Notes from the start of a war without end - Macleans.ca
 

Notes from the start of a war without end


 

The danger of “total war” against the spectre named Osama bin Laden, then, is that it will reinforce the worst tendencies in our society, and that far from preserving the conditions of democracy it will undermine the cultural and institutional foundations upon which democracy rests. It will be war without end, without boundaries, without even a coherent conception of itself save as the expression of an impulse to vengeance.

***

That’s a passage from an essay written by Phil Agre, a professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, on September 15 2001.  Moreso than on any of the eight  9/11 anniversaries we’ve ripped through, the failed Christmas Day attack on the Amsterdam-Detroit flight prompted me to go back and read some of Agre’s writing.

In the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks, I had no idea what had really happened, and the fact- and context-free opinionating that dominated the newspapers was not much help. What did shape my thinking, more than anything I read in those early days and weeks, was the writing of Phil Agre. This was before blogging had taken off, long before Twitter and Facebook and everything else. What there was was the Red Rock Eater News Serice, Agre’s mailing list on which he delivered a torrent of links, arguments, comments, and essays.

On September 15 he produced a 5000 word essay Imagining the Next War: Infrastructural Warfare and the Conditions of Democracy. It explored the relationship between asymmetric warfare and democratic legitmacy, and offered as its organizing principle the idea that

The only moral justification for war is to preserve the conditions of democracy…. Instead of permanent, total war, conducted under rules that subordinate democracy to an authority that draws its legitimacy from the absolute evil of its foe, we need a conception of permanent, total security, conducted under rules that keep the ends squarely in view. Those ends are the preservation, indeed expansion, of the conditions of democracy.

Five days later, Agre produced Some Notes on War in a World Without Boundaries, a 10 000 word essay looking at the changing conception of war, our ideological blind spots, and the false opposition between security and civil liberties. Throughout all this writing, Agre focused on the idea that commentary had to focus on constructive solutions to real problems. It was smart, clear, and original thinking that managed to remain respectably non-ideological at one of the most ideologically riven times of the past twenty years.  It was a remarkable output, and did more to shape my understanding of what was going on and what should happen than just about anything else I read at the time.

Phil Agre stopped updating the RRE in 2004.  There’s an unhappy coda to this, which is that Phil Agre has been missing for quite a while, though his disappearance was only made public late this fall. Boing Boing had a story on it a few weeks ago; there’s a also website for friends to leave messages.


 
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Notes from the start of a war without end

  1. The only moral justification for war is to preserve the conditions of democracy…

    Sadly, the moral power of this standard, though apparently constraining, merely urges Western élites to develop ever more sophisticated and persuasive means by which to convince their constituencies of the democratising intentions behind their war-making; perhaps more sadly, we're all too willing to give those élites the benefit of the doubt.

    • I agree. The notion of returning democracy to Kuwait comes to mind.

      • Ah yes. The need to return "democracy" to an absolutist monarchy was urgent indeed.

        Remember the Kuwaiti babies being ripped out of their incubators by evil Iraqi soldiers? American journalism died the day that tale was swallowed whole by the media establishment.

        • What, you don't think the Iraqi soldiers were evil enough to murder helpless newborn babies? How about all the times they gassed the whole populations of Kurdish settlements, massacred Iranian POWs and tortured and murdered Iraqi dissidents?

          • Don't be ridiculous. Only American (and sometimes Canadian) soldiers are capable of evil.

          • The Kuwaiti Baby Murder Story has since been proven to be a hoax.

          • CR, you are aware that the "incubator" story was a total sham, are you not?

            How about all the times they gassed the whole populations of Kurdish settlements, massacred Iranian POWs and tortured and murdered Iraqi dissidents…

            …with full American economic, military and diplomatic support. Yes, that was a shame.

            Kudos for missing my point, though–that North American media disgracefully bought the "incubator" charade and helped the Bush Senior administration construct a fraudulent casus belli.

            …you don't think Iraqi soldiers and their commanders were evil enough to murder helpless newborn babies?

