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Letter

Lust

After my first visit to the Dutch army in Afghanistan (summer 2006) a Dutch newspaper and the Ministry of Defense asked me to help soldiers write about their experiences in Afghanistan.
Today the book with stories by soldiers, including a letter to his parents by a killed soldier, was published.
I thought of an article I wrote several weeks ago about the war photographer Ad van Denderen: “Wars are begun because the lust for war exists. After that, reasons are devised, exigencies and all manner of geopolitical interests thought up - none of which I have any desire to run down, but which are of little interest to me. I leave those discussions to the ladies and gentlemen of the op-ed pages who, after reviewing various foreign newspapers and magazines, are deemed able to put in their own two-cents’ worth.” (Translation: Sam Garrett)

S

17 comments Last_comment
War
Letter/Lust

"... their own two-cents' worth."

Our own 'killer-bees' have more to say than journalists?
What about Michael Herr: 'Dispatches' (1977) ?!
Somehow this all reminds me of the man in a police station who is being asked - after his wallet has been stolen - "Do you need to talk to our mental counsellor?'
[- Write about your experiences for mental health!]
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Geopolitical reasons are in the same category as the suspicion of having mass destruction weapons, agreed. But there must be more than just the lust for war. At least because it can't explain why most wars are targeted at specific enemies. Or would you say enemies are chosen after deciding that it's time for a fight? And how would you explain peace? Simply nobody up for a fight?
Ron
Peace is war fatigue.
Arnon, thanks. It's sentences like that that make you my favourite author. (But not necessarily my favourite philosopher on war and peace, I'm afraid.)
Lust
Wars are begun because the lust for war exists? That's a rather uninformative insight. What's next? Friendship exists because the lust for friendship exists? Breathing occurs because the lust for oxygen exists?
Michel
Many people believe that wars are a means to an (political) end. Most people believe that for example friendship is an end in itself.
Furthermore, I urge you to read the complete text.
Arnon
I would be very happy to read the text. Perhaps Johannes can email it to me?

I understand your point that you feel the reasons commonly cited as the causes of war are mostly ex-post rationalizations. While I may agree with you on this, the idea that there simply is a lust for war seems to offer very little insight. It is as insightful as saying: wars are begun because life exists. Sure, war or conflict is a natural state of affairs. But that does not mean there aren't causes and factors at play that deserve to be understood. Why do democracies start fewer wars than other political systems? Your insight says nothing about this. Worse: it suggests that this is a irrelevant question. The lust is simply there, all the rest is window dressing.

To phrase it differently: who or what is exactly experiencing this lust? Lust is a property of an individual. Wars are typically activities of states or at least of larger collectives. It is perfectly fine to use metaphors of individuals to describe collectives, but they typically obscure the forces at work at the collective level. It is the inverse of what sociologists call the ecological fallacy. Also, it seems a bit lazy.
Michel
According to the military historian Martin van Creveld the lust for war and the fascination with violence is typically male. (Some women tend to object to his ideas.)
The realization that war is not a means to an end doesn’t strike me as a lazy observation.
I’m not sure how exactly you would define “democracy” but if you were aware of my writings on this topic you would know that I do believe that the civilizing process is slowly but steadily moving forward.
One could describe the long peace in Western Europe as war fatigue caused by the two great wars of the last century.

As to the text you can buy the book, see: http://www.arnongrunberg.com/announcement/314
Arnon
"The realization that war is not a means to an end doesn’t strike me as a lazy observation."

It may be a realization for you, but in the way you state it, it is simply a claim, not an observation. It is an interesting claim, but as such not observable. I'm not denying men have a lust for violence. But unless you are simplistically extrapolating that since men have this lust, whole systems of government have this lust, I don't see how that informs us about the conditions under which wars are begun. It is not only problematic to use psychological metaphors to understand the behavior of collectives, but it seems to completeley homogenize the phenomenon of war. There is nothing one needs to understand or ask futher. Lust is the first and last answer. In that sense it strikes me as a rather lazy insight. Which is not to say it is without merit.

I'm by no means an expert on this topic, but I read an interesting article that provided some evidence that suggests that democracies actually inflict more civilian casualties than non-democracies. Why? Because of their institutional dynamics of accountability. E.g., politicians feel that in order to maintain public support for the campaign they have to avoid casualties among their own troops, which leads to relatively overwhelming uses of power.

There may or may not be lust at the level of the individuals involved (BTW, did Creveld actually have evidence of this or was he merely extending some psycho-analytical ideas?). But I don't think that provides a better explanation of why a conflict is begun or how it is fought.

