The passing of Generation Kill

Julian Assange said dryly, on the release of what he called the Afghan War Diaries, that war is just one damn thing after another, which is a somewhat polite way of putting it, and makes him sound a bit like Biggles. Perhaps ‘one fucking atrocity after another’ would have been more to the point.

The day before the WikiLeaks documents were released, I finished reading Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, a book I’d been meaning to get around to reading but life, etc. Generation Kill has become something of a celebrity book now. It’s Wright’s account of being embedded for two months with a company of marines of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion spearheading the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Wright, who cut his reporting teeth – if that’s the word – writing porn reviews for Hustler, where he seems to have learned something about misogyny, has gained something of a reputation as a sort of latter day Hunter S. Thompson. A Thompson he isn’t, but he is a fine observer and takes full advantage of his role as an embedded journo. We won’t get an Australian equivalent as the ADF controls its info on its operations with an obsessive po-faced secrecy that borders on the ludicrous, and a compliant media ensures that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are events we are not going to be asked to think about too much.

Anyway, I was thinking that Evan Wright’s marines seem like cuddly angels compared with the antics of their comrades who followed them over the next seven years. Evan Wright’s soldiers are a kind of more profane, intensely homoerotic Dirty Dozen.

They are very real, but they are also strangely moral in their own way. Generation Kill, a book that was further mythologised into a weird HBO TV series, became notorious because of its supposed claim that today’s GIs kill with no more compunction than they would if they were playing Grand Theft Auto. Actually, Wright never said this, but it became an interesting way of demonising individuals and sensationalising the war and playing into the moral hysteria around video games and so on, while ignoring the politics of the Iraq invasion.

Evan Wright’s marines were just a few weeks into a brand new war. Today’s marines are seven years into an occupation, and its brutalising effects on the invaders, and the horror upon horror that seem to be piled on the invaded are so staggering its difficult to fathom the stupidity and evil of the US administration that was so gung-ho in prosecuting the war, not to mention its enthusiastic cheer squad in Australia.

Something very, very horrible went down in Fallujah, for example, after the US assault in late 2004. A recent epidemiological study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies and Public Health, has documented rates of cancer, leukaemia and so forth far greater than in Hiroshima after the dropping of humankind’s first atomic bomb. Fallujah was a free-fire zone for the US in their attack there – i.e. you shoot whatever you want with whatever you want – and whatever the Americans were using obviously had quite a lot of highly radioactive material. The local rate of leukaemia is 38 times, childhood cancer 12 times, breast cancer 10 times, and infant mortality 5 times higher than in other comparable Middle East countries.

The larger-than-life hyped up kids of Generation Kill have now become the brutalised, psychotic perpetrators of atrocity after atrocity. The deliberate murder of an Iraqi husband and wife and the murder and the rape of their daughters by drunken GIs at an isolated military outpost in 2006 (one probably similar to Combat Outpost Keating whose destruction was described in the WikiLeaks documents) reads like a criminal act committed in some American horror flick by strung-out psychos trying to cure themselves of years of satanic abuse and torture.

The marines of Evan Wright’s 1st Recon battalion are already hopelessly out of date. Whatever war they were fighting didn’t exist in the first place, and whatever it was has been revealed as a kind of hell that it is difficult to grasp, or understand, or think of. A war pretty much ignored by mainstream media until some kind of vivid ultra-violent intrusion such as the WikiLeaks ‘Collateral Damage’ video makes it briefly visible for a few minutes. The current WikiLeaks documents – an explosive scoop if ever there was one – haven’t been able to compete in the Australian mainstream media with the Masterchef final and Abbot and Gillard’s ludicrous ‘debate’.

The marines of Generation Kill are people who fitted the mould of a hip HBO mini-series, a kind of Deadwood in the desert. Wright’s Bravo Company move through the chaos of Iraq like a sort of strange mediaeval morality play acted out in the confines of a Humvee. Seven years later that theatre is starting to look more like a suburb of Pandemonium, where morality is an object paraded for political convenience, occasionally inconveniently hung with the bodies of the murdered and imprisoned. I doubt that if Evan Wright returned to Iraq now he’d be able to write a similar narrative of what has happened since he was last there. I don’t think anybody could. In fact it has written itself, and we can upload it any time we want to our very own laptops. It has been compiled by WikiLeaks and it junks every other attempt to write about the war.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Evan Wright features, too, in ‘Big Red Son’, David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay on whatever the porn awards extravaganza in Las Vegas is called, as Wallace’s cicerone, Harold Hecuba.

    1. Interesting. Though its very much a side issue, I mentioned Evan Wright’s history at Hustler, because I was intrigued by the way he went from reviewing the most violent porn, to being embedded with a bunch of professional killers in the middle of a war. Not intriguing in a isn’t-he-a-weirdo kind of way, but just in the way of constructing a bigger picture. He remarks, in the afterword of GK I think, that one of the things that helped him to form friendships with the marines was the very fact that he’d had the Hustler job.

  2. I don’t know any thing about the rehab of returned servicepersons in Australia, unfortunately. One would hope that, blah, blah, blah. However, if the various US enterprises in war are anything to go by it’s probably not a happy area of experience.

  3. I would suspect that the rehab will be disastrous, both here and in the US (where the number of suicides is already astronomical). There’s a structural problem for governments in that, for all the talk of ‘honouring the troops’, you don’t — you can’t — send people into a warzone if you care very much for their well-being. It’s not just the psychological damage: the vets I’ve spoken with say that the combat roles are so rote and specialised that ex-soldiers are often unemployable, and so they go back to the same dead-end jobs they enlisted to escape.

