December 21, 2006

Sublime Seductions

A recent New Yorker article on the anthropology of insurgencies, Knowing the Enemy, profiles an Australian army captain proficient in analyzing the mechanisms of outlaw organizations and their resistance to governance. That captain, David Kilcullen, is now in the U.S., advising the Pentagon. His suggestions for “winning” the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq counter the Rumsfeldian medley of carpet bombs and technological superiority. Instead they center on an intimate and patient application of cultural literacy.

Defeating insurgencies, his recipe says, requires an intimate understanding the enemies’ social landscapes. In other words, the fight is for control of the meaning of the fight, and the control of the meaning can only be properly disseminated through a finely honed sensitivity to the rhetorical dimensions of the insurgents and their audience. Knowing the terrain means not only fighting efficiently within the communities that house rebel forces, it means having an understanding of a culture that is witness to the battle; thereby better manipulating the dynamics within which the civilians caught in the crossfire choose sides. Anthropological analysis becomes the path to victory.
Which side are you on, boys? The side of empire or the side of resistance? State-sanctioned violence or the ad hoc violence of militias enforcing the strictures of neighborhoods and micro-structures?

To persuade people that your way is the only option available to them combines both cultural empathy and the crude tactic of intimidation. Empathy gives access to the leverage needed to persuade: “‘If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing,’ [Kilcullen says.] Kilcullen was describing a willingness to show local people that supporting the enemy risks harm and hardship.”

While Jean Baudrillard once seemed far too glib for suggesting that the media-drenched spectacles of the first Gulf War meant that the war “did not take place,” Kilcullen’s theory takes seriously the idea that persuasion and appearance have much more effect than the actual events. The practical results of scattering the enemy, “decapitating” terror networks, or pacification through white phosphorus are only important to the degree that they convince a population, for or against. The actions are more real, carnage aside, when they part of an image-repertoire to be mobilized.

Kilcullen describes insurgents as waging precisely such a war of information: a vast representation of resistance and revolution. The insurgency in Iraq, he says, thrives not on the roadside bombs that blow apart Humvees but the video of such acts. Similarly, the Taliban is reasserting itself so successfully in Afghanistan, precisely because they are adept at reclaiming the hearts, minds, and fearful imagination of people rightly afraid, enraged, or opportunistic.

Those culturally produced qualities of mind—emerging from imagining and judging in particular ways—are unlikely to emerge legible to outsiders analytically ill-equipped; hence the need for anthropologists willing to outline the dynamics of the enemy culture. It is hard to imagine young army officers alone adept at anything more than applying what the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins dismisses as a fraudulently universal “commonsense bourgeois realism” (How “Natives” Think). The effect of that would be less the symbolic violence of misreading than the symbolic weight of mindless destruction captured by Joseph Conrad's immemorial image from Heart of Darkness: a ship firing its canon blindly into the Congo's wall of jungle.

In the humanities we have been studying such play of culture and symbol and violence in all its guises long enough to understand well that the innocent phrase “theater of war” means not only the particular space of conflict but often the very nature of the conflict. What for the Pentagon is surely remains a mistaken conflation of rhetoric and reality was for Shakespeare the very emotional substance that shaped action by seeming to shift the weight within conflict. 

 For example, in King Henry IV we see the otherwise irrepressible Hotspur, right before battle, try to claim losses of an ally as advantage for the perception of his independent power:

You strain too far.
I rather of his absence make this use:
It lends a lustre and more great opinion,
A larger dare to our great enterprise,
Than if the earl were here; for men must think,
If we without his help can make a head
To push against a kingdom, with his help
We shall o'erturn it topsy-turvy down.
Yet all goes well, yet all our joints are whole.

As heart can think: there is not such a word
Spoke of in Scotland as this term of fear.

That is followed by Vernon’s report of the more daunting spectacle that comes: the image of Prince Hal (at last) armed and active, that vivid rendering enough to drain away all of Hotspur’s (false and blustery) faith.
Pray God my news be worth a welcome, lord.
The Earl of Westmoreland, seven thousand strong,
Is marching hitherwards; with him Prince John.

No harm: what more?

And further, I have learn'd,
The king himself in person is set forth,
Or hitherwards intended speedily,
With strong and mighty preparation.

He shall be welcome too. Where is his son,
The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales,
And his comrades, that daff'd the world aside,
And bid it pass?

All furnish'd, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm'd
Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.

If the bewitching quality of what can be made present by the straining of perceptions is the very heart of theater, so too, is it the nucleus of terror. Hotspur is defeated right there. And the audience of any proper production, it seems, would have to feel along with him that the power is off-stage, gathering its force like a coming natural disaster.

It is a sublimely seductive moment . . .