Monday, November 17, 2008

War *huh!* What is it good for?

by Hanno

So I am working on my presentation for the MSU philosophy club's next installment of Filmosophy, where we take a movie and discuss its philosophical implications. The film I choose, with boggled looks to whomever I tell, is "Starship Trooper," directed by Paul Verhoeven. Yes, the movie about killing bugs. Really big ugly bugs. Lots of them. Certainly, no one expects much from Verhoeven. (Upon hearing of my talk, my little sister declared "I thought that it was truth universally acknowledged that Paul Verhoeven has the depth of a metaphysical and proverbial puddle." But, my dear sister, as Locke knew, there are no universally acknowledged truths, and he pointed to children and idiots as counterexamples. Be that as it may, and it may be...)

I will write a bit more about my talk next week and the week after (talk is Dec. 5th, called Starship Troopers: The New Republic), but there are side issues in the film that I wanted to address. I did not know, until I did a little research, that the movie was based on a book written in 1959. The book is quite different from the movie, and one of the key differences is its approach to war. The book was written by
Heinlein, a former graduate of the Naval Academy, and officer in the US Navy until forced out by health reasons. He left the Navy in the mid '30s. The book is also a clear reaction to the anti-militancy of the Left in the 30's and beyond. Three features to which I will point: 1) Heinlein seems to belive in the character building of boot camp. This is an extensive part of the movie, as selfish person gets transformed into citizen, where "a citizen accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic, of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life." The citizen puts the safety of the whole above her own. Combat and boot campe are the vehicles for this transformation. 2) War is a solution to problems, argues Heinlein. "Naked force has settled more issues in history than any other factor. The contrary opinion 'violence never solves anything' is wishful thinking at its worst." The radicals of the '60's were criticized for much the same view. No social advance, they argued ever came without violence. 40 hour work week, abolision of slavery, woman's sufferage, etc., etc. and 3) War is inherent in human society. The war with the bugs has no real beginning, and it is a constant struggle in the book.

Here the movie is quite different. On Verhoeven's interpretation, the humans start the war by moving into bug territory with the purpose of expansion. The bugs respond to human aggression by unleashing meteors that slam into the earth, and by wiping out the colonies.

Plato argued in the Republic that a state can either be healthy, and keep its needs to necessities, or it can give into its desires for more, limitless desires which are symbolized in the Republic as the love of money. This requires, eventually, seizing of the land of neighbors to feed our insatiable appetites. Our neighbors will want to seize our land, too, "if they too have surrendered themselves to the endless acquisition of money and have overstepped the limit of their necessities."(Rep. 373d) This in turn requires the formation of an army, both to defend the society and to agressively take from others. This, Plato writes, is the origin of war. "It comes from those same desires that are most of all responsible for the bad things that happen to cities and the individuals in them."(Rep. 373e)

War is not an essential feature of man, but an essential feature of man that has given into the insatiable desires of the luxourious life. War is not a good thing, but the creation of the worst elements in human nature. Human expansion into bug territory is thus a classic example of how Plato sees the origins of war.

Reactions?

15 comments:

ce said...

In response to your:

1. I'd need some sort of evidence for this. Surely, the goal of boot camp is to condition the solider in some fashion, but it's unclear as to whether it will make one a better citizen in anyway. Indeed, many soldiers meet reintegrating into civilian life with difficulty. Is this because civilian life is poorly constructed and/or bad in some way for a "true citizen"? Is this because what makes a "good soldier" makes for a bad citizen in society? We need a lot more here.

2. Naked force can just as readily, and perhaps more often cause problems rather than solve them. It's also a blatant equivocation to present "violence" and "war" as somehow interchangeable terms. Sure, violence is sometimes required for progress (I'm not convinced it is necessary). Non-violent protests are non-violent, but only in relation to a specific sort of violence. The same specific sort of violence one finds in war. Thus, war obviously seems non-essential, even if violence may be.

