Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
I Have No Brain But I Must Scream.
But why aren't people in other countries listening?
I’m very pleased to say that we are within a whisker of 4,500 subscribers now. A small but nonetheless gratifying number of people have also taken out paid subscriptions. These essays will always be free, and you can also support my work, remember, by liking and commenting, and most of all by passing essays on to others and to other sites that you frequent. I have also set up a Buy Me A Coffee page, which you can find here.☕️ Thank you to all those who have already contributed.
Meanwhile, A reminder that Spanish versions of my essays are now available here, and some Italian versions of my essays are available here. Marco Zeloni is now also posting some Italian translations. Many thanks to all the translators. And now …
I’ve pretty much given up reading the traditional media about anything important these days, in spite of being a news junkie for decades, reading two newspapers, weekly magazines, and listening religiously to the news on the BBC. Oh, of course, the media has changed and metastasised a lot since then: it’s full of garbage and written by interns, but there’s something worse than that when it comes to tackling the big and complex stories of the world. In a week in which Ukraine and Gaza are both in the news, where the Russians seem to be starting a new offensive and where a nasty regional conflict in the Middle East is not impossible, people look to the media, Internet sites and general punditry, to explain issues of war and crisis. This essay is, in part, about why they are inevitably disappointed, and in part about why, outside the western bubble, hardly anyone takes any notice of what they say anyway.
Last week I talked about how the Western Security Complex (WSC) cannot understand what’s actually happening in conflicts around the world—notably in Ukraine—and so prattles on incessantly about what it thinks it knows. I want to expand that argument now, to suggest that not only the WSC, but also the Professional and Managerial Caste and the media more generally, have between them created almost impenetrable barriers to actual understanding of conflict and atrocity, by colonising them intellectually, by usurping descriptions and analyses of them, and by imposing irrelevant and even dangerous interpretations of their own. I argue that the modern Liberal mind, full of a priori axioms and largely empty of actual knowledge and experience or the capacity and willingness to learn, has tried to impose narratives of contemporary conflict on others, using terms it thinks it understands. That is a big claim, and I can’t explore it here in as much detail as I would like, so I’m going to concentrate on the two principal discourses modern Liberalism tries to impose on conflict: that of hatred and moral condemnation on the one hand, and that of the Law on the other. Alert readers may notice that the two are becoming increasingly indistinguishable: a high-profile and much-hated opponent of the West can routinely expect to find themselves charged with a criminal offence these days, as I noted a little while ago.
So I want to explain why both of these rather incoherent discourses are misleading, and then to talk briefly about the reality of conflict, all without making any moral or legal judgements. Now that may seem shocking to some, and those of a nervous disposition may want to leave now, but I think it’s essential, since only when the thick fog of confusion produced by normative Liberal discourse has cleared, may we be able to see the reality of current conflict as it is (spoiler: it’s not pretty.)
Let’s take the moral side first. Although earnest books have been written on morality in war, and great commanders have generally imposed moral discipline on their troops, the idea of normatively-derived moral behaviour in conflict as an end in itself is very recent: it dates from the time of democracy, mass armies and mass mobilisation, when governments at war required support from their publics, and in many cases sympathy from abroad as well. And revealingly, this discourse has always been essentially negative: it consists very largely of trying to evoke sympathy and support from others, by alleging terrible behaviour on the part of the enemy, rather than behaving well oneself. Now of course in many modern conflicts, the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the local population is one of the objectives, and for that matter many military officers today would understandably be highly offended if it were doubted that they made every effort to control their troops. Nonetheless, these are recent and contingent developments, as I will explain in a moment.
We can perhaps begin with the question, what are armies for? The standard Liberal answer, I suspect, would be to fight other armies, which, if not actually tautologous, is nonetheless pretty useless. But it does reflect the Liberal concept of an acceptable war as a kind of gladiatorial version of a legal case, in which the more skilful and best-prepared team will win. As with legal cases, the issues are relatively clear and the result should be accepted by both sides with good grace. And as with legal cases, there are detailed rules and procedures which must be followed, and only certain types of individuals are eligible to take part. This is, of course, fantastically removed from the reality even of modern conflict, still more from conflict in the past, but it reflects the normative, morally censorious, rule-driven and technocratic spirit of modern Liberalism.