    1. quite: not many job ads for ‘candidate should be able to kill, on command or at will’

      but this goes against the army reserve and officer training ads in Australia in the last decade which promise a great time getting skilled and experience in ‘high press situations’ that, the implication is, would stand you in good stead for promotion up the ranks of middle and senior management.

      1. The vocabulary of such advertising has always seemed – what i have seen of it – to be aimed at young people. “Hey kids! Like to drive your very own tank, or fly your own F-16?!” I think the average age of the marines in Gen Kill was about 20 or so.
        I would imagine generally that as the US has been calling up reservists the average age has jumped quite a bit. Either way I guess its the younger, uneducated/unskilled the ads aim at.
        THe Gen Kill marines also hadn’t had time for their trauma symptoms to start going ballistic either. That would start to happen after their tours and they had to again negotiate human relationships and so on. What Evan Wright got was a snapshot of a bunch of hyped-up guys whose trauma was on hold so to speak, whereas the marines of the WikiLeaks Collateral Damage video were already well into their own personal trauma landscapes, and their capacity to think was pretty much screwed. That was the doubly distressing thing about the video, was not just the murders, but the naked state of the minds of the killers, who had done and seen this kind of destruction many times before. On top of that, there are personal histories of traumatic childhoods, dead-end lives etc etc. So, where we are now in this imbecilic war, we see the Gen Kill generation become the Collateral Damage generation. It was inevitable.

  4. Just a little digression on the theme of the psycho dirty dozen and perhaps a little known legacy of Kevin (bound to win now)…On July 1 the NSW Psychologists Act 2001 was repealed and the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (NSW) enacted. This is the scenario where the federal gov gets each state to adopt a national legislation. NSW rocked the boat a bit and insisted on keeping jurisdiction over misconduct within NSW instead of transferring it to the national agency. Right now people who receive the services of NSW psychologists eg school cousellors can know that those same psychologists do not know what codes of conduct they are supposed to follow. “Train them, excite them, arm them, and turn them loose!” – from the dirty dozen trailer.

    1. On the day that that film was made, with which country or people or minority were the American Gov at war or just like irritated?
      I suppose there’s the possibility of plain narcissistic hatred.
      Wiki leeks sucks.
      We want a story…or… a storyteller.
      That’s what you’re saying.

      1. I’m saying that there isn’t a fiction writer alive who could
        write the narrative that is written in the WikiLeaks documents. Not unless he or she could write some kind of mega-Tolstoyan epic of suffering and download it straight to our brains so that we’d finally get the message that wars are appallingly stupid enterprises. When Owen wrote his war poems he had to explicit state in his intro THIS ISN’T POETRY. Of course, generations of literary critics would disagree. And they are always right. I was thinking last night that perhaps the forgotten purpose of fiction is to allow the fiction writer to grow a personality with enough structural integrity so they can finally stop doing it.

        1. I’m not thinking of any fiction/non-fiction dichotomy.
          “Storyteller” can imply “fiction writer” but you would
          have noticed that I used the neutral “teller” in my next post. Your over-ambitious
          fiction writer seems to want to produce something
          intensely personal, emotionally potent and effective
          of change. Against this you set the narrative of
          the wikileaks. The label of non-fiction is implicit.But now instead of an impossible narrative
          we have one that writes itself. I admit not having visited the wikileaks but
          allow me to imagine them as unmarshaled documents. There
          shouldn’t be any pre-existing story in bare facts, at least
          as far as I understand the universe. We can each make up
          our own stories from wikileaks but it would be better to
          have something shared. Wikileaks needs a teller, like
          generation kill had Evan Wright perhaps. I think you’re
          doing a pretty good job. And I’m never again going to
          attempt a serious post without a right hand margin and
          20 mins till the shops close. Why “fiction” writer?

          1. Gus: This is a very interesting question you are asking I think. Perhaps Wikileaks needs multiple tellers, a million tellers. The Guardian and so forth, privileged their own reading of it, and I believe that when this happens again and Wikileaks team up with major media groups they will demand as a pre-condition highly visible links to the source meterial.
            I just used ‘fiction’, even though I don’t believe in it, but because sometime sits just easier. You are right though, ‘teller’ is much better. But I am not sure that the Wikileaks material is ‘bare fact’.It’s highly contextualised in many ways.

  5. A teller is lacking, you say, of this story that’s just been told.
    Yesterday I read one of those one page stories by Borges. It was about Borges but Borges didn’t know which Borges was writing the story.
    A teller is lacking.
    (this a real high class blogg and i’m trying to make an impression, right?)

  6. Borges is the greatest ‘short story’ writer there is. And he lives on that fiction/non-fiction knife-edge. Of course its not a knife-edge to him. To Borges its the size of the MCG. Which is why he’s so great and nearly everyone else is so crap.

  7. Stephen,

    I spent a year in Iraq starting the late spring of ’03, as a contractor (with a Navy background) and the thing that struck me was that, given the nature of the conflict (which is, politically, not a “war”), the fight was too important to leave to the military.

    I was/am reminded of an old Celtic quote—not sure from where: Never give a man a sword until you have taught him to dance. The wisdom there being that a man should not be taught to kill until he had been taught to live.

    This is not the case in the US military, which largely relies on racism and dehumanization of the opponent in order to create the situation in which young soldiers are able and willing to go against the greatest taboo—to kill another human being. There is a brief scene in “The Thin Red Line”, one of my favorite movies, in which a young soldier makes his first kill. He says to himself (the viewer): “I killed a man, worst thing you can do, nobody can touch me for it.” (links listed at the bottom).

