Category Archives: War

On Satire

Some comments on utilizing satire for social criticism (I think I’m qualified, having taken the genre to heart enough to write a 600-some page novel replete with it):

Listen to the wise words of absurdist-satirist presidential candidate Vermin Supreme, who was asked whether he wouldn’t have to raise taxes to fulfill his campaign promise to provide free ponies to everyone in America: “No, they’re free ponies.”

Satire of political economy is difficult when many genuinely think no further about economics than what they want, right now—and not at “what is not seen”* as Bastiat put it—but I think Vermin’s (feigned) assured refusal to get the question really nailed it. Vermin Supreme knows how to speak to, and for, (many or most) modern Americans.

Unfortunately, satire has no way to reach the people who don’t get it. It’s an unfortunate general weakness of social satire that the people who most need to get the joke are the people at whose expense the joke is made. Therefore it flies over their heads.

I remember much the same thing with the militarism of the movie Starship Troopers; those who found it just an enjoyable, thrilling action film romp (and those who didn’t, but also thought it had nothing much to say to them) are those immersed, naively, in a culture of normalized nationalist and imperialist propaganda.

Robocop had the same problem with becoming visible as satire to a generation raised on both absurdly violent films and cop-as-hero legends propagated by mass media. (Even recently, it’s unabashed in prolefeed like the CBS show Blue Bloods.) The mythology of police righteousness is only just now (I think?) becoming distinguishable, foreign and strange enough to be noticed—and potentially rejected—by a large number, instead of perfectly normal to the culture, and invisible as propaganda.

I love the genre of satire from an artistic standpoint and it can be very difficult to separate that affection from adequately, realistically measuring its effectiveness. I believe George Orwell, the writer of my favorite satire, had much the same problem. His favorite books included Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and he felt drawn to expressing his own criticisms of automatic thinking (“the gramophone mind”**) collaborating with authoritarian impulses, in this form above others. It’s certainly entertaining to those who slyly get the joke, but remarkably impenetrable to those who do not.

Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm, rejected by the publisher, reflects some of his own ambivalence about satire. For there Orwell felt the need to render in explicit prose some of his intention, instead of letting the book speak for itself.

Personally, I know that I have benefitted from reading the implicit, humorous, artful criticism of satire all the more in the context of reading such trenchant, direct, and explicit statements and analyses, also.

Satirists generally forget that many of their audience lack education in the points necessary to understand the attack, and to fully benefit from the art of satire, much as abstract visual art speaks more (and more emotionally) to those who have some familiarity with its prerequisites. It’s no coincidence that the satirical novel evolved alongside the literary form of the essay.

PS. I’ve said so before, but I just want to append that an additional difficulty with satire is that inventing fictional exaggerations as means to mock reality becomes more and more challenging when extreme and absurd realities are already playing out. How do you skewer an intelligence chief who built himself an Enterprise bridge as a control center? How do you mock Trumpish narcissism?

* Examples of “what is not seen” (because these factors are invisible, or only appreciated on a delay, or on alternate possible timelines):
impositions upon other individuals and groups, opportunity costs of various relative priorities, financial costs and other unwanted and unforeseen outcomes like bureaucratic/state empowerment, loss of individual autonomy, decline or replacement of competitive services, and legal/regulatory burdens, and finally, alternate methodologies for actually obtaining desires besides demanding them by political dispensation, which may not actually work.

** “For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” — from Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm

DADT, Military “Service” and Obedience

The cheerfully militarist celebrations of the repeal of DADT for the US military—from the “just shoot straight” jokes to the perspective-free allegations that DADT was a horrifying injustice (on something like the level of a war crime!)—repelled and confounded me. Americans being Americans, inducing self-congratulation is usually an effective strategy to distract from other things—such as any of the reasons the chief executive has a deservedly low approval rating, and all the civilized campaign promises he has failed to keep, like restoring civil liberties and accountability, closing Guantanamo and ending torture, and ceasing an aggressive foreign policy.

But there is more to it. As others have said, militarism truly is the civil religion of the country, common to the secular and religious, right and left, Republican and Democrat. Chief among the implicit assumptions underlying this militarism is the concept of “service” to the country, and the principle that putting on a uniform for this “service” baptizes men and women to become intrinsically admirable. They should never be questioned by the public in their obedience to the chain of command, merely “supported.”

In general, the popular understanding of “service” seems to be minimally thought through, at best. “Public service” is just a phrase for politicians and bureaucrats to adopt as propaganda for self-interested careers in power and money. Likewise, we should question whether those who “serve” in the military “services” actually serve others, or any shared interests of the country they claim to defend.

Obedience should not be confused with service. In the present state of affairs, in fact, disobedience seems far more promising as a means to serve the country. Dissent seems far more necessary than mutely following the powers that be as they continue to bring the country to ruin through a doctrine of endless war, minimal liberty, unlimited profligacy and ever-accreting power—in short, policies converting the last vestiges of a republic into an unabashed empire.