The very idea of imposing a purely normative moral framework onto war, from outside and by outsiders (as opposed to just acting with moderation because you think it’s the right and sensible thing to do) is a very recent development, even if the Catholic Church had earlier made some efforts in that direction. It only had any relevance to actual conflict at all for brief periods and under specific circumstances. The growth of nation-states and the confusion between peoples and borders produced wars (like the Balkan wars of 1912-13) which were for national and group survival and the establishment of frontiers, and to which these norms seemed largely irrelevant. Worse was to follow, of course. Nonetheless, this discourse has allowed Liberal societies to engage in the moralisation of history itself, as we look back even at the fairly recent past, and smugly sit in judgement on our ancestors for their moral failings in conflict.
Ironically, of course, the very cultural roots of the western civilisation that eventually produced Liberalism illustrate a completely different tradition. The Book of Deuteronomy (XX,12-18) gave very explicit instructions for how the Israelites were to treat conquered peoples. Normal enemy cities were just to be razed, the males killed and the women, children and cattle “taken.” But where cities were given by God “for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth. But thou shalt utterly destroy them.” This seems to have been very much accepted practice at the time. Nor was the Classical world much better: what we would now describe as genocide was common practice in wars between great city states. And the Greeks looked for models of heroism to the Iliad, where we find Odysseus, for example, described admiringly as ptoli-pórthios the “sacker of cities,” and we know what that meant. The Roman habit of conquest by genocide was never exactly a secret, but by the same token doesn’t seem to have affected the adoration of their civilisation by educated Europeans for many centuries either.
Part of the reason for such behaviour in those days, certainly, is the late development of long-service professional armies in most parts of the world (the Roman Army, recall, only became professional during the period of the Empire, and even then any of its actual troops were foreign mercenaries.) Such armies required an agricultural surplus which could support them, and until the nineteenth century the most that could generally be managed was armies temporarily recruited for specific wars and then discharged. They were often brutal and rapacious, but indiscriminately so. Otherwise, wars were often fought between the whole populations of cities or small kingdoms, and the modern normative distinction between “combatants” and “non-combatants” would simply have seemed irrelevant. There was no “Trojan Army” defending Troy against the Greeks. What counted was defending your city or you community and ensuring its survival by whatever means were necessary. And very frequently, the motives for war were plunder and the acquisition of slaves anyway. After all, if you are fighting to preserve your city or your people from conquest and enslavement, surely any means were justified? In 1416, in one of the innumerable naval battles against the Turks, the Venetian commander Pietro Loredan repotted that he had executed all the captured Europeans serving the Turks, as well as all the pilots and navigators of the captured ships, thus, he proudly announced, giving Venice a considerable military advantage. He clearly thought he was acting morally:, and indeed on what basis other than a purely normative, universalist assertion of certain standards could you condemn his actions? Which raises the troubling question: if it is moral to fight to defend your on people, what limits, if any, are there on what you are allowed to do, before you regretfully stand back to let your people be conquered?
The problem is that there are no universal moral rules about conflict, or rather, everyone seeks to universalise their own, and everyone sees the interests of their own side or the group they support as paramount, with different rules applying to different sides in practice, if not in theory. Have you had a conversation yet with someone who has been agitated about alleged Russian “attacks on civilians” and asked them if they equally condemn the bombing of Gaza? “But you can’t possibly compare the two cases!” will come the scandalised reply.
You can never compare any two cases, and that’s the problem. The difficulty with any coherent moral framework is that, applied consistently, it rapidly leads you to places you don’t want to be and to conclusions you don’t want to reach. In reality, the only universal moral law that everyone would (tacitly) accept, is “people I like, fighting for causes I support, are allowed to do things that others are not.” The problems of such a formula are obvious enough. And yet this attitude is found everywhere, even if in the West people feel they have to clothe it in more acceptable language. There was a time when I was a lot closer to attempts to deal with some of the nastier aspects of conflict than perhaps I now wish I had been, and I became wearily used to the justifications put forward, in the media, in political meetings, even in the courtroom, in different countries. It always came down to:
It never happened.
