Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vigor, Valor, and Violence

It's probably only coincidence that I came across Josef Joffe's essay in Foreign Affairs, 'The Default Power,' just as I cruised past the central point in reading Shelby Foote's 3000-page Civil War history. Joffe makes a lot of legitimate points in predicting that the United States will remain a default hyperpower for decades to come, despite a financial collapse and the rise of Asia. Where I have a problem is when Joffe chides the European Union for losing its "warrior culture," which the U.S. and even the U.K. maintain in spades, according to Joffe. Of course, he's right. And of course, making the argument that the warrior culture should be purged by degrees seems to play right into the school of Cassandras who warn that an empire is doomed when it "goes soft" - it stops propping up its warriors and seeking the expansion of its own territory, in favor of those wimpy activities like diplomacy.

I was mulling just these sort of cultural images in absorbing Foote. His Civil War: A Narrative History is as much a classic as Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Yet it is troubling because of the baggage Foote brings to the table. I first became aware of said baggage when he was interviewed shortly after Ken Burns' TV series came out. Foote said that even knowing what he knew now, he would, as a Southerner, have to fight with the South because "these are my people." He made these comments just when the Serbia struggles were at their height. I thought, "How cowardly, to choose allegiance based on family, clan, race, or grouping. If you know your chosen clique is wrong, you should stand up and say so. Tribal loyalties mean nothing compared to the integrity of ideals."

Foote's trilogy is a definite throwback to a previous era, both in its use of inappropriate racial stereotypes that seem inexcusably quaint for the 1960s, when it was written, and also for its use of 19th-century words like "improvement" and "vigor." The last is maddening, as we do not see the word used in histories of warfare written in the last few decades. That's because vigor, in this context, is a synonym for machismo. And it maps into the warrior culture concept Joffe is defending.

I realize that classes at West Point/Citadel/AFA are still filled with tales of honor and the warrior mystique. I have no problem with people relying on personal honor and virtue. But a good part of personal violence is tied to ideas of clan-based honor and virtue, enhanced with the machismo that passes for "vigor." And once we purge people of those group-related concepts of honor, valor, virtue, and vigor, the personal violence in society goes way down.

Islamic culture isn't there yet, which is why honor killings are still prevalent outside the Judeo-Christian realm. But it was not so long ago when duels in the U.S. and Europe were fought over honor, and victory went to the "vigorous." We don't shoot each other in honor duels any more, just as Neanderthal clubs are no longer part of daily fashion statements. Face it, the 'v' words are all tied to violence, and they all represent a lower and somewhat moronic form of conflict resolution.

I've often spoken out against standoff warfare in this blog, due to its dehumanizing nature, and the fact that you rarely see the blood from a UAV strike. But if we can point to something positive from standoff warfare, it's the degree to which it has taken the dimension of honor and virtue out of war. There has not been a true ground-based hand-to-hand conflict between armies, involving the United States, since Korea, and there have been very few such wars worldwide in the past 50 years. Since Vietnam, it's all been guerilla skirmishes and robotic warfare. There is nothing virtuous or vigorous or valorous about such notions of war, which might just lead us to conclude there is little that is worthy about war itself. But before we can move beyond war, we have to purge ourselves of the notion that virtue and honor, at least as they apply to the group rather than the individual, are still worthy concepts that serve the warrior culture. In reality, they are outmoded ideals that increase the levels of violence in society.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

V is for a Victoriously good essay you wrote about valor and warrior-ism.