The seductions of war
Josh Marshall has a terrific piece, which provides a nuanced take on exactly why the people who write long-form think pieces for fancy liberal(ish) magazines have been so outraged by Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. He points to the countless claims from such people that “there must have been a better way,” that never feature any serious attempt to describe what that better way might have actually involved:
[O]fficial DC, which means the city’s elite national political press was deeply bought in. This doesn’t mean they were warmongers or rah-rah militarists. They were seldom the biggest cheerleaders for invasions and the organizations they work for often produced some of the deepest critiques or exposes of the failures and shortcomings of these efforts. But they were deeply bought in in ways that are likely best seen in sociological terms. Countless numbers embedded with US military formations. They accompanied members of Congress on ‘CODELS’ to the warzones. They’ve spent time immersed with a Pentagon which has spent two decades building hammers to hit nails in the Middle East and Central Asia. Their peers study and write in the world of DC think tanks focused on the best ways of striking those nails. Wrapping this altogether they have built relationships with America’s local allies, particularly the more cosmopolitan and liberal city dwellers who aspire to a future more like the one Americans take for granted in North America and Europe.
We hear about the very real and dire fate of women and young girls under the Taliban, robbed of futures, banished from public life. And yet when these realities are adduced as the justification for continued or expanded military occupations we must also see that they are both very real and also the latter day cant of empire, much like the way the British East India Company justified its rule of the subcontinent by banning practices like the suttee, the immolation of wives on their husband’s funeral pyres.
I will emphasize again this isn’t a flag-waving, America’s never wrong ‘pro-war’ mindset. It’s more varied and critical, capable of seeing the collateral damage of these engagements, the toll on American service members post combat, the corruption endemic in occupation-backed governments. And yet still very bought in. You see this in a different way in some of the country’s most accomplished longform magazine writers, many of whom have spent ample time in these warzones. Again, not at all militarists or gungho armchair warriors but people capable of capturing the subtleties and discontents of these missions and the individuals caught up in their storms. And yet still very bought in. And it is from these voices that we are hearing many of the most anguished accusations of betrayal and abandonment. It is harrowing to process years or decades of denial in hours or days.
What we see in so many reactions, claims of disgrace and betrayal are no more than people who have been deeply bought into these endeavors suddenly forced to confront how much of it was simply an illusion. ‘There had to have been a better way’ is no more than monumental deflection, whatever mistakes or poor planning were involved. Nowhere has this been more blindingly clear than in the Capital’s news-driving email newsletters and the eager voices of the same folks on Twitter, ramping themselves up into escalating paroxysms of outrage and doom casting over the ugly scenes emerging on viral videos all the while overlooking their support for the policies that made the events inevitable. The intensity of the reaction, the need to stay tethered to the imagery of Sunday and Monday, is a perfect measure of the shock of being forced to confront the reality of the situation in real time.
Matt Yglesias has been very hit or miss in recent years (see for example his claim that the fight against sexual harassment in America would have won a great victory if Republicans had forced Bill Clinton to resign over a consensual affair that met exactly none of the legal criteria for sexual harassment), but he has been great on this subject over the past few days:
An LGM commenter whose nym I don’t recall noted a couple of days ago that the only two major institutional actors in American life who are basically pro-war in all circumstances are defense contractors and the major media. The enthusiasm of the former requires no explanation — those Viking appliances in the remodeled kitchens of northern Virginia aren’t going to pay for themselves — while, as Marshall suggests, the invariably hawkish attitude of almost all legacy media types is more complex.
Along with the obviously venal motives — basically war is always a multi-trillion dollar “if it bleeds it leads” affair — a bunch of more subtle sociological factors are at play here. Marshall points out that overly personal relationships end up coloring the attitudes of the “embedded” media, but I think an even bigger factor here may be the desire of every aspiring foreign correspondent to get his Edward R. Murrow on.
Despite or because of its incredible destructiveness and immortality war remains incredibly attractive to so many people, and the media remain among the most vulnerable to its seductions.
They had put us into ordinary third-class carriages with wooden seats, and many of the men were badly wounded and had only got out of bed for the first time that morning. Before long, what with the heat and the jolting, half of them were in a state of collapse and several vomited on the floor. The hospital orderly threaded his way among the corpse-like forms that sprawled everywhere, carrying a large goatskin bottle full of water which he squirted into this mouth or that. It was beastly water; I remember the taste of it still. We got into Tarragona as the sun was getting low. The line runs along the shore a stone’s throw from the sea. As our train drew into the station a troop-train full of men from the International Column was drawing out, and a knot of people on the bridge were waving to them. It was a very long train, packed to bursting-point with men, with field-guns lashed on the open trucks and more men clustering round the guns. I remember with peculiar vividness the spectacle of that train passing in the yellow evening light; window after window full of dark, smiling faces, the long tilted barrels of the guns, the scarlet scarves fluttering–all this gliding slowly past us against a turquoise-coloured sea.
‘_Extranjeros_–foreigners,’ said someone. ‘They’re Italians.’
Obviously they were Italians. No other people could have grouped themselves so picturesquely or returned the salutes of the crowd with so much grace–a grace that was none the less because about half the men on the train were drinking out of up-ended wine bottles. We heard afterwards that these were some of the troops who won the great victory at Guadalajara in March; they had been on leave and were being transferred to the Aragón front. Most of them, I am afraid, were killed at Huesca only a few weeks later. The men who were well enough to stand had moved across the carriage to cheer the Italians as they went past. A crutch waved out of the window; bandaged forearms made the Red Salute. It was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one’s heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all.
Orwell, Homage to Catalonia