OK, it happened but I wasn’t there.
OK, it happened and I was there but we were defending our people.
The other side started it.
I sometimes reflect that most of the worst excesses in history were committed by those “defending their people,” if only because the easiest way of doing that is to kill large numbers of the enemy before they can kill you, the sooner the better, and not necessarily just soldiers, either. This is, in fact, a feature of all conflict between self-identified groups with allegedly collective interests that need to be protected. Warfare was cruel enough previously, and often exceptionally so between city-states, but when wars were between empires or sovereigns, there was no question of “defending our people.” Armies were very heterogeneous, and contingents from the same area could be found on both (or all) sides. Alliances were made and broken according to political advantage, and enmity between Christian leaders (the King of France and the Emperor, for example) massively complicated the long struggle against the Ottomans. If warfare was still exceptionally brutal, and the local population was an accepted target for looting and exactions by both sides, the elements of ideological and racial violence were still largely absent.
But the meme of “defending our people” is present everywhere in the history of the last couple of centuries, and, at its worst, topples over into the kind of paranoid hysteria typified by the Nazis, who believed that the German Volk were in constant danger of annihilation from their racial enemies, whom they had to exterminate first. Yet they didn’t invent this meme either: the idea of competition to death and extermination between different “racial” groups was part of the thinking of every educated person a hundred or so years ago, and seemed to be just a logical conclusion from the latest cutting-edge science on the competition for living space in the animal kingdom. It was considered natural, if regrettable, that some human “species” would disappear, just as animal species did.
Moreover, once you start on this logic, where do you stop? If some lives (yours) are more important than others (theirs), then how far are you prepared to push the argument, especially in war? Well, the Nazis themselves provided one answer. Resource-poor, and having conquered a Europe that couldn’t feed itself, lacking manpower both to fight and to work in factories, the German war economy, in ways that have only recently begun to be written about, treated human beings of conquered countries simply as raw material for the war effort, to be used up and thrown away. Most concentration camps established after 1941 were in fact labour camps, where those unable to work were put to death, and those who could work, were worked until they followed them. And in a war whose deepest hidden agenda was probably the struggle for food supplies, “useless mouths” were simply starved to death: under the Hunger Plan it was intended and expected that 30 million Soviet citizens would die. Likewise, there could be no question of diverting scarce resources to feed two million Polish Jews, so they were simply exterminated.
It is hard to accept, even now, that human beings were capable of such acts, still less (as we shall see in a moment) that they considered those acts entirely justified. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that so much effort has been gone into inventing entirely fictitious but comforting theories about the Nazis, in spite of the fact that they left us records of precisely what they did and why they did it. But taking them seriously, and going beyond the facile vocabulary of “hate,” would perhaps tax our faith in human nature beyond anything it could reasonably endure.
But even in less terrifying areas, the modern Liberal view of conflict still cannot bear much reality, and great efforts have gone into creating theories of conflict that are in practice both insulting to ordinary people, and completely divorced from any contact with reality—as one would expect from normative culture. As I pointed out before, the insulting assumption in the preamble to the UNESCO Charter that wars “begin in the minds of men” is an attempt to shift the blame to people like you and me. Either it’s our own personal hostility to others that sparks conflict, or we are weak and confused enough to be manipulated by “tyrants” and “demagogues” and “entrepreneurs of violence,” by discourses of hate and difference, into wars we are too stupid to stop. “Hate” is conceived of as something that itself has agency, “breaking out” from time to time, encouraged by despots and sold to a stupid public.
So Liberal elites have two answers to this. One is compulsory enforced niceness: anti-discrimination laws, controls on speech, academic teaching of tolerance, reciprocal school visits and the ERASMUS scheme. The idea is that this will make us less stupid and less likely to be taken in by the next demagogue with a message of hate. Paradoxically, the other answer is hate itself: undiluted hate directed, through the media and the political system, against those whom our elites identify as “demagogues”, “authoritarians” or “tyrants,” who must be removed from office and punished, as must anyone who fails to condemn them strongly enough in public, or even in private. These hate-figures change over time (who was that guy in Sudan, again?) but are always the target of uncomplicated condemnation, and total refusal to actually examine the real causes of conflict and what sustains it, and sometimes brings it to a conclusion. There is an enormous, if intellectually impoverished, semi-official “grey” literature on questions of conflict and peace, paid for by national governments, international organisations and charitable foundations, and pressed into the hands of idealistic volunteers leaving for distant parts, who rapidly find the documents, the courses and the training sessions completely useless. You would expect that, in the face of all this disappointment, these ideas would be abandoned, or at least watered down, and I have found in recent years a private acknowledgement in some governments and organisations that most of them are garbage. But of course normative ideas can never be disproved by reality: reality can only fail in its function of demonstrating them to be true.
