U.S. Intellectual History Blog

War in the Service of War

bush bumpIn a review of Mark Danner’s latest book, Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War, Samuel Moyn questions the focus of Danner’s polemic: where Danner sees American war efforts around the world as a result of a “state of exception” generated in the early part of the War on Terror, Moyn contends instead that US military action is anything but exceptional—it is regulated, legalized, and controlled and therein lies the problem. “What if,” Moyn argues, “stigmatizing atrocity, making military sprawl less offensive to many even as it transcends all known chronological and territorial limits left the conflict harder to rein in? Indicting dirty war by itself [as Danner does in his book] does not reach the core of our spiral—indeed, doing so may help it continue to spin.”[1]

Reading Elaine Scarry’s analysis of the language of war and the metaphors by which we understand, prosecute, and explain war, leaves me wondering if, as Moyn seems to suggest, we are in a new era of thinking about war. In a typically smart twist of logic, Scarry takes apart the famous Clausewitz dictum that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Scarry writes that this saying “achieves its authority and authenticity in the brilliant ease of assertion with which a complicated and elusive phenomenon is suddenly made to stand before one as though it had always been self-evident.”[2] As war becomes almost a state of being—natural, not exceptional—the political product or conclusion that war was supposed to achieve loses its significance. “One may begin with the large claim,” Scarry explains, “that ‘war (injury) is the cost of freedom (or better boundaries, or whatever the issue the participants believe themselves fighting for).’ But now the scope of this claim may begin to contract so that ‘war’ itself, first conceived of as the cost, now becomes the thing purchased by, for example, battle.”[3]

In David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers about a specific battalion that fought in the middle of George W. Bush’s Surge in Iraq in 2007 (the 2-16, the Rangers), he recounts a discordant moment between the president and the wife of a severely injured soldier. Bush came to visit the hospital where Maria Emory watched over her husband, and she remembers Bush saying, “Thank you for your husband’s service to his country” and that “he was sorry for what our family was going through.” Maria Emory thanked the president for visiting but wanted to say something else. “I mean, when I saw him,” she explained, “I was angry I started crying, and he saw me and came to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’”[4]

Finkel’s observation of this moment relates to that deadly ambiguity of war without end or war as an end in itself. Bush “had no idea that [Maria’s tears] were because of anger, and he had no idea they were because of him. And nothing was okay, she said, so he was wrong about that too. Her husband was ruined.”[5] Injury purchased in battle was the price of this war, but was there anything more? Such frustration echoes a passage from Siegfied Sassoon’s, “The Battle of the Somme” from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, in which he lamented:

I leant on a wooden bridge, gazing down into the dark green glooms of the weedy little river, but my thoughts were powerless against unhappiness so huge. I couldn’t alter European history, or order the artillery to stop firing. I could stare at the War as I stared at the sultry sky, longing for life and freedom and vaguely altruistic about my fellow-victims. But a Second-Lieutenant could attempt nothing — except to satisfy his superior officers; and altogether, I concluded, Armageddon was too immense for my solitary understanding.

My sense of war now is that we don’t fight for any particular history and we resist imagining war as a continuation of any particular politics—to do either would suggest a clash of ideologies where either none exists or too many exist. And so we get what Scarry observes as the contraction of war to the battle, the injury, and in the case of Maria Emory, the tears.


[1] Samuel Moyn, “Why the War on Terror May Never End,” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/books/review/spiral-by-mark-danner.html?_r=0

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 77.

[3] Ibid., 76

[4] David Finkel, The Good Soldiers (New York: Picador, 2009), 82.

[5] Ibid.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It appears that war has become as much political theater as anything else. Leaders want to claim they are doing something about whatever it is that they used to scare the electorate into voting for them in the first place so they send other people’s kids (not exclusively but more often than not) showered with labels like “patriot” and “hero” to act out this play. What sickens me is that once these people have had the patriotism and heroics wrung from their bodies these same leaders have not given them much to come home to in the form of a VA system to look after their physical and emotional well-being. And what will change? One candidate is desperate to prove she is no bleeding heart liberal so she will not stop the fighting, lest the terrorist “win” and the other seems hell bent on bringing the fight home by lashing out at millions of people who have come here fleeing violence and promising to build a wall to cut off the path away from war. Where once we fought for land, resources, trade routes, and power, now we go to war to secure appropriations and win rhetorical battles on talk shows.

  2. Moyn appears to share Danner’s fear that the cycle of atrocity-revelation-expiation has broken down [or been stretched to an indefinite time], and suggests it may be because the war on terror has been “brought within law governing the conduct of hostilities to a remarkable extent,” making torture “not the signal attribute but a dispensable mistake in the invention of the endless war of our time,” “humane war.” This seems quite likely — though one wonders about the comparison between the number of persons tortured and, say, civilian deaths in Vietnam.

    In an interview with Michael Hanne a few years back, Danner described metaphors as “the hidden bombs of language,” emphasizing their power to shock, disrupt and reconfigure. But part of the reason for what he calls the normalization of “frozen scandal” might also be that over time metaphors can become familiarized or conventionalized, losing the power to roil facts into political action — like the hopelessly hackneyed war metaphor itself. Somehow this may be akin to Scarry’s notion that pain – and torture – can destroy language.

    In the same interview, Danner refers to Carl Rove’s statement that power creates its own reality as “the signal quote of our time.” Now, what was shocking when Orwell said the totalitarian believes “’history is something to be created rather than learned,’” has lost any peculiar ideological character and become ordinary truth from everyday life to graduate school seminars.

  3. When we fight for ideas rather than specific political ends, the war is never ending. Ideas are amorphous, and can’t be won in physical battles. But islands and bridges and cities can be tactically achieved. – TL

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