The new logic of war

‘War on Terror” and the “African renaissance” — a topic assigned by my hosts and one I thought I would have little trouble getting my teeth into. The expressions contained in the title are, after all, a current feature of public political language today.

It seems though, that their easy availability in the public domain constituted a problem as I began to write. What seemed easy on the surface became extremely elusive as I began to assess exactly what concrete thoughts I had on the matter. I then faced a rather terrifying void.

But I drew some consolation from the sudden realisation that I was actually not the only one to experience this disconcerting reversal of expectation. Two powerful countries, one a leader, another a follower, recently attempted to convince their respective populations and the rest of the world that they would clinically breeze into Iraq before lunch, conquer and liberate, and then head back home intact.

But it has, in fact, turned out that the script for actual war was far more difficult than the script for imagined war.

I am thinking that this disjuncture between dream and reality has assumed a special form at this time in world history. It has resolved itself into a disjuncture between essence and banality. Mediating between these two poles of contemporary culture is technology; something that has the capacity either to ennoble or to debase.

Here’s what I mean: Many years ago I remember seeing a film calle Brother John in which Sidney Poitier was the eponymous hero who returns to the small Southern town of his birth. He carries about him an air of dignified detachment. Travel beyond the United States, having exposed him to diverse and enriching experiences, has made him calm, reflective, deliberate in his actions and wise in his words. He finds that his old town is still trapped in a time warp. A lingering provincialism still sustains small-minded acts of racism and a low-intensity sense of social purposelessness among its black victims.

The definitive moment in the film for me is when Brother John stands on a hill overlooking the town, and the camera, accentuating his visual perspective, zooms in on to a dump of scrap metal and other kinds of garbage.

In the middle of his kingdom, this dump of discarded things, is a grown white man with a shotgun. He is intently shooting at something: rats. He finally finds one and shoots it many times after he has killed it. The scene, which is not more than a couple of seconds, then fades out, having made a devastating commentary.

This scene in which a technology of destruction is used overwhelmingly against a relatively defenceless, living target has been played out in many parts of the world, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. Since the discovery of nuclear weapons the extent of the deployment of human inventiveness and genius towards the invention of technologies of destruction has no historical parallel.

Because of the ghastly destructive power of nuclear weapons, much ingenuity has been channelled towards the invention of smaller weapons whose destructive power keeps pushing beyond the outer limits of their size towards that of nuclear weapons, without themselves becoming nuclear weapons. Let’s call it the art of pushing the limits of containment.

Vietnamese rats were the first to be used for the testing of such weapons on human targets. We first heard then about napalm bombs, cluster bombs and the expression “carpet bombing”.

The latest rats are Iraqis, in what US President George W Bush has billed “the first war of the 21st century”. They follow Palestinian rats on which the Israelis routinely test the latest American gadgetry of destruction. The technological capacity to kill a thousand times what is already dead has been the common feature of the onslaught on human rats. The latest onslaught has been relentlessly on display on our television screens in the past three weeks.

It began when the American general who is conducting this war, and whose name I gladly do not remember, told his soldiers: “As soon as President Bush gives the order, it will be hammer time for Saddam.” He was referring to a bomb nicknamed apparently “the hammer”, otherwise known as “the mother of all bombs”. Its destructive power reportedly approximates that of a small nuclear weapon without itself being a nuclear weapon.

The expression “hammer time” should be seen in the context of other similar expressions generated by this war: “shock and awe”, “regime change”, “targets of opportunity”, “surgical strikes”, “precision-guided munitions”, “smart bombs”, “arsenal of tactics”, “operation Iraqi freedom”, “operation decapitation”, “coalition forces”, “coalition of the willing”, “crossing the red line”, “war on terror”, “embedded journalists”. It is the language of terse encapsulation that ironically strains towards the economy of poetry but, unlike poetry, yields not insight but cleverness of the kind that supremely admires itself.

The expressions underscore the phenomenon of a war without a transcendent goal or cause. It is a war obsessed with its own techniques.

