by liberal japonicus
This weekend, I was watching the internet thru my new iphone, which was a bit like taking in a baseball game thru a knothole in the fence. You can catch the basic action, but you don't see the whole game.
So it was with the second campaign of the CT-LGM blog war*. The first, which could be termed The battle of Conor's bluff, was part of a larger war and centered around whether one should vote for Obama despite the use of drones or make a statement and vote for Gary Johnson. The second campaign, The fight of Navy's need, took place over the weekend. (I hope those attempts at factual restatements don't insult anyone on either side) In both campaigns, some current and former ObWi commenters were part of the troops arrayed. This post is not about either of those fights (so I'm not linking to them, though going to CT and LGM should be sufficient) but about what I think is the larger question behind them. If that intrigues, check below the fold.
*I should add that whether or not is was a 'war' is questioned by some of the participants.
While there are a number of things going on in the back and forth that are unrelated to the topic, I do think this gives a window into this particular rift. And while I have an opinion in both of those discussions, as I said, this isn't about those particular discussions, but more about what they reveal about the notion of a military within the left so please take any restatements of these positions as not related to particular people, but as an attempt at a value free description of the positions.
What crystallized this was the observation made by one Brian Phillips on a rewatch of all the episodes of Star Trek TNG that's worth quoting in full.
Star Trek does something similar [to Rowling, i.e. take an aesthetic of old-fashioned English boarding-school life and placed it at the center of a narrative about political inclusiveness], though with an American contradiction that's arguably even more fundamental. It was already possible, by the early '90s and actually long before them, to trace the terms of the current partisan divide in America. Conservatives — think in Jonathan Haidt–ish terms here — value tradition, authority, and group identity; liberals value tolerance, fairness, and care. Or whatever; you can draw the distinctions however you'd like. The point is, The Next Generation depicts a strict military hierarchy acting with great moral clarity in the name of civilization, all anti-postmodern, "conservative" stuff — but the values they're so conservatively clear about are ideals like peace and open-mindedness and squishy concern for the perspectives of different cultures. "Liberal" ideals, in other words. You could say, roughly, that the Enterprise crew is conservative as a matter of method and liberal as a matter of goal. They sail through the universe with colonialist confidence sticking up for postcolonial ideals. I mean, Starfleet has a Prime Directive … but it's explicitly non-interventionist! This is so weird that it's almost hard to notice; your mind just sort of slides over it. But it's fascinating in numberless ways. Picard is both indisputably the most patriarchal Star Trek captain and indisputably the least likely to punch anyone in the face. No one is more individualist than the individuals of the Enterprise, but their individualism has led them to reject most forms of private property (because it actually holds them back, they're so boldly individualistic) and embrace ultra-centralized health care. The show is able to indulge a serious jones for the classical Western canon — Shakespeare, Mozart, et al. — without really running against the grain of multiculturalism at all, at least by late-'80s standards. Data will be listing some violinists whose style his programming can mimic, and some of them will be Heifetz and some of them will be aliens a guy just made up for the script. It's totally nuts, but it's also a fantasy of the American psyche that, if you can get into it, makes a lot of fine things suddenly seem possible, and makes some debilitating anxieties just sort of fall away.
While it is dangerous to draw conclusions from a fictional society created as a vehicle to create 1 hour TV shows, I believe that both of the irruptions, as well as various other conflicts along these lines among people on the left can be better understood by that observation. In the two blog battles I mentioned, the two poles (and these poles should not be attributed to any individual, this is just an attempt to show the space where these arguments are taking place) are as follows:
-an anti military pole that rejects that any organization that is constituted to bring death and destruction in the most efficient way possible can have any place in a better society of the future
-a pro military pole that takes the existence of military organizations as an unescapable feature of any society that comes from human history
The anti-military pole points out the harms that military force has done (lots of examples to choose from) and concludes that we would be better off without it or at least in a highly attenuated form.
The pro-military pole tends to argue from historical examples and to factual aspects of military strategy and tactics as their own justification.
For anti-military, the responses of pro-military seem like war-porn, with discussion of seemingly arcane military data presented as refutations, while for pro-military, the anti-military responses often seem like ahistorical complaints that ignore basic facts.
But that is just point/counterpoint and it doesn't really get us very far. I'm not sure if this will help, but one thing that I think is missed is a rationale for military organizations within modern society, not to deal with military threats, but as a component of society, so this is an attempt to sketch out such a rationale.
