Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Leviathan (Or) So We Don't Have To Fight Them Here

Warfare and Military Affairs in (and out of) the Nation-State

The frontpiece of The Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, 1651.

I wish to begin this, which aims towards a particular (critical) imagination of the role (real and imagined) of the military within the politics and spaces of the nation-state, with a sort of disclaimer. I'm throwing this idea out there, not necessarily sure of what it means or convinced of its accuracy. It is crucial to understand that I am not, in describing this, necessarily endorsing or decrying the things that I am talking about, and I am most certainly not advocating some sort of totalitarian imagination of individual and gender roles to universally fit people into a sort of behavioral mold. In short, I'm wingin' it. So feel free to tear into the idea if you see flaws. With that out of the way:

The Leviathan. Nation-state expressed in physical form, the Leviathan is literally a body politic, with component parts that seethe and tangle in a mass of physical strength, locking limbs into one coherent form. The group’s imagination of the possibility of static unity is captured and given form in the cover of his book (above), but this imagination is not all-encompassing.

In reality, there is movement, struggle, disunity — in a word, individuality. And this grating, the tension of an imperfect lock, manifests itself in the highly visible, occasionally illegible, discontents and disparities of the people that make up (and do not make up) the citizen-subjects of the nation-state. The body politic is what sits center in our imaginations of the possibilities of communal cooperation, of national identity and politics; it is the form and expression of our ability to do, together.

In this imagination, of the nation-state as a body made up of bodies, the role of warfare is relegated to the extremities. It is in the arms that physical strength finds form, where the tools and weapons of warfare are wielded. The sword and the scepter, war and politics — those are ‘the realms of men’, pushed away from the core, where threats and jabs can find organs, become existentially threatening. ‘We fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here’ becomes a mantra of cosmic importance, imbued with the all-encompassing need to preserve the self (the group) against the existential threats of time, of mortality. For the core, which the arms defend with all their might, is civilization, and in that core, there is woman, who commands the ability of reproduction.

She is relegated to that space for protection, and for access to the fruits of the labor of defense and politics — a relegation that is derived, in large part, from the danger associated with being at the periphery. The frontier, and the wilderness beyond it, are precisely the periphery spaces which we use to conceptualize our imaginations of what this space is. A woman going into that zone would have to demonstrate a particular masculinity in order to ‘belong’ there. Otherwise, the legitimate, ‘feminine’ presence of women in this space exists within the caveat that they are doing their duties within the home, which is itself a sacred, civilized space, a core, orienting column (axis mundi) within the chaotic, dangerous peripheral space of the wilderness.

In this construction, the woman exists not only at, but also as the core. Her role is not simply child-bearer, but also child-rearer. Much scholarship exists regarding the role of woman as bearer and transferor of cultural knowledge, and as defender against the threats of wilderness and savagery intruding upon the home. She is always at the core, and always protected, directly or indirectly, by men and masculinity — whether this finds its form in the defense of the body politic through military, physical, or political might, or through building a shelter (for her to make into a homestead) to defend and protect her against the dangers of the wilderness.

There is a certain quote from Stephen Ambrose (the famed American historian and author of such books as Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage) that speaks to an interesting offshoot of this peripheral relationship. Ambrose wrote, in 1998, a history of World War II entitled The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II, in which he says:
I’ve long since forgotten the name of the speaker, but I’ll never forget what he said. “Imagine this. In the spring of 1945, around the world, the sight of a twelve-man squad of teenage boys, armed and in uniform, brought terror to people’s hearts. Whether it was a Red Army squad in Berlin, Leipzig, or Warsaw, or a German squad in Holland, or a Japanese squad in Manila, Seoul, or Beijing, that squad meant rape, pillage, looting, wanton destruction, senseless killing. But there was one exception: a squad of GIs, a sight that brought the biggest smiles you ever saw to people’s lips, and joy to their hearts.
Around the world this was true, even in Germany, even—after September 1945—in Japan. This was because GIs meant candy, cigarettes, C-rations, and freedom. America had sent the best of her young men across the world, not to conquer but to liberate, not to terrorize but to help. This was a great moment in our history.
This is what we hope our boys will be when they are abroad, doing the task assigned. They are our emissaries, representative of the best we have to offer, even as we push under the surface the aspects of their duties that we cannot stand or do not wish to be close to.

This idealized emissary relationship is cultivated domestically between soldiers and the United States writ large. The soldier gains his heroism through horrific acts, a fact which is obscured by distance — both physical and conceptual. He defends the core, but must be separated from it, in the same fashion as the frontiersman was pushed back away from the Atlantic states when he returns from the frontier. Both figures have been corrupted, like Kaplan’s infected homestead mother, and could endanger the core if allowed full access to it.

I find myself lacking a 'conclusion,' as such. But I do think it absolutely necessary to include these examples, so I will awkwardly insert them here, at the very end. Chew over them as you will.

There is a conversation between the Marines depicted in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, recorded as a special feature for the DVD release of the series, that contains repeated moments of brilliance on the part of the Marines (a shortened version of this conversation is here, but I recommend the full conversation on the DVDs). For my purposes here, I have selected a few quotes about the roles and perceptions of the soldier in American society.

Rudy Reyes says of the conception of soldiers in the civilian world: “… there’s a funny dichotomy. We’re actually, like, in this hero cast — kind of… but people also at the same time are afraid of us and hate us, too, or don’t trust us.”

It is the immediacy of the contemporary domestic experience of war that drives this fear, distrust, and hatred while retaining the heroism and respect for the soldiers who are carrying out the tasks of war. In the words of Sgt. Antonio Espera, another 1st Recon Marine, from the same conversation:
“If you wanna ride with the tip of the spear you’re gonna see civilians being killed, you’re gonna see [that] very few things are truly sacred to us. The way they train us, you know, they train us to be fucking killers — ” [he is interrupted by another Marine] “Cold-blooded killers, brother” — “And then Grandma reads it, and she’s all ‘what happened to my Boy-Scout Marine?’ You’ve gotta be careful - you wanna accept the truth, there it is. And I think it’s harsh.”
This attitude, a deeply realistic view of the job that Marines do, speaks to the reaction of those in the civilian world to bearing such close witness to the necessary acts of combat. For these men, there is something unattainable in any place except for combat, which makes the whole thing understandable and accessible; the public, by contrast, possesses the ability to remain distanced from the reality of the war:
“’This is the most publicized war that we’ve ever had.’ ‘Even in this war, though, we still have the luxury to ignore it.’ … ‘Yeah, it’s the most publicized war, ever, in history, but Americans don’t even care about it!’

Not to be overly simplistic, but perhaps my hope here is that through a little bit of intermingling between these two groups of people -- the soldier and the civilian, the 'outsider' and the 'insider,' et cetera -- something can be gained; for instance, a bit of willingness to forgo the luxury of willful ignorance through distance in order to understand, even if just a little, what it is that the wars in which we engage ourselves, our fellow citizens, and other people and places, are and mean and do. Perhaps doing so would even allow us to exercise some wisdom, showing restraint in some circumstances while creating and maintaining an understanding of the necessity of a place for war in certain circumstances. One can dream.

Anyways. Those are my thoughts. Thanks for reading, and do forgive the abrupt ending.