            I do not predicate the veracity of news accounts upon the putative "evilness" of the actors. I predicate it upon available evidence. The fact that Iraqi soldiers had done bad things to people was no more relevant to the "incubator" story than the My Lai massacre will be to the next media-fuelled allegation of American war crimes.

          • I experienced the first Gulf War as a child, so I wasn't paying much attention to American media coverage at the time. The incubator story, whether true or false, doesn't seem terribly important – if false, it's just one time out of many that the American media has been duped by persuasive foreigners with credible stories. Let's not forget that the Iraqi Amy really did butcher hundreds of thousands of innocents, as proven by international courts. Do you feel that the first Iraq War, as a response to the Hussein's illegal invasion, occupation and sacking of Kuwait, is not justifiable?

          • I experienced the first Gulf War as a child…

            I was all of twenty-two. I was hardly a geo-political policy wonk at the time, but the uncovering of that farce was notorious. It even got its own 60 Minutes episode and everything. Were you watching TV at the time?

            I'll try this again. My point is that unscrupulous Western elites rarely have trouble convincing their constituencies of the "democratising" intentions behind their foreign-policy agendas, no matter how threadbare the premises.

            As to the specifics of the Gulf War, the legitimate casus belli was Hussein's obvious designs on Saudi Arabia–which was, by the way, the real American fear and the rationale behind the initial U.S. military deployments there.

          • I was all of twenty-two. I was hardly a geo-political policy wonk at the time, but the uncovering of that farce was notorious. It even got its own 60 Minutes episode and everything. Were you watching TV at the time?

            Sure, I was watching TV at the time, but not 60 Minutes. I only started watching 60 minutes when I hit puberty.

            I'll try this again. My point is that unscrupulous Western elites rarely have trouble convincing their constituencies of the "democratising" intentions behind their foreign-policy agendas, no matter how threadbare the premises.

            Why, that's clear as a bell. You should have said that the first time.

            As to the specifics of the Gulf War, the legitimate casus belli was Hussein's obvious designs on Saudi Arabia–which was, by the way, the real American fear and the rationale behind the initial U.S. military deployments there.

            I'm sure you have a point that the Americans were concerned about Hussein's plans to invade other neighbouring countries (tyrants can never stop at just one), but does your interpretation of the cassus belli really matter when it is crystal clear that Iraq illegally invaded and annexed a neighbouring country? International opinion was almost unanimously against Iraq. The United Nations sanctioned Iraq and authorized the military response.

          • …tyrants can never stop at just one.

            Plenty of tyrants have had no imperialist aims whatever. In fact, most of them have had none. Whom did Duvalier, Marcos, Franco, Somoza, Pinochet, Amin, Tito and Ceausescu invade?

          • Fair enough. I'm well aware that the majority of tyrants don't actually invade other countries (often because they can't), so they content themselves with feasting on the blood and wealth of their own countrymen. I should have added a qualifying adjective: invading tyrants can never stop at just one. (Even then, I'm sure you could produce many examples of an invading tyrant who stopped at just one – so let's just say I was trying to be cute, and failed)

          • …so let's just say I was trying to be cute, and failed…

            Now, CR, I'll not have any of that. You were cute. Really! ;)

          • I recognize the names you listed, but don't really know enough about their times in power – so I have this serious question: Did those tyrants really choose to limit their imperialistic tendencies, or did they actually lack the resources and/or opportunities to try to increase their spheres of influence?

          • Virtually all of them–with the exceptions of Franco and Amin–were subservient to one or the other of the Cold War's two great powers. The Americans and Soviets kept their puppets on fairly short leashes and allowed them only a narrow scope of action. Invasions were destabilising undertakings and thus were rarely granted to underlings. The U.S. and Soviets preferred to handle their own invasions when they felt it necessary.

          • Can I paraphrase that as the US or USSR made sure that at least some of the tyrants in the list did not have the resources or were not given the blessing/opportunity to pursue their own imperialistic ambitions?

            And does that make Saddam Hussein a puppet who got out of hand?

          • …does that make Saddam Hussein a puppet who got out of hand?

            Bingo. Noriega was likewise.

