A time for deep reflection

“An event has happened upon which it is difficult to comment and impossible to remain silent”.

This comment, attributed to a French general on hearing of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade in October 1854, has been with me since the horror news from New York reached the quiet of Muizenberg. Like the famous charge, what has happened is a tragedy of monumental proportions, and our common humanity demands that we mourn a senseless loss of life.

It is, however, a time for deep reflection on how this came to pass; how security in the most security- conscious country in the world was breached; how the world’s most sophisticated intelligence community failed to pick up the intelligence that could have prevented this; how the world’s most powerful military was militarily unprepared for what happened.

To finger issues is not to point to failure, although patently there has been failure; it is not to apportion blame, although clearly blame can be apportioned; it is not to engage in rancour, although much brutal rancour will flow from these events in the days, the months and the years to come.

The simple and perhaps indigestible truth is this: the tough talk of nationalism and its twin, a capacity to project military power, brought these events about. To understand this we must talk politics not the abstractions called security and intelligence that have been on every lip recently.

The use of territory as a means to national politics has been at the core of United States identity since the American Revolution. In this the US was not alone, but where it perfected the politics of territory was by the establishment of a retinue of bureaucratic paraphernalia intelligence communities, national security council, defence institutes which are all thought necessary to protect both territory and the nation.

This search to perfect the relationship between armed power and territory has characterised international relations since the 1850s. Conceived within the narrow explanations of the French social theorist, Emile Comte, the formal study of international relations sought to follow, as the core tool of its analysis, the natural sciences.

So organic units were conceived to build the world of the international. These, of course, were to become states. But it was a misinterpretation of Comte’s contemporary, Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution that drew Comte’s work from discreet social analysis towards the violence we saw on Tuesday.

The relations between these units, called states, were described in a fierce and never-ending battle for survival with other states. This mix of social analysis, political purpose and the promise of military security stood at the nub of the great nationalist movements of the mid and late 19th century. To all intents and purposes, the US came late to international society.

The American Civil War, which took place 10 years after the Light Brigade’s charge, drew together two flimsy military traditions, but the power of nationalism had a military goal that was inspired by Darwin’s idea of the survival of the fittest.

The growth and maturation of the US’s military strength has been one of the great success stories of all time. It fuelled the growth of a mighty economy and drew towards the symbols of that country’s nationalism a celebratory patriotism of a kind that the world has never previously experienced.

But, as in all human affairs, there was a dark side to this, and the consequences of this shadow were seen on Tuesday. For all its genius, wit and learning, American defence and security policy operates, as it always has, in a world of binaries: friend and foe; West and East; allies and enemies.

And it is within the inclusionary and exclusionary force of these binaries that the US created a language imbued with the metaphors of power to manage that world. So friends and allies are always “long-standing”, “durable”, “dependable”, while foes and enemies are invariably “cowardly”, “backward” and “ideological”.

Although much has changed in our world, this simple-minded approach of the US to the world has not. The seminal failure of the post-Cold War era a moment that may well have ended with the crumbling of the World Trade Centre was the US’s failure to establish a policy doctrine and a language that could look beyond a world structured by good and evil.

A world, alas, which has been evoked with such passion these past few days. A policy rush to retribution, to reprisal, is of course understandable the fright and sheer disbelief on the faces of onlookers, never mind the horror pictures still to be seen of the dead and maimed, will bring forth more than disquiet; they will evoke anger and outrage.

Add to this the full-frontal assault on two core symbols of US power trade and the military and the obligation to respond will become overwhelming. Moreover, a brooding determination to extract an eye for the eye lost has been at the centre of the US’s engagement with the world.

It explains, for instance, the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan in the dying months of World War II: events that in the literature are all too often called the (listen to this Old Testament word) revenge for the tragedy of Pearl Harbour.

My fear now is that the same uncomplicated analysis will be used to finger a culprit, any culprit that is not on the US side of the great divide between good and evil. And based on this finger alone, the military might of the US will exact (that word again) revenge for these tragic events.

This will be more than simply a further ratcheting up of the scale of international terror a form of violence that all too often has been practised by states including, we must sadly remind ourselves, the US in its patriotic fervour.

It will be an opportunity lost to reflect on the discourse of international security that has built nation states instead of securing communities; which has reified power when it should have relied on persuasion; which has championed economic progress for the rich when it should, perhaps, have encouraged human security.

The free-riders who steered the planes to an unnecessary pyre on Tuesday will be called both cowards and heroes; of this we can be sure. What will divide the distinction is not, alas, the merits or demerits of their individual decision to sacrifice their lives, but understandings of the world that belong not in this, the 21st century, but in the High Salons of 19th-century Europe where the news of the Light Brigade was greeted with such disbelief.

Peter Vale, professor in the school of government at the University of the Western Cape, is writing a book on the discourses of security in Southern Africa

Peter Vale

Peter Vale

Professor of Humanities and the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), University of JohannesburgPeter Vale is Professor of Humanities and is the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), a joint initiative of the University of Johannesburg and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Read more from Peter Vale

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