The Relentless Meat Grinder
As a teacher of literary modernism, I'm familiar with the notion that World War I, The Great War, functions as the "absent signifier" in much literature of the period--Eliot's Waste Land, and so on. The war was so centrally, so painfully, on everyone's mind that literature and art were profoundly about the war even when they never mentioned it explicitly.
War and torture have been very much the absent signifiers in my work for the last eight years--perhaps always. I've been struck by the corollaries between sadistic child abuse and torture (and the long-term trauma both cause), and I have long been obsessed with learning about both--understanding the psychology that motivates and allows such acts, understanding what can be done to prevent them. Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World has been very important for me in this regard (as has all the work of Alice Miller).
Similarly, I'm swayed by the argument that callousness toward any living being can be employed toward and amplified into a similar and destructive apathy toward other people. We wouldn't be able to rationalize or ameliorate the emotional difficulty of wartime killing by reducing the enemy (through language and imagery) into animals and insects if we didn't, as a culture, already believe that it was all right to kill animals and insects with impunity. The Quaker and Buddhist visions of radical pacifism attract me.
Now here we are, on the verge of sending 30,000 more young people into violence. Bob Herbert writes in yesterday's Times:
Years ago, on the eve of the U.S.'s initial invasion of Afghanistan, and again on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I felt alone (in my certainty that invasion would solve nothing), crazy, and desperately sad. Everyone seemed to support war. There was so much fear in our country then, and I silenced myself, thinking I must be wrong, naive, foolish. Now I'm similarly tempted to think, Well, if Obama thinks it's necessary, with all the inside information he has, and with his lefty commitments, then it must be necessary. After all, what do I know? I'm an English teacher.
It would have been much more difficult for Mr. Obama to look this troubled nation in the eye and explain why it is in our best interest to begin winding down the permanent state of warfare left to us by the Bush and Cheney regime. It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking — on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.
More soldiers committed suicide this year than in any year for which we have complete records. But the military is now able to meet its recruitment goals because the young men and women who are signing up can’t find jobs in civilian life. The United States is broken — school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding — yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each.
But my true tendency in this regard is toward moral absolutism: Thou shalt not kill. Period. Ever. Gandhi, Jesus, Dr. King, Mother Teresa. Which divides me from all my just-war, pragmatic friends--and even divides me from myself, when I think of what I'd do, without hesitation, to someone who tried to hurt my son, or in other morally vexed situations. It's an issue that confuses me.
Because I didn't want to keep this huge concern, which compels me so obsessively and which matters to all of us, an absent signifier here on the blog, I thought I'd share my current private reading list with you, in case you're interested:
Political scientist Darius Rejali's Torture and Democracy (Princeton UP, 2009) investigates the connections between forms of torture and forms of government. It's a harrowing read, and huge. It's taking me forever to get through it, in part because it is so upsetting and I have a painfully vivid imagination. I have to set it aside sometimes.
Ethicist Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral HIstory of the Twentieth Century analyzes wars and genocides in terms of the various psychological mechanisms that enable people to kill other people--and looks at what kinds of moments disrupt the human ability to do so.
Political scientists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin, 2004) is the most hopeful of the lot, because Hardt and Negri see possibilities for global networks that resist the state of permanent war and offer truly democratic alternatives.
Not exactly light reading, but they're helping me understand the things that most baffle my heart.