Monthly Archives: November 2007

A deeper wound in his soul

Thumbs Down 
Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), 1872, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

A recent essay in the London Review of Books (subscription required, alas) — on Death in Ancient Rome by Catharine Edwards and The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint by Emily Wilson — drew my attention to the following passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book VI), which describes how his young and virtuous friend Alypius became corrupted by the sight of gladiatorial combat. Though the Roman aristocracy made a great show of drawing moral lessons from public displays of death, the line between philosophy and merely sadistic voyeurism was a thin one indeed:

Chapter 8. The Same When at Rome, Being Led by Others into the Amphitheatre, is Delighted with the Gladiatorial Games. 

13. He, not relinquishing that worldly way which his parents had bewitched him to pursue, had gone before me to Rome, to study law, and there he was carried away in an extraordinary manner with an incredible eagerness after the gladiatorial shows. For, being utterly opposed to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day met by chance by various of his acquaintance and fellow-students returning from dinner, and they with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheatre, on a day of these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: “Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them.” They hearing this, dragged him on nevertheless, desirous, perchance, to see whether he could do as he said. When they had arrived thither, and had taken their places as they could, the whole place became excited with the inhuman sports. But he, shutting up the doors of his eyes, forbade his mind to roam abroad after such naughtiness; and would that he had shut his ears also! For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamour was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on You. For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others. And from all this did Thou, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, pluck him, and taughtest him not to repose confidence in himself, but in You – but not till long after.


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Uncle Sam [doesn’t actually need] YOU!


Having already promoted war against Syria and Iran (American wars #3 and #4, should they take place), the neo-conservative movement continues to add countries to its list of possible targets. Internal conflict seems to be a key criteria here, as the political crisis in Myanmar recently prompted Bill Kristol to advocate “limited military actions” to “avert the disaster that is unfolding” in that country (war #5, and see my post here). Likewise, Pakistan’s latest conflict over governance has moved American right-wing attitudes to that country from passive defensiveness (General Musharraf is our guy and Pakistan is a key strategic ally, but no, America does not especially need an ambassador there) to alarmed aggressiveness (i.e. war #6). Thus the AEI’s Fred Kagan and Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon in Sunday’s New York Times:

AS the government of Pakistan totters, we must face a fact: the United States simply could not stand by as a nuclear-armed Pakistan descended into the abyss. Nor would it be strategically prudent to withdraw our forces from an improving situation in Iraq to cope with a deteriorating one in Pakistan. We need to think – now – about our feasible military options in Pakistan, should it really come to that.

Ah yes, the feasible military options. As the authors state above, such options certainly don’t include shutting down the Iraq war to move troops to Pakistan. Meanwhile, another option — full-scale occupation — is immediately ruled out:

The task of stabilizing a collapsed Pakistan is beyond the means of the United States and its allies. Rule-of-thumb estimates suggest that a force of more than a million troops would be required for a country of this size.

Now that’s a refreshing dose of realism, isn’t it? But don’t get your hopes up; it doesn’t last. Of the “feasible” options, the first involves teaming up with pro-American Pakistanis in an attempt to capture, collect, and guard all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and materiel:

[We] would have to settle for establishing a remote redoubt within Pakistan, with the nuclear technology guarded by elite Pakistani forces backed up (and watched over) by crack international troops. It is realistic to think that such a mission might be undertaken within days of a decision to act.

Option 2 would use greater numbers of U.S. troops to support the Pakistani military in holding the country together “in the face of an ineffective government, seceding border regions and Al Qaeda and Taliban assassination attempts against the leadership.” But since a million-man occupation force is not in the offing, even this larger engagement (made up of “a sizable combat force” of U.S. and other Western troops) would have limited objectives:

So, if we got a large number of troops into the country, what would they do? The most likely directive would be to help Pakistan’s military and security forces hold the country’s center – primarily the region around the capital, Islamabad, and the populous areas like Punjab Province to its south.

Kagan and O’Hanlon are remarkably optimistic about the capabilities of this limited Western force. Once the centre is stabilized, they suggest, American forces might conceivably go on to win two wars at once:

If a holding operation in the nation’s center was successful, we would probably then seek to establish order in the parts of Pakistan where extremists operate. Beyond propping up the state, this would benefit American efforts in Afghanistan by depriving terrorists of the sanctuaries they have long enjoyed in Pakistan’s tribal and frontier regions. 

So that’s their plan. With the U.S. Army and Marine Corps running themselves into the ground trying to cope with stabilizing two nations of 25 to 30 million people each, these pundits think that somehow the United States can cobble together enough spare forces (along with troops from Western powers who have been hard-pressed to find even an extra brigade for Afghanistan) to successfully intervene in a nation of 160 million. And Options 2’s similarity to Iraq’s Fortress Green Zone strategy is merely one outcome of a line of thought that starts with calling the ever-growing catastrophe in Iraq “an improving situation”. If America is achieving victory in Iraq with only 160,000 troops, apparently it’s logical to conclude that victory in a country six times as populous should be possible with a force a fraction of that size.

