Wednesday, January 01, 2014


When thinking about war (or much of anything else) it is necessary to admit that one is largely reacting to one’s times and Elaine Scarry’s terms of discussion are much dictated by her own experience up to 1985, which means the remnants of world wars mostly in Europe and the undigested experience of Vietnam.  (She is five years younger than I am but doesn’t mention Korea.)  Thirty years have passed and war is probably more truly all over the world than it was then, but in a changed form.  No longer so much matter of ideology or boundaries, war now seems a matter of survival on a planet with limitations and inequities.  It is in our city ghettos (gangs), it is triggered by environment like drought or disease, and it is scattered into terrorist and guerrilla groups who have lost homelands.  Scarry had no way to know that resource-based international corporations would be able to hire highly-trained private armies and equip them with latest armaments, with the covert help of democracies.  Her understanding of war inequity was based on nuclear threats between super-powers -- MUTUAL destruction -- rather than predator drones that could fly in, destroy a defiant person, his family, his friends, his neighbors -- or perhaps hit a mistaken target -- and then leave unharmed.

We have come to something that might be called “wars of omission,” where I would assign the political manipulation of aid, either across the planet or within the country, the categorizing of some people (women, sexworkers of any kind except in advertising, elderly, impoverished, drug users, illegal immigrants, some disease carriers) as undeserving of help or access to what they need to survive, even something so basic as education.  (Remember that slaves were once denied the right to learn how to read and write.)  These wars are not waged by the young and strong, but by pencil-pushers and rule-makers, for the most part old white men, often with law degrees. 

Scarry sometimes becomes poetic in her visionary approach to war.  This is on page 100 of my paperback:  “If one visualizes a silver and black moonlit terrain innocent of all human inhabitants but two, each with a claim to a certain (thus disputed) rock or tree, or each with a conception of god that he (once dreamed and now) insists the other should share, there will be, once they have physically contested the issue, only one man, one claim to the rock, one idea of god.”  There is a two-step operation here:  no such thing exists as reality apart from human experience and conviction -- or if it does, it’s inaccessible.  Therefore, one human reality must be imposed on the others by force.  The winning party has “proven” that he is right and real.  What is at stake is his very dwelling in the world: survival.

She also turns to poetry to explain how culture is embedded in the body.  (p. 109)  Imagine a fifteen-year-old girl who learns to ride a bicycle “her body, however slender, hovering wide over the thin silver spin of the narrow wheels,” and to play the piano, both skills which she can recover after a long interval: “her fingers placed down on piano keys may recover a lost song. . .”   “Someone from an earlier century or from a country without material objects might think -- hearing the description of a girl gliding over the ground on round wings, her fingers fanning into ivory shafts that make music as they move. . .”   Think about that -- not in terms of European bourgeois parlor skills, but in terms of Native American people forbidden to do what they have always done before -- because that was the price they paid for losing the wars of prairie clearance.  Not just their territory was taken but also their reality.

The point of the book, however blurred and outdated it might be, is that AFTER the battle there can be a new synthesis of reality, the “winning” side invigorated by the assimilation of parts of the losing side.  Kind of carnivorous.  The other “take” is the agonistic one:  thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  She says “the contest structure of war” makes it a “self-canceling duality.”  But that’s not our experience today.  Instead we’re seeing wider separation between haves and have not, greater dominance by those who have the capital for terrifying armament, war as an engine of profit, government by technicalities -- denial of the reality of the land or even global air and oceans.

Rather than death by sword, guts spilling on the ground, and even different from the fire-dragon of a predator drone, is death by industrial suffocation and poisoning imposed on the citizens of a nation by profit-driven internal and transnational entities we can hardly identify.  And yet nature still supplies lessons in vulnerability: ice storms that tear the power grid to shreds, electromagnetic sunstorms that knock satellites out of the sky, floods overwhelming our clever engineering safeguards, intensifying phenomena that may finally clear the cyclone alley of dwellings across the continent and support the reinvasion of water and mosquitoes into southern and coastal parts of the south.  These are the realities one can neither imagine nor argue away.  The environmentalists will find no mention in this book -- it is about human against human.

At one point Scarry imagines what it would be like if the realities of conflicting nations were to be settled by skill (which is what we pretend the violence of war is about: strategy and “intel”) by organizing the soldiers into pairs who play checkers or tennis against each other, the accumulation of small individual wins deciding the victory.  With computers this is entirely possible.  It’s far more fanciful than interfering with the computerized protocols of Iran’s secret enterprises and not so direct as simply making all the secrecy of nations a matter of public record.  But it would be an interesting film premise, maybe even for “Alias.”  

Should these “games” be a displacement of the bodily pain and destruction of material culture as in today’s computer games that spurt pixel blood and blossom explosions?  Isn’t that what we’re doing anyway?  Has anyone thought of organizing an online competition between, say, the young adults of the former USSR or the Middle Eastern countries versus the same US demographic?  Would China wipe up everyone else?  Sure looks like it at the moment.  

The great virtue of such a war is that it would be easy to just throw the switch and make the whole thing go dark.  Sometimes I think the only survivors in the deep future will be the uncontacted Amazonian tribes, the same humans who have managed to evade everything else so far.  A happier prospect than cockroaches and rats as survivors, but I’ve always kind of liked the idea of the future of the planet being only grass and bugs.  I’m a prairie person.

Versions of a bicycle, a piano, and some kind of computer may never really become obsolete unless their supporting culture is gone.  But what if the startling organ that cetaceans have evolved, the lobe of the brain that joins each creature into sharing the emotions of all the others through sonar, could be transplanted into human beings -- not the actual brain tissue but the code for it?  What change would that make?  It didn’t keep Tillicum, the malevolent Orca, from being slashed by the matriarchs of their too-small tank.  It wasn’t culture but environmental constriction that made trouble.  Environmental constriction damages individual reality construction.  It is a weapon of GLOBAL destruction, the war against ourselves.

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