    The US military does not teach respect for the enemy and life as a part of its curriculum. As crazy as it sounds, there is a huge different between a soldier meeting another soldier, whom he respects and sees as another human being—one thinks of Hector in the Iliad—on the field of battle; and one who sees the enemy as no better than dogs. In the latter, the killing is personal and devoid of any emotion but the eventual shame and guilt upon the killer. In the latter, the killing is impersonal, universal/archetypal forces acting through the soldier, and he is shielded psychologically, while still being connected, by this. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. The two examples that come to mind are both related by Joseph Campbell, the first in “Pathways to Bliss” and the latter in “Myths to Live By”

    “There is a story, of a samurai. His overlord has been killed, and his vow was, of course, absolute loyalty to his lord. And it was his duty now to kill the killer. Well, after considerable difficulties, he finally backs this fellow into a corner, and he is about to slay him with his katana, his sword, which is the symbol of his honor. And the chap in the corner is angry and terrified, and he spits on the samurai, who sheathes his sword and walks away. Now why did he do that? He did that because this action made him angry, and it would have been a personal act to have killed that man in anger, and that would have destroyed the whole event.”

    “The fourth, finally, and principal type of yoga expounded in the Bhagavad-Gita is that known as the yoga of action, karma yoga. It is prepared for already by the setting of the famous piece: the battlefield at the opening of the legendary Great War of the Sons of India, at the close of the Vedic-Aryan chivalrous age, when the whole feudal aristocracy of the land was self-exterminated in a bloodbath of mutual slaughter. At the opening of the portentous scene, the young prince Arjuna, about to engage in the greatest action of his career, bade his charioteer, the young god Krishna, his glorious friend, to drive him out between the two assembled battle lines, where he looked to left and right and, recognizing in both armies many relatives and friends, noble comrades and heroes of virtue, he let fall his bow and, overcome with pity and great sorrow, said to the god, his driver, ‘my limbs fail, my mouth is parched, my hair is standing on end. Better that I should die here that that I should initiate this battle. I would not kill, to rule the universe: how much less for the rule of the earth?’ To which the young god replied with the following piercing words: ‘Whence this ignoble cowardice?’ And with that the great teaching began:

    To that which is born, death is certain; to that which is dead, birth is certain: be not afflicted by the unavoidable. As a noble whose duty is to protect the law, refusing to fight this righteous war you will forfeit both virtue and honor. Your proper concern is alone the action of duty, not the fruits of the action. Cast then away all desire and fear for the fruit, and perform your duty.

    After that stern talk, the god cleared Arjuna’s eyes, and the youth in amazement beheld his friend transfigured— with the radiance of a thousand suns, many flashing eyes and faces, many arms uplifting weapons, many heads, many mouths with glittering tusks. And behold! those two great hosts from either side were pouring, flying into those mouths, crashing on the terrible teeth, perishing; and the monster was licking all its lips. ‘My God! Who are you?’ Arjuna cried, with every hair now standing. And there came from what had been his friend, the Lord of the World, this answer: ‘I am Black Time, here for the annihilation of these hosts. Even without you, those who are about to die will not live. So now, get in there! Appear to be killing those that I have already slain. Do your duty and be not distressed by any touch of fear.’”

    War is nothing but an utter waste. When it occurs (and that’s whole other discussion) there is a way to conduct it in which dignity and honor are preserved…to some degree. However, that is not the case now, at least not in the US, or in any of the western armies I observed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The impersonalness of it has degraded the warrior into a mere killers.

    A great counterpoint to “Generation Kill” is the four part series about Charlie 1-26th in Iraq who actually refused orders for fear that they would come unglued in the moment.

    To Adhamiya and back ( )

    ‘I’ve seen enough, I’ve done enough.’ ( )

    ‘Not us. We’re not going.’ ( )

    Picking up the pieces ( )

    I guess my convoluted point in all this is that wars have become too important to be left to the military who does not possess nor instill the maturity or professionalism needed to carry out its duties in a manner consistent with its objectives…as crazy as that sounds.

    Other Links:

    The Unforgiven:

    The Thin Red Line 1:

    The Thin Red Line 2:

    1. Hi Anonymous
      Thanks for this post and your time and thought, and the links too. And very interesting to hear thoughts from someone who was in Iraq during the Gen KIll period. The Iliad and the scene in the Gita where Arjuna tries to bail out of fighting, are probably our Ur-stories when it comes to war. (and to this you could add the kind of myth embodied in the Seven Samurai too) The role of our militaries in that sense is not to fight for a cause, but to prosecute various corporate-political interests in whatever way possible. You are arguing for something else, which though it seems paradoxical I think I understand. We are always searching for the just war I think. Some argue that it was WW2. It was put to me in regard to another blog here at OL, that the Haiti slave rebellion was a just war. Either way searching for a just war it seems to be a common project of the left and right. I think there are profound psychological reasons for why we do this, which i won’t go into here. As the Iliad shows and Arjuna’s predicament and so forth, the just war is a myth. That’s why its mythologised. We would love it to be true. Things would be so much simpler. We would then have justice we could see and could universally embrace. We would have just heroes who were really heroes and all the rest of it. Bu this never happens, It’s not that wars are necessary, or rooted in the human condition, but that we just don’t know enough, or haven’t cared enough to find out about what peace means, or how complex it is and how tough you have to be to maintain it. And we keep compulsively creating structures that prevent this understanding, perhaps because the full of implications are too terrifying or something, and its easier to deal with fear by attacking something or someone. It’s as difficult to explain this as you have found your argument to explain I think. But I think that the argument that we could find a just war, (and I’m not saying that this is your argument) or that some of our enemies would be better served if they saw us normally peace-loving types waving a few Uzi’s around, is very, very seriously and worryingly delusional. Without our militaries we wouldn’t have wars. Without militaries we’d have to find other ways to think about conflict. Conflict is a necessary thing, it’s how we negotiate difference. A man or woman who has been taught to live, would never use a sword, that’s the whole point I think. It would be a criminal act of stupidity.