Given the self-evident absurdity of this idea, why would ostensibly intelligent analysts propose such a thing? One plausible explanation is that they are caught between two beliefs: first, that the United States faces an existential crisis from Islamic terrorism; second, that American national willpower is liable to collapse if a draft is implemented. Forty-year-old memories of burning draft cards and marching students have seemingly so traumatized the American right-wing that they are willing to risk defeat after defeat — and the creation of failed state after failed state — to avoid calling a draft and risking the growth of a wider-scale anti-war movement.

But there is another explanation: that the belief in an existential threat is not a belief at all, but a pose, an attitude, a political weapon. For World War I — which did not involve an existential threat to America — the United States mobilized a 3.5 million man army from a population of only 100 million. For World War II — Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan being a much more serious threat to the country — the United States mobilized an 8 million man army from a population of 140 million. By the last chapter of the Cold War, with its population passing 225 million in 1980, the United States maintained an army of only 781,000 troops — but then again it relied primarily on its massive nuclear deterrent to keep the peace with the Soviet Union.

Now, facing an enemy that represents, Kagan and O’Hanlon claim, “as much a threat to our basic security as Soviet tanks once were”, the United States has elected to maintain an army of barely half a million soldiers out of a population of 300 million people. This is not the army of a nation facing an existential threat. This is the army of a nation that thinks its wars will be small, quick, and cheap.

If Kagan and O’Hanlon seriously believe that a collapsing Pakistan presents such a threat that a U.S. invasion would be morally and strategically justified, they should be arguing strenuously for that million-man force, rather than summarily ruling it out. In fact, if they had used a rule of thumb at all similar to the calculations that Gen. Eric Shinseki used to estimate the requirement for an occupation force of “several hundred thousand troops” in Iraq, they’d have to advocate an occupation force for Pakistan of roughly 3 million troops.

Could the United States mobilize such a force? Of course it could — see World Wars I & II, above. But is it willing to? Not a chance. And until that changes, you should weigh all the scare-mongering warnings about loose nukes and Iranian bombs and smoking guns and mushroom clouds against the fact that they are being made by people who don’t believe in the threat enough to actually prepare their country to meet it.

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The moving finger writes

Don't Panic, by Ruth Sacks
Don’t Panic, by Ruth Sacks (skywriting over Cape Town, S.A.; video shown at the Venice Art Biennial, 2007)

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Despite my misery, let me finish dinner

Into the Wild

“There is no such thing as society”, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once famously declared. This was a cry of capitalist individualism – polemical, to be sure, but true to her outlook. Others have found the opposite: that society is all too real, an oppressive nest of deceits and compromises best kept at arms length. The hermits of early Christianity sat upon columns in the desert for months on end, or retreated to caves far up in the mountains, to accomplish this. For many young people in modern times, freedom has been found in a similar (if less painful) isolation, in cutting the umbilical cord of civilization and all of its responsibilities and duties, and venturing across country in search of new experiences.

One such was Chris McCandless – compellingly played by Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, John Krakauer’s recounting of McCandless’s two-year adventure hitch-hiking and camping across early 1990s America. In his diary and his letters, as well as in conversations with the people he met on his travels, McCandless portrayed his adventure as an idealistic search for authenticity, a rejection of the shallow materialism of his parents and the hypocrisy and lies of contemporary society. Yet his romantic odyssey ended brutally in his death by starvation, brought on by mistakenly eating a poisonous root. He had spent a season camping in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan back country; his body was found two weeks later by moose hunters.

This marks the second recent biopic involving death in the Alaskan wilderness – the other being Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which focused on Timothy Treadwell and his doomed attempt to live among and commune with Kodiak grizzly bears. After spending several summers creating self-narrated documentaries about the bears he shadowed, Treadwell and his girlfriend were torn to pieces and partially consumed by one of his subjects. There is a certain amount of consumer demand, it seems, for stories that depict the awesome beauty of nature, and its equally awesome ability to kill us. And while for Canadians almost any place more than one hundred miles north of one of our cities serves as our own potentially lethal wilderness (black bears wander across the doorsteps of Canadian summer cottages with some frequency), for Americans – whose continental states seem almost completely interlaced with roads and railways, a town occupying every grid square on the map – it is the state of Alaska that has assumed the lonely role of High Representative of the Untouched American Wild.

As Penn’s film shows, finding true solitude and complete independence isn’t easy in modern America. McCandless starts out in a battered Datsun, which he soon loses to a flash flood in the desert. He burns all the money in his pocket, and starts hitch-hiking instead, becoming a “leather tramp” – as Catherine Keener’s sad and soulful hippie dubs him. Yet while he manages to acquire enough meals from the people he meets, the need for money doesn’t vanish, and he finds himself working odd jobs: driving a combine harvester owned by a farmer/entrepreneur played enthusiastically by Vince Vaughan, or flipping burgers at MacDonalds. He even hovers, momentarily tempted, at a Los Angeles welfare hotel, but when finally assigned a bed senses the psychological trap and breaks free again, returning to the road. Yet civilization doesn’t seem to want to let him go. Kayaking down the Colorado River, he finds its end in an artificial delta of concrete canals. More than once, he looks up at a clear blue sky marred by a commerial airliner blazing contrails behind itself.

