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Elemental Blindness

John Hinkson argues the predictable failure of the new strategy in Iraq

There is little doubt that the war in Iraq has moved into a new phase out of which any possible ‘victory’ will require an inversion of the meaning of the word. The underlying facts tell the story.

None could be more important than the momentum now gained for the behind-the-scenes decisions of families across Iraq to re-settle within religious enclaves. Long-standing minority living arrangements where Shia and Sunni have co-existed are now increasingly implicated in tragedy. If ethnic-cleansing cannot be quite the appropriate word to describe what is happening, it is clear that communal suspicion and hatred characterise what is left of the nation. At an everyday level families are preparing for the worst by withdrawing into base communities.

This new reality at the local level has its equivalent at the political level. The helplessness of the government to quell the militias and stem the violence — a helplessness that is in part a consequence of its own implication in the violence — is mirrored by a parliament so demoralised that members do not attend. Increasingly it is rare for the parliament to achieve a quorum for the passing of laws.

Regionally, there is also a momentum towards a new stage. On the one hand the Shia ascendancy in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. On the other hand, the threat — now made explicit — that the Saudi’s are poised to lift their support for the Sunni resistance if there is any weakening of the resolve of the United States. Meanwhile Israel and Turkey stand ready to ‘defend their interests’.

This growing sense that the invasion of Iraq by the Anglo-speaking coalition has moved into a demoralising and unmanageable new phase is mirrored in the United States by the mounting struggle of Congress against the war strategy of George W. Bush, who can only assume that failure demands escalation. There are still few signs of any developed insights about the profound wrongs perpetrated upon the people of Iraq or the Middle East more generally. Rather, self-interest drives the debate — the explicit fear of a growing tide of military deaths. Further, a non-explicit expression of self-interest is also at work. Framing the debate is a more elemental fear: an incoherent yet powerful belief that the West has blundered into a situation of unknown and threatening proportions. Indeed the question could well become: Can failure be followed by dissolution as it did for the Soviets in Afghanistan?

There will be no insights into this elemental fear until the special nature of this conflict is lifted into view. It is here that one finds an explanation of the multifaceted failure that now confronts the US coalition. Contrary to those neo-conservatives who also see the conflict as an elemental one — in primal terms of the struggle between Good and Evil — such insights will only be possible if the cultural nature of the conflict becomes a focus. This requires that we engage, rather than take for granted, some of the underlying processes that drive the conflict in definite directions.

Of course the invasion of Iraq is not usually seen in cultural terms except in the very straight-forward sense of a clash of civilisations between the (Christian) West versus the Muslim East. This is certainly the way that Al-Qaeda views the matter; a conflict where Islam is invaded by infidels and as such justifies terror, amongst other things. While it is not being suggested that this view carries no weight, there is a more profound range of practical matters than these that deserve the description ‘cultural’— and arguably better define the conflict while also giving it broader meanings than ‘just’ another war. These also point to a significance that has hardly been touched upon as failure comes to confront the West.

Any account of these cultural matters must start with the significance of high technology in today’s world and how high-tech has re-constructed all of the social institutions of the West to the point that the word ‘capitalism’ is no longer a sufficient perspective upon the nature of the West. This technology has some obvious implications for weaponry in terms of destructive power and the new possibilities of striking at a distance. Typically such changes are conventionalised in terms of seeing them merely as yet another new weapon. In this view, military weapons are always developing! But weapons and the ways in which weapons allow a definite strategy also reflect cultural themes and practices typically ignored in reflections upon war. For example, the capacity to strike at a distance is itself cultural and also has cultural implications in that it makes possible warfare at a distance. There is a different relation between combatants when they can avoid face-to-face struggle. Action at a distance can have stunningly destructive effects — one need only reflect for a moment on weapons of mass destruction or the hype around Rumsfeld’s ‘shock and awe’ that was the first stage of the Iraqi campaign.

But action at a distance has other consequences as well. It is these that have contributed to the unraveling of the present campaign. This can be seen in several ways.

One is simply the impossibility of maintaining the distinction between combatant and non-combatant when war at a distance is pursued. For all the hype about the precision of high-tech weaponry, the concept of war at a distance undermines the notion of the combatant. As such it undermines the ethics of warfare. In Iraq the distinction has completely broken down and the society is now almost completely at war. Even though the notion of ‘Total War’ arose in the 20th century it can now be seen that high-tech war and Total War are companion concepts, for war at a distance targets the base conditions of life.

