George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”
We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”
Tom Engelhardt, “Rebecca Gordon, War Without End,” March 7, 2017
I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture.
The figure of escape appears amidst a discussion of provocations. Zhang insists that democracy must be “envisioned and practiced vitalistically” in a way that gives people “free reign to their potentials.” Unlocking “hidden capacities” is a process of eliminating the “hindrances and blockages” of the socio-political system. Letting go of the sense of a fixed identity amounts to an affirmation of life and recognition of the “mutual interdependence of all things.” Achieving this insight requires a “psychic transformation” to identify “lines of flight” from cultural constraints or, quoting Alan Watts, to free the spirit from “external circumstances and internal illusions.” The nomadic sensibility involves de-codifying the defining terms of culture that entrap and imprison democratic potential. Triggering such an awakening is the key to escaping an imaginary prison (pp. 413-17, 419, 422-23).
By this account, revitalizing democratic politics depends on eliminating blockages. Escape is the secret to becoming. There is more to Zhang’s argument than the figure of escape; the notion of interbeing and betweeness, for example, is crucial “to the possibility of throughness and beyondness” (pp. 436-37). But escape is a good starting point for addressing the constraints of war culture.
Let us assume for present purposes that escaping war culture could set in motion a democratic becoming and release the life-enhancing potential of peace. Focusing on the metaphor of escape as our primary heuristic might help to free us from a framework that constrains how we think and feel, defines and delimits what seems natural, real, possible or impossible, skews what appears to be right or wrong, and rigidifies the political imaginary.
One line of flight from the imaginary prison of war culture is suggested by the figure of endlessness. War culture promises a peace that is always deferred and never realized. Learning and remembering the recurring story of war culture moves it from framework to focus, from tacit knowledge to consciousness, from taken for granted to object of critical reflection.
Recounting the narrative of forever war creates an avenue of escape, whereas forgetting the history of war culture codifies an illusionary prison. The antidote to forgetting is evident, for instance, in Rebecca Gordon’s recent post revitalizing the forever metaphor.
While it looks like “the new president intends to keep on making war into the eternal future,” Gordon writes, “it’s worth remembering that our forever wars didn’t begin with Donald J. Trump.”
George W. Bush initiated an era of permanent war after 9/11 by declaring a global war on terror, which amounted to “a war against a tactic (terrorism) or an emotion (terror).” Over a decade and a half of forever war has proliferated into everywhere war, ranging from Afghanistan and Iraq to Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Somalia, and even Mexico. The onslaught of new and recycled enemies is like George Orwell’s rotating cast of characters in 1984. In mid-sentence, the Party spokesman smoothly shifts from denouncing Eurasia as Oceana’s enemy to announcing Oceania is at war with Eastasia and always has been. Who can remember the difference when it doesn’t matter? Not Gordon’s college students, who were certain one year that the 9/11 attackers were Iraqis and another year that they were Iranians.
But, in Gordon’s narrative of remembrance, US forever wars didn’t begin with 9/11. They can be traced back to the first Iraq war of 1990-91, the invasion of Noriega’s Panama in 1989 and tiny Granada in 1983, the long Vietnam War, or the forever Cold War, which began soon after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and flamed up in the Korean proxy war. “Maybe it all began,” Gordon allows, “when Congress first abdicated its constitutional right and authority to declare war and allowed the executive branch to usurp that power,” with no remaining constraint from “a deliberative body elected by the people.”
That’s a story worth remembering if we are to escape militarism’s iron grip on our potentiality.
[i] Peter Zhang, “Deleuze and Zen: An Interological Adventure,” Canadian Journal of Communication 41 (2016): 411-441.