War: The Health of the State, not so Healthy for Human Beings

by Thomas Knapp

At more than ten years into the US government’s never-ending “war on terror,” that government’s excuses for atrocity after atrocity keep getting less and less convincing.

“A few bad apples.”

“An isolated incident.”

“The video doesn’t tell the whole story, and when we find out who leaked it he’s going to jail.”

“It appears that you had a lone gunman who acted on his own in just a tragic, tragic way.”

That last direct from the lips of US President Barack Obama, now serving out George W. Bush’s third term in office, concerning the March 9, 2012 murders of 16 Afghans, including nine children, by a US Army staff sergeant.

The idea that these are “isolated incidents” which do not reflect on the overall character of war is, frankly, absurd.

Make no mistake about it: War is killing on a mass scale, in service to and for the benefit of the state, and that’s all it is. It’s not a natural human activity. The desire for it has to be inculcated in soldiers. They must be thoroughly indoctrinated, and “the enemy” — soldier and civilian alike — must be thoroughly dehumanized in order to move them to their “duty.”

Political warmongers have become quite adept at that dehumanization: I know better now, of course, but I recall the effect of the (false and manufactured) tales of Iraqi soldiers ransacking hospitals and dumping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators told to myself and my fellow US Marines as we prepared for Operation Desert Storm in 1991. We were out for blood against an inhuman enemy. We were brainwashed, because brainwashing is what it takes to get men to kill other men (and, yes, women and children) en masse without compunction.

Sooner or later, though — unfortunately it seems to be later in most cases — the brainwashing just isn’t enough. The human conscience will out, or it will shatter.

In the first case, the result is something like this (I quote William Tecumseh Sherman, because I simply have not the words for it):

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

In the second case, it’s Abu Ghraib, Collateral Murder, and what happened outside Kandahar last weekend.

From this end of a decade of unremitting violence, it’s not these atrocities which I find surprising — it’s that we don’t hear about more of them. And I must say that I suspect that there would be more of them to hear about if not for substantial de facto censorship of the news coming out of combat zones around the world.

The atrocities, shocking as they are, pale next to the “big picture.” Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, have died at American hands since 2001. The soldier lying dead beneath a cairn topped with rifle and helmet is no more dead, and no more or less personally outraged by it, than the baby murdered in his crib or the dead Taliban fighter urinated upon by troops not quite as at the end of their tethers as the killer staff sergeant.

And what is it for? Not to “end terrorism,” surely — for terrorism is what it is.

Nor to “protect America,” which has descended so quickly and thoroughly into banana republicanism that it’s scarcely identifiable as the same country we lived in as recently as, say, 1990. Al Qaeda didn’t have to destroy America. Uncle Sam did it for them.

In truth, the true and fundamental purpose of war is to aggrandize the egos and power-hunger of America’s Joe Liebermans and John McCains, and to keep wealth flowing from you (with those politicians as conduits) to the politically connected corporate players. To wit, the stockholders of Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, KBR, Halliburton, et. al. As former Marine General Smedley put it, “war is a racket.”

Is that purpose — cannibalism on behalf of the corporati — worthy of so much as a drop of Afghan or Iraqi or Libyan or Syrian or British or Australian or American blood?

If so, hang your gold stars in your windows, turn on your TVs, and lose yourselves in the latest sitcom.

If not, understand: So long as you tolerate the state, this is the price Moloch will demand of you and yours.

13 responses to “War: The Health of the State, not so Healthy for Human Beings

  1. Thomas-

    Make no mistake about it: War is killing on a mass scale, in service to and for the benefit of the state, and that’s all it is. It’s not a natural human activity.

    This is basically not true. I’ve just been reading Azar Gat’s “War In Human Civilisation” and I would recommend it. War is as old as mankind; it has taken different forms, but “killing on a mass scale” is very natural indeed. It was not invented by “the State”.

    I think this is a major problem libertarians have. I’ve noticed this a few times, even from greats like Rothbard; the tendency to assign a Rousseuesque state of nature to early man, and then The State comes along and ruins it all. Believing things like this is as ahistoric as the ideologies of any of our foes. It simply is not true.

    The violent male death rate in primitive, “pre State” societies is at a minimum 20% and frequently higher. That is a level that States have not even achieved in appalling mass slaughters like the world wars. States actually reduced violence, whether we like it or not. They did it for selfish reasons. But they did, nonetheless. This figure includes death by war and death by (intratribal) feud, but in primitive societies they are much the same, except one is killing “them” and one is killing “us”.

    Primitive war consists of two basic forms; the most murderous is the “raid”. All the guys get together, sneak up on another tribe’s village during the night, and attack at dawn when surprise is maximal. The intention is to kill as many males as possible, and steal the women for wives. Also, any carryable goods, animals perhaps, etc. The other form is the ritual war. This is less murderous. The two tribes stand a safe distance apart, shout at each other, wave their willies and throw spears. Very few get killed. THis is the thing that develops into modern war; combining the “battlefield” idea of the latter with the murderous intent of the former. Taking an example of proto-civilisation formation we were around to witness as moderns ourselves (our own is in ancient times), the Zulu nation simply swapped from raiding to a standing army with short stabbing spears instead of long throwing spears, thus to massacre unsuspecting tribes turning up for a ritual willy-waving competition.

    Thomas, we have been slaughtering each other for personal gain- the destruction of “them” to benefit “us”- since the Old Stone Age. It is not an invention of modern states. The prehistoric record reveals heaps of scalped skulls, collected as trophies.

