Tuesday, 14 February 2012
The Forever War
Busy right now doing a lot of stuff for Japanese academics and students, so no real time to post anything. I get such bad repetitive strain injury sometimes in my wrists, fingers etc, combined with headaches from being forced to stare at a computer screen for such extended periods, that I can't force myself to blog with the same regularity as before.
Be this as it may, I've just finished reading Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and found it so powerful that I feel obliged to take the time to blog something about it: a chill ran down my spine in the section where the veteran returns to Earth and finds life there so miserable, not least because his accumulated pension fund and savings can't sustain a decent living, that he decides it is preferable to return to combat. A critical point here is that, at least before "the fog of war" sets in, jingoism can simplify a soldier's involvement and choices for survival into such Manichean terms that there is no felt need to question one's involvement. The trauma of how meaningless it all is hits later. For another superb treatment of this theme, I recommend trawling through the archives of this blog to find Hans Joas's piece on violence and contingency (which he emailed to me several years ago). Likewise, Haldeman demonstrates the insidious nature of the process back on the homefront, where the veteran starts to feel like an alien. For some the solidarity of a small "band of brothers and sisters" provided by a combat unit, which has to be based on trust to ensure its survival, is apparently preferable to the death from a thousand cuts that results from the anomie of everyday existence under liberal capitalism.
Eerily enough, subsequent to publication of Haldeman's book, it becomes all too easy to find devious politicians who are willing to blur these lines further by resorting to "battlefield nationalism". In Australia, for example, this has meant celebrating "the ANZAC spirit": as neoliberal policies under the Howard Government attempted to convert everyday life into a forever war through tactics such as removing the "unfair dismissal" law from workplace agreements, Australians were constantly reminded of the sacrifices that needed to be made for the greater (ahem) good. It was particularly amusing when this fanatically doctrinaire revisionist historiography would backfire on them, like when a besieged minister Brendan Nelson complained bitterly that "politically correct" teachers were hampering nation building, and that this could be rectified by instead teaching students about the legacy of "Simpson and his donkey"--i.e. a soldier who had bravely risked his own life to save his fallen comrades by carrying them from the Gallipoli battlefield on a donkey. The inconvenient truth for Nelson was that Simpson had been a dedicated communist, so the motivations for his actions didn't exactly do wonders for the agenda of the Australian Liberal Party.
My earlier reference to Durkheim by way of anomie was therefore quite deliberate, as battlefield nationalism proves that even individualizing ideologies need to be ritually consecrated into forms of collective effervescence before they can be used to promote "the national interest".
Hopefully also in the same spirit as Joe Haldeman, I'm posting a couple of pics here to remind us of why we should prevent a forever war from taking hold.