The Escalation of the Will: Western Power in an Age of Symbols

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.


About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

5 Responses to The Escalation of the Will: Western Power in an Age of Symbols

  1. ozymandiaz says:

    Being a resident American, I am very familiar with the dichotomy of which you write. You apparently see much of the same media we do. There is more to the story, though. Just as we are often our own worse enemy, so too are the terrorists. We often only perceive the sensational extremes because they fit neatly in little easily consumed packets in days ever more filled conflicting stimuli. Check out this link (sorry it’s so long, I’m not very well versed on the ‘ol thml)
    The enemy at hand, if you will, understands what they fight just as little as we understand them. We try to fight organizations when our enemy is and ideology. They, in turn, attempt to deface America and her allies when what they are really fighting, what really threatens their totalitarian religious beliefs, are really the western ideals of free market. With this comes the blasphemous ideals such as freedom (of religion, race, thought, gender, etc.). These ideals are so intrusive that our own government has a hard time suppressing them for ling periods of time, even though historically they will try (i.e. Bush’s homeland security).
    For the most part, though, I agree with you. I always find it interesting and useful to know how thinking people (I know how the stupid ones feel) perceive different situations. That is why I like your blog.

  2. BlakeC says:

    It is very true that in order to maintain the will amongst ourselves in the west, complete honesty is required. I only wonder if that is in fact enough. Even if the US were to be completely honest in admitting its faults and punishing those who’ve done wrong, people will still claim that there is more that has been left hidden and that in fact the US is covering up. In so doing the US will in fact cause greater problems in maintainig the will of the west because those who so wish will see any admission of guilt as confirming all of their pre-concieved worst notions concerning America. Just as I believe many in America’s government overestimate what may be accomplished thru military means, I equally feel that most outside of America’s government underestimate its necessity. For those who see no justification for the use of the US military overseas, the only US policy acceptable is for the US to throw away all its technological advantages and cede to the enemy a level playing field. What I feel needs to happen is a re-examining of what is fair. As long as both sides in the conflict are not held to the same standards nothing shall ever be fair. This means both that the US must condemn those who represent it in a criminal manner (sometimes immoral) but also that when the very strategy used by the enemy is criminal in every respect (and is never moral)the enemy should be roundly condemned to a much greater scale than has occurred in the past. I feel that it is the overriding sense of guilt on the part of the west for past moral offenses which leads to the unwillingness by the west to hold those outside the west to task for their present immoral actions. I personally feel that many of the decisions by the US government were not the wisest but have yet to be convinced that any action directed by said government (this would exclude abuses done by those underlings not in the government–ex: military brigadiers and lower, who have all been held accountable as far as all the evidence available shows) is at all immoral. Until any credible evidence is shown to the contrary it is hard for me to see how poor solutions to difficult problems is in itself worthy of condemnation on the scale that many opponents of Bush would require and have so far daily demonstrated.

    I love the post though, very well reasoned and definately a greatly thought provoking piece. Of course I expect nothing less when I come to this blog.

  3. kamau says:

    For me the morality is irrelevant because if is practiced relatively and quoted only when appropriate by the west, the terrorists, oppressors and the oppressed. It is to me the lingua franca of convenience.

    Untimely all these groups have interests to archive, so who is better at achieving their interests? I argue that the terrorists are loosing miserably, whatever their grievances, they will have to archive them by engaging in the political process of their parent countries, the US included.

  4. Sean says:

    nice words, but completely empty. pure rhetoric.
    Not one single practical statement, just words and slogans.
    so is military force always unusable against terrorism?
    America has not been perfect- thats a news flash? Duh.
    I got news for you. America will never be perfect, there will always be things others can point to and call it hypocrisy.

  5. MMK says:

    Sean – Thanks for at least taking the time to comment. You sound very defensive and really have no reason to be – there is no suggestion that America should or can be perfect (whatever that means). And if you read through the end you will find that this is not a pacifist piece by any means. Relax a little and engage in a discussion, no one is out to GET America on this blog.

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