Your point about war fatigue is also not really an observation either. It is not wrong or useless, but I might just as well say that you and I are not criminals because we are crime-fatigued. I don't know about you, but the few crimes that I committed weren't so exhausting that they can explain why I have become such an upstanding citizen.
Michel
Any government needs willing soldiers and officers to fight a war.
I’m not sure what point you are trying to make by distinguishing the government (or state) who is allowed to wage war (under certain conditions) from the soldiers who are obliged to fight this war.
Van Creveld’s subject is war, he studied war through the ages, he studied the people who fought these wars; I advise you to read his book on the culture of war.
As to criminal behavior, your metaphor is ill-chosen. In daily life killing another human is taboo, in war killing the enemy becomes an obligation.
Once again I believe it’s a good idea to read my article or even to read my entry more carefully. I’m not pooh-poohing geo-political reasons to start a war – I’m merely saying that we overestimate these reasons, we put too much emphasis on the story, we frame a war in the rhetoric of storytelling, and we confuse the story with the explanation.
Arnon
"Any government needs willing soldiers and officers to fight a war.
I’m not sure what point you are trying to make by distinguishing the government (or state) who is allowed to wage war (under certain conditions) from the soldiers who are obliged to fight this war."

This distinction is critical, I don't understand how you can overlook that. Is it the lust for war of soldiers that start wars? No. That decision, perhaps outcome is a more accurate word as it is often much more the aggregation of smaller actions and institutional forces, is generated elsewhere. Of course, such an outcome is only possible if that particular state actually has an army that is somewhat willing to fight. But to point to the existence of an army as the cause of war is, again, not so much wrong, as it is a bit lazy.

You seem to want to psychologize a phenomenon that is not driven by individuals but by collectives. There is a reason sociology was invented.

Regarding the analogy with crime: here you need to read more carefully. I was pointing out a flaw in your argument of peace as "war fatigue". I wasn't saying that war and crime are comparable. To put it another way, if I follow your logic, then why is war not really peace fatigue? You know, we lust for peace, but sometimes it become to much and we get to tired of it. Either way, this type of statement is rather meaningless.

Yes, I need to read a lot of things -- I'm sorry I missed the piece you refer to in NRC, I was out of the country when it was published. But this is a blog. Would you prefer it that I only comment on your posts after I have ordered and read the relevant books? If so, perhaps you can include a required reading list with each post.
Michel
The point you are trying to make is that your point is critical?
And that you don’t understand how I can overlook it?
What exactly do you believe I have overlooked?
As to the “flaw in my argument” – I’m not sure where in literature, movies, or the history of mankind you find will be able to find a substantial “lust for peace” or a “fascination for peace.”
Do you know when pacifism started? Do you know how successful it was?
And the difference in attitude towards war between the US and Europe is according to many related to the fact that the last two great wars were fought on European soil not American soil.
What flaws exactly are you speaking about?
And furthermore, an aphorism is not the same thing as an argument.
And by the way did I say the reason for war is the existence of an army? This is worse than clumsy reading it is distorting what I wrote.
I have the feeling that you enjoy continuing this discussion, but I’m afraid that you have nothing substantial to add.
As to reading blogs and articles, I don’t believe it’s or/or and I never said that you are not allowed to comment until you have read the article. I urged you to read the article that’s all.
Your talent for sarcasm is minimal.
Arnon
It's true, I did enjoy this little back and forth. But it has run its course, I agree. I was trying to flesh out your argument. Apparently you feel I distorted it in the process. Accidents happen. You summarize the five paragraphs of my last comment in one sentence, which doesn't remotely resemble what I said. It is not a reason to complain about your reading skills. You were trying to flesh out my point.

Just a final note of clarification. You argued that lust is an important explanation. I point out this is a psychological explanation and the processes through which wars are begun are not merely or even predominantly psychological. They are about states and collectives, i.e., sociological mechanisms. The you counter by saying: "Any government needs willing soldiers and officers to fight a war." Of course they do. However, I don't understand how that counters my argument, unless you imply that it is the lust for war of soldiers that starts wars. I don't think you really mean that, but you don't offer any clarification yourself. The distinction between individuals (and their lust) and collectives is critical in the sense that they behave differently, produce different outcomes. Wars are started by collectives, lust is an individual phenomenon. You didn't see the point of making this distinction. I found that difficult to understand, as surely this gap would have to be bridged before lust could be a meaningful explanation for wars. I feel such differences of opinion can be quite insightful, once they get sorted out. They could also turn out to be trivial. It is impossible to tell at this point, but I don't blame you for putting your money on the latter option.
P.S.
"Your talent for sarcasm is minimal. "
That just made my day. If I ever get another chance to get one of your books signed, I'll ask you to write this sentence as the dedication.
Michel
You seem to believe that there is a clear distinction between psychological and sociological arguments.
Being neither a psychologist nor a sociologist I believe that when it comes to explaining human behavior it is not clear at all where psychology ends and sociology begins.
Mr. Goudsblom has some interesting things to say about this subject in his book about nihilism.
I don’t pretend to know why this or that war got started but I do know that the (male) fascination for war and violence doesn’t get the credit it deserves when it comes to explaining the phenomenon of war.
Any collective consists of individuals and I’m not even sure that there is not such a thing as collective blood lust.
I’m more than happy to sign your book with: “Michel, your talent for sarcasm is minimal.”