  8. Ok. I’ve looked at WikiLeaks and its great. I would never have looked and appreciated it without the framework of your persuasive blogging. OL, give this chap a raise.

    1. Gus: I was thinking too in relation to your question, of when WikiLeaks released thousands of 9/11 text messages. They did it in real time. ie: synchronising and releasing the messages as they would have been sent on the day. I thought that was amazing, like a kind of art installation, but much more powerful, a narrative that replicates the day using the materials of the day.

  9. (reads card with flowers) “For your next assignment, should you choose to accept it, you will write a spoken introduction to a speaker whose topic is Human Nature and the Coming Global Crisis.” Your choice of audience.

  10. Hey! I know you. You’re that blogger with OL. Don’t listen to that crazy card. You write on whatever subject you want to. You don’t do requests. Sign here, thanks.

  11. Just wanted to comment on the ADF having a very carefully filtered media “story” for the “folks at home”, the Australian public. And I say it like that – sardonically – because I saw the direct fallout of trauma in my counselling offices from PR Services Personnel whose job it was to construct and mete out the “right” things for the campaigns which were selling the war to those of us in our lounge rooms. None of the “truth” in their minds was being relayed home, worse, much of what was seemed an absurd parody of something they hadn’t experienced.

    In one particularly distressing session, a service person described that the “media story” was deemed more important than the concerns for the safety of the dignitaries that had flown in to produce the story and, of course, all the people who were meeting and escorting them around. Running, or being the designated media person in the army, would seem to be similar to the leaders of the two major parties trying to sell us their messages. “Steering”, I’ve heard is the official name for it, in which the politician steers the question, no matter what it is, back onto the message that he or she wishes to give. Bad enough in politics; terrible when there’s a WAR going on.

    As for the treatment of trauma symptoms in returned soldiers, I agree with others here, and can’t see it happening in any consistent or credible manner.

    1. Interestingly, there’s a story in today’s Guardian or Independent (I forget which) reporting that the UK MoD will now ‘psychologically screen’ combat personnel before they go on active service, in order to weed out the ones susceptible to ‘mental health problems’ such as trauma. Problem solved! The screened soldiers can then presumably kill others as much as they like, see others killed and experience no ill effects as trauma symptoms are obviously just something the mentally ill develop. Brilliant!

      1. I wonder if that article is related to this one from Alternet: American Soldiers Brainwashed with “Positive Thinking”:

        While U.S. military psychiatrists are prescribing increasing amounts of chill pills, America’s psychologists are teaching soldiers how to think more positively about their tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else they are next ordered to kill the bad guys and win the hearts and minds of everyone else.

        The U.S. Army is planning to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in positive psychology and emotional resiliency. Army Research Psychologist Capt. Paul Lester, who leads the assessment of the program, told the National Psychologist (“Army to Train its Own in Positive Psychology,” July/August 2010), “As far as I can tell this is the largest, deliberate, psychological intervention in human history. . . We don’t know when the global war on terrorism is going to end so we’re preparing to have to be engaged for a long period of time.”

      2. They’ve got to be kidding themselves! Scary really. Recruits: first they get a Guernsey, get through the screening process and then, on the job, it’s the burying of anything like a “true” emotional reaction – the kind of reactions that make humans good parents, solid neighbours. I despair at the thought of anyone thinking they want people to compartmentalise life to such a degree. Imagine a world in which people weren’t traumatised after a traumatic event – a “Stepford” society.

        1. Thanks for this link Jacinda. I wondered where the Tories had gotten their idea from. This is a very interesting example of what I would call the ‘fascist’ mind’, completely unable to absorb the idea of mental distress, and so splitting
          it off. What’s more interesting, from a political point of view is how complicit psychology and the psychological professions must be in this. I think Jeff said earlier that obviously the military don’t care etc, or they wouldn’t send people off to war. But there has to be a mechanism/s that shows how that works, and this is a great example. Disciplines of psychology (and other disciplines too, law and education) have always been historically susceptible to willing conscription by totalitarian regimes and agencies, and one wonders how positive psychologists and others have justified their involvement in this project. Well actually I don’t wonder, it’s obvious that they would have to take on part of that fascist mind set, but I’m curious as to whether there’s been any dissension from within psych ranks. I suspect very little.

  12. Hi Stephen

    I want to pick up on your comment above about there being no just war.

    What’s the logical extension of this. It’s easy for me to sit back and smugly agree with this – I’m not a military type, and would probably never be called up (bad eyes, flat feet, unfit desk-bound academic, suspicious artistic type too), and probably dissent any conscription. So yeah: there’s no just war.

    But can you scale this down/up to other human conflicts. Your are saying that conflict itself is not the problem, it is in fact part of dealing with difference. It’s how we deal with conflict…

    So what about relationships, divorces, parental discipline, protecting the weak, setting up boring tasks at school, instituting competitive behaviour etc etc. Are any of these possibly ‘just’, in that pain inflicted on others is actually good? What about self defence, or something very tiny: the temporary pain I inflict on my child when I take out their splinter. ???