To take one example, at the recent London Olympics, because the company in charge of security was unable to meet the requirements, the British military was ordered to take over. One might argue that the only reason they were needed was because the use of military forces in our modern world has created a situation where the Olympics was a plausible target for terrorists. However, setting aside any place where the military was deployed because of their combat ability (therefore eliminating deployments such as Bosnia and Libya) this doesn't apply in the case of natural disasters, including Katrina, Haiti or the Tohoku Tsunami.
But by mentioning those examples, I don't want to highlight the warm fuzzies of helping disaster victims. Rather, I want to suggest that given our basic concepts of individuality, we have to have an organisation with a hierarchical structure that can respond to orders.
I realize that this may be a bit circular, in arguing that for military style operations, you need, well, a military. So a potential counter argument would be that we should disband militaries and mature democracies should create corps to handle tasks that we have typically plugged the military into. Here is where the Star Trek point comes in. I don't think we have a notion of a large hierarchical organization that can engage in the kind of missions that come up irregularly. The National Guard system might be the closest possibility, but it operates as an adjunct to the military. It's no coincidence, I think, that the value of the navy was being argued over in the second blog fight, and that Star Trek adopts the trappings of a naval system, with ensigns and captains and admirals. As Brian Phillips above notes, "No one is more individualist than the individuals of the Enterprise" and when you have a society of individualists, how do you get them to do something they may not want to? Or something they agree is good, but they have other things to do? You do this by placing individuals in a hierarchy. Our impression of individualism, which is reflected in Star Trek, suggests that to get people to engage in the kind of massive efforts listed above, a military hierarchy is what is needed.
But continuing along the idea of a newly constituted corps to do those things, you'd have to imagine that it would be ready to deploy at any time, so they would need access to transport on a massive scale. You imagine that its members would have to be physically fit and be willing to accept orders and have some mechanism for punishing those who don't follow orders. You imagine that they would be compensated both for the time they are on call and for anything after the deployment. And you would want a mechanism for having people enter the organization and move up to appropriate levels of responsibility. To identify those in the organization, some sort of uniform with indications of rank are needed. In fact, it seems like the thing you would need would end up looking a lot like the military.
The anti military voice could argue that it does represent a contradiction and we need to simply cut the Gordian knot. However, to do that, they would have to explain that the absence of a military would not leave a niche to be filled by something less savory, but things like <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/world/africa/private-army-leaves-troubled-legacy-in-somalia.html?pagewanted=all">this story</a> suggest that isn't the case.
But the discussion never really gets to this point. It usually breaks down into pro military voices complaining that anti-military voices have no grasp of facts while anti military voices argue that pro-military voices are unable to admit that they just like death and destruction. It's unfair to both sides, but given the inability to bridge the gap, what else can one expect?
I'm left thinking about Coates' discussion of Howard Zinn's assertion about the cost of the Civil War and whether it was worth it. He quotes Zinn saying:
So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective. And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don't know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it's very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war.
Well, that doesn't prove that it could have been ended, and, you know, every situation is different, but it makes you think. If you begin to think, "Oh, the only way it could have been done is with a bloody civil war," maybe not. I mean, maybe it would have taken longer. You know, maybe there could have been slave rebellions which hammered away at the Southern slave structure, hammered away at them in a war of attrition, not a big bloody mass war, but a war of attrition and guerrilla warfare, and John Brown-type raids.
Remember John Brown, who wanted to organize raids and a slave rebellion? Yeah, a little guerrilla action, not totally peaceful, no. But not massive slaughter. Well, John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia and the national government. He was executed in 1859 for wanting to lead slave revolts. And the next year, the government goes to war in a war that cost 600,000 lives and then, presumably, as people came to believe, to end slavery. There's a kind of tragic irony in that juxtaposition of facts. So it's worth thinking about, about the Civil War, and not to simply say, "Well, Civil War ended slavery, therefore whatever the human cost was, it was worth it." It's worth rethinking.
Coates' replies with:
I really wish Zinn had pushed through, instead of simply posing questions. I wish he had made a case for Lincoln responding in some other way, after the Confederacy launched a war with the explicit aim of raising an empire that would protect and expand slavery...
then goes into the specific historical contexts that led to the Civil War and concludes with this:
I am not being sarcastic here. There may well be a case. But too often I find that this argument is based in high-minded generalizations, and not in the tiny, hard facts of history.
When thinking about this for the present, this may put too much burden on the anti-military side and prevent us from seeing genuine options and opportunities. On the other hand, a heighten the contradictions campaign never seems to work out very well, especially for the left and it is something that's been on my mind as we watch both these debates unfold on the background of the 2012 election.