Thursday, September 20, 2007

An Anti-Chutzpah (but Audacious) Republican

Anyone who did the math in yesterday's Chutzpah of the Week award post should know by now that there were, in fact, six Republican senators who support Jim Webb's time-off measure. The BBC article I cited actually quoted one of the, Chuck Hagel. That quote deserves consideration:

We cannot continue to look at war and the people who fight and die in wars as abstractions, as pawns, as objects.

This is a very noble piece of rhetoric, and I wish it had swayed four more Republicans to get the vote count up to the required level of 60. Nevertheless, it also opens up a philosophical can of worms; and we would do better to take a long hard look at the contents rather than quickly shut it up again.

Regular readers know that I share Senator Hagel's disgust for the practice of what I have called "objectifying the subject," whether it is in the interest of commerce or the rationalization of some hopelessly misconceived government policy. However, such readers also know that I get very nervous with the casual use of words that we have never bothered to understand very well. Because of my continuing interest in "social software," one of the words that really bothers me is "community," particularly when it is invoked as a shibboleth by some blathering technology evangelist. However, exactly a week ago I was confronted with the prospect that we were being just as abusive of the noun "humanity" and that this particular abuse seemed to be worming its way into the general global Zeitgeist. Now Senator Hagel did not explicitly use the word "humanity;" but the concept behind that word is the underlying subject matter of the quoted sentence. From this point of view, Senator Hagel has made an assertion about war that is either very ignorant or very revolutionary. I really have no idea which he intended it to be, let alone which I would like it to be; so let me try to pursue the issue.

The verb "continue" implies the extension of something. In this case I take that "something" to be what Giddens would call the "regular social practices" of military operations. What we must first recognize about those practices is that they are trained, which is (as should be obvious) the objective of "Basic Training." The regularity of those practices is important, because it endows them with a property of predictability without which the entire procedural concept of a chain of command would not be able to function. Having been spared my own experience of Basic Training, my understanding of it comes only from conversations with friends and colleagues. Back in my student days I had a friend who enlisted in the Coast Guard. When I saw him after he had completed his Basic Training, he told me, with some amusement, that he was not allowed to keep a copy of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" essay; but he then added that, in retrospect, this was entirely consistent with the objective of Basic Training. He recognized that Basic Training was, to a rather high degree, objectifying him, basically for the sake of the quality of his performance once training had been completed. It would appear that, on the basis of the above quotation, Senator Hagel does not want this practice to continue.

If that is really true, then his assertion about war should be taken as very revolutionary; and I think that is the way I would like to read it. Military historians can probably come up with better examples than I can, but I suspect that the overarching narrative of military history has a lot to do with one side understanding the regular social practices of its opposition, identifying the vulnerabilities in those practices, and exploiting them. We have even turned a literary construct from Greek mythology into a metaphor for this process: Achilles' heel. Now we are faced with strident ideologues who want to play fast and loose with the concept of war, itself, enjoining us all to support America's "War on Terror." Such rhetoric is never toned down by suggestions that the speakers are playing dangerously with words and concepts they do not understand; if anything such challenges only escalate the stridency.

Senator Hagel has now taken a different approach. He has been bold enough to suggest that the regular social practices of our Department of Defense (not to mention the Department of State and possibly the entire National Security Council) may be the source of vulnerabilities that have been (and could readily continue to be) exploited by new strategies of terrorism, such as those practiced by al-Qaeda. This is an act of audacity far beyond any of the denotations or connotations that Barack Obama has dared to suggest. Indeed, it would probably be dismissed as impossible (and probably insane) by just about anyone in our "ruling class," possibly while invoking another famous metaphor, which is the problem of getting a battleship to change course. Perhaps Hagel has decided to retire because he really does not want to fight this battle. I would understand this decision and sympathize with it. On the other hand I hope that this remark will inspire at least one reputable journalist to challenge every aspirant to the White House with the assertion that Hagel made: Are we looking at war in a way that can only make us vulnerable to the primary threats of attack that we now face?

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