    1. One of these days Luke, you might ask me a straightforward question; What is your favourite colour/What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, etc etc.
      Just wars: Even if we agree on a the site of a just war (or even the definition of a just war) – a slave rebellion, a revolution of some kind – the ratio of unjust to just is still going to be about a zillion to one. Given those kinds of odds, war-violence would have to be very low on the list of reasonable practical solutions to conflicts, and we might get one once every thousand years or something.
      I don’t think you can scale it up and down. The politics of war is not just about inflicting a smaller harm to prevent a greater harm. War is usually justified with that argument of course, but the politics of war very often has nothing to do with harm minimisation and very much to do with a whole lot of other psychotic states which inevitably see the harmless and marginalised victimised. Wars are usually positioned as the armed fighting the armed. What really happens is that the armed attack the unarmed. That’s what wars are about.
      I think we know sweet FA about how peace is created or even what it might be. Peace isn’t just an absence of war I think, but some kind of other state, that has to be actively constructed. We are actively propagating war anyway, even though we supposedly live in peace, and our economic and political systems are very at home with the propagation of war.Our complicity with war already seems very apparent to me. I doubt if we need more.
      I’m fairly pacific in my outlook I think, and committed to it politically too, but that doesn’t mean I’d never engage in a violent act. But I think the construction of what peace might be is far more interesting than speculating on when and where I might have to use violence. The more I read and understand about the psychology of violence and the transmission of traumatic states, and see their effects, the more I start to think that our ignorance of the causes of violence and the politics of violence is extreme, on both left and right. If I believe I should have an AK in reach – either morally or physically – sooner or later I will find myself becoming the foe I profess to revolt against. It’s inevitable.

      1. Surely this is scalable… to quote you:
        “The politics of [X] is not just about inflicting a smaller harm to prevent a greater harm. [X] is usually justified with that argument of course, but the politics of [X] very often has nothing to do with harm minimisation and very much to do with a whole lot of other psychotic states which inevitably see the harmless and marginalised victimised.”

        I would have thought your blogging over the last few months, were all ways of showing that X is not just ‘war’ but other forms of engagement?…

        And isn’t ‘war’ scalable – there’s nation vs nation, but many other forms of violent conflict some momentary, some long-term, some familiar, some alien…

        Have I missed something here?

        1. Your blogs collectively suggest to me the argument that:

          any actions and institutions which produce, continue and increase power centres, despite any of their justifications, are actually “very much to do with a whole lot of other psychotic states which inevitably see the harmless and marginalised victimised.”

          and war is one of the ultimate expression of this?

          1. As I said Luke, one of these days we’ll have a starightforward conversation about european and african swallows or some such.
            I meant that was is not scaleable to conflicts of any kind. Not all conflicts are war. But I think we tend to treat all conflicts as war. Make sense? I hope?

  13. sure, war is not the same as all types of conflict (conflict can be good, bad or otherwise, and always ever-present as a function of different)… but aren’t the arguments you are making scalable to all *bad* ways of dealing with conflict?

    1. No, not necessarily. There are all kinds of clumsy ways of dealing with conflict. They happen all the time in daily life even with (or especially with) people we respect and care about. War is a certain kind of way of dealing with conflict and difference, I think. It just happens to be the dominant one, the default mode, and it is wired into our economic and social and intellectual (and emotional) life. The mythologising of war is a major narrative, and its difficult to create alternatives to war-like ways of thinking because it’s all we’ve ever known for the most part as part of our interior lives.

        1. Damn, I thought you would. I have had to think about this a lot lately – more than I usually do – not because I plan on going to war but because of some professional work I’m doing I thought I never would be. It’s interesting I think because the ways in which we think about peace or violence are often violent. At the moment I’m trying to get my head around the idea of how violence, and what sort of violence, is transmitted culturally, economically, etc and so on and how that happens. It’s a bit like inter-generational transmission of trauma and stuff, I guess. What gets transmitted is what has been split off and not integrated, because it’s too unbearable etc. And it gets transmitted unconsciously as well as consciously. So, I’m guessing that what then happens is that the split-off bits, that have gone all psychotic and so on, become wired into the exterior functioning and then get passed onto everyone else, and become a default way of operating. I don’t want to psychologise this too much, and it’s possible to represent this dynamic in all kinds of different ways of course. And I’m not claiming it as some kind of uber-theory, but as evidence, from my own perspective, of all the ways we fail to look after each other, that come back to haunt us, now on a planetary scale. I mean we’re at war with ourselves really; just as the homophobe is the person terrified of his or her feelings for others of the same sex, and so has to enact laws or violently attack others perceived to be gay, or the evangelical wants to prevent others doing all the things he or she wants do themselves and so has to persecute others to get rid of their own savage internal states of persecution etc etc. This kind of stuff gets passed around all, the time, gets a critical mass and bingo, we’re all going bananas. I’m simplifying things greatly, but we can get psychotic societies and political structures as well as people. And there’s plenty evidence of course that when we go to war with others, we tend to actually create the problem we supposedly set out to solve. Our act of war – our psychotic traumatised state – just gets inflicted onto others in unimaginable force. Not surprising then that they turn into us.

