July 9, 2009

The Knowledge of Violence

When Rene Girard describes an education of violence, he appeals to the possibility that there is something to be learned from war's disasters, that there may be an escape, through a retrospective appraisal, from the mimetic economy of war-making and the logic of attack-counter-attack-wounding-revenge-plot-wounding-attack-counter-attack.

In the 1960s, dismayed at the cultural numbness that seemed to permeate the rebuilt Germany, Adorno wrote that if nothing else, the hollow echo of postwar appeals to Hitler and fascism should have been unthinkable. And if not by attention to the victims of the regime, then at least by virtue the brute sufferings endured by even the staunchest nationalist supporters. But instead, there seemed little interest or capacity to connect the ideology designed to dispense destruction outward and the ruinous results absorbed, best symbolized by Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.

And so one thinks too of Brecht's postwar version of Antigone where the tragedy is not in the image of a controlling Creon who comes to see his error too late, but in the "unteachable" Creon, a maker of war who controls even the dead.

Still, Girard, citing Clausewitz, describes the extreme forms of mimetic desire that drives war forward and the race toward forms of destruction. And from this Girard holds to the possibility of breaking that cycle, insisting, however quietly, that violence can teach one what not to do. There is, he says, a possible otherwise: one can make a leap out of the tragic propulsion by refusing the rules given and the form to be copied.

Is this what Robert McNamara, who died this week, did late in his life, after helping to formulate the air terror inflicted on Japan and unleashing the "rolling thunder" of the bombing of Vietnam? Did he testify to a new vision?

McNamara's memoir, In Retrospect, and his presentation in Errol Morris's The Fog of War, may have been appeals for a forgiveness most would not and should not grant. It might have also been a Girardian attempt: to learn from the process of deciding upon such horrific destruction, to dispense a new wisdom of war in the nuclear age, to teach the lessons that might instigate a new mimetic desire for avoiding war, for developing empathy, for an illumination beyond a crude, groping violence. But there are still deep reservoirs of thought and memory that McNamara seems incapable of fathoming. What we hear instead of learnable lessons is the cadence of someone who long ago passed from the realm of the living. He remains too comfortably on the surface of his survival and so the lessons seem hollow, escapist, the tragic in lockstep with the insight.