Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Two dimensions of war: letters from Richard Schmitt on Heidegger's reunion speech at Konstanz, part 4

Funeral orations are a rare practice, democratic and demagogic, about death. They are designed to mobilize a people to fight, to honor the dead and salve those who have lost and will lose children, to speak both of just combat in the rare case where it exists – and even there, so many are dragged along, forced along – but also to sanctify normal aggressions. Today as in the US war on Pakistan, as Richard Schmitt suggests below, such an oration - no one has attempted one - would have to justify shock and awe or drones from the air, where an unadmirable military is high in the sky or video killers half a world away…

Current mechanical or technological war (one of Heidegger’s points) has little to do with life or patriotism which is increasingly a facade. It stamps out heroes. Chris Hedges War is a Force that gives us meaning is more its book – the book of the fakery of patriotism for ordinary people who rush with illusions into sacrificing themselves or their children for it, and in actual fighting, sometimes get hooked on the adrenaline of near death and horror, find the occasional pleasures of peace awful – than any of the rarely noble words of politicians. But for the American aggression in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen or the intervention in Libya, there are few American troops...

Such wars do no honor (win no accolades or affection) for the society or those who wage them. In the Middle East, the latest poll shows, Obama, not the Nobel peace prize winner but the warmaker – is less popular even than Bush. Obama has a Muslim name. The idea of a black man, speaking eloquently to America’s interests, making American democracy comparatively attractive or at least not simply murderous (as it is, for instance, in arming the government of Israel in the occupied territories of Palestine), deflecting and dissuading potential terrorists, eschewing torture and bringing wars to an end - Andrew Sullivan’s original idea in the Atlantic a year and a half before the last election (February 2007) – seems distant. This is a hard “honor” for the President and his warriors to have won…

Lincoln’s words – on government of the people by the people for the people not perishing from the earth - are great, as are some of Pericles’s about Athens. The cause for which the North fought, in the end to abolish slavery, is a just cause. The cause for which Athens once fought the Persian empire was a just cause - defense of the Greek cities and a fledgling democracy for some (Hegel) against overpowering aggression. But in powerful, imperial nations as both became, defense against aggression is unusual.

In the context of the funeral orations, the increasingly faint possibility of noble words makes Bush’s hiding of the slain in Iraq and the odious neo-con denunciation of Ted Koppel for reading the names of the dead on Nightline stand out for corruption. See my "The Silence of Gettysburg" here and here. Obama sometimes greets the dead, consoles the families, but no ordinary Americans get to notice them (we would turn further against the wars…). It is a good thing that Obama pushed for equality for gays in the military and that he honors those soldiers, often repulsed by what they have been forced to do, who commit suicide. But the latter individuals are also symbols of why no civilized people is or becomes militarist...

Even the best cases of self-defense, as my friend the political philosopher Bonnie Honig reminds us about democracy in Athens,* sacrifice individuals, who are often not caught up in the fray but hope merely to survive, grinds up their bodies like meat, attempts to makes holy their sacrifice (consider Heidegger’s speech to the reunion at Konstanz here, the German-Austrian borders, he says, wreathed with the mysterious graves of the dead, to call his living compatriots to genocide in World War II). Democracy sacrifices individuals for the collective when the collective is, as is usual, corrupt and even in the rare case when it is decent. The loss of the young, of the beloved, the finality and tearing apart (for the survivors, particularly the parents) of death, the suffering of an unnatural death (that the old outlive their children), this psychological dimension of war as distinct from the political dimension runs deep.

In this respect, aristocratic war and mourning, heroism and wild grief are a more straightforward and human response to war, as Bonnie suggests, than the overly politicized and for a merely state/patriotic purpose of, say, Pericles’s words. Aristocratic war and mourning leave individuals the horrific finality of loss, the meaning of mortality for themselves and those they love…

There are thus two powerful, often clashing, nearly incommensurable dimensions of war. Here in a moral hard case, the competing elements of aggression and collective self-defense, of individual heroism, death and grieving, are pitted in a unique way. These dimensions are not of equal weight. The first and most important is about whether a war is just. The fate of a collective and sometimes even of humanity and freedom (World War II) is on the line.