So now, earnest articles are being written by western pundits about the “morality” of the war in Gaza, as if anyone would take any notice of their conclusions, and their attempts to impose a moral scheme on things they do not understand. You can just imagine Hamas fighters receiving a text message: “Oh bugger, that’s another western pundit saying that we should stop what we’re doing. This is getting serious.” (There will, at least, be a number of books, conferences and YouTube lectures coming out of the morality of the conflict, so it’s not all bad.)
The second way in which Liberalism tries to dominate the discourse about conflict is through Law. Now of course Law, with its technocratic rationality, its codification and precision, has always been the quintessential Liberal subject, We don’t have to go all Clausewitzian here, and argue that war can’t be constrained or controlled, but it is clear, if you think about it, that the application of Law to armed conflict, at least in Law’s modern, technocratic Liberal guise, is a kind of category error. It’s the wrong discourse to apply, because it trades in fine detail, in ingenious arguments, in subtle distinctions and degrees of guilt, whilst applying itself to the bloody and chaotic mess which is armed conflict. And in the end, we require groups of non-expert judges to reach essentially subjective conclusions about guilt and responsibility, or otherwise, for terrible events.
If we understand the laws of war to be primarily normative guidelines, then their use and enforcement are reasonable, and they can be taught and indeed enforced. Some of the better-known provisions, like treatment of non-combatants, have been features of the ways in which good militaries behave for a very long time. But the problem is that the “law of war” (an unfortunate phrase in my view) is in the end an attempt to impose a series of complex, arbitrary restrictions on armed conflict, to make it conform as far as possible to the Liberal vision of what conflict ought to be like. But this is impossible of course, the more so since many combatants these days have never heard of the Geneva Conventions, and indeed quite a few cannot read. One interesting exercise—and as far as I know it has never been done—would be to take the texts of the Geneva Conventions, the Additional Protocols and the Rome Statute of the ICC, and deconstruct them, to see what armed conflict would have to be like to make those documents relevant. In other words, if the documents had been written on the basis of field research into contemporary conflicts, would they have resembled what we have?
The answer, unsurprisingly, would be no. These documents assume that war is fought for limited objectives between trained, disciplined forces wearing distinctive uniforms and carrying weapons openly, and according to understood rules. A commander will accept to lose a battle rather than break the rules, and will punish subordinates who do not follow suit. Combatants (ie uniformed, disciplined, regular troops) are the only real players: the political leadership, factories making armaments and materiel and civilian infrastructure are not relevant to military operations. Now it is true that, with the passage of time, some attempt has been made to include provisions for irregular forces, but the structure and content of the documents effectively presupposes a conflict somewhat along the lines of the opening stages of the First World War in Europe. And the progression of International Humanitarian Law (as it is called) in recent decades has been to move ever further away from conflict as it actually happens, towards conflict as it normatively should be. IHL thus becomes increasingly irrelevant to actual behaviour, and in turn has to be deformed progressively further and further if it is to be applied to contemporary reality. Our old friend the discourse problem again.