This is a war that follows from the driven logic of inventing the ultimate means of destruction. The resulting weapons, accumulated over years of well-funded military research, reach a point where, straining to be tested, they become predisposed to attracting banal causes.

It is difficult to see anything substantial in this war beyond the display of weapons and the manifest obsession with describing their effects. What we have in the end is an elaborate war game in which a sequence of objectives is acted out: how to start a war, how to conduct it and how to execute a plan for rehabilitating a target destroyed many times over.

I believe with this war we witness the end of an era as far as war is concerned. Thus ends the history of the glorification of war. For we see no heroism in this war; no display of individual or group acts of bravery and courage. We witness only the deaths of rats and how they are killed a thousand times over: ordinary men, women and children clinically described as “collateral damage”. We see the destruction of valuable public infrastructure. We see smouldering bodies of cars and trucks along public roads.

It is difficult not to remember Afghanistan, where food and bombs, thanks to the invading Americans, tumbled from the Afghan skies simultaneously. Kill and feed. Kill and liberate. (These are missing expressions from our collection mentioned earlier. Let’s add them.) We saw then, as we do now, not the glory of war, but the banality, obscenity and vulgarity of wilful high-tech destruction. War as national glory is over. It is replaced by the notion of war as technological self-indulgence.

It could have been the concomitant intention of the “coalition forces” to induce fear among observing nations through “shock and awe” effects.

This war was meant to be a demonstration to all of us around the world of what the power of the Americans can do to us if we do not take note and do its bidding. Unfortunately for the Americans, it is not fear that has been evoked in me. I feel rather a huge loss of respect for a country I have admired. This war evokes revulsion.

Compare for a moment, the “civilised”, high-tech bombing and killing of civilians in Iraq with the crude and random hacking of limbs of civilians in Sierra Leone not too long ago. Both these acts of war are intended to “shock and awe”. Despite the cloak of “high-tech civilisation” in one case, there is no moral difference between the two.

What this war has exposed is a great country that may have reached the limits of its moral imagination. Its enormous capacity to imagine and then unleash destruction may have outstripped its capacity to visualise as a civilisation, a new moral order beyond its current, considerable achievements. Drunk with wealth and destructive power, it can only maintain what it has achieved at home and endeavour to meet its insatiable appetite for “the good life,” as it sees it, through all kinds of machination.

Indeed, what “the first war of the 21st century” has signalled is the

onset of the decline of a great civilisation. The signs are definitively there. The flurry of activity around United Nations arms inspectors, Security Council resolutions based on technical agreement rather than trust, and threats to “go it alone”. They reveal the emergence of a manipulative state where the threat of violence overwhelms the discovery of falsehood in argument.

A powerful country in a state of decline validates its arguments through force.

We witnessed the same kind of behaviour in South Africa from 1976 onwards: the manipulative intelligence of a state machinery that can no longer be sustained by argument. Of course, the US may take more than a century to finally peter out. But it has begun its journey in that direction unless it does something to radically alter itself.

This war has also dredged up potentially serious historical fault lines. Is it accidental that Britain, Spain and Portugal, old centres of the colonial project, are the most vocal behind a new war of conquest? Hopefully the French are not watching wistfully on the sidelines, wondering if they have not made a mistake. How should we understand this?

Have the old powers yielded to the reflex memory of the rat killing of imperial times? I think not. I think they have allowed themselves to be victims of historical blindness. They failed to read the signs of recent American resolve to retreat from the multilateral, global community project of the past 50 years: unless, of course, this is a retreat that the old powers happen to support. I doubt that they do.

On the face of things the US’s tactical retreat is to assert dominance. But a dominance based on an old value system of military superiority is ultimately unsustainable. It is unsustainable because in the 21st century, the measure of courage is likely to be displayed in conflict resolution rather than in conflict generation. The 21st century is the world of the Kyoto Protocol; of sustainable development; of anti-racism; of the International Criminal Court; of anti-personnel mines; of nuclear disarmament. The US’s exercise in global leadership has been to spurn these efforts.

