Thomas Bruschino has an excellent piece in The New Criterion on war, literature, and elite attitudes towards conflict that deserves a read. Bruschino argues that war is portrayed cynically (even farcially), reflecting a broadly postmodern or nihilist attitude toward conflict. Novelists and screenwriters do not believe that someone might make an informed choice to fight and sneer at the idea that conflict might achieve something of value. Bruschino’s article points to a larger problem with how conflict is perceived in the West, and how broadly post-historical attitudes may lead us to not only misunderstand the wars of the past but project our own attitudes onto the conflicts of the future.
Bruschino opens his piece with a quotation of Benjamin Schwarz’s admiring review of Civil War-era writer Ambrose Bierce. Bierce, Schwarz argues, stripped war of its patriotic mythologies and began a tradition of portraying war as inherently purposeless:
"[C]ombat, even combat that defeats Nazi Germany, is without uplift, without virtue, and without purpose” is “unusually clear-eyed” about “real war.” This belief has been overlooked by a population that wants to be coddled and so refuses to recognize that true artistry goes hand in hand with, as Schwarz would have it, the accurate, nihilistic view of war.
This conceit has long been de rigueur among professional critics of high culture. In his introduction to Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson equated human war to the aggression of gangs of baboons and sea slugs: “at bottom the irrational instinct of an active power organism in the presence of another such organism.” Only humans, whether they are Napoleon, or the Nazis, or Americans, justify their instincts in terms of “morality” and “reason” and “virtue” and “civilization.”
As Christopher Coker argues in his book The Future Of War, the coming of the industrial age unhinged an already complex and unwieldy idea of war and heroism. The Greeks perceived the worth of the warrior in the terms of arete (excellence). The Greeks, Coker observes, portrayed war as merely casting into sharper relief what nature had already set in stone. War revealed, in essence. Of course, Coker argues, the idea of individualistic excellence as represented by Achilles and Ajax could not last. The warrior idea still emphasized the heroic deeds of individuals, but shifted the benefit towards the benefit of friends, patron, and society. Coker cites Norbert Elias’ point about the chivalric ideal and the powerful pull of sacrifice for a transnational Christendom that motivated knights in the Crusades. Excellence became a form of sacrifice.
Coker argues that by the early modern era the warrior idea coalesced around merit and reason. A Greek who acted out of excellence and blamed the gods for his failures was regarded not as a great warrior but a primitive and egoistic creature of indulgence. Coker cites the portrayal of the Greeks in Troilus and Cressida as a case in point, as Ulysses is a modern general who uses tactical and operational excellence rather than divine favor or single combat to fight his battles. Achilles is portrayed as an absurd and self-indulgent “strategic knucklehead” who allows his passions to overwhelm his reason. A warrior does not reveal who he is on the battlefield, but becomes a hero through discipline and self-education. In other words, General James Mattis instead of Leeroy Jenkins.
A crucial distinction between the two eras, Coker argues, is that the instrumentality of the warrior took center stage. The idea of chivalry vanished, and with it the importance of courtly gestures and individual excellence. Steadfastness under fire—a necessity in the era of linear armies firing away at each other—and education necessary to understand the growing emphasis on military engineering and technology—replaced the residue of arete. Service to the state in turn replaced the chivalric narrative of feudalism and the transnational narrative of defending Christendom.
Finally, Coker characterizes late-modern warrior discourse through the lens of authenticity. In the age of machine warfare, military intellectuals attempted to emphasize the warrior as bearer of the human element in a technological world. Ardant Du Picq (a late 19th-century French military theorist) wrote copious volumes on how to preserve the moral force of the offensive in the face of machine warfare. Du Picq’s fate itself emphasizes the problem he attempted to combat—he was killed by a Prussian shell while crouching in a trench in 1871. Some of this warrior literature was overly militarist, like Ernst Junger’s writings about World War I (spoiler: Junger actually saw it as a positive experience). Other literature, like Brian McAllister Linn’s “heroes” class in The Echo of Battle actively demonized machines and technocracy and emphasized the power of the human element in war.
The idea of the biotechnical warrior also became prominent in the mid 20th century. The Futurist movement, which overlapped with fascism, glorified the man-machine assemblage represented by platforms at war. American ideas of technoprogressivism also color concepts such as network-centric warfare and the technocratic discourse that fueled the Cold War and Revolution in Military Affairs’ worst intellectual excesses. Today, we live in a world distinguished by multiple competing ideas of conflict. Every idea referenced in this survey characterizes some aspect of the contemporary operating environment. But the complexity of war is not really encompassed by even by the most high-quality art in the West. Instead, it reflects a broadly postmodern way of thinking about conflict, and deviations from this mean are internally policed.