          • "Illegal invasion" was a bogus complaint, as America has smiled upon (and enacted) its fair share of those. "Protecting democracy” was a bogus aim, because there was no democracy in Kuwait to protect. “Iraqi atrocities and sackings” were bogus provocations, because America has overseen and stage-managed plenty of those in its time–the latest sacking being that of Baghdad, where countless treasures were plundered and destroyed under the apathetic gaze of U.S. occupation forces. Rumsfeld's reaction? "Stuff happens". You remember that, I take it, CR?

          • "Illegal invasion" was a bogus complaint, as America has smiled upon (and enacted) its fair share of those.

            So you think Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was legal and morally justifiable, because you hate the Americans? ;-)

            Seriously though, you consider "illegal invasion" to be a bogus complaint?

          • So you think Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was legal and morally justifiable…

            I'm confused. Exactly how have we staggered away from my assertion that American élites drove their people to war for the wrong reason (when a perfectly legitimate reason existed) to the absurd notion that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was "legal and morally justifiable"?

            …you consider "illegal invasion" to be a bogus complaint?

            Yes, because it was geo-strategically incoherent. The illegality of the invasion was irrelevant.

            Is it your observation that Americans take exception to all illegal invasions, even those performed by themselves and their allies?

            Here's a short pop quiz: how many troops did the U.S. send to protect East Timor from its ally Indonesia in 1975?

          • The first part was a joke.

            As for the second part, you seem to be concerned about American inconsistency and/or hypocrisy; I'm more concerned about whether the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was illegal (it was) and whether the United Nations was right to take military action (it was).

          • Fair enough. I'm more concerned with my initial point–that America's stated reasons for going to war were nonsense.

            Collaterally, I might point out that America traditionally responds neither to international illegality nor to the pleas of the United Nations but to its own perceived interests–the first Gulf War being merely one case in point.

            The answer to the pop quiz is "none", by the way.

          • 1. Just because America is incapable of responding to every illegal invasion and international crime does not mean it is being hypocritical when it chooses which ones it does respond to – where were the other nations of the West in 1975 when East Timor was invaded – it is equally hypocritical to blame only the U.S.

            2. Of course America only goes to war to defend what it percieves to be its own interests – every country does that. I disagree with Agre and Potter's statement about the only moral justification for war, because as you point out it is a very slippery slope. The only justification for war is to defend a nations interests. Ultimately wars fought to defend interests rather than ideals are always more successful.

            (continued)

          • …it is equally hypocritical to blame only the U.S.

            Thus, I'll make sure not to do that. I've done no such thing so far.

            Of course, since American leadership in the Gulf War is at issue in this thread and since America is the West's most gallant proponent of "democratization via invasion", America has been the focus of my comments perforce.

          • Of course ideals often align with interests, but not always.

            What interest was being defended in Kosovo?

          • What interest was being defended in Kosovo?

            On whose side?

            Broadly, I think the interests broke down like this:

            * Albanian insurgents = ethnic nationalism;
            * Serbians = aspirations for a "Greater Serbia";
            * NATO = the reassertion of Balkan (thus European) geo-political stability.

            …which all seem more like interests than ideals to me.

          • continued from above.

            3. All of the dictators you mention and most modern dictators content themselves with dominating and oppressing their own people because the current standards of international law allow it. The founding principle of the United Nations, an organiztion whose legitimacy you cite several times above, is not universal human rights or some other lofty ideal, but the soveriegnty of all nations – this is because it was born out of the Second World War when the Nazi's and imperial Japan subjugated so many people by violating national sovereignty. The U.N was formed on the principle that if no nation could wage aggressive war against another each could protect human rights and freedoms within its own borders. The late 20th century proved what an unfortunately misguided notion that was.

          • The founding principle of the United Nations…is not universal human rights or some other lofty ideal, but the sovereignty[sic] of all nations…

            In what fashion is the sovereignty of all nations not a "lofty ideal"?

          • In what fashion is the United Nations itself not a lofty ideal?

        • Remember the Germans bayonetting Belgian babies in 1914?

          Wartime propaganda being swallowed at the home front is as old as the concepts of war and media.