The unpleasant reality that only dissidents want to discuss is that the US has a callous government supported by various callous interest groups. It prints and extorts money at the general expense of struggling consumers to enrich private financial interests and obtain loans for itself. It incarcerates roughly 1% of its population, mostly for consensual “crimes.” It spends fantastic sums to monitor, restrict and control its own citizens and billions of others around the globe. The largest employer in the world, the DoD, employs another 1% of the population. It spends the largest military budget in the world—by far—in order to pursue policies of attrition in multiple countries at once that have caused millions of casualties but ensured little besides short-term profits, mayhem, and making long-term enemies.

An abstract nicety like “equality” has little bearing in the real world for all those caught up and made victims of the state—American citizens or not—whether they are impoverished or bombed, jailed or otherwise persecuted. Certainly the luxury to be delusional about the importance of political correctness in an empire belongs only to those isolated from most imperial consequences. It is reminiscent of old Imperial British concerns over propriety in colonial armies, completely beside the point of their repressing the “wogs.”

Which brings me back to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the joy that soldiers can now openly express their homosexuality as they—frankly—fight wars for empire on the increasingly slim and tortured excuse that the Eternal War on Terror needs to be fought everywhere at tremendous cost, despite the fact that fewer Americans die from terrorism than dog bites. In the face of everything else, it is extraordinary that homosexuality is the controversy about “servicemen and women” versus all the more appropriate questions about this supposed service. We ought to wonder: how is being able to admit you’re gay while you occupy 70% of the world’s countries, consume trillions of dollars no one has, bomb innocents with drones at a ten-to-one ratio and radicalize foreigners admirable, and how is any of this “serving the nation”? Because the President says so?

While I’m aware of the standard excuses made for soldiers—military personnel simply go where they are deployed, aren’t political, don’t make the choices about wars but only fight them, have to do as they’re told, etc.—I disagree that grown men and women who have chosen to volunteer for armed conflicts at the open-ended option of politicians like Bush and Obama, and chosen to continue fighting throughout all revelations about those wars, can fail to be responsible for their own actions.

I think it is also well-established that “following orders” is no excuse. If a man voluntary kills another man (or woman, or child), it is at all times his doing. Call it anything else, make it as anonymous as possible, and yet that fact remains. He had better, therefore, make sure he needed to kill, and he had better make sure of the reasons why he was told to. A soldier is not just a tool; he is not a robot; he remains a man, and a man should always think for himself, and always retains that responsibility. To cede this point is to subordinate individuals to social control, and the purpose of this is less combat effectiveness than it is ensuring conformity and lockstep obedience behind politicized war agendas.

Volunteer soldiers also have chosen to join and to obey orders. They have chosen to become obedient combatants serving policies known to have been formulated by opportunistic political factions in league with corporate and military-industry interests. They have chosen to become cogs in gigantic, indifferent organizations which employ indiscriminate military tactics, such as missile and drone bombing with appalling “collateral damage” casualty rates (also causing much backlash) and night raids which typically kill or capture the wrong people. These are not incidental crimes; these are military policies. When recruits enlist, surely they cannot fail to be responsible for knowing they will be part of a military organization killing mostly innocents in foreign lands, often for entirely manufactured reasons on the basis of fake intelligence and distorted narratives. And if they have somehow managed and chosen to remain ignorant of salient information about their profession, disreputable means and professed casus belli, can this ignorance be taken as any real exemption from responsibility for participation?

Those who subordinate themselves to superiors and simply obey orders do not exercise their ability and responsibility to think for themselves, as human beings. In doing so, they fail to obey a higher duty and service than any bureaucratic organization can claim—except of course for those who correct this mistake, come to question their role, and admirably refuse to proceed further against their conscience, much to the chagrin of men at the Pentagon. In fact, even the military acknowledges this responsibility in the sense that, should soldiers be exposed publicly for committing “war crimes”—in addition to those the Pentagon sticks by— they are not personally excused.

Thus, I feel that politically-correct concern over military policies such as DADT is absurdly negligent of the elephant in the room about unjust, unconscionable wars. While soldiers are killing innocent people for disreputable agendas, who cares about their workplace sensitivity?

Surely, openly stating homosexuality is an infinitesimal part of the free speech they should be exercising in dissent against what leaders want to make them do. It is conscientious objectors who deserve our admiration and attention, not obedient janissaries simply because they have the “courage” to talk about their homosexuality. That is not much courage, and it is not heroism; standing against a mighty system to defend others from its predations is heroism requiring courage on a level that those who only follow celebrity causes, like DADT, will never appreciate.