It is in this that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has let many down. He failed to provide an alternative leadership. He needed to display the new global value of courage by pulling out of a war he knew to be inordinately nonsensical. He did not have the courage to face the British people and the global community and say: “I jumped into this rather impulsively. I am getting out of it now.” Instead, he chose to continue to act out consistency and resolve.

My reference to this post-modern partnership of old colonial powers, led by a new power with anti-colonial origins, is intended to be a transition in my thoughts as I begin to grope towards the second part of my topic: the “African renaissance”.

I want to start with a general proposition. It is that it is possible to read the British colonial project as having been, ultimately, a global, modernising agent; this, despite the trauma visited upon conquered peoples. American ascendance to global leadership, essentially anti-colonial in spirit, took the notion of human freedom to higher levels.

Unfortunately, through its foreign policy, which has been essentially antithetical to its internal national democratic project, the US steadfastly snuffed out democratic experiments, which it did not approve of, in other countries. So its intervention in Iraq is not new, only that it has never intervened this crassly, except when the rats of the island of Grenada were overwhelmed and then-president Ronald Reagan, in a classic Hollywood ending, said about the invasion of a small island by a superpower: “We got there just in time.”

The point I wish to make is that in the context of the long history of human evolution, particularly in the past 300 years, which saw unprecedented human movement across the globe, we are all seriously implicated in one another’s histories. In that process, the notion of the global village has progressively become real.

In her very recent, remarkable book, A Human Being Died that Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town who served as a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes about her experience of interviewing the man known as “Prime Evil”, Eugene de Kock, who was one of apartheid’s most accomplished killers. It is a deeply affecting story in which she confronts her feelings when she discovers that there is, after all, a human being in this killer. The book is the story of that journey of discovery and what it implies for forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.

Early in the book she asks some disturbing questions: “If showing compassion to our enemies is something that our bodies recoil from, what should our attitude be to their cries for mercy, the cries that tell us their hearts are breaking, and that they are willing to renounce the past and their role in it? How we can transcend hate is the goal to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups.

“This may be irrelevant for people who do not have to live as a society with their former enemies. But for those whose lives are intertwined with those who have grossly violated human rights, who sometimes even have to live as neighbours with them, ignoring this is not an option.”

Now, it is risky to jump from the dynamics of a country to the world community of countries. But I will take the risk. I restate the point about how implicated we all are in one another’s histories in this world. I restate the reality of a truly shrunken world, connected in so many intricate and intimate ways. There are in the world countries that have behaved towards others like Eugene de Kock. But, through the United Nations, friend and foe have been compelled to sit together and be subjected to a common set of rules and values. That is why a coalition of war bringing together old colonial powers at this time in world history looks so gross.

Which is the next country that the coalition will gang up against? Are we reopening the world to a free-for-all condition of violence and destruction, and to re-write the world map?

We cannot and should not return to that state. The millions of people around the world who have stood up against war do not want us to go back. This condition takes us beyond the notion of the “African renaissance” toward that of a global renaissance.

There is so much good that the US is capable of doing. With the challenge of poverty and disease around the world so enormous, it is surely obscene for a country of such enormous wealth to pour more money into a needless war. Unfortunately, wealth and military power do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with high moral consciousness. Perhaps Mary Robinson is right: the next superpower is global public opinion. Perhaps the nation-state is indeed a primitive entity and must give way to a more transcendent global spirit.

For the rats, the powerless peoples around the world who have known vulnerability, one thing is clear: they have a responsibility to dream the new world. In this they will not be alone. They will be joined by millions of Americans, the British, Spaniards, Portuguese and others all over the world: people who are being let down by their governments.

Finally, there is another reason why the US’s quest for global dictatorship is not sustainable. Historical evidence shows that empires rise and fall. If the end of the new empire is assured, and that it will happen at some point, why should it be accompanied by so much destruction? To prevent this we need shared global leadership. The US ought to be having the maturity to lead us in that direction. What we need is global sustainability beyond the notion of empire. Who will take us there?

  • This is an extract from the inaugural Ukuza lecture delivered by the University of Cape Town’s vice-chancellor, Njabulo Ndebele, last weekend

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