When he finally reaches Alaska, keen to start his “great Alaskan adventure”, he bums a ride to the end of a remote road and accepts the effectively permanent loan of a pair of sturdy rubber boots from the truck driver. McCandless plods through the back country, fords a river, and discovers a “magic bus” abandoned on a bluff. He moves in, and promptly begins civilizing the nearby wilderness, carving hunting trails to and from the bus and building an outdoor shower for himself. The human instinct to impose order on nature’s anarchy is strong within him – he may be escaping civilization, but he’s bringing it with him, too.

In Alaska, McCandless comes face to face with an authenticity of the most physical kind. Only modestly successful as a hunter – he manages to shoot a moose once, then loses all of is meat to putrescence and maggots – he steadily eats his way through his supply of rice. With the coming of spring he is trapped by rising waters that make his winter ford impassable. Meanwhile, large game vanishes in its migratory way, and he is reduced to stamping his feet in frustration and yelling at the empty landscape, “Where are all the fucking animals!? I’m fucking hungry!!!”

This is authenticity. Stripped to our essence, we are animals, and we need to eat. At the most savage level of existence, our hunger is what drives our waking lives and fills our dreams. It is authenticity, but it is not nobility, nor is it philosophy or poetry. These things require surpluses, enough food and shelter to see us through many days of life, to allow us to devote time to thinking, reading, conversation. This is the trade that civililization offers: hypocrisy and compromise in exchange for culture and comfort and time to be fully human, rather than merely animal.

In the ancient world, men knew this truth, perhaps better than we. After being shipwrecked in the sea for days, Homer’s Odysseus describes the overwhelming power of hunger as he dines with the gracious Phaeacian king:

… I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget –
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
“Eat, drink!” It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, “Fill me up!”
– The Odyssey, Book 7 (trans. Robert Fagles)

Like Into the Wild, the Odyssey is a picaresque of a lone hero’s wanderings, and of the ways he is helped or harmed by the people he meets along the way. But while McCandless with his wanderings is trying to escape society, Odysseus is trying desperately to return to it, to his home and family, to his rightful kingdom, to comfort and peace. Of course, while Odysseus is the wiser of the two, he learned this wisdom the hard way: by going off to war as a younger man and spending two decades fighting it and then trying to complete his journey home. Who’s to say that when Odysseus first boarded his ship to Troy, that his mind and heart weren’t more than a little like Chris McCandless’s? Odysseus was lucky to survive his war, and to have time to grow wise. McCandless died just as his own adventure, cruel as it had become, had begun to teach him something.

Chris McCandless and his bus


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The risk of being less free

Alexander Hamilton 
Alexander Hamilton, portrait by Daniel Huntington (1865)

American culture has long prided itself on defiant statements of liberty. “Live free or die”, runs the official motto of the state of New Hampshire. “Don’t tread on me”, warns the rattlesnake of the Gadsden Flag. According to this mythology, Americans are willing to sacrifice their lives before losing their cherished freedoms.

Alas, as the last several years have shown, Americans are all too ready to trade away their freedoms for a greater sense of physical safety — in this, of course, they are no better nor worse than the rest of us — and the greater the apprehended threat to their safety, the deeper they’ll nestle into the protective arms of the state.

As Carol Vanderveer Hamilton points out in an interesting essay posted on George Mason University’s History News Network, Alexander Hamilton sounded a prescient warning about this in Federalist No. 8:

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.

Hamilton was talking about standing armies, and of the hostilities and despotisms that might ensue if the American confederacy collapsed into a collection of squabbling and independent states — predictions which formed part of his tenacious advocacy of a constitution that would bind the states together under a robust federal government. He also warns of the temptations of militarism, of undue deference shown to soldiers:

The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.

Hamilton ends No. 8 on a hopeful note, yet one that would sadly prove mistaken:

If we are wise enough to preserve the Union we may for ages enjoy an advantage similar to that of an insulated situation. Europe is at a great distance from us. Her colonies in our vicinity will be likely to continue too much disproportioned in strength to be able to give us any dangerous annoyance. Extensive military establishments cannot, in this position, be necessary to our security.

Given his overriding emphasis on ensuring the ratification of the constitution, there may have been an element of political misdirection in such predictions. Hamilton, after all, was no radical democrat or libertarian, but a man aristocratic in temperament and hard-headed in policy — see my National Post essay on his embrace by modern “national greatness” conservatives — a supporter of a powerful federal government and a sophisticated financial system, who would ultimately become an advocate, ironically, of one of the things that Federalist No. 8 opposed: a standing army.

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