Ambrose Bierce’s satirical writings about the Civil War were not unique in the 19th century. Eliot Cohen, in his book Supreme Command, notes that Alexander Tolstoy explicitly denies the idea of strategy or purpose in War and Peace. Cohen dubs this view “strategic nihilism.” Coker quotes Georges Sand, Thomas Carlye, John Ruskin, and others casting doubt on the Franco-Prussian War, Crimean War, Prusso-Austrian War, and other 19th century conflicts. As Coker argues, the intellectual world experienced a disenchantment with warfare that mirrored a larger intellectual crisis posed by technology in modern society.
Martin Heidegger put it best with his distinction between ancient and modern modes of technology. Older technology existed to make use of what nature provided, whereas modern technology made use of nature itself. Coker uses this metaphor to argue that, in the eyes of intellectuals, modern warfare has an inherently dehumanizing effect. Instead of revealing the quality of the man, war makes use of the man as an means to an end. Man became an object rather than a subject of technology, and this was especially true in popular conceptions of machine warfare.
From this disenchantment flowed a stream of antiwar literature. Carl Prine makes a sly and insightful point when he notes that the total war experiences of various Hollywood directors, actors, and special effects men produced the horror movie genre. Prine is exactly correct in noting that the grotesque creatures of midcentury horror films are stand-ins for mutilated humans and technological monsters in warfare. As Bruschnino argues, the art of war has been completely dominated by a postmodern insistence on war’s ultimate futility:
The cynicism is manifest in education. For generations, American students have read Hemingway, Mailer, and Heller supplemented by Remarque, Vonnegut, and the occasional viewing of The Best Years of Our Lives. Just as importantly, they have been inoculated against patriotism in all its forms, taught to sneer at the Romanticism in Washington Irving’s portrayal of George Washington’s youth, the plain backwoods heroism of Sergeant York, and the supposedly misplaced sunset in the Green Berets. They learn “In Flanders Fields” as an example of early propaganda in World War I poetry. Fussell called the relevant words “vicious and stupid.”
Over the past half century, scarcely an American student has studied Great War poetry without finding out that Wilfred Owen produced the greatest poem of the war. With its horrifying depictions of the suffering and death of fighting in the trenches, his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” proved “the old lie”—that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. Tellingly, we would be hard-pressed to find a student these days who has read “Dulce et Decorum Est” in its original form by Horace.
In my review of Act of Valor, I noted that critic Alyssa Rosenberg faults Act of Valor because it doesn’t problematize American foreign policy—an odd criticism about an action movie that focuses on the exploits of special operations personnel in difficult operations. Would Act of Valor have been better art if it used its characters as mouthpieces for criticisms of Iraq and Afghanistan, or crafted its overall storyline to cast doubt on the reasons for the missions they undertook? A director does not necessarily have a creative obligation to echo the biases of film critics, just as he or she should not shy away from depicting the complications of history to please patriots. Ironically, in choosing to buck the trend that even Hurt Locker hews to, Act of Valor may ironically (given its origins as a training film) be one of the more cheerily subversive war films in a generation.
Of course, there is a great deal of truth to the works of art Bruschino criticizes. Militarist works of art, especially that of Junger, are morally questionable. Part of the importance of Dan Trombly’s pushback against strategically incoherent ideas of humanitarian war lies in the fact that war is ugly, brutal, and essentially unpredictable. We would all be better off if more people recognized it as such. The best antiwar art, while sometimes glamorizing combat (an near-intractable problem for an artist), emphasizes the folly of men. But there is more to conflict than the folly of men. If war were merely attributable to moral defects, political incompetence, or greed, it would be easier to understand (and perhaps prevent).
There are two paramount problems with the dominance of strategic nihilism in art. First, it does not accurately represent the conflicts it depicts. While Ambrose Bierce may have mocked the Civil War, it was deadly serious for both the Confederate and Union forces. Whether fighting out of an idealistic loathing of aristocratic and retrograde Southern slave society or a desire to build a more perfect Union, war fever was an undeniable (and historically documented) fact. Wilfred Owen may have accurately depicted the horrors of World War I, but his writing only depicts one phase of the Western Front. World War I was a mobile war in the West in 1914 and 1918 and was completely mobile in the East. The African, Middle Easter, and Central Asian dimensions of the conflict are mostly unheralded. Owen’s experience, however, is continuously privileged over other and equally valid experiences.
Due to the literary success of Owen and his compatriots, World War I is popularly viewed as an immense, pointless slaughter triggered by patriotic fervor and incompetent generalship. This is, to be blunt, an immense and at times malicious oversimplification. Forgotten are the problems of trying to fight on a massive front with no opportunity for flank attacks and the evolutionary learning all armies experienced as they came to grips with the reality of machine warfare. By the end of the war, almost every single facet of land warfare that would emerge in World War II (from tanks to mobile decentralized forces) was in full bloom.