Another consequence of war at a distance can be seen in the strategy that assumed that the campaign could be pursued with troop levels that are historically low. Indeed troop levels in the US military generally are extremely low. They are based on the new possibilities of high-tech that did not seem to require on the ground forces on the same scale as was taken for granted in earlier campaigns. And not unlike the situation in industrial production, where physical labour that assumes social arrangements with human presence have become too expensive, military strategy shifts from the face-to-face to action at a distance. In part, this is a solution to solve the budget problem. For the truth is that a substantially larger force was not really an option because the way of life chosen in the West, with its attendant wage rates and costs, makes such ground forces unaffordable even for the richest nation on earth. But it is also much more than a budget problem. It is a cultural choice.

Cultural choices are not preferences. While they are strictly speaking ‘options’, for those who live the assumptions of the culture such choices do not feel like options at all. From within the culture they are obvious — even elemental — to the point of cultural members being blinded to other possibilities. This is the reality of action at a distance in the world of the West. It is not predominantly a military matter, it is the dominant principle now characterising all of the social institutions of our society. While it can never displace entirely social relations that value the face-to-face, it is the distance society — in the form of what is often called globalisation — that comes to dominate social processes in the West. It is especially prominent in the university, the workplace and the media through the extended possibilities of high technology. And of special significance via the media and media advertising even the family is significantly recomposed around strategies that assume action at a distance. All of this is socially organised around that pre-eminent institution that composes the distance society in its practical arrangements, the high-tech market. For markets, inconceivable except as institutions that allow action at a distance, are the ‘natural’ institutions of a high-tech order made possible by the intellectual work of the high sciences.

In other words, the distance society represents a set of cultural choices and assumptions that, amongst many other things, dictate how we go to war. As such it propels our Western society into fighting wars in definite ways and seeking to organise after the war in definite ways. In Iraq, the United States has performed ‘shock and awe’, has declared victory, and has then found the victory to be completely hollow. While it is clear that Iraqi society cannot fight on the terms of shock and awe, they can fall back onto their own social resources that are, largely, not based in action at a distance. Certainly they rely on the efficacy of the printed word based in the integrative and rallying possibilities of the Koran, a longstanding early form of action at a distance. But however that may be, the multiplicity of high-tech institutions common to the West represent something of a parallel cultural universe for Iraqis.

From the elitist standpoint of the neo-conservatives these institutions are beyond the range of the Iraqis. They need to have high-tech institutions imposed upon them. From a cultural standpoint the Iraqis are constituted in a radically different composition of social levels than is the West, a composition that gives the meaning to true difference as opposed to the lifestyle difference offered in consumption societies. In other words, without a reflexive grasp of these issues there is no basis for proper respect between the societies and only a strategy based in respect could overcome that history that has spawned the word ‘infidel’.

In the nitty-gritty circumstances of on the ground reconstruction of Iraqi society, high-tech ‘shock and awe’ is worse than useless. It can ‘win’ by destroying the society — a strategy Bush, via trial and error, is now moving towards — but reconstruction requires security and a certain cultural affinity. There is little cultural affinity between the West and the Middle East. It is a core matter that the United States can only think about reconstruction in terms of the distance society — and so proposes various institutions based on the high-tech global market that is, in turn, a core element of its definition of democracy. It has no capacity to even realise the significance of dealing with a society composed more forthrightly through face-to-face institutions.

We can look at the contrast between two types of society and reflect on why one is not receptive to the institutions of another. This can give some understanding of why the coalition strategy is doomed to failure. For failure is not merely a matter of incompetence. It is a consequence of the assumption that Iraqi culture, given a little ‘help’, is simply commensurable with that of the West.

But these matters are only half the story when it comes to the Iraq war. For they ignore how the high-tech institutions of the West are not only failing in Iraq and the Middle East but also face multiple contradictions at home. Those of us in the West need to bear in mind that we would not be the first society to go to war in order to externalise crises. Could this process lie at the heart of why the West is insisting on ‘victory’ in Iraq?

This is a very large question but bear in mind that no society before the 1980s has ever been composed so completely around action at a distance. Action at a distance does not only generate problems for warfare. For the social relations of distance support expressions of the abstract individual which are satisfied through one core strategy: the enhancement of the consumption of commodities (including lifestyles) that substitute for tangible relations with others. If this produces meaning for some individuals — it is certainly attractive to many in the first instance — it creates many difficulties for others. On its other side, the distance society, adding exponentially to the impacts of industrial society, places demands upon the earth and its resources, such that we now have good reason to doubt the continuity of what has been ‘our world’ for the last 10,000 years. Climate change, seen socially, is an elemental challenge especially directed at the general assumption of the distance society that expansion — of population and economy — is the road to meaning.

Advocating a drawing back from the Armageddon that promises to unfold in the Middle East is one thing. To see that strategy as fully implicated in any serious attempt to tackle the crisis in our own way of life is a project of another order. Only the latter carries hope for a way past the elemental blindness that now possesses the West.
John Hinkson is an Arena publications editor.