There is talk that many…[war]…films are anti-war, that the message is war is inhumane…but actualy,…war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep…but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton…and Lance Corporal Swofford at 29 Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, ticking his balls with a pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck. It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs Johnsons are antiwar – the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.

From Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead

I would argue that so-called anti-war photography has failed as well. Of course we would not know that from the frequency with which it is celebrated, exhibited, awarded and worshipped. But as Swofford so brilliantly points out, those who celebrate it, or claim to be anti-war, are not doing the constant, endless, seemingly infinite killing. A killing that now consumes trillions of dollars of tax-payer’s money, and that seems to be the only thing in this devastating economic downturn that does not seem to be on the downturn.

But this is not about photography, nor about war. This evening my mind turns to the language, thoughts, arguments and justifications of those who may not be doing the fighting, but provide the intellectual and moral justifications for it. The pundits, intellectuals, academics, politicians, radio hosts, tv-anchors, mainstream journalists and of course the wine-party guests. They are the ones who not only grease the path to war, but then offer the verbal and intellectual balm to cover for its atrocities, brutalities, injustices and venality. The ideas manufactured through their writings, speeches, sound-bites, and polemics are the ideas that allow us to turn our eyes and mind away from the horrors being inflicted ‘in our name’ and for the ‘liberty and security’ of our nation.

Judith Butler’s work has been described as ‘…an assault on common sense, on the atrophy of thinking. It untangles not only how ideas compel us to action, but how unexamined action leaves us with unexamined ideas—and, then, disastrous politics.’ In front of me is a copy of her brilliant Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable a thought provoking analysis of the ability to feel compassion for another, and the terrible logic used to justify their killing.

Frames Of War By Judith Butler
Frames Of War By Judith Butler

Her thoughts take us back to the presumptions and prejudices that inform how we speak of ‘the other’ i.e how the language of war, violence, death and murder works so that we may not notice certain deaths and not grieve certain lives. As she states in an interview with Guernica magazine:

All I really have to say about life is that for it to be regarded as valuable, it has to first be regarded as grievable. A life that is in some sense socially dead or already “lost” cannot be grieved when it is actually destroyed. And I think we can see that entire populations are regarded as negligible life by warring powers, and so when they are destroyed, there is no great sense that a heinous act and egregious loss have taken place. My question is: how do we understand this nefarious distinction that gets set up between grievable and ungrievable lives?

This question has bewildered so many who wonder why their deaths are not grieved while others are obsessed about. On the very day we may remember the loss of the near 3000 killed in the 9/11 attacks, we remain indifferent to the hundreds of thousands we have quietly and without real protest allowed to be killed in our wars since that date. The book makes for poignant and disturbing reading, but it raises a question I think we most don’t want to examine i.e we are not moved by all suffering, nor are we aware or concerned about the killings and murders of civilians in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question remains; why? I think it is a question worth asking ourselves, and Butler has some fascinating answers. Not the least are observations such as this, again from the same interview in Guernica:

I do worry about those instances in which public mourning is explicitly proscribed, and that invariably happens in the context of war. I think there were ways, for instance, of producing icons of those who were killed in the 9/11 attacks in such a way that the desire for revenge and vindication was stoked. So we have to distinguish between modes of mourning that actually extend our ideas about equality, and those that produce differentials, such as “this population is worth protecting” and “this population deserves to die.”

Another book that I happen to have in front of me is a bit more esoteric, but is perhaps one of the better studies of how intellectuals can surrender their morality, sense of justice in the face of patriotism, xenophobia, nationalism and simple jingoism – something that we have seen aplenty of in the aftermath of 9/11. This is by James D. Le Seuer and is called Uncivil War: Intellectuals And Identity Politics During the Decolonization Of Algeria

Uncivil War By James D. Le Sueur
Uncivil War By James D. Le Sueur

What is most fascinating about this book is its discussion about torture, and the various justifications offered for the practice by the likes of Albert Camus. We have our own Camus’ in the USA who have justified the use of torture and repeated offered arguments in support for it. As a nation that is now in clear violation of international law, a nation that indulges in practices that are explicitly and clearly torture and whose top leadership has sanctioned this practice, we would do well to understand the consequences and implications. In particular, as this book explores, how language and law are tortured to justify torture, and how the practice of torture, as Mark Dannar so wonderfully put it:

The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice. Torture destroys justice.

Too many of our ‘finest’ lost their moral compass within moments of the 9/11 attacks. As Pankaj Mishra pointed out in an essay titled Indians are baffled by the paranoia and prejudice of European liberals that the retreat of our intellectuals into the closet of bigotry and simplistic if not outright untenable ethnic allegiances to justify unjust and immoral practices is shocking:

The scale of political-religious violence in India dwarfs anything suffered by western Europe in the postwar era. Yet India’s unique liberal tradition, which respects minority identity and community belonging, remains central in the country’s intellectual life. Indian economists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, novelists and journalists are deeply divided on many political and economic issues. But, apart from a minuscule few, they remain wedded to India’s founding vision of pluralism.

Not surprisingly, these postcolonial Indians are bewildered to see liberal politicians and intellectuals in Europe embrace a majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what, by Indian standards, seems a very limited experience of social diversity and political extremism. Acts of terrorism in the post-9/11 period have shocked many Europeans into a new awareness of an alienated minority group in their midst. It is clear that recklessly globalising capital and technology, and the failed modernisation of much of the formerly colonial world – of which religious extremism and migration are consequences – pose daunting challenges to European societies. But instead of facing them squarely, many Europeans have retreated into old insecurities about Islam and Muslims.

And towards a carefully cleaved and circumcised idea of compassion, justice, and humanity.

Time to read some books. Time to develop some new thoughts.