Friday, June 08, 2007

What's wrong with us?

A few posts back, I wrote something quick and angry about recent comments made by retired US LGen. Ricardo Sanchez. It seems to me he has done some reflecting and his words prompted me to put down a few of my own I've had in my head for a while.

What is wrong with us? Among some of the western industrialised nations, there is a common affliction where the national leadership feels compelled to send their troops off to play and die in foreign lands. I’m not talking about peacekeeping in Cyprus, or even the early to mid 90s Balkan mess. I’m speaking of the Vietnams, Afghanistans and Iraqs and Chechnyas we’ve gone off to play with in large numbers. Places where the mission is described in complex, abstracted, poorly defined yet noble sounding terms like “freedom” and “democracy”.

When comparing states in the current West, some things become apparent. In recent times, it is noticeably an affectation of the Anglosphere, Russia notwithstanding, to find ourselves [in]voluntarily involved in these dubious land engagements, like so many pyramid schemes. From Vietnam to the present it is the leadership of Australia, Canada, the UK, and US that have led or humped the leg of whichever nation is feeling most adventurous at the time.

Does some unconscious nostalgia for playing at empire guide this? If we look at the other old colonial powers that still play at military involvements, most of them involve short, sharp actions in their former colonies – the Belgians and French in Africa (usually withdrawing their nationals, or correcting a coup) for example. Or the Brits in Sierra Leone a few years back. When they do get involved in Anglo dominated Afghanistans or Iraqs, they tend to call it a spade and beat a retreat when is starts to feel like quicksand, or their publics end up in the streets. Why not with us? When our public end up in the streets, they’re ignored. Or there is no follow through. The French had Dien Bien Phu and largely learned from it, and the Americans had Vietnam, and so clearly have not.


Maybe it’s a mixed vestige of colonialism, World Wars, and the Cold War that leave our leaders in awe of military force and unable to comprehend a solution to a given problem any more complex and nuanced than deploying a mechanised brigade. No capacity for intelligent [grand]strategy here. If the leadership is a reflection of the publics from which they come, so the problem lies with us. But if that is the case, why does the leadership carry-on the chase long after the public has called it off?

Maybe we, our home countries largely untouched by the modern war (no fire bombing of Winnipeg or Melbourne) but winners of the big ones before 1950, have no institutionalised memory of the horrors of occupation and bombing, making easier for us to get stuck in open ended adventures (I used to think Canada was an exception). Not like the Europeans, who now largely abstain from glorious crusades, perhaps because they are not islands. But the island states of the anglosphere (North America is largely an English speaking island) means we have largely avoided occupations. We also are and were the largest empires of modern history. We maintain an imperial attitude: liberal civilisation to the savages via Blair the Head Boy.

Maybe enough of the public, you and me, no longer have the capacity to judge a leader on merits of any more depth than photo-op make-up – if we even watch the debates. We do not demand demonstrations of wisdom from our leaders – I doubt most of us would recognise it if we saw it. Bully and spin replaces rationality and reason. Our elections are won with sound-bites, clich├ęs and catchphrases, as contemporary conservatives and many on the left aptly demonstrate. Our leaders have sunk to the level we demand from them; we’ve found our equilibrium price. Is this late democracy? Has it really always been this way for us? In the past the criminally idealistic brought the church to the brown people, and the idealistic criminals came to steal land, gold and spices. Now we steal oil and give them purple fingers.

How did we get here? Is this a function of circumstance? It is possible, I think, that a given society has a limited capacity understand complexity, especially in a rapidly changing world. Our master narrative, the understanding of states, nationalism, armies, war and peace, economies –the what should be – is obsolete. Our glossy assumption of the righteousness of our great enlightened liberal democratic tradition, like Victorian imperial enthnocentrism, does not allow us to comprehend the other in a way that lets us to leave them be. The past 50 years, has brought a wealth of knowledge and capability to a select few nations on a scale like no other, but these nations are still running on quarter millennium old operating systems. For all our good intentions, we’re stuck in a positive feedback loop of markets, armies, states, God, technology, and our own mindset. Our public and our leaders cannot fathom another way of interpreting the world. The more complex the world gets, the more information we get, the lesser our ability to comprehend and analyse all the inputs. We become rigid in our understanding when contrasted to a deepening and fluid world. This is the Tainteresque stage before collapse and fragmentation in an adaptive cycle.

I would conclude by arguing that we’re stuck here, and will continue to find leaders (or will they find us?) willing to spend other peoples lives chasing their egos or dark schemes, but I think climate change, peak oil, and other realities are combining to draw new maps, and change our historical accident. In this distracted and leaderless time, how can we expect to react with any coherence to the coming challenges? We simply do not understand.

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