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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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05/03/2004 Archived Entry: "Review: Winning Modern Wars"


One of the magnificent political paradoxes ...

of the past few years has been the United States military's passionate embrace of George W. Bush, who when given the opportunity, decided against serving in Vietnam, and attended Harvard Business School rather than complete his National Guard Service. In 1999, after leading a broad coalition of nations against Slobodan Milosovic as Nato Supreme Commander, General Wesley Clark was reassigned not six weeks after the cessation of hostilities, and the insertion of peace-keeping forces, a grievous, and very public display of the Army's displeasure with him. At the heart of these two disparate events, is an exchange between Bush and Jim Lehrer during one of the presidential debates of 2000.

LEHRER: The use of the military, there -- some people are now suggesting that if you don't want to use the military to maintain the peace, to do the civil thing, is it time to consider a civil force of some kind that comes in after the military that builds nations or all of that? Is that on your radar screen?

BUSH: I don't think so. I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have kind of a nation building core from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That's what it's meant to do.

That exchange is the fulcrum around which Winning Modern Wars turns. Wesley Clark's career, as a scholar, and a general took as its main project the task of understanding and harnessing the "soft power" of multilateral diplomacy, and lasting, international, institutional alliances through treaty regimes such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and the United Nations.

George Bush captured perfectly the emotional resistance to this vision of the military, and its role in the world. Clark introduces a slightly different context. He cites the exchange quoted above, and writes,

... to be fair-minded, much of the reluctance [to plan for post-conflict and peace operations] can be traced to the military-industrial-complex and the politics of organizational survival. ... [F]ar-sighted procurement programs designed for high-intensity combat in the Middle East or Korea ... would be more likely to compete successfully for funding, ... [and] would pick up important backing from contractors and subcontractors in many congressional districts.

... The truth was that the study, research, and preparation for post-conflict operations was a political orphan (pp. 98-9).

The first half of Winning Modern Wars is a blow-by-blow account of the first month of so of the Iraq war, from the invasion of major ground forces via Kuwait on March 20, 2003 through to the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government and fall of Baghdad on April 9, less than three weeks later. His narrative draws heavily upon published and televised accounts; regular readers of the New York Times, Washington Post, The Times, the Guardian, Slate, and Salon won't discover much new information here. Clark worked as an analyst for CNN during this time-frame, but there isn't much effort to pull back the curtain, and show some of the machinery of reporting the war, beyond effusively praising the practice of "embedding" reporters with front-line units. The most compelling reportage Clark brings to his book also neatly demonstrates his limitations as a journalist, and analyst. He recounts a conversation with a "senior military staff officer" at the Pentagon who divulges that the war in Iraq is laying the groundwork for a five-year plan to stage a series of successive invasions of Iran, Syria, and on to as many as seven countries in the Middle East.

I moved the conversation away, for this was not something I wanted to hear. And it was not something I wanted to see move forward either. ... What a mistake! I reflected ...

It's obvious enough to hardly need explicit recognition, but when Clark writes about the task of "winning" the war, he's laying out his vision of what it will take for us to carry the day. His vision of American Hegemony is beneficent, as opposed to coercive, which may be a distinction without a difference. Clark doesn't believe that, and his book is as much (if not more so) about defending this proposition as it is about the tactical and strategic imperatives of combating terrorism.

America has followed the lead of its President; it has embraced the cowboy rhetoric, the "dead or alive" ethic of vigilante justice. The past few years have seen a steady trickle of revenge fables reaching our movie screens, from Mystic River to Kill Bill, Man on Fire, and The Punisher. Television shows like 24, Alias, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have regularly featured characters and storylines that blur the distinction between personal vengeance, justice, and preemption, with varying degrees of nuance and elision. The pursuit and enactment of vengeance is a reliable and sturdy plot, like playing an instrument in a punk band; easy to learn, easy to emulate, infinitely digressive, and eerily powerful. In the New York Times, Frank Rich reviews the revival of Assassins, which dramatizes and reenacts the people who dare to dream of massive, violent carnage and the burning of the innocent. One of the creators of the play, John Weidman says, "In 1991 it seemed like a cheap trick when the actors pointed their guns at the audience. Now we all feel vulnerable. You feel anything can happen now that we've all become potential targets." When everyone is a potential target, everyone is a potential enemy. We have become increasingly comfortable with bartering for justice and security with our civil liberties, and our humanity. Clark rejects this transaction emphatically. In his formulation, if everyone is a potential target, everyone is a potential ally.

His reading of history is that the expansion of American influence and power goes hand in glove with the pattern of growing and building consensus between nations, and cultures, first in the fight against Nazi Germany, then as a hedge against the Soviet Union, and today the fight against transnational terrorism. The trend has been to build a more perfect, global union of interests and alliances. The Bush administration, despite Dr. Condoleezza Rice's opening statement in her testimony before the 9|11 Commission, has not drawn on historical precedent in crafting its response to the attacks on American soil, but have chosen instead a strategy that focuses on building "floating coalitions." Alliances of convenience are favored over lasting relationships and obligations. Winning Modern Wars is a manifesto that decisively and cogently presents the case for a multilateral approach to deterring and combatting terrorism; one that utilizes and strengthens existing international institutions and treaties.

In Kill Bill, the character of The Bride goes to a famous swordmaker who makes her a sword capable of cutting God. As he gives her his finest creation, the sword he swore a "blood oath" he would never make, he says, "Revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest. And like a forest it's easy to lose your way ... to get lost ... to forget where you came in." We have lost our way. General Clark's words are a campaign document, a relic of the process that lead to his eventual campaign for the presidency. But they are also a call to remember our history, and turn away from the cycle of violence that begets more violence, in favor of something resembling dialog.

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