But the second is the heroism of personal sacrifice and honor. We are not in this life for the money’s sake (that is a capitalist and, sometimes, an American illusion), and considered political sacrifice by individuals is one startling example as Heidegger in his idea of Being toward death (Sein zum Tode) suggests (mothering and parenting are another…). But the experience of war is also of boredom, fear, often subordination to incompetents (or people simply out of their depth in dealing with fighting), watching others get chopped up, murdering innocents notably children, suffering psychological distress and destruction. The disorientation is now called ptsd – the homeless from Aghanistan and Iraq will haunt America for the next 50 years…. See Lawrence Downes's piece in the Times two days ago below. Psychologically, Hedges has the story right.

In the combining of these two dimensions, honor is often bent and corrupted by the ignobility of war propaganda and war crimes. Consider the core nobility and decency of Pat Tillman (otherwise, just a human being…) and the war criminal that Donald Rumsfeld is (honor is not a word that comes to mind). The war in Afghanistan is predatory and not just (killing Bin Laden was just, though Wild West justice, but showed much about the emptiness of American aggression in Afghanistan and the killing of civilians with drones in Pakistan, see here, here, here, and here). But Tillman's example, in what he gave up to join the military out of response to the attack on America on September 11th and in his death from "friendly fire" lied about by his superiors, still shines…Tillman's were special circumstances. He was least diminished by the public corruption revealed or occasioned by the invasion.

What I said in my original note to Richard Schmitt (see below) about personal sacrifice, however, is not quite right. A sufficiently bad cause – Nazism – poisons the heroism of those deluded enough to fight for it. Ordinary bad causes often do not.

In Crete last month, I journeyed with my students up to the cave of Zeus on Mt. Ida. We drove back through herds of sheep and goats, attended as for millennia, by a rare, dark shepherd on foot (some of the original Cretans emigrated long ago to Palestine, as Jonilda Dhamo told me last year). We noticed on the mountain side the sign PPE painted proudly of the Communist Party. We went to a lovely and inexpensive restaurant, the Eagle, where they serve lamb (the best meal we had in Crete).

In the middle of the restaurant on a wall, there was a shrine of old guns from World War II, 6 of them, with a photo of the grandfather, Giannis Pasparakis, kneeling, watching, ready to fire on the Nazis who were coming. The war pitted the poorly armed, the irregulars or guerillas, against the technological committers of genocide.

The photo has two striking Greek Orthodox icons set below and on either side of it, the guns themselves mounted up above it. The intense feeling for the figure is tangled, not just in the political cause but in the spirituality of the descendants (although the anti-Nazism calls forth something better in the Christianity than Greek Orthodoxy often represents, and the two are, in this case, bound together).

The Cretan resistance to the Nazis has shaped its politics since (long communist and socialist, amusing for a Mediterranean island, also a center for tourists). It later gave honor to individuals in Crete in fighting in the civil war against the American empire after World War II.

There is the nobility of the cause in World War II. And there is the sometime heroism of (some of) the people who fought. The two things are linked, in this case, proudly together.

Richard’s reaction, however, captures the most important thing, which is the usual wanton slaughter of individuals for doubtful causes (what is evil on both dimensions). The political dimension can also be affected, though in a limited way, by the dementia and evil of leaders. Thus, Stalin represented something just in World War II, saved the world from Nazism as the US and Britain would not have, and yet slaughtered comrades, allies and would-be friends as well as large numbers of others and almost (for instance, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) sold out his great accomplishment – a psychotic tyrant. But no one who fought against the Nazis was deluded...

My original reaction to the public dimension of great power wars, particularly those of the United States in my lifetime, grows out of Brecht’s response to the slaughters and feeding frenzy of the elites on all sides of World War I: the Ballad of the Dead Soldier (I could not find a copy on the web, but a German recruiting officer, priest and gravedigger dig up a corpse, dress him up with medals, hang a prostitute on his arm, shower him with incense, and march him off to war, to die, again, a hero's death...).