3. I reject the usage of the word inherent. Show me what inherent means, and that it's anything other than gibberish, and then I'll humor this.

Re: Plato

Well, yeah. A self-sustaining, isolationist community would have no need of an army or war. However, in relation to the desires and actions of outside forces, it might be prudent.

Jerome said...

My 2 cents:

“Plato argued in the Republic that a State can either be healthy, and keep its needs to necessities, or it can give into its desires for more.”

Although it wounds me to have to take a shot a Plato, I don't think its a choice of having a Republic for Pigs or a Republic given in to its desires. Even with the most Spartan (ironic term?) of citizens, war follows inevitably from the structure of the State.

Where ever you find permanent settlement you find a people unable to sustain that settlement without bring in resources from without. Either those resources are peacefully exchanged with neighbors or you have the conditions for war. If the exchange is peaceful, you still find a situation where the State attains luxuries at the expense of its neighbors, who now have less in proportion. Whether out of jealously or economic necessity, the neighbors now have the justification for war.

CE:
Military life makes a citizen more servile. Although in our technological age, schooling is a much better way of inculcating that servility, since it also reinforces technical values.

“Inherent,” much like “nature” has been used to justify all kinds of crazy things, but “tends to result from a given set of circumstances” seems to be one of those nice definitions that strikes the right proportion between vague and specific that tends to make philosophers happy (if they're not feeling too surly).

Anthony said...

Ancient Greeks lived in an era where might truly made right in any ethical sense. Oppression, murder, and enslaved of foreign peoples where not looked on as an ethical or moral liability in any real sense. A rare example of actual reflection and restaint by the voting populace of Athens considering genocide of a nearby city-state was the great debates before voting *not* to kill all male inhabitants of Mitylene and enslaving the females and children (and actually it was a re-vote after a vote the day earlier in favor). Athens is popularly considered "the good guys" too if anything, especially compared to citystates like Sparta or to the Persian empire.

Obviously lots of what S-P-A had to say is timeless and essential up to this day, however contextualization is really needed when examining their statements in relation to today's world of relatively (yes, relatively) little warfare and with the establishments and institutions based upon modern ethical and moral concepts. Yes, nations can indeed aquire great wealth without expansionism.

As for the example of the anti-war movement of the 60s, it might be legitimate to say that on its face, the movements message of "war never solves anything" is incorrect, however, in context to the Vietnam War the message was quite constructive in helping to end this unnecessary war. The kids of the 60s were quite correct in wanting to end it, and justified in the fact that our ending Vietnam didn't actually result in a Communist takeover of the world via Domino Theory.

If anything, Plato's "limitless desires" on a national/war/collective level is more aptly applied to the desires of the power elite than that of the common citizen.

Hanno said...

The Greeks thought might makes right... but Plato/Socrates did not. Both the Republic and the Gorgias are quite clear about that. See Socrates discussion with Callicles and Thrasymachus in marticular.

ce said...

Military life makes a citizen more servile. Although in our technological age, schooling is a much better way of inculcating that servility, since it also reinforces technical values.

That doesn't really answer the question. Servile seems to be counter to being an engaged, active, imaginative, intelligent, and inquisitive citizen. So, is the conclusion that both military life and schooling make for bad citizens? Surely, we want citizens who are going to participate in society, and do so in a productive and responsible fashion.

Anything defined as "involved in the essential character of something" is going to just wind up making me nauseated. That's just intrinsic in the use-effectiveness of the term.

Anonymous said...

Servile seems to be counter to being an engaged, active, imaginative, intelligent, and inquisitive citizen.

I tend to look at the Polis, the Nation-State, and the Empire as having the same basic structure and sharing most of the same basic characteristics. I don't think anyone is going to question that in ancient Babylon & Egypt servility is going to be among the highest virtues the State will want for its citizens. Only in self-consciously "enlightened" States like classical Athens and modern Sweden will you have the virtues of being "active, creative, intelligent" as part of the dominant rhetoric, and terms such as "servile" frowned upon. And at some level the enlightened States actually do want these virtues exercised by their citizenry, but only within a narrow set of parameters. Beyond those limits, no one is allowed to be too inquisitive, imaginative, or involved.