    1. I think in my experience with individuals, and not having ever been in a war, there’s sense of being personally targetted and virulently hated – even though one isn’t, one is actually just an object to that person or institution. And there’s all sorts of variations on fear and terror, and fragmentation and loss of control. Because these are the evacuated feelings of the violent war-like other.
      One doesn’t have to be even verbally or physically attacked. I remember going into Centrelink last year and suddenly feeling extremely anxious and worried as though the ground was about to be pulled from under me, as if I was so worthless that it would be better if I were just dumped in a hole somewhere. That’s Centrelink for you.
      On the other hand, I have a friend and neighbour who can be quite aggressive in his verbal interactions. However I never have a sense of threat, quite the opposite, only a desire to get to know him better as he is obviously a very kind and generous individual.

  14. Stephen,

    Sorry for the delay in replying, this thing called “life” keeps getting in the way of my plans.

    In any case, you mention “just war”, and I agree with you, but I think that that is a result or function of perspective and I don’t think, at least not anymore, that you can talk about perspective, individually or collectively, without talking about developmental levels—ala Piaget; though my limited basis in this is from Robert Kagen’s “The Evolving Self”. I suspect that Spiral Dynamics might also be a useful starting point, but I only ran across that in Ken Wilber’s “Integral Psychology”.

    When looking at the idea of just war from the perspective of developmental levels I think that it becomes easy, if somewhat paradoxical, to argue that just wars simultaneously exist and don’t—this is not going to make a lot of people happy.

    People, maybe with the exception of Pat Robertson, rarely go on about the justness of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis and I have to bring up the question of whether war is a condition of human nature, in which case, ultimately, I’m not sure that justness figures into it; or, if wars are a condition of governments and nation states in their various forms. Governments/nations states, like corporations, are a different and unique animal/entity. Historically, I would argue the latter, that war is a condition of states/governments and that individuals have never been able to wage war—which is typically defined along the lines of “state-sanctioned violence, i.e., murder. One might be tempted to see UBL as an exception to this or a fundamental change. But given the definition, he, nor his organization, is a state and therefore, “technically” incapable of waging war, at least as it’s defined.

    Wars are not, I would posit, at least not anymore or for some time, waged based on truth or even ideological differences. Clausewitz was pretty near the mark when he suggested that wars are the continuation of politics by other means. The problem then, at least in terms of your “dealing with conflict” is that the majority of the wars in the 20th century, and the imperial adventures that we are embarked upon now, are not so much a failure to deal with conflict but that the very basis for the conflict—imposition of one’s desires/demands—would not be ethically or morally viable even by society’s (OPCON) standards. The Taliban were willing to negotiate and Saddam was working with the UN and it mattered for not in both cases because the US wanted to go to war, to lash out and kick someone’s ass, and in the case of Iraq, remake the ME to israel’s and the US oil companies’ interests. I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to think that the Afghanistan would still have been bombed and the Taliban overthrown, punitively, even if they had handed over UBL, which, due to tribal custom and considerations (Pashtunwali), which I won’t go into here, they could not due, even if they had wanted to, based on the manner in which the US acted on the international stage.

    Viewed through the lens of nation states as actors, most wars are not a failure to resolve conflict per se, but behavior that, if applied to the individual, would be deemed as completely criminal. The US and Iraq did not have legitimate grievances which they could not resolve, the US had pathological and self-serving demands which Iraq could submit to or suffer the consequences. And even had they submitted to them, which they did to an extent, the demands would likely have escalated until Iraq was unwilling or unable to meet them and then the bombing would have begun. Not to say that Iraq, or at least Saddam and the Ba’ath party, had clean hands, but I think you see what I’m getting at.

    Just some thoughts and I feel like I have gotten off the main gist, which is that it is possible to train an individual to kill in such a manner that life, at least in general, is respected. In this instance, like the generalized Samurai, or any practitioner of “do” in feudal Japan, the focus was not on the end result but in performing the perfect motion/steps—a distinctly un-Western idea, that is also paralleled in football’s concept of “Joga Bonito”, at least as I understand it. “Zen and the Art of Archery” is an excellent book on this mindset/concept.

    However, for the military, this is neither time nor cost efficient nor do I even think that it is a concept that they, at least here in the US, are capable of holding or comprehending. Further, such individuals are far less likely to kill indiscriminately simply on the jingoism or whims of the nation state—not exactly a quality that the government is looking for in its military—there was a reason that all the radios in the tanks in the Russian army, except for the commanders’, were receive only and that the first position off of “safe” on the AK-47 is “full auto”— as an SF officer told me, tongue in cheek, “when there’s lead in the air there’s hope in the heart.”

    One example of this dichotomy that comes to mind is the chivalry that was often shown between WWI fighter pilots and the conditions of the troops in the trenches on the front. There were more than a few stories of pilots landing to pull the pilot they had just shot down out of his crashed and burning plane before taking to the air again. Contrast that with the incredible horror in the trenches. I am still struck dumb/numb by pictures at Verdun of 100 bayonets rising up out the dirt in a perfect row where soldiers waiting to “go over the top” were buried alive by an artillery barrage. Stories of soldiers stopping fighting on Christmas to sing carols or play football also come to mind, often threatened by their own officers to stop such “unpatriotic” behavior.

    The dialogue in the two links from “The Thin Red Line” between Sgt Walsh (Sean Penn) and Pvt. Witt (James Caviezel) are fantastic; both of them are living in a nightmare, but only one of them in a tragedy.

  15. If we combine Stephen’s last comment with The Librarian’s, then the argument might go something like this:

    * war, and war-like attitudes, is the violence that comes from treating others as objects (usually, objects of institutions/governments/corporations/meta- and non-human agglomerations), objects which are which are expendable/obstacles to the goals of such institutions.

    * perhaps more strongly: war is institutional mass-murder.

