November 26, 2004
Responding to Goff (3 of 4)

[I just finished reading Stan Goff's Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century; I'll post a series of elaborations and responses to his arguments here.]

3. Wars do not allow for subtle moral calculations. The goal is to eliminate the enemy, and you either go all the way, or lose. (Goff: "When any conflict, regardless of its social and political content, escalates to war, war itself asserts a stark logic. All other objectives are sublated into the choice between destroying the enemy's capacity and will to fight or perishing as a viable military force.")

Goff sympathizes with the humane inspiration behind pacifism, but admonishes leftists who would impose pacifism on others. Especially when to not fight back violently is tantamount to cultural--not to mention physical--suicide. Here, he says:

Non-violence can be an effective tactic, but so can violence. Itís only liberal hypocrisy that denies the latter. For Iraq, it is the only tactic.
And it seems that people in Haiti, Palestine, Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere have come to a similar conclusion: nonviolence means getting mowed down. Which can help you win, but doesn't necessarily.

A major difference: the US empire tends to fund paramilitaries and death squads (accountable to no one but their funders, who deny their status as funders, or get away with it despite direct connections), while Ghandi was dealing with the British Empire, which had a lot of face to lose with massacres. People are killed regularly in Haiti, but there's not a lot of coverage. Even less in Colombia.

I have a bit of sympathy for this position, insofar as it is straightforward: living in abject misery and humiliation, or dying of starvation or preventable disease is worse than fighting back. The problem, as Goff is well aware, is that fighting back involves killing civilians. He reduces the decision to the initial choice: either a war is worth fighting, or it is not. But once you've chosen to go to war, you have to go all the way... or lose.

As realistic as it seems, this kind of thinking makes me very nervous. It's too easy to say "war is hell, but we need to be realists", though admittedly less easy when the person making the decision is also risking her life. It can't be said loudly or often enough that war is an absolute last resort; a failure of creativity. Some aspire to a failure of creativity, some have a failure of creativity thrust upon them.

The biggest creative difficulty for me--one which will become even more important if things get as bad as Goff (and others) say they are going to--is negotiating the area between unconditional support for armed struggle against imperialism on the one hand, and exhortations to find ways to rise above violence on the other.

The polarization between the two is intense, and politicized. The mainstream press is constantly finding new ways of condemning violence on the part of Palestinians, Iraqis, Aboriginals, Afghanis and Haitians, while "reluctantly" taking a "realistic" stand in support of violent invasions, bombings, sanctions and murders that cause hundreds of thousands of deaths (not to mention policies that deny the right to self determination to millions).

But Goff is right on his first premise: war reduces, and sucks you in. As soon as war starts, the logic of "with us or against us" inevitably applied. And it doesn't matter what the "social and political content" is.

But where Goff sees that as grim reality, I, through basic ethical necessity, have to see it as a challenge.

Questions, then: how can one simultaneously resist the reductive, inevitably violent nature of war while supporting a side? How does one consistantly assert the need for nonviolent resistance while supporting violent resistance?

Posed that way, it's probably impossible to answer. But if there is an answer, it will come on the basis of thorough understanding of the history and motivations of those who have decided to use violence. I would suggest that very few people have this understanding.

A short version of the answer, I suppose, is that you just do it. When you're there, you do what you can. It's only when one is so far removed from the situation in question that this becomes a problem.

Here's Iraqi novelist and former prisoner of Saddam Hussein's regime Haifa Zangana, writing in the Guardian:

Every day of occupation brings fresh atrocities. But the architects of that occupation claim that it is Iraqis themselves who are beyond the reach of democracy. They are "militants" and "insurgents", bent on terrorising their own people and destroying hopes of reconstruction. Why can't they get involved in the peaceful democratic political process?

But they did, and they continue to do so. Over the last 19 months there have been protests, appeals, initiatives to set up a reasonable programme for elections, the opening of human rights centres, lecturing at universities, even poetry writing. This torrent of activism is still being practised by a broad variety of political parties, groups and individuals who oppose the foreign occupation. And they have been ignored. Newspapers were closed. Editors were arrested. Demonstrators were shot at, arrested, abused and tortured.

My friend Jon Elmer, who runs, says that solidarity with Palestine in particular is a matter of making space. A matter of not giving in to the constant demands to "condemn" suicide bombing, but to assert that civilian lives should not be harmed or ended, while explaining the circumstances under which suicide bombings are used as a tactic.

It seems kind of infantile, how simple the conclusion always ends up being: that we should understand something before forming judgements. It's amazing how elusive that utterly straightforward goal ends up being. So much easier to slip into polemic, or simplified and essentialized explanation. But it's true: the ways in which we can slip into comfortable unrealities are infinite in supply. Reality is always more complicated, we might say, but then the complexity itself is mobilized as a method of covering up basic truths. Within the pundit-meme echo chamber, it is recursive and endless.

So just as Goff the ex-soldier brings it all back to the military, Dru the editor and media activist brings it all back to the public discourse.

Luckily, Goff's writing stays close enough to the ground that it (mostly) provokes dialogue, instead of perpetuating entrenched ideological squabbling.

posted by dru in war