Of course, enlightened States allow more dissent on the periphery, away from the actual center of power and localized in institutions that both appear to reflect the State's "enlightened" status and at the same time inculcate the dominant virtues (i.e. the Academy) Here, S-P-A comprise a good test case. Being aristocrats, all three reflected and reinforced most of the values of Athens ruling elite (the exceptionalism of Plato's philosopher king and the necessary virtues of Aristotle's megalopsuchos being prime examples.) Since Socrates was the most engaged, active and inquisitive of the bunch, he had to be executed. Plato & Aristotle were merely exiled.

Things might appear different in 21st Century America since, as Anthony & Hanno point out, Classical Athens was very much a State where violence was readily accepted as a just tool for keeping citizens servile. The genius of United States and most modern Empires is that the inherent violence is kept invisible, exported to the 3rd world and couched in acceptable rhetoric. But this violence is not something you question. Like the right to property, the superiority of laissez faire economics, the morality of granting legal status to corporate entities, the convergence of corporate & State interests, the right of the state to dictate terms of free speech and assembly, the right of the state of manage nature (outlawing naturally occurring substances and mandating artificial ones), or the morality of jailing 3% of the population.

(I'll admit that this analysis is somewhat cynical, since these things are being debated in state-funded institutions or higher learning, and no one is being "retaliated" against by the "power elites." Except for Erwin Chemerinsky. And Ward Churchill. And David Gaeber...)

Anonymous said...

War is not an essential feature of man, but an essential feature of man that has given into the insatiable desires of the luxourious life. War is not a good thing, but the creation of the worst elements in human nature.

It is here that I would like to offer my opinion. War is an essential feature of this world, and a useful one at times. Were it not for the predator the herbavor would over populate and thus devour the food source of all herbavors. If we do not cut our grass and prune our trees, then our cities will be consumed by nature. Reference to the ancient cities of Asia as an example. Nature uses war and predation as a means of maintaining homeostasis, so tell those tree hugging hippies to shut the f-bomb up. Now that most progressive nations maintain standing armies, and that greed is in the heart of man, war is inevitable. And guess what, if humans all kill eachother off, the natural world is gonna go WOOHOO, we get to fight again without those damn, smart, bullet and pestiside slinging cowboys!


Doc Murphy

Anthony said...

War is at the basic objective level is value-free act that is natural to all animals, down to the bacterial level.

Taken in context of any given human war, placing value and an ultimate moral decision to a war could most accurately be judged (imo) by the question "whom does the war benefit?" cui bono?, whatever. Others might place their moral decision to a given war in terms of the Catholic/military doctrine of Just War. Still others might use other criteria in placing value and judgment to a given war.

Considering our current wars and recent past wars, it seems (even considering the 911 impetus) that state propaganda is possibly the most vital as it has ever been in history (as well as effective considering modern media consolidation and technique) in convincing the population of the crucial question of who benefits from the war. The state answer: we all benefit and it is also necessary. The current wars are very palatable to the population due to its soft power method, low intensity compared to the old mass production warfare model, and less loss of life. The population must be convinced that they will share in the spoils in some meaningful fashion, such as tangible resources obtained from the war, intangible benefits like security, or both.

Doc Murphy:
"War is not an essential feature of man, but an essential feature of man that has given into the insatiable desires of the luxourious life. War is not a good thing, but the creation of the worst elements in human nature."

vs.

"War is an essential feature of this world ... Nature uses war and predation as a means of maintaining homeostasis ... "

?

Hanno said...

Doc, that was so Christian of you. I remember Jesus saying the same thing in his Sermon on the Mount.