We should finally note that the premise that indiscriminate obedience is the foundation of the armed forces, that the military should be segregated from political thought, should be lauded as heroes for their “difficult job” and their “service” as they follow deployment and operational orders without qualms, and should never be asked by the public to exercise discretion, is an incredibly dangerous one.

Precisely this compartmentalization between fighting wars and deciding on war was the factor inducing the Wehrmacht to turn a blind eye to the rise of the national socialists in Germany; officers like Rommel believed they should never be political. When fine military forces exist to be appropriated for the agenda of any political faction who rises to power, they will be used, because they can be.

Furthermore, any separation between the bureaucratic interests of the military and political agendas has always been false due to the massive common financial interests in ensuring budgets, opportunities for contracts, and missions to provide raisons d’être. Manufacturing wars has historically involved the complicity of military leadership. Military officers have historically supported militarist programs. Especially since Europe’s adoption of the regimental system, every separate military culture has sought its own welfare over welfare of others. Militaries form selfish interest groups of their own, even at the cost of lives. Today, the military-industrial complex is a juggernaut. War—and all its thousands of attached interests and businesses—is the world’s largest industry and most powerful lobby.

The American public has yet to appreciate the domestic risk of celebrating “heroes” for the “service” of blind obedience of authority. In Germany, the concept of Führerprinzip exempted individuals from responsibility for decision-making, aside from that necessary to obey higher-ups in the hierarchy. Americans, by and large, have likewise accepted the military hierarchy as independent from personal conscience and individuality. They have accepted that soldiers are simply tools who must obey orders and leave all decisions to the officers above them, all the way to the Commander-in-Chief. But once this principle is established—that leaders sit atop an obedient monolithic pyramid of governmental enforcers which the public MUST support, regardless of political policies—there is no reason whatsoever for leaders to pay any attention to citizens, any longer. Complaints have no teeth. The leaders have what they need to take anything, and they need not listen.

The rank and file, too, have their established loyalties, reinforced by the public’s own attitudes toward their common identity and obedience. Having been taught that they bear no direct responsibility to serve the public versus their superiors and comrades, or to discern whether their actions and obedience is in the public interest, they have little reason to respond to pleas. If, on some unfortunate day in the future, an even-more unscrupulous faction and President finds opportunity to order martial law in the United States, citizens should not be surprised to find that order obeyed. Sadly, I can also predict that a substantial portion of the population would still cheer.

It has been correctly said that if anyone can ever stop war, it will be due to soldiers refusing to come. Perhaps we can also presume that if anyone can ever halt the madness of empire before its downward spiral ensures an irrecoverable collapse of values underpinning civilization, it must be soldiers or other would-be enforcers who retain some thoughtfulness and dedication to the service of humanity, and refuse to be pawns.

Ludwig von Mises on Colonialism

Now that colonialism is supposedly over, it’s very interesting to see how much of this passage from 1927 still applies to occupied countries in the present:

No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans in Africa and in important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition. The only question is how the elimination of this intolerable condition can be accomplished in the least harmful way possible.

The most simple and radical solution would be for the European governments to withdraw their officials, soldiers, and police from these areas and to leave the inhabitants to themselves. It is of no consequence whether this is done immediately or whether a freely held plebiscite of the natives is made to precede the surrender of the colonies. For there can scarcely be any doubt as to the outcome of a truly free election. European rule in the overseas colonies cannot count on the consent of its subjects.

The immediate consequence of this radical solution would be, if not outright anarchy, then at least continual conflicts in the areas evacuated by the Europeans. It may be safely taken for granted that up to now the natives have learned only evil ways from the Europeans, and not good ones. This is not the fault of the natives, but rather of their European conquerors, who have taught them nothing but evil. They have brought arms and engines of destruction of all kinds to the colonies; they have sent out their worst and most brutal individuals as officials and officers; at the point of the sword they have set up a colonial rule that in its sanguinary cruelty rivals the despotic system of the Bolsheviks. Europeans must not be surprised if the bad example that they themselves have set in their colonies now bears evil fruit. In any case, they have no right to complain pharisaically about the low state of public morals among the natives. Nor would they be justified in maintaining that the natives are not yet mature enough for freedom and that they still need at least several years of further education under the lash of foreign rulers before they are capable of being, left on their own. For this “education” itself is at least partly responsible for the terrible conditions that exist today in the colonies, even though its consequences will not make themselves fully apparent until after the eventual withdrawal of European troops and officials.

— Ludwig von Mises, in “Liberalism” [in the Classical Tradition] (1927). The passage continues on page 126:



A Note on Strategy: Clearer Anti-State Terminology

Critics of militarism and imperial foreign policy often make the mistake of using terms that can seem obtuse to other people. For example, Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex.” These days, this has become the military-industrial-congressional-media complex. “State imperialism,” etc. may put people off who have not studied the relevant political science and history.

