Monday, August 17, 2009

War! What is it good for?

Some time ago I made some posts about a great Frenchman. Now here's a word from his neighbor:

"War then is a relation, not between man and man, but between State and State . ... each State can have for enemies only other States, and not men; for between things disparate in nature there can be no real relation."
Nothing there about a war on drugs or terror, as far as I can tell.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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31 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Wars on nouns and on tactics don't make semantic sense (or much sense of any other kind, either).

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One might quibble that, say, the War on Poverty was no war either, but at least that one didn't involve guns, bombs and troops. Even when the goals are laudable, it seems Americans can't stay away from the w-word.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Kiwicraig said...

Maybe crime fiction afficianados could have a war on literary fiction snobs?

Or we could take on romance fiction? We'd win - we have all the guns... but then again, maybe they'd Mata Hari us into submission...

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I'm a peaceable guy. In any case, such a war would involves espionage on a massive scale, whether it be from literary writers changing their names when they write crime fiction, crime writers using great numbers of aliases, or romance writers using even greater numbers of aliases.

I have heard it said that of all the genres, writers of crime are the best-natured people. Some say this is because they express their violent, anti-social side in their writing, so they can be pleasant and sociable when they meet people away from the keyboard. I've always found them a companionable bunch.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Ah, but what about the never-ending war on crime? Certainly (he said with tongue in cheek), crime fiction ought to be required reading for conscripted soldiers in the state controlled war on crime (i.e., beat cops, homicide detectives, prosecutors, etc.). Perhaps (he said again with the same tongue in the same cheek) that kind of rhetoric tends to politicize the subject too much, and discussions of crime fiction ought not be encumbered by discussions of war, state, enemies, etc.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder when the phrase "war on crime" was first used. In the Nixon years, maybe? In fact, I wonder what the history is of war as a metaphor in America. Such a history ought to examine the psychological effects, intended and otherwise of calling campaigns (can't escape the military metaphors, can I?) against crime, drugs, poverty, terror or what have you wars. The closer such campaigns get to real wars, the scarier they get.

Certainly the Rousseau who wrote The Social Contract, reasonable man that he was, had no truck with military metaphors. To him, a war was a war. In America, a war is ... lots of things, apparently.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Liliana said...

Rousseau knew what he was talking about. War is war. It implies using all the available means to achieve certain goals. I think these goals are what establishes the main difference between a good war (like the one on poverty, for instance) and a bad war.

War can be a lot of things in America and everywhere else. I think Americans just use the word more often, maybe because it's a strong word. In my country, there are several words for anything that means a conflict. "Guerra" is the corresponding word to "war", and we only use it when there are guns involved and the conflict is between states. When talking about the war on poverty, we use the word "luta" (struggle), but it doesn't have the same strength, does it? Sometimes you do need to use the strong word to make things happen.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Struggle in American English has a quaint, archaically Marxist sound. Say "the struggle," and American eyes start to roll back in American heads. Conflict sounds small to American ears. It's interesting that American English may lack the vocabulary to express a strong, concerted effort other than by the word war.

Portuguese guerra seems an exact counterpart to Rousseau's guerre. Both are more narrowly defined than the popular American usage of war.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Here is another troublesome euphemism: the Troubles. It sounds rather innocent, doesn't it?

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Kiwicraig said...

But it certainly wasn't, was it RT?

Agree with all the above - I think "War" is used (especially by the likes of politicians and the media) simply because it is a strong, headline-grabbing word...

It's amazing (and very interesting) how important the choice and use of language is...

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., "The Troubles" is an interesting case. I know what it refers to, of course, though I don't know the history of the term, who first used it, whether one side favored the term more than the other, whether its opponents favored a different term, whether its very euphemistic innocence may have been intended ironically. In case, the term has long since lost that innocence and is more likely to induce shudders these days, I'd say.

This blog has a number of occasional commenters from Ireland. Perhaps they could weigh in on these interesting questions.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And, Craig, one wonders whether the word has different resonance in different coutries. It's liable to strike an Englishman, Frenchman, Japanese, German or Russian, at least older ones, with greater immediacy than it would an American, I'd guess.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Its an impressive bit of understatement "The Troubles" - a low level civil war in which 3500 people were killed. This is considerably more than the British casualties in Palestine, The Korean War, Malaya, The Falklands, The Gulf War, The Iraq Invasion and the Afghan campaign combined.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What's the history of the term? Did the Troubles ever go by another name?

