News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Notes on Cultural Pain, Liberty, and Military Paradigms

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Notes on Cultural Pain, Liberty, and Military Paradigms

In an interview on Meet the Press, Jim Webb said something that I think is crucial for future use of the military in relationship to terrorism. He said that military might must only be used after diplomacy fails. That's probably part of what's become known as the Powell doctrine, a policy that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld stratagem in Iraq has exuberantly derided with disastrous results.
Rumsfeld in particular seems to have spearheaded this effort at decapitating the Powell doctrine. In his effort to modernize the military, he's emphasized the integration of technology into the fighting units, expecting thereby to make units smaller but increasingly lethal by way of their ability to pinpoint the enemy and concentrate not only infantry firepower but augmented by air support. (See this LA Times article, which I saw after I wrote this posting.) ...

Of course, much of this is known to many who are on the ground. The efficacy of the approach has proven itself in the fact that few insurgents are willing to take US troops on in head-to-head fighting. They simply don't have the will or firepower to engage US troops at this level. Another result of this focus is that the attrition rate on US forces is low. Maximizing troop protection is a laudable objective in any form of warfare.

Another facet of US military strategy is that of massive lethality which I suggest informs the way that the US military strategizes. The very use of the phrase shock and awe used to describe the initial attacks on Iraq bear this out. The idea here seemed to be that the attack would stun the enemy into such shock that their will to fight would dissipate. Indeed, much of American strategy in Iraq has followed this model, with Falluja coming most quickly to mind.

I think the psychology of this strategy must be questioned. I do not know what studies, if any, this strategy is based on but it has so far been disproved dramatically in Iraq. Anyone familiar with history, however, could have seen how mistaken the policy is.

It appears that those who formulated this strategy are working under the paradigm of nuclear devastation. That is, the US holds within its power gargantuan military might in its nuclear arsenal and that fact of immense destructive power has infused the very strategy and thinking that goes into how the US faces its foes. After all, this thinking might go, no one is going to defeat us--if worse comes to worse, we can simply wipe them and their future generations from the face of existence.

The question is, how does this underlying assurance of destruction guide the unconscious thinking and planning that goes into military leaders' actions? I suggest that it has infused the entire Cheney/Rumsfeld war paradigm--from battle strategy to torture regimes.

I would like to know where this strategy has ever worked, however. It seems that humans have shown over and over that they are willing to die (and kill) to the last person if they believe that the stakes are high enough. Perhaps this has to do with cultural variables such as tribal versus individualist ethoses, but I imagine that these variables might prove less different than at first sight they seem.

One example that most Americans should know includes the use of massive force against Native American. In its expansion across the American continent, the US government relied on massive military superiority to quell and subdue Native American tribes. Contrary to the expected results, many groups and individual within the native population were willing to experience extermination rather than accept defeat and witness the death of their societies. Those who did not were forced into concentration camp style reservations. That experience shows that some humans are willing to die en masse--even to cultural death--to survive.

The psychological aspects of using massive lethality are probably incalculable. While one culture might buckle under the pressure of such lethal destruction, others would find such force more incentive to fight. The variables that come into play are perhaps more cultural than baldly biological.

With regard to the Iraq war, it appears that the US architects sorely underestimated the response of Iraqis to the use of such force. These architects were perhaps taking into account the fact that Iraq had withstood an 8-year war of attrition with Iran, a decade of economic sanctions imposed by western nations where over half a million people died, and decades of cruel tyranny by Saddam Hussein.

I do not have the exact quote available, but during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Iraq supreme commander Gen. Abizaid spoke briefly on Iraqi society’s ability to sustain pain. Until I find a transcript of that testimony I must rely on my impression of what he meant. It appears that US military commanders factor into their formulations of war an idea of how much pain and suffering a group of people or society can absorb. In Abizaid's estimation, it seems that US military architects underestimated that "absorption level" of Iraqis.

In his analysis of what elements are required for a republican form of government, Machiavelli considered cultural and behavioral factors such as those exhibited by the Native Americans and the Iraqi insurgents. For Machiavelli, it is factors such as these that show how much a particular grouping of humans will be able to "get" the notion of republican freedom. That is, who is willing to go to their deaths rather than accept others telling you what to do and imposing laws and prohibitions by fiat or force from outside.

Ultimately, these cultural factors will also determine how much a group can grasp and understand the interplay of forces that go into maintaining that "mixed polity" where the differentiated groupings that fall out from the workings of "fate" work together to protect the society as well as make it go forward.

These formulations may sound as though they buy into the argument put forward by those who say that the Muslims are not ready for democracy or that Islam is somehow immune to it. In fact, the resistance to US hegemonistic actions in the region, their resistance to an imposed peace by US forces, and the continuing fight suggest otherwise.

On a larger level, it seems that these cultural variables are not biologically determined. Instead, they result from various historical forces. As much as those forces are part of what go into the formation of social groupings in the first place, these forces also seem to play a large role in helping various groups develop the practices and behavioral responses required to encourage various styles of democratic institutions, traditions, and practices.

In the past, these features of human existence have been left to the vagaries of chance and happenstance. With the availability of historical awareness, however, the ability for humans to take control of those processes and inculcate them becomes a feature of human existence.

Related Links (all found after I wrote the above)

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