We do not need war to guard against over population, nor is it a useful way to do so. Societies have many ways to combat over population, such as birth control, etc. And it is well established that societies with enough resources tend to reach an equilibrium. The death rate and birth rate in the US and in Europe is basically the same, for example.

Second, in war, the most fit do not survive. In nature, the weak and the sick are the prey for predators. In war, the young and the healthy are soldiers, and the weak and the sick stay home. so we get an inverse survival principle. Survival of the least fit.

Anonymous said...

Unless you consider total "scorched earth" war...

Anonymous said...

Hanno

You completely missed my point. My point was that the world is in a constant war of sorts. The predator/prey argument holds. True predators go for the weak, but they also function to maintain number control. You don't have to look at lions alone. Look at insects that help control certain types of plants. This is war. If man does not war, in some form, then the world will swallow him whole, and *huh*, whomever or whatever is left is going to war. The very nature of homeostasis is the war between opposite ends of a spectrum(s).


Doc Murphy

ce said...

Doc Murphy

I think the word you're looking for is "conflict" not "war". If you're speaking metaphorically that's one thing, but you're just confusing the issue at this point.

Anonymous said...

CE

Do you mean like the Vietnam "Conflict" lol. The issue that I am addressing is:

"War is not an essential feature of man, but an essential feature of man that has given into the insatiable desires of the luxourious life. War is not a good thing, but the creation of the worst elements in human nature."

War is most definetely an essential feature of any living thing on earth. They don't call it survival of the fittest for nothing. War is life. If you simply sit under the tree of peace smokin a J, the world will kill you, you will simply expire, or you will get off your ass and go to war with something and survive. Look at your natural world and tell me that everything in it is not in some state of war. To use the word conflict is to take away from the natural brutality of life.


Doc Murphy

ce said...

Doc Murphy

War is most definetely an essential feature of any living thing on earth.

To not mince words: bull. There are many creatures that have never encountered war. Myself for instance. You're equivocating, and to such a degree that you're making war a triviality. The primary issue at here is war. There are all sorts of conflicts that are not war. There are all sorts of violence, which are not war. I've encountered violence personally, and conflict personally, but I have never encountered war personally. Am I essentially not a living thing? By your reasoning, I'm missing something essential, so either I'm not a living thing on earth, or I'm missing a vital component (depending upon the precise usage of "essential" in this case).

They don't call it survival of the fittest for nothing. War is life.

Wrong. Life is life. War is war. Getting grandiose with your wordplay doesn't do anything for your stance.

Look at your natural world and tell me that everything in it is not in some state of war.

*looks at his natural world*
Everything in it is not in some state of war.

To use the word conflict is to take away from the natural brutality of life.

Conflict is important to the story of our lives. Without conflict of some sort life has all the character of day old oatmeal. My life hasn't been particularly brutal, save for a few brief encounters, and even that was rather bland compared to many. Life can be brutal. As a rule? Depends greatly upon your individual circumstances. Haiti? Yeah. Japan? Not so much. You either have a very odd concept of "brutal", or you are simply fond of using terms, which hold a rather great deal of weight, in a very cavalier fashion. Considering your flippancy with war, that might be the case. But not knowing you personally, I'll withhold ultimate judgment on that one.

Again, if you want to use war metaphorically, state as much. The issue here is war in relation to the body politic, not the survival of grasshoppers.

Hanno said...

The Anarchists liked to point to how much co-operation there is in nature. And they have a strong point. The rams fighting over the ewes almost never kill. The lions in a pride kill prey, but co-operate with which other. The list is endless.

But we are in some ways different. just because something is natural does not make it good. And we think we make choices, and going to war is a choice. So why do we make that choice? Is it, as Plato says, stemming from our greed? I doubt greed is essential to humans, but very common amongst us. A tribe of indians, for example, places you on a higher social status by how much you give away, not by how much you have. Our desire for social status is probably a greater motivator than greed, unless you combine the two, like we do in the good ol U S of A.