The Age of Meta-War

There are a number of dimensions to the Second Gulf War that makes it stunningly unique. Never before has an invading military force been greeted by such sustained cultural-political opposition before the war had begun, including outsiders travelling into or staying in the zone of conflict as human shields. Without melodrama or undue emphasis, one Australian clergyman said that he would not be going into an air-raid shelter because the vast majority of Iraqi civilians would not have that luxury.

Never before has a territorial invasion of a sovereign state been rationalised in terms of the necessity of war on a non-state-based, non-territorial network of enemies that have no documented connection to that state. Afghanistan set the stage for such a development, but then the rhetoric began with the rationale of apprehending a terrorist rather than effecting regime change. This time the rhetoric has turned to the possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Never before have such strange bedfellows found themselves gathered together to defend a pre-emptive strike. Jose Ramos Horta, Nobel Prize winner in 1996, effectively sided with his old bete noir Henry Kissinger, when he argued that ‘if the anti-war movement dissuades the US and its allies from going to war with Iraq, it will have contributed to the peace of the dead’.

And never before has the will to global power been expressed through such blatantly contradictory language in the speeches and writing of the expeditionary leaders.

On the one hand, we have heard the rhetoric of unstinting patience in the face of an evil threat, of reluctance to go to war to achieve peace, and of an ultimate divine mission to bring democracy to a downtrodden people.

On the other hand, the lead into war was characterised by bluff, blackmail, lies and vicious character assassination. It was supported by a campaign of rhetoric that made the war seem inevitable and the projection of crude aggression the only alternative. No pretense was made — as it had been in previous postmodern wars, the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan — that military violence would be clean, surgical and precise. Long before it came to power, the members of the current war cabinet exhorted the path of pre-emptive strike, including the use of weapons of mass destruction if necessary, to ‘deter any challenger from ever dreaming of challenging us on the world stage’. ‘I want to be the bully on the block’, said the Bush administration’s gentleman general, Colin Powell, just after the First Gulf War. Or, ‘I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war’, said George W. Bush a decade on, just after being told that the second plane had hit the World Trade. (At that time, in true postmodern fashion, he had no idea on whom he was declaring war). According to press reports that appeared much later (September 2002), it was during the same fateful hour that President Bush ‘declared war’ that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had decided that United States had to oust Sadam Hussein.

However, despite the uniqueness of this Second Gulf War, it is important to remember some of the longer-term structural conditions that lay behind the present condition. The Second Gulf War is the culmination of a historical shift in the dominant nature of war that goes back at least to World War II and was symbolised by the dropping of a nuclear bomb on the civilian population of Hiroshima. This shift has been intensifying across the course of the late twentieth century and into the present. Understanding its nature helps us to understand the broader seriousness of the current situation in terms that include and go beyond the recent exposés of the various neo-conservatives who have been associated with the Project for a New American Century. Implicit in my argument is the suggestion that it would not have mattered much whether it was George W. Bush or Al Gore in power.

Conventional histories of post-World War international conflict, tend to talk in terms of turning points between periods that are characterised by relative doctrinal clarity. In the aftermath of World War II, two superpowers faced each other in a nuclear stand-off. In the 1970s the tensions of the Cold War eased into a period of dètente between the superpowers; then in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the beginning of a period characterised by a single hegemon, the United States. This also became the era of globalisation in which conflict overwhelmingly involved intra-state violence, wars between erstwhile compatriots or neighbours over the political souls of their dissipating nation-states.

While this history is half adequate, a quite different history can be written of a shift from war as a series of territorial conflicts to a condition of meta-war — that is, war without end or territorial boundary. The slogan of American Special Operations Forces is ‘Anything, Anytime, Anywhere’. This is a condition of globalising war that will probably never take the name of World War III. In this rendition of history we have been entering what Gore Vidal has with devastatingly acuity called the period of ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’.

One dimension of meta-war is that it is fought as a war without end — a collapsing of temporal limits. For a while now, politicians have talked ruefully about the decisiveness of winning the war, and the difficulty of winning the peace. However, we have gone another step. Like the previous War on Drugs, the present War on Terror cannot be won except as a series of provisional moments. Like the military operation in Afghanistan, superficial regime-change is relatively easily effected by the kind of massive military machine that the condition of meta-war sustains, but effecting long-term peace is a different matter.

In the aftermath of a particular military campaign, the process of what used to be called ‘post-war reconstruction’ now involves a continuing state of military pacification. In Afghanistan, Coalition troops, including Australia’s SAS, are still engaged in a long slow war of strategic management as that country disintegrates, one more added to the list of ‘failed states’. At the same time on the home front in the United States the surveillance and internal security forces are on a permanent state of alert.

Another of the dimensions of meta-war is possibility of automating and projecting force from a distance, massively and quickly — a spatial overcoming. This possibility had its beginnings in World War II and was enhanced during the late twentieth century through the concurrent development of smart weapons and missile delivery systems and through new methods of organisation including computer simulation. It took two simultaneous directions. The first involved treating weapons as instruments of policy in their own right. Mutually Assured Destruction was both the outcome and limit of this first direction.

The second direction involved automating and intensifying embodied attacks through such developments as the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) of the 1980s. The idea here, first conceived in 1977, was that through super-efficient and flexible organisation and transport systems a force of military personnel could be placed anywhere in the globe within days rather than months. Interestingly in the current situation, the RDF was first linked to the controversial Sinai ‘Peace-keeping Force’, a US-sponsored force to which Australia under Malcolm Fraser contributed troops despite 71.5 per cent disapproval from the Australian population. He lost the next election.

For a period during the 1990s, the projection of disembodied force took precedence over the projection of abstractly organised special ground troops. In Kosovo, for example, months of bombing were used to win the war without risking troops on the ground. Some military strategists and some academics proclaimed the beginning of an age of pure electronic war. However, while books are now being written on War in the Age of the Intelligent Machine (Manuel de Landa) or Postmodern War (Chris Hables Gray), this should not be taken to mean that wars will no longer involve soldiers on the ground or that civilians will be spared by precision machinery. Neither does the use of ground troops in the current war mean that we are returning to older forms of war-making. Rather, what we are talking about is the framing condition of war becoming increasing abstract and technologised, with an intensification of violence in the theatre of war that has a devastating effect on actual human bodies, either directly or through destruction of the social fabric.

What the Second Gulf War indicates, as part of the meta-war on terror, is that war will potentially be fought across all levels of engagement from the embodied to the disembodied abstract, all the while being framed by the abstracted possibilities of high-tech weaponry, computerised organisational systems, and a globalised military-industrial-communications complex. What the current war brings together is the interconnectivity, or ‘convergence’ in the language of information systems analysis, of changing modes of practice — production, organisation, communication and enquiry. This convergence, under conditions of late capitalism and techno-science, has taken the capacities of the modern war-machine to a new level of projected violence.

In the meantime, individuals are being killed in ever-greater numbers, some by smart bombs, some by bulldozers suffocating in the sand, and some in the chaotic aftermath. Personally, I want to know what has happened to that Australian clergyman that I heard on the radio before the war started, talking about his solidarity with the ordinary people of Iraq. His words reminded me of a satirical war-prayer written during the American occupation of the Philippines in 1905 and quoted by Lewis Lapham in Harper’s Magazine in 2002.

O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the paler forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unbefriended the wastes of their desolate land in rags and hunger and thirst … with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

The author was an American, Mark Twain. These words were not published until thirteen years after his death because his editors thought that this ‘moment of truth’ was too sensitive for publication at such a time of high patriotism.

Categorised: Against the Current

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