Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How the Fearsome Become the Fearful

A Weapon of Weakness?

How did we become indentured to a culture of fear?  Fear-mongering has become a modus operandi in today's morally corrupt, visionless politics.  It is the stock in trade of authoritarians like our own Stephen Harper and it's effective.

The thing is democracy cannot thrive in the presence of a culture of fear.  It may not even be sustainable in that toxic milieu.

The culture of fear quickly comes to dominate aspects of how we are governed, how the nation state operates.  It even extends into national security structures and how we wage wars.  Until recently war was an interval of conflict between periods of peace.  In case you haven't noticed, peace is gone.  We've descended into a state of permawar, low-intensity conflict fought not to win a peace but out of fear to strike at groups we deem, often incorrectly, as a threat to our society.

I'm doing an online course on remote-control warfare.  It's an awkward term that incorporates drone or autonomous warfare, special operations warfare and for-profit wars waged by corporate entities, the modern version of mercenaries.  It's a 21st century type of warfare that can be dangerously corrosive of democracy.

In better times states jealously guarded their monopoly on violence so integral to the state's ability to meet its cardinal responsibility to protect the citizenry. Now wars have become more complicated engaging state actors with a confusing and shifting mix of non-state actors that run the gamut from militias to rebels to insurgents to organized crime, even banditry.  States have likewise lost their monopoly on lethal, war-waging weaponry and technology.

Some speculate that this dystopian era will end the classic 'nation state' that has evolved in the Westphalian interval.  State sovereignty, borders, the use of lethal force pretty much wherever and whenever, demands a different political reality.

I was struck in reading the transcript of a lecture by prof. Bill Durodie, University of Bath, by a passage that resonates with some central themes I've been canvassing on this blog for several years.  Here are some excerpts.

Since the end of the Cold War not only have we become disenchanted with science, but some suggest that our social networks have become much more fragile or eroded. People no longer participate in the political democratic process in the same numbers as they used to. We've become disengaged from the decision-making processes of our own society. And at the same time, many of the informal social networks that provide a social glue and identity to people, whether they are families, neighbourhoods, communities, trade unions, out of hours clubs, teams, and associations all of those have seen a steady decrease in membership too. 

So what we're now seeing is a world in which we've become disenchanted with the benefits of science, disengaged from the decision-making process, and disconnected from one another. Put together, these make up what some people are describing as a culture of fear, but lends itself towards a politics of fear, whereby people always imagine and project the worst in relationship to any new development. And it's within that broad context that we need to understand the discussions occurring about science and technology and its application to warfare today. Drones and remote technologies are used in a very dystopian, negative way some will accuse.

In summary, if we ask the question, is technology a demon in the contemporary period or the saviour in terms of protecting real lives in the combat space, I think the correct answer is neither. There's a lot of hype about technology from both sides of the spectrum. Risk management, we should remind ourselves, is a means to achieving an end not an end in itself. And the danger is to view technology as the solution to problems or the problem itself. What we need is a clearer sense of purpose and direction for anything that we are doing in society, including the conduct of war

If we look at recent missions in Afghanistan or Iraq, what is strikingly obvious is that the purpose of the mission itself has being confused. Was fighting in Iraq to get rid of Saddam? Was it to bring democracy to the region? Was it to liberate women? All of these aims were thrown into the pot together. And the consequence is that there is a confusion as to what it is that we are fighting for. 

If we look historically, it's quite clear that when a society is very clear as to its aims and objectives, it is actually able to put up with remarkable acts of barbarism. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki must rank as some of the most devastating and barbaric acts of human history. But set within a context of the Second World War, where a narrative had been framed and people bought in to the notion that we were in a civilizational struggle, these events went, if not unnoticed, certainly uncriticised for a remarkable period of time. 

Today, far less dramatic incidents, such as drone strikes in Pakistan, bring forward much more criticism. And that's because we live in a period in which we're unclear as to what the purpose and objective is in the first place. If technology is really going to be used to a positive benefit, rather than simply feeding into dystopian narratives, we need to clarify our purpose as a society and engage a much greater layer of the population in a discussion as to what it is that we're trying to achieve.

As we get into these low-intensity permawars, it's increasingly difficult to maintain effective civilian control over our armed forces.  Wars are now fought increasingly in the shadows, remotely.  It becomes harder and more complex to ensure effective oversight and there are political leaders who very much like it that way.  Outsource it to the commercial sector and oversight becomes almost meaningless.


Dana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dana said...

Oops, wrong post. Sorry.

Purple library guy said...

Hmmm . . . personally, I think that while some of the confusion about purposes of, for instance, warfare is genuine, a good bit of it is artifice.
To put it bluntly, the purposes of our wars are not clear because the people responsible for them are lying to us about those purposes and they shift their lies depending on what they think their audience wants to hear and on what appears plausible. Lies being, after all, counterfactual, there is a tendency for them to get exposed by events, at which point the liars fall back on other lies which have not yet been exposed. But those second-string lies tend not to be as emotionally satisfying; they lead with the best ones. Some communities are well insulated from the truth; they often continue to be fed the most satisfying lies long after other communities have moved on from them.

The results of all this are of course going to look incoherent, but administrations can't very well say, "We're going to war to stop this uppity country from indulging in self-determination, to sell more arms, and to keep you the people scared!"

The stuff in the essay about disengagement, not just from politics but from all group activities, reminds me of the book "Bowling Alone" . . . or, well, it probably would if I had read it. At any rate, I get the impression it too found this kind of isolation going on in modern society.

The Mound of Sound said...

PLG - I think you give the war-wagers too much credit. You accuse them of lying to us about their purposes when, the facts suggest, they really have no significant much less coherent purposes.

We're bombing in Iraq and Syria with the objective of "degrading ISIS." When it comes to bombing, anything other than a complete miss, to some extent degrades the capabilities of the other side. Planting a 500-lb.bomb in the bed of a pickup truck belonging to ISIS forces may be insignificant yet it does degrade ISIS. As a statement of objectives it's tantamount to proclaiming we're bombing them in order to bomb them. Great.

Harper got burned in Afghanistan where he began by boldly proclaiming Canada was going to send the Talibs packing for good, that we were going to win Afghanistan for democracy and the establishment of human rights. By his own benchmarks, Harper's war was a complete failure.

He's obviously not going to repeat that careless mistake again. Now we're all about "degrading" our supposed enemies.

Purple library guy said...

Well, you have to admit Harper's good at degrading things. He's done a bang-up job with Canadian politics and governance.
You have a point--militarily they often seem to go in with little idea of what the heck they're trying to do. But I tend to think that for them, that part is really not that important anyway.

The Mound of Sound said...

Oh, I definitely agree. Canada's Parliament has gone full bore into pure "whack-a-mole" warfare. Like kids at Chucky Cheese it's a lot of fun until, eventually, you get bored and give it up.