Sunday, October 23, 2005

re(Thinking) humiliation

There is an old Western I have been thinking a lot about for a couple of days now. That and about Messrs. Karzai and Hanson.

In the movie Bandolero, Jimmy Stewart is having a chat with his brother who is a bank robber played by Dean Martin, and in dispute is all their killings in the past and how it affected their mother.

And Stewart-- in his quintessentially decent way—indignantly chastises his brother saying “war is war, but [what you did] was meanness.”

I know war itself is a terribly cruel enterprise--gore, butchered bodies, shock troops, and all. But in order to better appreciate why I think Mr. Stewart’s admonition remains particularly relevant today, we need to consider what Mr. Karazi has said about the latest alleged desecration of Taliban corpses by American troops in Afghanistan (via drudge):

Sometimes things happen in these sorts of operations, during war. Soldiers make mistakes," he told reporters in Kabul. "We are very grateful for the international community's assistance. ... Their soldiers have shed their blood in our country."

But he added, "We in Afghanistan in accordance with our religion ... are very unhappy and condemn the burning of the two Taliban dead bodies. I hope such incidents will not occur again."

Fair enough. The act of defiling bodies of the fallen has been rhapsodized about since our earliest surviving accounts of war. And it is only natural to expect to see some soldiers continue doing what soldiers have always done.

But at issue is how policy advocates might actually be viewing these conducts and I think what makes this latest case so infuriating for me is that, again, one senses that this desecration is not merely a matter of war time uncontrolled temper tantrum.

Just like much of the reported misdeeds of American troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq, it can be categorized as plain old boisterous meanness.

Meanness—cold, calculated and sanctioned from above—which remains part and parcel of policy. It is the practical expression of a particularly macabre vision and a plan that is expected to bring about victory if it’s followed to the letter, unflinchingly and without “ankle biting.”

These taunts, the torture and the incessant desire to humiliate, and to degrade and to demean strike me as that which many people have wanted to see and what many pundits effectively continue to demand from the troops in the field to this day.

And here is where Mr. Hanson comes in.

I am singling out Mr. Hanson because I read his writings with relish. Mr. Hanson (and Brooks to a lesser extent) is to me a more serious thinker who constantly reevaluates his own assumptions and conclusions thus forcing us to participate in that difficult journey we call thinking.

So regardless of how vehemently at times I might disagree with him about assumptions or policy, I read him carefully nonetheless. And more often than not, I understand what he is driving at. The one area I am at a loss is the gentleman’s fascination with humiliation.

An article of faith of sorts.

It is the one omnipresent meme that refuses to go away with him and it baffles me. It has flabbergasted me almost for as long as I’ve read his writings and I simply don’t comprehend it.

The following from his latest piece:

There have been three great challenges with the Iraqi reconstruction that would determine its success or failure — once the spectacular three-week invasion both falsely raised public perceptions of perfection in war, and posed the problem of how to rebuild an entire society whose pathological elements were never really defeated, much less humiliated during the actual conventional war.

The call for humiliation has become almost a signature with Mr. Hanson. It appears everywhere and at different times. Another example from last year:

We are confronted with the paradox that our new military's short wars rarely inflict enough damage on the fabric of a country to establish a sense of general defeat — or the humiliation often necessary for a change of heart and acceptance of change.

I can go on with the excerpts, but I think I have made my point. And I didn’t want you to think I am presenting you with a caricature of his position.

And since the title of one of his books is the apt question of Who Killed Homer? I am going to pick up next--in search of the roots of Mr. Hanson’s humiliation prescription-- with my favourite long-dead poet.

Perhaps the gods would reward us by pointing to the surprising principal culprits in the travesty that is our murder mystery as a bonus!

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