August 17, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

"War on poverty" is probably an exception, but in practice 'war on' anything almost always proves to be a war on people, usually to their detriment. I think that the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" have actually added an element of the polemical and a kind of fuzziness to what otherwise might have been a clearer course of action.

August 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"War on poverty" is less semantically misleading because self-evidently metaphorical. "War on drugs" and "war on poverty" are moreso because one never is never certain whether to take them literally or as metaphors. Are the masterminds of such wars creators of the confusion, slaves of ths confusion, or some shifting, elusive combination of the two?

August 17, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I think the 'war on' mentality indicates black and white and simplistic thinking, so it doesn't really matter in the long run if it is deliberate or not.

v word=atedog

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I long for the day when we can look back at our dog-ate-dog world.

The "war on _____ " mentality simplistic thinking, but I still would still like to explore the psychology behind applying the common name of war to anti-poverty programs, domestic defense efforts, and whatever it is that the war on drugs was supposed to be.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

You remind me of the great William James' phrase, "the moral equivalent of war", which one of my professors, Page Smith, took much to heart. He believed, as James did, that the intensity of war fostered certain bonds and values that peacetime society finds hard to equal, yet must somehow.

And Chris Hedges wrote War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning, which understood deeply the things that war offered a young man (yes, it's primarily men who respond to this beacon), but saw through to some possibilities beyond that too.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's an interesting bit from Hedges, an expansion on Rousseau's definition:

"It can also, although less and less, be the result of vying interests between nation-states ... "

To be fair to Rousseau, the chapter from which I quoting mentions war only as an adjunct to his debunking of the suggestion that slavery can be a legitimate state. I don't know if he undertakes a more comprehensive definition of war elsewhere.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am chuffed, of course, to remind anyone of any of the great Bill Jameses.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Seana, Page Smith was one of your professors?!? I read the first two volumes of his "People's History" a million zillion years ago and learned a lot from them.

Wow.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just looked up a bit about Page Smith. He appears to have been an admirable character.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, he was one of my professors, briefly. But more pertinently in my life, he led a discussion group, along with Mary Holmes, who Peter will remember, on Monday nights here in town which I attended faithfully for more years than it is wise for me to acknowledge. One of his daughters is a good friend of mine, as is her son. She will be so pleased to hear you've read some of the series.

I was just at the "Penny University" tonight, as a matter of fact, which is still going on in their memory. We were talking about health care. I was getting annoyed, as I often do, until someone pointed out that this was one of the few forums where there is actually a dialogue going on, rather than just a political game. I realized right then that I was actually learning a lot and that I should check my attitude.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's good to know that learning goes on in Santa Cruz despite the presence of a university. I suppose it is rare and surprising when learning arises from polemics, especially polemics on hot, current issue.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, we both benefit and suffer from the university's presence here, and I couldn't tell you if it's a net gain or a net loss. I am quite sure I would never have ended up here, though, if the university hadn't preceded me.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, my tongue was planted at least partly in cheek (and where does that expression come from?) I meant simply that universities seem to be so much about credentials and parties that learning is a surprise when it happens. I mean no disrespect to the home of the fighting Banana Slugs.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

"each State can have for enemies only other States, and not men"

Guess the French Revolution did not count as a war, then. Or the American Civil War.

And States are nothing more than a rather large group of men. States are social constructs that would not exist if there were no men. Maybe reading this out of context is tripping me up, but I'm not buying Rousseau's logic here.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

It's true that "Enemy of the State" is one of those things they tend to call you right before they hang you.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, give poor Jean-Jacques a break. He wrote that passage well before the conflicts you cited and, as I mentioned, the passage cites war only in the context of another point he is trying to make. It's not a comprehensive definition. Implicit in my citation of him is that thinking about the definition of war has changed since Rousseau published his book in 1762.

I suspect that if he'd been around to look back on the French Recolution, rather than to help lay its foundations, he might have said that war consists of military engagements; the French Revolution is something much larger. I don't know what he'd have said about civil wars. In the American case, perhaps he'd have said that the opponents were groups, each of which was acting under the delusion that it constituted a state.

I'm reading no more out of context than you are, but I suspect that you and Rousseau agree more than you think. A social construct, he might have said, is something more than or other than each one of its parts and is subject to different rules. And rules are pertinent to this discussion, since he cites war to debunk the idea that the laws (rules, that is, of war) legitimize slavery.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, one wonders what Rousseau would have made of the term "enemy of the state." French authorities were not pleased by all his works, and he did flee the country at least once. (At other times, he enjoyed a pension from the king,)

August 18, 2009  

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