The Escalation of the Will: Western Power in an Age of Symbols
July 15, 2005 5 Comments
Since September 11 2001, the March 2004 Madrid bombings and last week’s attacks in London, the West, led by America, has been in a war of wills. It little understands the nature of this war but has waged it fiercely with unparalleled military and economic might. The opponents, the remnants of al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups understand that they cannot parry the physical means of the US and have instead opted for a symbolic showdown. America and the West are losing this war.
The more they draw on superpower means, in the material sense, the faster their fortunes will decline. Two centuries after Carl von Clausewitz warned of the escalatory nature of war, which inexorably leads to the total employment of all resources to striking an enemy, Western military and political leaders still regard this escalation as mostly physical.
However, this is not so when battling terrorists driven by ideas that they believe are transcendent and rooted in the moral domain. For such an enemy, escalation is a matter of the will and the resulting violence is largely symbolic despite its human costs. The aim is not to ‘win’ in the traditional military sense, but rather to display that the material and secular responses of the West are inadequate when arrayed against the moral will. This is why the suicide bomber – of whom there might have been some in London on 7/7 – is such a potent symbol for his aim is to draw a direct comparison to the F-16 and the B2 bomber.
Westerners regard their political communities to be the most morally upright on the planet. Terrorist attacks have the consequence, and perhaps intention, of drawing a response that clashes with this self image. In the many wars that America has fought in the last century, its defeats have come when there has been a sustained collision between its ideals and its actions. This is why Guantanamo Bay and the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib buoy the terrorists since they read like the signposts to defeat.
In the twentieth century, the moral space in war steadily increased in importance; losing legitimacy at home or abroad now hastens defeat. Reports from Iraq – of Abu Ghraib, civilians killed at roadblocks or the common video shot of the grieving mother – directly bear on the battle to possess this moral space. U.S. soldiers acting as many invaders have throughout history have nevertheless revealed in powerful symbolic terms the tension between America’s rhetoric and its actions.
The contradiction has sapped American will in the sense of lowered civilian support for the occupation and revealed the vulnerability of its self image to the real world costs of superpower. The beheadings of westerners, 9/11 and the London attacks bear a simple message: with only blades and belief, the world of the powerful can be unmade. It is strange that America, a country noted for its mass export of movies about rich, high-tech bad guys with a penchant for hypocrisy always defeated by the under-resourced everyman, finds the connection between symbols and real world outcomes so difficult to grasp. By ceding the political direction of the war to the Pentagon, the U.S. is now acting like the bad guy who lovingly strokes an irresistible weapon even as the imprisoned hero is dreaming up an unlikely reversal involving a wooden stake and a huge dose of faith.
War is produced and sustained by a trinity of forces that exist in a state of constant interaction: the heart, the hand and the mind. These are present not only in the individual soldier, but also in society as a whole. The heart represents the passions of the civilian populace, the feelings of hostility and antagonistic intention. The hand is used to physically eliminate the enemy’s forces, it symbolizes the military. The mind stands for reason, which Clausewitz argued governs all war since to take the field according to his famous dictum was to pursue politics by other means. The U.S. needs to carefully consider the balance between these forces since its opponents’ trinity is balanced in an entirely different fashion.
George Bush’s forces are supremely prepared to use the hand – witness the array of high-tech weapons and the administration’s huge increase of the military budget. But it is in the heart, that this effort will be won or lost. Those who attacked London, like the 9/11 bombers, understand that they cannot mount a ladder of escalation based on the means of the hand. The escalatory logic they are engaged in is based on symbolically demonstrating their greater will to prevail, and the West’s moral vacuity. The real war then is not of Western soldiers versus terrorists, it is between the heart and the hand or between symbol and object.
So what is the state of America’s heart? For too long, America’s conduct has deviated from its ideas about itself: ‘we are good, non-imperial folk who everyone wants to emulate’ goes a common refrain. When the realpolitik policies of a Kissinger are considered, it has made for a nation sometimes profoundly at odds with itself; with dishonesty at its heart. It is this dishonesty that is the terrorist’s greatest weapon. It allows even those who do not support terrorists to say “the chicken has come home to roost.” Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo strike Americans as un-American while the rest of the world, observing the action and reaction, sees a bully’s hypocrisy.
The way forward need be rooted in a vigorous self honesty and not in the blinkered approach that so many politicians believe Americans need. When it comes to civil liberties for example, the Bush administration must be honest enough to admit that living in an open society means terrorists will manage to periodically carry out successful strikes. Most people are prepared to take this risk rather than live in the security provided by authoritarian government. Soldiers who are found guilty of abuses in Iraq and elsewhere must be prosecuted fully and the chain of responsibility pursued to its ends no matter how high up it travels. Lies and self deception never made for a lion’s heart, which America needs for this fight.
For America to out-escalate the terrorists in this war of the wills, a clear sense of right is needed. And for that to be reached, an abiding notion of wrong must also be determined. Not only the wrongs of others but, just as importantly, those of the United States itself. By admitting mistakes in the War Against Terror and refusing to lie in bed with dictators, America’s moral purpose shall be clarified and strengthened. Then it will be left to the hand, the military, supported by a population whose will is strengthened, to hunt down the terrorists who using only box cutters challenged America’s honesty.