknowledged and unstudied ways, it is indicative of a kind of deep and non-resistant resistance that outlives social orders, which I take as a hopeful glimpse of some essential human nature.
Control is gendered; bricolage is transgendered. Bricolage always prevails, but never through control.
Boundaries and Fusion
Angela Rayner, a British Facebook friend, recently put me onto Mary Douglas’ canonical anthropology book, Purity and Danger: an analysis of the concepts of danger. Douglas constructs a kind of functionalist model for the study of cultural purity codes and taboos. While Douglas is certainly in a different metaphysical space than I am, I find her studies and reflections to be very insightful; and I think they give us a starting point for understanding a uniquely modern permutation of the purity code.
Douglas notes that until recently in history, the cosmos and the body were understood to exist in some correlation to each other – even though the specific ideas about that correlation were diverse. Medieval Christendom posited the same correspondence between cosmos and body, as microcosm-macrocosm.
The fracture of that idea forced a new concept of purity that is medicalized and professionally managed – hygiene.
Douglas exposes much simplistic thinking about “primitive” culture and primitive “religion.” She makes a case, without actually advocating it, that boundaries of the microcosmic and macrocosmic kind are also an aspect inhering in human society, because they make the world intelligible and responsive instead of chaotic and hostile.
I will argue that while Enlightenment doctrine rejects the literal correspondence between the microcosm (body) and macrocosm (cosmos), modernity has re-inscribed that correspondence as “hygiene,” and we now see hygienic-talk in discussions about society, and hygiene has taken on the aspect of war. The war against dirt, the war against “pests,” the war against “weeds,” the war against infection, are all manifestations of this war-paradigm concealed in the social movement for hygiene.
We have ideas about what can cross the boundaries of our bodies, entering or exiting as it were. The body itself becomes a strategic redoubt in the war against various kinds of contamination; and the community becomes another redoubt, where impure people are segregated away from clean people; and the nation becomes another redoubt between as hygienic us and a non-hygienic them. (See blurb on Amy Laura Hall’s book, Conceiving Parenthood.)
One of the manifestations of this preoccupation with boundaries growing out of war-thought among men is male fear of fusion. This is a concept I am borrowing from Nancy C.M. Hartsock’s book, Money, Sex, and Power. Women constitute a danger to men, and that is the danger of fusion – or mutual emotional surrender. The presumed weakness and irrationality of women is actually understood as a contaminant to men; and men police the boundary of this fear with control over women. Men may cross the boundary, in the same way a solider leaves his firebase to conduct an operation, but no one is allowed inside the perimeter.
The antidote to fusion is control; and we see this in ideas about sex. Women are seen as conquests or dangers, never to be allowed inside the perimeter.
The term for a man who allows a woman to have too great a decision-making role in a relationship is “pussy-whipped,” an accusation that was directed at me once on account of my affinity for feminist scholars’ work in my own writing (directed at me by a male leftist!). This is seen as a form of surrender (a military metaphor).
One of the thrills of sex for many men is the idea of entering a woman to degrade and humiliate (anal sex is a very popular porn genre, for example, as are so-called gang bangs), and the thrill is that of the transgression of a boundary. Women can and do engage in this kind of instrumental sex, but it is not as normative as it is for men.
Pornography, says Hartsock, allows men to substitute control for intimacy, thereby evading the danger of fusion, while indulging fantasies that convert women into objects, or in military language, targets.
Just a few thoughts...