One difficulty is that unlike normal (one is tempted to say”real”) criminal law, IHL has no pragmatic basis, and consists entirely of norms. So we can all understand the practical virtues of laws against robbery, murder and even fraud: they protect us all, and societies generally develop them for themselves. But there is no similar pragmatic foundation for IHL. Its central conceit is the distinction between “combatants” and “non-combatants”, and the protection of the latter. It’s fair to say that in most conflicts today this distinction is beside the point, but nonetheless it is insisted on, for example in the protection of prisoners of war, and of what is popularly described as “the civilian population.” Yet this attitude is extremely culturally and temporally specific. Prisoners were routinely executed in the past, to reduce the enemy’s manpower, without risking your own troops, or as ritual sacrifices, as with the Aztecs. The idea that you should not do that is a modern cultural norm, but only a norm, and not self-evident. Similarly, the IHL tradition always assumes that wars are purely a matter for professionals and governmental elites (“wars of princes”) yet the advent of mass democracy, which figures nowhere in IHL thinking, surely implicates the population of a country, at least morally, in decisions of war and peace. It seems curious, for example, that pundits loudly advocating for the invasion of Iraq twenty years ago were not considered legitimate targets. And in fact, with the wars in the Gulf, the Balkans and elsewhere, these distinctions have become impossible to maintain today.
Nonetheless, judges in courtrooms have been asked to pronounce on issues of guilt and innocence in such cases. More importantly, perhaps, the vocabulary of IHL (often imperfectly mastered) and its normative assumptions and technical qualifications (scarcely understood at all) have become part of today’s political discourse in a confused and incoherent fashion, mixing moral indignation with vague ideas about what should and should not be illegal. The result is a toxic political discourse in which our moral disapproval of a figure, a movement or an action, is assumed to automatically carry legal penalties with it, perhaps after a cursory stop for a trial.
In some cases, courts have been asked to pronounce on questions which resemble those of standard criminal law, although even then with a mass of technical criteria that domestic criminal law doesn’t have to worry about. But as I have suggested, the revenge-fuelled discourse of the modern human rights industry demands that those “most responsible” should be punished (after the obligatory trial) and in practice this means those who are farthest from the action and have the least connection with it. Thus has arisen the habit of putting senior commanders and political figures on trial for incidents that in many cases they were completely ignorant of. Here, we very rapidly get into the swamps of subjective moral and even linguistic judgements, about what “responsibility” and “control” mean.
An early example was General Stanislav Galic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces besieging Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, As is often the case, It was not disputed that there had been incidents of sniping and mortaring which had resulted in casualties among the city’s population. But Galic was not charged with ordering such incidents, but with failing to prevent, investigate and punish the perpetrators. His argument was that, responsible for some 15,000 troops spread across many kilometres, he had done what he could, but couldn’t be everywhere at once. The prosecution argued that he hadn’t done enough and, to general surprise, the judges agreed. As often, the judgement was as much political as legal, since the judges obviously felt constrained to identify some kind of ritual sacrifice for the harm so publicly inflicted on the city during the war, even if they were probably not conscious of doing so. But in the end, such judgements are hopelessly subjective, and a different group of judges might well have freed Galic, on the same evidence.
Logically, heads of state have not been spared either, although, as with the (unfinished) trial of the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, the law has generally been twisted such that the prosecution does not have to prove that the accused ordered the crimes, or even knew about them, just that he or she was a member of a group, some of whose members had influence over those believed to have committed the crimes. This approach was used successfully against Charles Taylor, the Liberian President, although for crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, and unsuccessfully against Laurent Gbagbo, the previous President of the Côte d’Ivoire. (Characteristically, human rights groups condemned his acquittal, not on the grounds that Gbagbo was actually guilty, but that his acquittal would upset his critics.) But in the end, each verdict might have gone the other way with other groups of judges: they were in the position of non-experts on tax-law being asked to decide whether the amount of tax a billionaire had paid was “fair” or not.
So the prevailing Liberal discourse of conflict at the moment is this uncomfortable and unattractive mixture of normative moral hysteria and half-understood technical legal concepts, which accounts for the incoherent, and frequently incomprehensible, way in which the conflicts are reported and commented on. Worse, it also affects the way in which western governments see the options for management of crisis and conflict itself. For example, western governments cannot comprehend that what they say about the Gaza fighting is of no interest to Hamas, whose political and propaganda targets lie elsewhere, and for that matter of very limited interest to the Global South generally. Indeed, the West’s incapacity to understand the reality of conflict and atrocity, unwillingness to learn, and insistence on loudly trying to impose its mixture of moral bluster and legal fussiness pretty much rules it out as a credible actor.