          • Well, if them Belgian babies had been the star attraction at a bris, rumor has it the Germans were none too friendly. But that must've just been wartime propoganda for us all to swallow.

          • Wrong war.

        • @ Sir Francis "American journalism died the day that tale was swallowed whole by the media establishment."

          1898: Remember the Maine!

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish–Americ

          Nothing really ever changes

  2. Sir Francis,

    Saddam's men (who gassed the Kurds, eliminated the marsh Arabs, and permitted Saddams sons to go on weekend rape sprees) must have sacked Kuwait in a benevolent, orderly and peaceful fashion, then?

    I take it you "swallowed whole" Micheal Moore's depiction of Iraq as a peace loving country.

    • What a beautiful straw man. It's a shame I had to burn it. See my reply to CR, above. Bring some weenies (I mean the edible kind, not your fellow CPC lemmings).

      • Actually, what I think happened here is you were expecting the usual pat on the back from your fellow travellers here, rather than being called out on the moral depravity of rushing to the defence of a marauding horde led by a brutal dictator who sacked a defenceless country, committing numerous autrocities along the way.

        Similar in kind to rushing to the defence of gunmen lining up civilians to be executed, by procliaming the injustice in that there was no "proof" to the allegation that civlian # 76 of the three hundred bullet riddled bodies was actually killed, and may in fact have gotten away.

        By all means, continue to defend Saddam's brutal horde,

        and by all means continue with the indignance of being called on it. It seems to work well as a package.

        • You should probably avoid posting drunk. Sir Francis (and myself) have said nothing about the depravity of Hussein's regime. We were simply commenting on the ease with which governments can, and do, use the concept of "democracy" as a justification for war. Case in point Kuwait, which was never a democracy (it did have some limited experience with a deliberative body, but it was closer to the Russian Duma in 1905 than an elected legistlative body). Furthermore, the major tipping point used to garner public support for Desert Storm, the Kuwaiti Baby Massacre, never happened. It was a complete fabrication.

          We can comment on these realities without excusing the actions of Hussein vis a vis the Kurds or whatever else. Neither Sir Francis nor myself ever defended Saddam Hussein.

          You are berating a straw man.

          • Kuwaiti hospitals were stripped of all medical equipment , including incubators by Iraqi soldiers according to the UN. The story was exxagerated, not fabricated.

          • Sure it was exaggerated, in the same way that The Gulf of Tonkin was exaggerated.

            The story was that a young nurse saw Iraqi soldiers ripping premature babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the floor. In reality the young nurse was actually the daughter of a diplomat who was coached by a Washington PR firm and she had only visited a hospital briefly and had seen one baby removed from an incubator only to be placed in another one right away.

        • Whenever you're able to hail a kind Samaritan walking by with a crowbar, please request that your head be carefully pried from your fundament. Then, kindly do four things:

          1) Show me where I defended a "marauding horde led by a brutal dictator";

          2) Re-write your second sentence in Standard English and allow it to be coherently nonsensical;

          3) Provide a link that refutes the consensus that the "incubator" allegation was gibberish;

          4) Admit that Saddam Hussein's worst crimes occurred with American support.

          Over to you, tough guy.

        • Biff, what the hell are you on about? Sir Francis was commenting on the media believing a story and reporting on it, which has since been proved a hoax. Nowhere did he defend the Iraqis, nowhere did he claim Saddam was a great guy or anything else. He was talking about the media losing credibility.

          It is almost like the fact that the story was false is irrelevant to you, Biff. There's a phrase that encapsulates that kind of thinking, which has been bandied about lately. Oh yes, I remember now. "It doesn't have to be true, as long as its plausible."

          • Actually he cited a specific example of a "tale", the sole purpose of which was to attempt to belie the fact that the Iraqi soldiers were, in his sarcastic words, "evil".

            I can appreciate his (and yours as his supporter) desire to shirk moral responsibility for that statement. Attempt to recast it in benevolent terms all you like.

            But in the same breath his underlying theme comes shining through: forget the brutal dictator and his weekend raping sons,

            it's the Americans that are the true malevolent force in the world.

          • Answer the questions or shut up, moron.