    Sport is an interesting site, in terms of all this: a place to both vent our war-like thinking (let it out on the field, and leave= it on the field) but also a way to mythologise and romanticise war-like behaviour (because commercialised sport needs a massive fan base, and such bases are usually encouraged and built up through tribal-reinforcing merchandising).

  16. Librarian and Luke:
    I’m not sure how to look at war as a developmental activity, to be honest. If I did I think Piaget would be the last person I’d look too. I’d probably go for Winnicott, or more likely Bion who was in WW1, and saw war-like courage – the stuff for which people got medals for – as an incidence of someone having a psychotic episode.
    My argument about ‘just wars’ was basically that if we could find one, it would actually not be an example of a war but of something else, and that even if we could find a just example of uncontained psychotic imperialist activity, it would be an example that would occur so rarely that we’d not bother trying to replicate it.
    If you are arguing for a kind of elite who as you say, kill while still respecting life, I would imagine that such a concept, even if I could understand it, would be redundant in any world where sovereign power and so on held sway, because it would be impossible to police. And I would imagine we’d have to turn people into saints first, who would be reluctant to kill anybody. And if we have a social order that can produce saints at will, then we’re a very long way from where we are now, and this kind of discussion would be moot anyway.
    You are right that war is not really not an attempt to solve conflict. It is just marketed that way, so we can justify it, and justify mental and political and economic states that privilege the invention of the world as an object for exploitative use. We can think that way because our capacities for thinking about the world as full of people, and as only being made by people is so diminished, damaged and truncated by the political and moral forces we inhabit.
    I don’t get Librarian’s point about ‘joga bonito’/the beautiful game as an analogy, so I’ll just leave it alone.
    In regards to Luke’s point about sport, If anything the more exalted the beautiful game has become, the less we see of it. Association football was initially a game with working-class roots, played by ordinary blokes, and cemented working-class solidarity in some ways; a kind of friendly warfare, supported by men exactly like you, played by men like you. In the 21st century its a kind of horrible parody, where those clubs are bought by bilionaires as personal toys, players bought and sold – to paraphrase Orwell – like so many pounds of cheese. Psychotic, narcissistic behaviour is rampantly encouraged. Any chance of a beautiful game has vanished (number of interesting games at latest World Cup; zero) because the corporate nature of football requires other things first;most notably money, power and hegemony, at any cost. If there’s an analogy, it’s that corporate football plays lip service to the beautiful game as war plays lip service to justice.

  17. Stephen, so you agree there is a beautiful game, and a corporate game. I was just saying that sport might be a zone where both useful and harmful war-games are played out. Some venting seems useful (and maybe venting is another term for producing stories which turn trauma into genera – to draw on discussion from your previous pots).

    I’m also thinking of the documentary RIZE, about the dance form of clowning/krumping born in post-riots 1990s LA.

    It’s clear from the footage of the dancing, and what the dancers say about it, that they play out (vent) their race-based, and ghetto-ed, oppression – many scenes appear incredibly violent – dancers battling each other, and often knocking into each other, going wild etc. But several dancers say that fighting is the last thing on their mind, its a chance to exercise/exorcise their anger-frustrations-shit, and actually its seems in liberatory and generous tones.

    Of course, one could imagine that dance form, and many others, being conjoined with corporate-like forces akin to elite sport…

    1. But the beautiful game and the corporate game are not different versions of the same thing. They are completely different events.
      In relation to sport, the beautiful game that Brazil played to win the 1970 World Cup Final, was so different from the recent one that they may as well have been different sports. (The 1970 game was the one about which Eric Cantona said: “I have never, and will never, find any difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud.”)
      The recent World Cup was just a re-enacting of corporate violence as far as I could see.
      I think in the dance stuff you’re talking about, there has to be a lot more than venting taking place: there has to be some creative intention, come methodology that undercuts the expression merely as a re-enactment of violence.
      And of course, as you’re implying, so much artistic activity is corporate sanctioned/supported.

  18. Maybe this is for future blog posts, but could you explain: \The recent World Cup was just a re-enacting of corporate violence as far as I could see.\

    As for clowning/krumping, yep there is much more than venting, the venting is just one possibility. From the look of the doco, there is plenty of joy/rapture, sexy and non-sexy pre-adult eroticism, high kick-arse virtuosity, extreme physicality, and a dance style and community style that generates everything from the torso region, mixed with flailing arms and nimble feet.

  19. Sports like football, AFL, League and so on, have had a sub-culture of violence for a long time, among supporters and players. Football’s violence has over the past few decades been increasingly associated with right-wing nationalism, racism and so on. We’d like to believe, for example, that Pele’s ‘beautiful game’ is some kind of balletic art form devoid of politics and so on, but it ain’t. Still, in relation to football, there was a game there sometimes. Corporations became involved when it became clear in the 1990’s, after the advent of the English Premier League, that a shitload of money could be made by turning clubs like Man U into global brands. Those brands cannot be allowed to go sour, but the myth of the beautiful game comprising Zen masters of the ball has still to be maintained. In the Premier League, only 2 or 3 teams out of 22 can possibly win the title each year. It’s not really a competition. It’s a rigged set-up,and it needs to be because so much money is involved. An awful lot rides on losing. I can’t imagine Cristiano Ronaldo’s sponsors would have been very happy after the World Cup, given the huge bucks they poured into an ad campaign about him.
    FIFA have pretty much become literally a law unto themselves. At the South African WC, FIFA had their own law courts would you believe, that over-rode South African law, where those who offended FIFA were tried and sentenced. FIFA threatened the French senate after the French Govt’s post-WC inquiry into Les Bleus weird antics in South Africa.
    Because most of the big name teams are so scared of losing their matches and incurring corporate displeasure,and damaging their own brand, there is rampant cheating, to the point where in the WC Final the referee couldn’t enforce the rules because to do so would have meant sending off a quarter of the players on the field. That’s corporate violence: a prioritisation of gigantic financial gain above all things, a denial of the politics of violence in sport and continual and increasing intrusions on civil rights.