Just because some intellectuals may believe the essence of war completely changed does not necessarily mean that it has. As uncomfortable as it may be to realize, man being used as an means to an end in war is as old as war itself. Whatever the Greeks may have believed about arete and the will of the warrior, it still doesn’t change the fact that human life was traded for political ends. It is no accident that so many realists use Thucydides to explain modern war and geopolitics. The distinction, following Heidegger, that military intellectuals drew between ancient and modern warfare may be good philosophy. But it’s also very bad history. Remember this whenever you read a scare piece about drones altering the very essence of war.
More importantly, the postmodern culture of strategic nihilism expressed in Western literature is only representative of how The West—and only a vocal minority within it—feels about conflict. Ernst Junger and Wilfred Owen had strikingly different recollections of World War I. For Owen, it was awful. But for Junger, it was the moment that he felt most alive. Junger was a militarist and his views are contemptible. But they are no less authentic than Owen’s as a record of World War I military experience.
The primary danger is that Western thinkers transpose their own ideas about war’s futility to other cultures that do not share it. When Matthias Kuntzel looked at the Iran-Iraq War, he did not see a lot of people who thought that war was pointless:
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran’s forces were no match for Saddam Hussein’s professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child’s neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them. …The sacrifice of the Basiji was ghastly. And yet, today, it is a source not of national shame, but of growing pride.
…According to Khomeini, life is worthless and death is the beginning of genuine existence. “The natural world,” he explained in October 1980, “is the lowest element, the scum of creation. “What is decisive is the beyond: The “divine world, that is eternal.” This latter world is accessible to martyrs. Their death is no death, but merely the transition from this world to the world beyond, where they will live on eternally and in splendor. Whether the warrior wins the battle or loses it and dies a Martyr—in both cases, his victory is assured: either a mundane or a spiritual one.
Khomeini merely added religion to the secular warrior discourses of Maoist China, Soviet Russia, and Revolutionary France. We can (from the perspective of a society that largely disdains such ideas) disavow revolutionary ideologies and discourses as backward. But to others these ideas are worth killing for. As Ian Buruma noted in Occidentalism, enemies of the West from the 19th century onwards have emphasized their own authenticity and primal strength in contrast to a supposedly soulless West too fat to fight. Of course, they have always (and fatally) errored in underestimating the military resolve of Western states. Whatever Imperial Japan believed about America doesn’t matter anymore because Imperial Japan lies crushed under the weight of American military superiority. But if Japan errored in believing we were soft, we also error in projecting our own post-historicism on those who do not share it.
War is depicted at times as either a cultural institution (like slavery) that could eventually pass away or a tragic accident. Unfortunately, the root of war is two combatants’ desire to kill each other. And this desire for combat is foreign to postmodern strategic nihilists and technocrats who believe that the will of peoples are inherently malleable. As Michael Few observed about his opponents in Iraq, men makes choices to engage in war:
We earned the respect of our opponent because we gave them respect. We acknowledged that they were thinking, rational men acting over perceived grievances generated from either ideology or emotion. Unfortunately, we still had to fight it out for a bit until we exhausted the enemy, but we did not coddle, preach, or attempt to win their hearts, minds, or soul even when we disagreed with them. In fact, those actions were self-defeating and disrespectful to the insurgents in the Diyala River Valley.
As I type this entry two weeks after al Qaeda penetrated the Baqubah provisional government office and a day after the Taliban penetrated a luxury hotel in Kabul, I’m wondering if we really respect our enemy, or do we feel that he is just a confused, illiterate soul waiting to have his heart, mind, and soul converted by modernity?
By our own accord, free men have the right to choose. I cannot find evidence that a man deciding to blow himself up, behead his neighbor, or rebel against his government is accidental. He is not a victim of circumstance. He made a choice. Professional soldiers understand these choices. Tens years into Afghanistan, we might want to start respecting these choices.
One way to respect these choices is to begin to consider the implications of the fact that our art reflects what some may want to believe about war rather than what political scientists, military historians, veterans, and civilian observers have observed. Moreover, the art of war in the West picks and chooses which accounts of violence it privileges as more “real” according to essentially arbitrary principles.
There is no reason why Wilfred Owen is more “real” than Ernst Junger. Ambrose Bierce’s satirical writings express do not necessarily portray realities more honest than The Red Badge of Courage. Rather, we might begin to actually take our “complex adaptive” writings about war seriously in moving above a one-dimensional idea of conflict reified every year at the Academy Awards. As elite and artistic ideas of conflict mesh together into a seamless whole, we may continue to stumble in our efforts to understand, prevent, or wage conflict.