It is not as if these things were actually that difficult to understand. We do know a great deal, from first-hand observation, about how conflicts arise and atrocities happen. The briefest possible summary would say that they typically occur because people feel themselves justified in acting that way—even to have no choice—and usually because they are scared. One approach, of course, would be to ask violent people and groups why they are violent, rather than engaging in abstract inductive and normative reasoning. But often this produces disappointing results, at variance with existing political prejudices.
One person who did exactly that was the American psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked for many years with the most violent of criminals. In a series of books, he set out the extent to which violent criminals were seeking to counter felt threats to their self-respect, and even their very existence, and felt justified even in committing murder. It’s not hard to see this logic operating at a higher level also: few nations or armed groups have ever secretly felt unjustified in what they do. Many claim to have no choice, and to be obliged to take up arms to right intolerable wrongs. There’s a tendency to dismiss such claims as just rhetoric, but there’s also clearly more to it than that. It’s linked with the “protecting our people” meme seen above, and is often couched in terms of reluctant self-defence. A well-known case is that of Eugene de Kock, known to the media as “Prime Evil” for his role in the apartheid death squads, who argued in court and in the media not only that his atrocities were justified (“it was us or them”) but that that, murders apart, he had tried to enforce high moral standards on his men. In fact, if there is a single self-image that emerges from such horrible incidents, it is a basically of a group, or even a population, reluctantly obliged to carry out the most terrible acts, against their own inclination, because they have no choice if they are to survive. The most teeth-grinding example is to be found, once again, in the Third Reich, where anyone who makes their way through Peter Longerich’s immense and thorough biography of Heinrich Himmler takes away the impression of a prissy, moralistic individual, obsessed with the creation of a new chivalric class whose challenge was somehow to remain “decent,” even after carrying out the most terrible deeds imaginable: deeds forced on the German people because it was “us or them,” and which only the strongest and most honourable had the mental toughness to perform.
The “us or them” discourse, of course, has fear as its starting-point, and fear is a major component in the advent of war and conflict. Fear that if I don’t kill my rival, he or she will kill me. Fear of the minority surrounded by a majority. Fear of the majority with a minority inside it. Fear that minorities will combine against you, perhaps orchestrated by an outside power. Fear that the Other will want revenge for what you did to them last time. Fear that the Other will do what they did to you last time, but worse. Fear that the weaker will become strong enough to challenge you. Fear that the stronger will attack just because they are stronger. In such circumstances, the only solution is to get your blow in first and hardest Only when you have completely wiped out the enemy can you be sure that there can never be a threat, as Cato the Elder famously argued about Carthage.
There’s not much that you can do to banish fear: youth orchestra exchanges and twinning of towns won’t cut it. Even forty years of compulsory niceness and reconciliation in post-war Yugoslavia, often at the point of a gun, collapsed in a matter of months in a situation where everyone was suddenly a minority, and everybody had to deal with a past which was frightening and brutal even by the standards of the region. So it doesn’t feature much in conflict resolution literature, because the Liberal mind finds fear, like all emotions, hard to deal with. And by definition, of course, I can’t understand your fears of me, and you can’t understand my fears of you. As a motive, it occasionally surfaces in the discourse, for example in the endless and terrifying conflict between the Hutu peasantry and the Tutsi aristocracy in East Africa. Ahmed Ould-Abdallah, the UN Special Representative in Burundi at the time of the Rwandan crisis, commented once that the main problems he had with the political leaders of that country was that they were all terrified of each other, and every time he shook hands, their palms were wet with fear. He concluded that what the country needed was not peacekeepers, but psychiatrists.
But of course they continued to get peacekeepers, because that’s what we know how to do. An acceptance of the importance of fear and the sense of justification is fatal to the currently dominant discourse of conflict and atrocity, even as it is necessary to understand the reality. These people (the Islamic State, Hamas, the Azov Battalion) cannot be serious. They cannot think that what they are doing is justified. But they do, and for as long as we try to impose our inept and grotesque model of moral condemnation and legal threats on the ills of the world, we must be reconciled to having little impact. The alternative—acceptance that some problems are just insoluble and can at best only be managed—is normatively impossible for a busybody Liberal society to accept. But then it may not be up to us much longer, anyway.