Instead, we might consider a term like the aggression industry. This has the added benefit of making clear that it is not defensive war at issue, and that aggression is incentivized as a business. The business of aggression is clearly booming, with US military spending at record highs, and it’s high time for critics to make that business stand out as clearly as possible.

Likewise, the “police state” can be described as part of the control industry, with similar advantages. The control business is also booming, from scanner technology and production, to TSA hirings, to the gigantic budgets for the NSA and other spooks.

There is also a certain amount of retained mystique around a term like the State, for those unfamiliar with the reference to actual people who have established themselves as rulers. Aggression and control are the primary businesses of the State. We can sum them up as institutional force, supported by the force industry. On the basis of force, the State can dominate any other business, including the printing of money. Force is the ancient profession of invaders and thieves, and is still the world’s preferred way to reap huge undeserved profits. Aggressive war pays, and so does domestic control—directly and indirectly. Pointing this out does a great deal to clarify these obfuscated subjects.

Presumed guilty, kept in solitary, forcibly drugged, denied exercise and sheets

In “The inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention,” Greenwald has assembled a remarkable piece you really must read.

as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.

Isn’t forcibly drugging accused prisoners something that a totalitarian government does, like the Soviet Union, for example? And isn’t making excuses that torture is “necessary,” and the assumption of guilt instead of innocence characteristic of a dystopian society?

Not only does the US government not represent the free world, it increasingly represents the barbarian world of rule by force and fear. This is the ancient root and origin of political power, but the instincts of civilization have for thousands of years been campaigning to ameliorate it, through restraints such as individual rights and protections for the accused, through condemnation of torture and persecution, and through the promotion of empathic humanism, and freedom of expression.

Which brings me to Greenwald’s assessment of Manning’s motivation based on what little we have been allowed to read of Manning speaking for himself:

That’s a whistleblower in the purest and most noble form: discovering government secrets of criminal and corrupt acts and then publicizing them to the world not for profit, not to give other nations an edge, but to trigger “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.”

It is clear that Manning devoted himself to checking the erosion of civilization so evident in the recent tide of barbarism. He is a soldier fighting to restore human civilization, a hero who was not fooled by uniforms and nationalism, who recognized barbarism when he saw it and rebelled.

From my Time and Tide: Eroding Civilization:

We wish for a rock to hold back the tide, when it turns against us. Or we watch our little pool, and we pretend for a while to see nothing else of the ocean. But time passes, and change comes in. We cannot secede into a private life, for the protection of private lives is an accomplishment of civilized society, and that is precisely what is under threat.

Civilization is not a product of technological, material comforts—the other way around, rather. Nor is it orchestration by managing hierarchies, but an innovation of organic society understood to be based on connected individuals. Civilization is an ideal achieved in human society to the extent that its people align their concepts and organization to distinguish individuality, protect and foster personal expression, and retain the achievements of individuals within cultural forms.

Armistice (work in progress)

Composed an earlier draft on Armistice Day one year ago, but this poem was never published until now.


Once, an Armistice,
To end all wars. But
What was the cheering for?
If peace,
The enemy won too—then
What did the veterans die for?
Peace is the enemy of war,
And we’re for war,
Whenever you say.
Peace if we must, but
Victory first.

The veterans fought
So we could win.
V is for Victory, not
And they come back fine. But
Finer still if they don’t; then
We talk for them.
They dress in
Flags, for a box procession. They
Parade in the ground, carrying
Crosses. What
Service for their country!

Armistice Day and Vets

Armistice Day is today. Like other fine holidays (this one celebrating the end of a horrifying and thoroughly unnecessary war) the government did something self-serving to it.

Thank a Vet? by Laurence M. Vance

I say self-serving because if every veteran of every war is honored, that ostensibly honors every war the government orders them to fight. It becomes much harder to criticize warmongering, war misconduct, or war crimes when these are cast as besmirching “men in uniform” one is only allowed to honor. One is never allowed to hold them responsible for their choice of volunteering to follow orders, whatever they may be—George Bush’s orders, for example.

1918 is instructive because, as many historians now realize, not only was World War I not a just crusade against “the Hun,” American intervention in that war would cause World War II, by overturning a just settlement, creating a bitter Germany, redrawing the map e.g. dismantling Austria-Hungary, and ensuring a series of events that would put Hitler (or someone fascist like him) into power. This is an indication of how rarely fighting wars is the answer, and how rarely going off to fight them is worth honoring.

Are veterans responsible for their actions? Yes, they are, like anyone else. Are veterans responsible for unintended consequences of their actions? Yes, they are, like anyone else. And if veterans are worthy of honor and respect, they will take responsibility, as some have, for what they have done. Politicians and generals give orders, but “men/women in uniform” follow—or refuse.