But I also admire the heroism and seriousness of soldiers of honor. This is a real thing. I admire the presence of mind involved in risking oneself to save one’s comrades on the field of battle. I also believe that this honor can turn sharply against the dishonorable, not to say horrifying practices of war at 30,000 feet, of the cowardice of those who fire endless drones, and of aggressions as in Iraq (Andrew Bacevich’s searing indictments of current American wars and insight into the long corruption of American foreign policy come from such a place; so did Pat Tillman’s opposition to Iraq…). War is basically the chopping up of innocents. It chops them up so that the rapacious can profit. Even the best war has its local Mother Courages and of course, its masters…

Richard Schmitt, who has written well on Heidegger and publishes the blog Out of the Woods, has written to me powerfully below of the dangers of celebration of the sacrifice of youth for predatory purposes. His point about his Jewish uncles who went gladly to the first War and were betrayed by Heideigger – an awful spectacle of a human being – is revelatory. But he goes too far. Many go into war initially and some do sacrifice themselves, with nobility of purpose and honor. Wars (except the US drones as in Pakistan, an unrelieved and for ordinary people in the Middle East and South Asia, enormously embittering evil which breeds new enemies for the United States daily and hourly) are all about the young on each side, the soldier one kills being the possible friend in civilian life easy to empathize with, the civilians, the children…One cannot take in war, even today’s wars, simply by political purpose (one needs to fight for justice, i.e. to stop aggression or apartheid, and yet as Desmond Tutu’s No future without forgiveness shows about Truth and Reconciliation commissions, one must, to heal politically and privately, transcend the bitterness involved in this and allow a way forward in a new society even to those, if they have admitted their guilt, who committed crimes…).

I have always admired those who cast their lot with the underdogs and the decent. To fight for the Spanish Republic, as George Orwell did, and take up the cause of the anarchists was, for all its problems, heroic (the actual experience was, for the most part, anything but heroic). See here. I have come to see the transcendant courage of those who gave their lives in nonviolent protest to bring down the horror of segregation as the genuine and comparatively unalloyed emblem of such heroism. My friend Andy Goodman took part briefly – a single day in Mississippi before he was murdered, taking from him, who knows how he felt in those last hours of capture and slowed down minutes, the life he might have had. But what he did was great and powerful and who he was. See here, here and here. Courage and honor, particularly in a good cause, particularly in not just killing even the soldiers of an evil regime but pointing, in its collapse, to a way out, can combine the justice of the cause and the nobility of individuals.

For the previous posts on Heidegger on the funeral oration, see here, and on Being and Time on historicity, see here and here.


This latest piece of yours [see here] is a bit hard to follow but it sounds to me as if you approved and admired Heidegger's waxing eloquent about the Germans who died in World War I.

I find that a bit hard to take. The Germans started World War I. The fight was about the power of the British to control the seas. The Germans thought the time had come to contest that control. It was one more Imperialist war.

While German troops were marching into Belgium, the German people were told by their government that Germany had been attacked. They managed to whip up a chauvinistic storm and all young men signed up to fight for the Fatherland. The young men who died, died for a lie. That's sad and pathetic but it is neither honorable nor admirable.

Among those who could not wait to enlist were my three Jewish uncles. When Heidegger gave his maudlin speech in Konstanz did he mourn the Jews who died in German uniforms? Did he have a "mystical bond" with fallen Jews?

Many admirable young men and women have died in wars and are still dying. It is difficult to say that they died in vain. To do so seems like dishonoring them. But what about the American soldiers whom someone persuaded that they are fighting in Iraq for American freedoms? Shall we honor them for defending our freedoms or say--the truth--that they were lied to and lost their life for a bad cause?

This response to Heidegger's funeral oration is the opening wedge to chauvinist defense of war. What after all was the Peloponnesian war about? Was it about "freedom or about power?


Dear Richard,

Thank you. You misread me though I will probably have to clarify - could I post on your letter which I largely agree with? My friend Will Altman celebrates the German dead in the last paragraph (though critical fiercely of all the wars), and I make it clear (the first paragraphs, the rest is Altman's translation), that there is nothing admirable about dying for an evil illusion and in a note that many were forced to die without seeing the cause, even under Lincoln, and that Pericles was also a murderous imperialist. On Lincoln, what is your take on the Gettysburg address?

I do say - those who fought Hitler in Spain and Sophie Scholl are admirable, those who fought for the Nazis are not...

Heidegger not only failed to honor Jews who fought, but grotesquely expelled Jews and others (pacifists during the War - especially the chemist Staudinger though in that case he failed) working with the Gestapo from Freiburg.

I admire Brecht's Ballad of the Dead Solider...

All the best,

Yes, Alan feel free to post my letter. I need to think about admiration for the people fighting Franco. I find myself being very conflicted about that.

One source of that conflict is current history. Nato planes are fighting against a mad dictator. Are the people to send out drone aircraft over Libya heroes? So did the US shock-and-awe fight Saddam Hussein. What should we say about that? And did Nazi troops in Russia not fight Stalinism? Why should we not admire them along with the anti-Franco forces in Spain? Should we admire the Stalinists in the anti-Franco forces, or only the Anarchists?