  20. Stephen,

    Forgive me for not being clear. By just war and developmental levels I meant that one’s definition of just war is going to be dependent upon one’s developmental level (Twain’s “The War Prayer” being a great example), with the implication that, as one develops that definition narrows considerably, possibly to the point where it disappears completely or becomes meaningless—the idea of war for any reason becoming untenable or, having moved beyond the concept(s) of “just”, one finds another, more resourceful(??) perspective from which to view the enterprise as a whole. As an aside, I saw a video once of Buddhist monks fighting against police who were raiding their monastery to evict them. It at once was hilarious and gave me pause.

    In that vein, I think that should one, thusly developed, find themselves involved in a war/conflict they would be able to “play the game” as Joseph Campbell puts it, participate in the life, as terrible as it may seem, before them, ala the Arjuna myth; and that they would be able to do so in a way more likely to retain the dignity of their foe and themselves—my passing attempt at joga bonito.

    The US in general, and the military in particular, do not produce such people and the military trains its recruits to kill by turning “thou’s” into “it’s” (“The “Summer Camp Of Destruction:” Israeli High Schoolers Assist The Razing Of A Bedouin Town”: and “Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death”: Robert Fisk actually talks about this in a recent article: (

    In the hunter/warrior societies, the individual was still connected to the world and in the death of their prey they saw their own death/mortality as well. Their ritual/rites of atonement showed a deep respect for the victim and made the act of killing other than a personal act, which removed the stain of individual guilt; similar to the samurai who would not kill for personal reasons.

    I don’t know if war would disappear if we lived in a world where all, or at least most, were aware of our interconnectedness, that we were One, but the nature of their execution would, I suspect, be different. I think Kipling’s “The Peace of Dives” looks at this, but I could just be crazy wrong.

    I don’t know if you meant to take the position that war is merely, or mostly, the externalization of internal conflicts or not but I think there is a great deal to this. It has been my supposition for some time now that UBL is the externalization of the American shadow, or at least the shadow as perceived by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and that whole cabal, neocons, Zionists, etc.—concrete operational America. The irony, lost on most, is that UBL, his fanaticism aside, living in his caves, has far more in common with George Washington at Valley Forge than the US/US military does.

    If we, individually or nationally, continue to split ourselves and the world up, believing in the separateness, then I think that conflict is inevitable as the dispossessed fight for a place in consciousness– harmony through chaos. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Parzival and Feirefiz, Jacob and the Angel, Harry Haller and the Steppenwolf, Joker and Batman in the “Dark Knight”…there is always this struggle between equal opposites as part of the movement to wholeness; and if we can’t do it internally, it will be done externally.

    Obviously it’s an incomplete idea/theory and I would be terribly interested to hear your thoughts.

    Your observations on the corporate game are fantastic—bread and circuses.

    1. Librarian,
      Thanks for this. I’ll do my best to clarify my arguments.
      I still can’t subscribe to an argument that there is some kind of indisputable developmental basis to be accepted, re: war/not war. What developmental theory/schema would we use? How do we establish ‘developmental levels’? I am reminded of Adam Phillips’ thoughts on this:”Developmental theories offer us a repertoire of what can be called success stories – and success-anxieties. Developmental theories are the success stories against which we fail…and when we are faced with this barrage of theories of developmental competence, it can be very easy to forget that the so-called patient or student might have very different theories of his or her own of what a good life is; everyone has, and is, his or her own developmental theory”.
      I understand that there may be a position where killing may be carried out as a morally necessary enterprise. My knowledge about Buddhism is scant, but I understand that while killing is viewed as generally to be avoided at all costs, as its consequences are extremely difficult to predict and often destructive, of course it may be a valid act at times. I’d agree with this, but my point has been that these instances are incredibly rare. The idea of an elite whose job it is to carry out such actions I find problematic on many levels. Politically, it sounds too fraught to me, even if it were possible.
      The consequences of violence are usually violent. In many instances it’s just not a practicable strategy either. The Intifada’s- an action I support – are, in my opinion, a kind of demonstration of that there’s not much point fighting the warlike with more war. That’s the whole point of throwing rocks at tanks I think, as Edward Said illustrated in his famous stone-throwing incident. If every Palestinian were armed to the teeth, the Israelis’ would enthusiastically destroy them. There have to be other solutions.
      I don’t think of interdependence between people and structures – as a political and moral reality – as a way of everyone being ‘One’. To me interdependence is a kind of demonstration that everything we do has consequences for each other. This is to state the bleeding obvious of course on a planet where national and local ecological destruction has global consequences, or where my happily purchased iPod is produced under conditions of great suffering by others in distant countries. War, in this kind of thinking has enormous consequences, that reverberate across generations globally.
      War and just about everything else we have created, is a product of moral and political choices and imperatives and structures etc etc. These don’t fall from the sky. Of course they are ways in which we act out our disturbed mental and social states, the appearance of massive and incalculable transgenerational traumas we have no ways of responding to, but still relentlessly carry. I don’t see it as a kind of light vs. shadow conflict myself. I think it’s more complex than that.
      I may well have not made myself clear. These are complex arguments and I doubt if I am up to expressing them adequately.

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