Friday, December 20, 2002

Western culture would, indeed, not be what it is unless it could respect both the lawful bearer of arms and the person who holds the bearing of arms intrinsically unlawful. Our culture looks for compromises and the compromise at which it has arrived over the issue of public violence is to deprecate its manifestation but to legitimize its use.
John Keegan, A History of Warfare

I am not a pacifist. I do not have the Christian forbearance or the largeness of soul to forgive my enemies. I believe that turning the other cheek only causes you pain in two places. But Keegan points out in the first chapter of A History of Warfare, "War in Human History", the pacifist and the soldier are forever engaged in dialogue, and that dialogue defines our political boundaries. If that is true, when we throw around epithets like like "traitor" or "chickenhawk" we diminish our ability to maintain the discussion and we become progressively more intolerant, defining the "rightful" members of the society as those who are "like us." A terrifying idea, considering what societies do to those "not like us".

I bought Keegan's book a few years ago to add to my "someday" stash; you know, the books you are going to read "some day." But recent events and the bitter intellectual warfare being waged these days by the pro- and anti-war contigents led me back to it. So far (I'm only on page 23!) I've found several interesting premises, in addition to the one mentioned above:

--War is wholly unlike diplomacy or politics because it must be fought by men whose values and skills are not those of politicians or diplomats. They are those of a world apart, a very ancient world, which exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong to it.
I suppose this is one of those truisms that seem self-evident only when one really thinks about it. When Keegan speaks of skills and values he means more than just being trained to use the instruments of war better than civilians, or even the drive to win that must be the ultimate value to a soldier, if only to ensure his survival. He means a whole culture existing within and circumcribed by the legal and social institutions of the larger one.

--Clausewitz failed to realize that war embraces much more than politics: that it is always an expression of culture, often a determinant of cultural forms, in some societies the culture itself.
Keegan is very critical of Clausewitz for allowing the two institutions--state and regiment--that circumscribed his own perception of the world to dominate his thinking so narrowly that he denied himself the room to observe how difference war might be in societies where both state and regiment were alien concepts. He gives several examples of different cultures, such as the Ottoman Turks, the Easter Islanders, and the Japanese samurai, whose forms of warfare defied altogether the rationality of politics as it is understood by Westerners.

This premise makes me uneasy, if only because it seems to me that, in the War on Terrorism, we are faced with an opponent whose definitions of the role of "war," "politics." and "religion," are diametrically opposed to our own. Militarily, Islamic states are organized along modern lines. Armies are set up same regimental lines as ours; officers probably study the same textbooks and war scenarios as ours do. It will be a form of warfare everyone on either side will understand. But a war on terrorists who have no state affiliation, no politics other than the elimination of the opponent's culture, and whose highest form of religious obedience is to die for their God cannot be fought on conventional basis. Even if we identified, defeated and occupied those states who foment or protect islamic terrorism; even if we coordinated police forces throughout the world to capture, try, and imprison or execute individual terrorists, we would only be containing the problem.
Maybe "war" is the wrong metaphor in this case. Maybe we have to come up with a whole new set of concepts for this one.

I'll probably have more to say on Keegan. In the meanwhile, I've already lined up Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War, Christ Hedges, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles. Other recommendations would be welcome, especially from the pacifist viewpoint.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Why Skyedreams

Have you noticed that sometimes, when you least expect it, you come upon the place of your heart, the small piece of earth where your soul belongs?

It happened to me in October of 1998, when my sister and I drove over a high arching bridge and onto the Isle of Skye. Eilean a' Cheo, the Isle of Mist. In the maps, it vaguely resembles of heraldic beast clawing its defiance to the North Atlantic. It has a fabulous and tragic history, being home to two of the great Highland Clans, the McLeods of Dunvegan and the MacDonalds of Sleat, who traded land, power, and influence back and forth for centuries. It sheltered the Young Pretender, Charles Stuart, after the battle of Culloden. It played a central role in the Crofter Revolts of the 1880s that put a stop to the clearance of farming communities to make space for sheep farming and sporting estates. Today it is the tourist capital of the Scottish Islands. In the summer it is overrun by thousands of folk, from Americans tracing their Scottish roots to European climbers wishing to risk their necks on the Black Cuillin, one of the most difficult mountain ranges in the world.

I saw Skye for the first time in a cold, damp, dreary afternoon. From Kyle of Lochalsh, across the straits, it appeared as a purplish-grey ghost, full of sharp edges and long drops, unpromising. My only reason for visiting Skye was to tour Dunvegan Castle, the home of the McLeods (yes, those McLeods, although Highlander was filmed at Eilean Donan in the mainland). It's one of the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland, held by the same family since the 900s, and it comes complete with its own fairy legends and a great deal of more prosaic, and bloody, history. We would arrive at our b&b in the evening, tour the castle in the morning, and be back in the mainland by afternoon.

What happened then was something that had never happened before and has never happened since; something that my hardheaded rationalism swears could not have happened. As we drove across the bridge and into Skye my heart seemed to slow down, and everything seemed very clear and, well...familiar. I set down the map and started giving my sister directions. At one point, as we passed a large hotel, I directed her to take a secondary road leading directly up into the mountains. It was not the road we were supposed to take, but I insisted. We got to out B&B an hour earlier than if we had followed the map. That night, after my sister went to sleep, I stayed up and stared out the window into a night so dark that I am sure I could not have seen anything further away than the small circle of light cast by the lamppost near the gate. But there were faces and images in the dark for me. Before I went to bed I wrote in my diary: I've found home for the first time, I think. I dreamed of a small cottage on the shores of a deep sea loch, with dark mountains towering behind.

I've been back to Skye twice since then, and plan on returning soon. I dream of my cottage, and my loch, and my mountains almost every night. Someday I will have my dreams. And I'll be home.

Heeelllooo World

I love to read blogs; I'm not sure I want to write them. But after several people told me to go get my own, I decided I would try. Like most experiments, this will be shown a success or a failure sooner or later. I plan to write about anything that strikes me as interesting. I don't intend to limit myself to those things I'm an expert in (there are some). You are welcome to comment, kibbitz, and bitch, but don't expect too much. I'ts my world.