Torture, warfare and obedience

The blogger known as B Psycho made a good observation the other day about torture, warfare and obedience.  He wrote that although we’re told torture and assassination are needed because we’re in imminent peril from terrorists, the direction of causation is the reverse.   It is because of the torture and assassination that we need to believe in the peril.   The more complicit we are, the more faith we need to have in authority.

B Psycho’s post was prompted by a blogger known as CK MacLeod, who argued that there is no bright-line distinction between a torturer and a warrior.  He said that both obey orders to inflict harm on people in order to defend their communities and loved ones.  B Psycho responded:

ABU GHRAIB PRISONCK suggests that deep down the real object of torture is breaking the torturer.  … … The prisoner is a prop in the submission of self to The Cause, adding yet another layer of sickness to what was already a disgusting demonstration of what government authority does to people.  Reminds me of how 1984 ended — the book, not the year.

…  We’re already part of a greater whole, one that doesn’t ask us to destroy each other.  That isn’t the only place where the formulation in the mind of this hypothetical soldier rings false though, far from it:

No war is ever, ever has been, or ever will be fought purely for family, community and country.  No warrior is ever, ever has been, or ever will be given orders by family, community, or country.

via Psychopolitik.

I just finished reading A.J.P. Taylor’s history of the First World War, a war which nobody wanted, nobody won (except in the sense of avoiding defeat), and nobody would have begun if they had known the mass killing that was in store.  But once the mass killing had  begun, the purpose of the war had to be defined in a way that justified the mass killing.  It became a war of good versus evil, a war in which no compromise was possible, precisely because it was so pointless to begin with.

During the 1950s, French officers decided that the only way to pacify Algeria was to torture suspected insurgents and get them to name other insurgents.  While many or even most of the victims might be innocent, the real insurgents would be caught up in the sweep.  Use of torture began as a repugnant necessity, became accepted as a routine and, for some, even became pleasurable.  When the French government began to negotiate with the rebels, a portion of the French officer corps rebelled, not out of patriotism but because an independent Algeria robbed them of justification for their crimes.

A warrior (or anybody else) who is governed by an internal code of honor has something that nobody can take from him.   General Robert E. Lee [1] was defeated despite using every honorable means to win, but his self-respect was intact.   If your self-respect is instead based on pleasing authorities, or acceptance by peers, or even accomplishing a mission, you are not in a position to question authorities, the collective or the mission’s objective, and your self-respect is something that other people have the power to take away from you.

Click on Torture as Individualized War, War as Socialized Torture for CK MacLeod’s argument, plus comments.

Click on On (metaphysical) Self-Mutiliation for B Psycho’s response, and an interesting comment thread.

[1]  To be clear, I believe Confederate secession was an unjust cause.  I admire Robert E. Lee because of his manifest integrity and strong sense of honor.

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One Response to “Torture, warfare and obedience”

  1. Abandon TV Says:

    Wars happen when the population becomes so obedient to the state (and to a hierarchical society in general) that they will violate basic moral rules (such as “it’s wrong to murder”) rather than disobey orders from ‘above’.

    In this sense war is a symptom of a kind of collective mental illness or a collective superstitious/ religious faith.

    Of course statism is just another religion. Murdering because it is ‘God’s will’ is no different to murdering because it is ‘the state’s will’. In both cases the ‘thing’ which wills these acts of mass murder is just a figment in the collective imagination.

    In reality there are only PEOPLE who claim to speak *on behalf* of ‘God’ or ‘the state’.

    War is only really possible if a population has been trained to believe that:

    1. The state (and/or God) really does exist
    2. That to obey these people who claim to speak on behalf of the state/ God (priests/ political rulers) is ALWAYS morally virtuous…… and, conversely, to disobey these people is ALWAYS immoral – no matter what they order us to do! (gassing jews, blowing up Iraqi weddings, bombing civilian targets, funding the whole thing etc)

    Even people who are willing to fly to Iraq and start shooting up the place because of a conspiracy theory about WMD’s would never do that without being ordered to by ‘the state’.

    They’d never take out personal loans to buy some weapons and a plane ticket and then fly to Iraq, get off the plane and start shooting at the ‘enemy’ there. Nor would their family let them. They’d probably have them sedated in a mental hospital if they ever tried to do that of their own initiative, based on their own evidence-free conspiracy theory about a ‘threat of WMD’s’.

    This proves that the critical factor is not the (supposed) justification for the violent and murderous acts that counts, it’s people’s collective religious faith in the automatic authority / legitimacy/ morality of this thing called the state (or the church) which counts.

    In other words when there is an ‘official justification’ for war it’s not the *justification* which counts, it’s the fact that it is *official*.

    In reality all that happened with the Iraq war was that some people who claimed to speak on behalf of this imaginary thing called ‘a government’ ordered some other people to dress up in a special costume, grab some guns and go and commit violent and murderous acts against perfect strangers thousands of miles away…..

    ….and off they went.


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