    The desire for it has to be inculcated in soldiers. They must be thoroughly indoctrinated, and “the enemy” — soldier and civilian alike — must be thoroughly dehumanized in order to move them to their “duty.”

    The harsh reality is that the desire to kill is part of our nature. It is not a false consciousness. Every savage tribe we have encountered- called “savages” in less politically correct times precisely because of their astonishing savagery compared to effete moderns first meeting them- has considered it both normal and desirable to think of every other tribe as an alien, less than human “them” who it is quite reasonable to kill. Humans dehumanise each other as a matter of nature, not as an invention of the State. It is not pleasurable for libertarians to face up to this, but the State has done much of the damping this down as an instinct- for selfish reasons, to allow mass societies to exist- which led ultimately to us having modern morals.

    The world of the tribe is the world of “us” and “them”, and of frequent killing. That’s just the way it is. Hobbes got closer than Rousseau.

  2. Sean, the above by Ian ought to be promoted to a full post. What do you think? I’m reluctant to appear too controversial myself, but I think old Ian has a point that ought to be discussed more widely.

  3. That’s if ian agrees also. What an effete modern I am…so chary of upsetting the bugger, me.

  4. Ian,

    I think we’re talking past each other.

    Yes, people have always killed each other.

    Yes, people have always grouped together for the purpose of killing each other.

    People grouping together in large standing armies for the purpose of more efficaciously killing each other in service to anything more abstract than “they have a mammoth carcass we want” or “the priest said this is the only way to stop the world from ending”, I consider a phenomenon of statism (not necessarily Westphalian nation-statism, although I’d personally trace the real birth of THAT paradigm to the formation of the New Model Army rather than to the Peace of Westphalia).

  5. Outstanding article Thomas, thank you for your willingness to serve your country, an honorable act regardless of the ruling elite’s intention or crime. I was taken a back by Ian’s suggestion that because primative man fought and killed each other that state sponsered killing should be accepted and expected today. As our own constitution brilliantly constructs, the purpose of the state is to one provide a system of justice to eliminate the need for violence as a means of settling disputes and determining property rights and two, to provide for national DEFENSE in the event that the PEOPLE of a state are attacked. These are the purposes of government and these are all that government will ever be able to do. WWII is the only modern war in which the US has been threatened, all the other military actions have been at the behest of hoodlums seeking wealth and power.

    • afp,

      I don’t think that Ian was arguing for the acceptance of state-sponsored killing today. I think he was just correcting what he sees as an historical error on my part.

      I did not serve “my country.” I served the state. And my subsequent evaluation of myself for having done so ranges from “what the fuck was I thinking?” to deep shame and guilt.

      The purpose of the state is to transfer wealth and power from the productive class to the political class. All other claims are medicine show ballyhoo with no basis in reality.

      • I was referring to the “Idea” you must have had to serve your country and I can understand how you must feel now. But I agree with everything you said. The sad thing is that only about 1 person in 50 has even considered any of the points you make. I talk to 40-50 people everyday and I am lucky to meet one who can even quote the evening news much less think beyond that.
        Keep up the good fight.

        • afp,

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

          I do have to say that between the 1991 war and a bunch of “war on drugs / counter-narcotics” missions I participated in, it was serving in the Marine Corps that jump-started my conversion to libertarianism.

  6. I’m not saying that what Thomas says isn’t functionally-right: which is I think that modern States actually like and need wars from time to time, if only as in the British case to tighten and encase permanent restrictions on behaviours previously allowed. Like, er, travel.

    But I do wonder to what extent Ian is sadly correct about homind behaviour, and whether something can indeed be done about this or not.

    One does have also to wonder what, if anything, the captured “wives” thought about the bloody slaughter of their fellas and male children [robably in front of them n the but or stone cist, at dawn, and what they might think about being f****d later on, by their families’ killers. Did they simply think this was normal? if it was, then perhaps it was, and perhaps Islam has got things right on the button after all? But I do hope not.

  7. David – I agree. However, do remember the basic law of the LA: Who does the work runs the work. Anything I do on this blog is strictly butting in. You are the Blogmaster. YOU decide about promoting posts. As said, though, I agree. This one is not quite in the same league as Ian B on ants, but is still worth showing off.

  8. Pingback: A response to “War, the health of the State” (see post below) | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG

  9. David, I’m very flattered, especially as, as we all know, my real forte is ants.

    I’d just like to confirm that, as Thomas said above, my intention was not to justify war. I am simply interested at getting at the best guess at the truth of things we can achieve. There is no doubt that the State and war are intimately linked; each has allowed the other to flourish. It may well be an irony that the State, in forming more effective war machines, ultimately resulted in less war, or at least less death, because of the organisational and economic arms race that resulted.

    It just seems to me that people sometimes accidentally lapse into an implication that only the State causes this kind of organised violence, and I don’t believe that that is true. It is like saying that because the State is a vehicle for avarice, that without the State that there would be no avarice.

  10. “only the State causes this kind of organised violence, and I don’t believe that that is true.”

    But, don’t you see… this is a chicken and egg situation. Only people can form or sustain a “state.” The “state” cannot do anything without the cooperation of people, and people populate the “state” as much as any other human institution.

    Most individuals seem to want to live in peace, for the most part. There hasn’t been a war (or even a violent crime) in my community for quite some time… Yet I read about all of the wars going on in Chicago, for instance, and I wonder.

    Maybe it has more to do with individual sovereignty and self responsibility than has so far been considered here. Those who are free to live in peace and defend themselves seem more apt to live in peace.

    And, of course, it’s not that simple – but maybe important to add to the discussion here.