There are many problems when it comes to identifying good guys and bad guys. There are additional problems affirming that is it admirable when the good guys are trying to kill the bad guys and are instead getting killed in the process.

You can see my confusions.


Editorial Observer
Losing Private Dwyer

Published: July 15, 2008

The photo below [did not reproduce] captures everything that Americans wanted to believe about the Iraq war in the earliest days of the invasion in 2003. Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, an Army medic whose unit was fighting its way up the Euphrates to Baghdad, cradles a wounded boy. The child is half-naked and helpless, but trusting. Private Dwyer’s face is strained but calm.

If there are better images of the strength and selflessness of the American soldier, I can’t think of any. It is easy to understand why newspapers and magazines around the country ran the photo big, making Private Dwyer an instant hero, back when the war was a triumphal tale of Iraqi liberation.

That story turned bitter years ago, of course. And the mountain of sorrows keeps growing: Mr. Dwyer died last month in North Carolina. He was 31 and very sick. For years he had been in and out of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. He was seized by fearful delusions and fits of violence and rage. His wife left him to save herself and their young daughter. When the police were called to Mr. Dwyer’s apartment on June 28, he was alone. They broke down the door and found him dying among pill bottles and cans of cleaning solvent that friends said he sniffed to deaden his pain.

He had been heading for a disastrous end ever since he came home.

Two of his best friends were Angela Minor and Dionne Knapp, fellow medics at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Tex. For a while, they were part of a small, inseparable group that worked together, ate out, went to movies and called one another by their first names, which is not the military habit.

Joseph was a rock, Ms. Minor said, a guy who would change your oil and check your tires unasked and pick you up by your broken-down car at 3 a.m. Ms. Knapp said he was like an uncle to her son, Justin, who was having trouble in kindergarten and brightened whenever Mr. Dwyer went there to check on him.

Ms. Knapp was called up to Iraq, but Mr. Dwyer insisted on taking her place, because she was a single mom. He had no children at the time, and besides, he had enlisted right after 9/11 just for this. He went and stunned everybody by getting his picture all over the newspapers and TV.

A few months later, he was home. He was shy about his celebrity. He was also skinny and haunted. Ms. Minor said he was afraid. Ms. Knapp said paranoid was more like it.

It didn’t help that El Paso looked a lot like Iraq. Once he totaled his car. He said had seen a box in the road and thought it was a bomb. He couldn’t go to the movies anymore: too many people. In restaurants, he sat with his back to the wall.

He said that Iraqis were coming to get him. He would call Angela and Dionne at all hours, to talk vaguely about the “demons” that followed him all day and in his dreams. He became a Baptist, doggedly searching Scripture on his lunch hour — for solace. His friends knew he was also getting high with spray cans bought at computer stores.

“He would call me in the middle of the day,” Ms. Minor said. “I’d be like: ‘Why are you at Best Buy? Why aren’t you at work?’ I could tell he’d been drinking and huffing again.”

His friends tried an intervention, showing up at his door in October 2005 and demanding his guns and cans of solvent. He refused to give them up.

Hours later, gripped by delusions, he shot up his apartment. He was glad when the SWAT team arrived, Ms. Knapp said, because then he could tell them where the Iraqis were. He was arrested and discharged, and later moved to Pinehurst, N.C. His parents tried to get him help, but nothing worked. “He just couldn’t get over the war,” his mother, Maureen, told a reporter. “Joseph never came home.”

It’s not clear what therapy and medication could have saved Mr. Dwyer. He admitted lying on a post-deployment questionnaire about what he had seen and suffered because he just wanted to get back to his family. Ms. Minor said he sometimes skipped therapy appointments in El Paso. One thing that did seem to help, Ms. Knapp and Ms. Minor said, was peer counseling from a fellow veteran, a man who had been ambushed in Iraq and knew about fear and death. But that was too little, too late, and both women say they are frustrated with the military for letting Mr. Dwyer slip away.

Private Dwyer, who survived rocket-propelled grenades and shocking violence, made his way back to his family and friends. But part of him was also stuck forever on a road in Iraq, helpless and terrified, with nobody to carry him to safety.

*Bonnie is writing a book interestingly recasting the Antigone story and war, see here, here and here.

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