    • Just a reminder that Bush Sr. only carried Operation Desert Storm far enough to ensure the Iraqis were well out of Kuwait. Up to that point, both Iraq and Kuwait considered themselves American allies. Bush Sr., being a former CIA boss in the Middle East, believed occupying Iraq would have been a stupid idea.

      Also, I seem to recall that an inexperienced American diplomat accidentally said something to Saddam that was interpreted as American permission to invade Kuwait.

      Saddam was an American ally because he was a foil to Iranian power in the region. Bush Sr. didn't want to change that dynamic. Kuwait, I believe, was an ally for its oil and money, and for generally being a stable society. Also, Kuwait didn't go along with OPEC pricing, which may have been part of Saddam's motivation for invading.

  3. In the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks, I had no idea what had really happened.

    ***

    I used to say "wouldn't it be funny if the terrorist elements granted haven in Afghanistan didn't actually blow up the world trade centre and it was somebody else framing them?"

    Then America invaded Iraq again and it wasn't so funny.

  4. A perfunctory perusal of his oeuvre reveals him to be a skinnier version of Den Beste as far as I can tell; I'm not seeing what you see in the guy, dude. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one to find the following contentious, to say the least:

    "The only moral justification for war is to preserve the conditions of democracy… "

    Explain China. And Singapore. Democracy is not a coat you put on, nor is it the only game in town, and it certainly is not the end of history, as one neo-con jackass says. One of the benefits of multiculturalism is that I've worked with people from not so democratic countries; many of them return, or plan to return there, and they give a far different accounting of their countries than the media does.

  5. It's always nice to come back to Blog Central's comment boards after a holiday. Everyone is so friendly.

    • My personal theory is that we are all much nicer in our *real* lives, since we've been able to vent our spleen here.

      Well, I am, anyway.

    • I blame the Pope and George Bush.

      Just kidding. You (by which I mean Maclean's, for greater certainty) reap what you sow, and you've knowingly and willingly cultivated a rather nasty collection of leftist trolls here. Why not bring the banhammer down on a few lefties for a change?

      • I have no political party allegiance. I defy anyone to identify ideologically significant and distinct differences between the only two parties capable of forming government. While "conservatives" self identify as having vaguely right wing principles – no matter how conflicitng those principles may be with each other or between so-called conserviatives – their party choice has no such distinction. So- called "liberals" may have socially-progressive commonalities but their fsical attitudes are divided along a much broader range on a left/right spectrum. their parties of choice are equally devoid of ideological distinction, particularly the Liberals. Teh difference in choice ends up being a coin toss on whose leader is most liekly to make the kinds of decisions you believe would be best in a whole host of areas. You are guaranteed to be disappointed to varying degrees by them all.

        As for for the blame game, I find it difficult to discern any difference in the propensity for aggressive behaviour among anonymous posters, regardless of professed or apparent leanings.

      • It is stunning to see people's biases blind them to such a degree. On these boards, often in the same thread, leftists regularly complain of neo-con bias, while the neo-cons complain of a leftist bias. It is because Macleans satisfies neither extremity of the partisans that I keep coming back.

    • The medium of online comment boards creates the vitriolic message. You could take the most sensible intelligent people in the world and have them post comments to any of these boards and you would get the same results. The reason is that this medium has no context, authority or legitimacy. Welcome to Web 2.0.

      (in fairness, Macleans blogs comments are far superior to anything at CBC.ca, Globe and Mail and most other news sites.)

    • Oh yeah. Well, blog commenters don't get holidays. It's practically slave labour, I tell ya.

      And we won't we won't stop until we drag the rest of ya down with us. The race to the
      blogging bottom. It'll make the gutting of public pension plans look like socialism ..
      or separatism …. or something …

  6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLEr3KBP-5k

    A clip of CNN reporters faking the news during the first gulf war.

    hint: they were telling viewers they were reporting live in the Gulf when in fact they were filming in a studio.

  7. this thread feels like a bad delillo novel.

  8. Is there any other kind?

    • I knew there was a reason I liked you :D

  9. There's only one man who really understands modern terrorism, and that's Dr. Phil.