I’ve written once or twice about my frustration with conspiracy theorists so it’s important that I don’t sound like one in my posts. I do my damnedest to remain aware of my assumptions, implied or otherwise, in order to ensure that I don’t venture down those paths when thinking through whatever it is I’m thinking through. Guns, gold, and god; information technology, drones, and the war on terror; all lend themselves quite readily to some pretty heavy conspiracy-theorizing. But it’s not my style. The theories fit together too easily. Their general framework never really changes. Somehow, someway, they always manage to incorporate any new idea, storyline, or piece of evidence to the contrary and assimilate it into an already determined narrative. The circle of conspirators grows ever larger and, along with it, my frustration as I listen to someone close themselves into an all-too-comforting two-dimensional plane of discomfort. They amount to new age spirituality for hard economic times and I just can’t buy ’em (or, for that matter, new age spirituality but that’s a different post). They’re too neat in in a world that my experience has revealed to be pretty fuckin’ messy. (Which I guess is why I do my best to create stability and comfort for my family – so that I and we are best equipped to deal with the mess that the world – and we – can be from time to time (but that’s another post too and maybe even another blog)).
Fortunately the words I choose give a healthy assist in determining what my assumptions are. The words are imperfect. But, something I was reminded of when listening to Li Young Lee a couple weeks ago, imperfection might be their greatest strength. It’s their flaws that reveal to me what I’m thinking beneath my thoughts. For me and – I’m pretty sure – for most, the words are never quite right. They’re getting at an idea, pointing to an object, homing in on a feeling and never quite getting there – their imperfection the birthplace of art, music, and religion. This can occasionally make for some hard times in friendships, work relations, marriages and any number of other personal relationships. But what about the words we use to debate policy? The words that make up our legal structure? Our political campaigns? Maybe most significantly, what about the words that frame our campaigns of war, like the war on terror? (You didn’t think I was gonna post something apolitical, did ya?) Whether conceptual (like the wars on poverty and illiteracy) or concrete (like the wars in Iraq and Afganistan) or some amalgamation of the two (like like the war on terror), the word ‘war’ carries with it a number of assumptions. Good guy/bad guy for one. Prolonged conflict for another. Nation states and military. Killing and dying. Value and sacrifice. Protection and harm to name a few. But alongside these assumptions it also implies a coordinated attempt to overcome.
In the reading that I did for my last post I came across a piece in the generally unforgiving Counterpunch that really spoke to me when it comes to thinking about the United States’ military conflicts in Muslim countries – what we refer to in shorthand as the war on terror or as the Obama administration prefers, our “overseas contingency operations“. The author writes, “…the War on Terror is not a vast conspiracy perpetrated by those constituencies favored by it. It is, instead, a complex and confused assemblage of interlocking, overlapping, and contradictory policies, foreign and domestic. It’s a sputtering, jerry-rigged contraption with layers, scaffolding, tweaks and adjustments worthy of Rube Goldberg. Yes, we have secret memos, secret actions and secret courts. But the lion’s share of the War’s undercarriage and infrastructure grew out in the open. And thanks to Wikileaks, whistleblowers, and witnesses, we eventually come to know the secrets.”
Take a minute with that.
He goes on, “The War on Terror is a piquant stew of ideas and ideology that underwrites the vast, global deployment of American men, money, and machines. The War’s authors and enablers truly hope that Afghanistan will ‘stabilize’ sufficiently by 2014 to permit the withdrawal of most US troops. They hope that the mess they left behind in Iraq sorts itself out. They hope that air power is enough to ‘safeguard US interests’ in Libya and Mali. They believe what they say about ‘terrorist groups’ Hamas and Hezbollah. They genuinely hope that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia make the world safer for the United States and its allies. The problem before us then is not one of sincerity or intent but of results.”
Take another minute and ask yourself what the results might be over time.
More or fewer terrorists? Greater or less liberty? Security? I’m not sure we can know one way or the other. Nor am I sure that these questions are any more or less relevant now than they were, say, during the nuclear arms campaign conceptualized as the ‘cold war‘. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we don’t question, dissent, and protest. I’m just asking that we do so with an awareness of our assumptions and that we refrain from assuming that ours is somehow a time more laden with threats to our civil liberties than times past – that we refrain from framing our conflicts in apocalyptic terms unless we’re talking about something potentially apocalyptic like, say, global warming. The war on terror – be it the variety of military actions the phrase encompasses or the PR campaign that aims to make them legitimate – is deeply, deeply flawed. But like the words I choose, I find reason to hope in it’s flaws, it’s overreaches, it’s contradictions, and its secrets. I mean, we find out about them, don’t we? (I’m talking to you conspiracy theorists.) It’s messy and much of it is greater reason for shame than it is for pride but something must be working right if the war on terror continues to reveal it’s vile and vulnerable underbelly to us.