Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dao of Violence

I've been thinking a lot about violence lately.

I read two books by Gwynne Dyer: War, and, The Mess They Made, and saw a "docu-drama" titled "The Baader Meinhof Complex" about the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists that terrorized Germany during the 1970s.

Dyer has an encyclopedic understanding of all things related to war and the military. And as a result, IMHO, he's an indispensible resource when it comes to understanding why it is that states do what they do. His suggestions have that "ring of truth" to them that I always hear whenever someone says something that manages to be not quite "Left" nor "Right" in orientation.

For example, he says that the invasion of Iraq was not in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction or because Saddam Hussein was aiding and abetting terrorists who were bent on attacking the USA (the rightwing line.) Nor does he think that it is "all about oil" (the standard leftwing assumption.) Instead, he thinks that a group of neoconservatives in the upper reaches of the Bush administration believed that if the USA had some sort of spectacular military victory, it would push its military prestige to the point where no other state would even attempt to challenge it. This would extend the period where the USA is the world only remaining "super power" indefinitely.

This strategy blew up in the neocon's faces. The US army was shown to be a bit of a "paper tiger" that simply couldn't deal with a mass, popular insurgency that wages a "asymetrical war". Moreover, the government of George W. Bush behaved so erratically that it alienated just about every other government on earth, which dramatically weakened its influence. (Dyer quotes an anonymous Japanese diplomat who said the USA was acting like a "six year old with a loaded shotgun". I've also read quotes from Vladmir Putin of Russia that say much the same thing in that the "USA is running around like a lunatic with a straight razor".) As a result, America will be leaving both Iraq and Afganistan a much, much weaker nation than it was when it went into them.

The point that strikes me as a Daoist about all of this is that reading Dyer, I cannot see how any of this could have been avoided. As I see it, there is a huge strain of American thinking that is really grotesquely out of step with reality. Not all Americans, but enough to have a huge influence, really do think that their nation is somehow "different" from all others, and doesn't have to play by the same rules. This is the doctrine of "American exceptionalism". This belief is that the USA is uniquely chosen by God and/or history to be inevitable leader in human progress for all of history. And as long as this naive type of hubris exists, it will be impossible for the USA to deal with the systemic problems that plague the nation.

If you think about this "exceptionalist" worldview, a lot of the country's behaviour becomes easier to understand. America refuses to take global warming seriously because "the American standard of living is not negotiable". It refuses to sign onto any global convention that would limit its ability to do as it pleases on the world stage, such as the landmine treaty and the International Criminal Court. And it went totally insane when a group of terrorists attacked it and instead of seeing the problem as one of law enforcement---like any other nation on earth does---blundered around trying to re-enact WWII.

(Lest this last point seem insensitive, consider the fact that Sikh terrorists blew up an Air India flight from Canada in 1985 and that killed 325 people---most of them Canadian. Since the population of Canada is one tenth of the USA, this is equivalent to 3,250 Americans. Only 2,996 people died on "9/11". Yet Canada didn't decide to invade the Punjab or declare war on Sikhism---it sent out the police to try and find those responsible and bring them to trial. Why couldn't the USA do the same thing after 9/11?)

I don't blame any individual person for this assumption. After all, it has been part of the American psyche since the founding of New England and the American Revolution. Indeed, I suspect that in some sense just about every nation on the earth has people who think that they are "exceptional" in the same sense. (Adolph Hitler surely seemed to think that the German people were equally "exceptional".) But the extreme power that America has held in world affairs since the end of both WWII and the Cold War has shielded it from the "wake up calls" that most people suffer when their self-assessment collides with reality.

Well, the wake up calls are now marching down the pipeline.

These include things like 9/11, two wars that it cannot win, the destruction of New Orleans and the financial collapse. But if my read of the American media is right, most of the supporters of the exceptionalist point of view are looking for scape-goats instead of changing their behaviour. What what I've seen of Sara Palin and the Tea-Baggers, they blame Barak Obama and "socialism" more than they do a series of really dumb decisions by George Bush and company. Once those damn "socialists" and "Europe-lovers" get out of office, then things will be able to "right themselves".

As a Daoist I don't get mad at these people. They are simply working through the cultural implications of living in a nation that has been very rich and very powerful for a very long time. Now that the inevitable "crack up" has arrived, it is going to be a very painful process whereby people adjust to the new reality. The same thing happened to Britain when its Empire drained away. And before that, it also happened to France when its hegemony over Europe was ripped away by Germany.

Dyer is a good writer and he has a good grasp of history, but this point came home to me when I watched the film about the Red Army Faction terrorists in 1970s Germany. Watching the movie, it occurred to me that their actions were almost inevitable because of German history. The terrorists had been born during the Third Reich and most of their parent's generation had been either passive or active participants. As the most idealistic of an inherently idealistic stage of life, these people lived in the ultimate "generation clash". They were obsessed by the Vietnam War and oppression in the Third World; and absolutely fixated on the issue of why their parents had done nothing to fight against the Nazi regime. When you understand the emotional bind that they found themselves in, the ideal of armed "direct action" seems almost inescapable.

In effect, the Red Army Faction was a sort of "cultural fever nightmare" that Germany had to get through in order to come to terms with the Third Reich. I suspect that the Tea Party is going to turn into something similar in the USA. In both cases it is hard to not see all the waste and be upset, but I think that a "man of Dao" should remind him or herself that this is just a necessary stage in the development of the nation.

Sometimes we breath in, and sometimes we breath out.

1 comment:

Gerard said...

This is an interesting article. I intend to read it several times.