US Security Discourse: Physical and Ontological Implications

 

Part 1: Genealogy of War

            The past 200 years has seen a dramatic shift in the United States, the United States’ supposed “role in the world”, and, contrary to the video game series Fallout’s motto[1], even the very nature of war itself. Over 200 years ago, a group of wealthy white aristocrats decided that they had had enough of England’s “oppression” over them and they decided to revolt and form a new nation built around the pillars of liberty, equality (for some), and for lack of a better word, isolationism. In his farewell address, George Washington is quoted as having said “[i]t is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world” (Fromkin). However, this “true policy” was not to last as demonstrated by World War I wherein the US’ role shifted from stoic observer to what some neoconservatives like to call the “benevolent hegemon” (Dolman). In addition and parallel to this shift in the US’ role in the world, there was a change in the very nature of war itself. Before the 19thcentury, wars were conceived “as battles between sovereigns”, but all that changed with the advent of so called “strategic bombing” commonly credited to the Italian theorist Giulio Douhet (Collier and Lakoff 4). According to Douhet, war was “no longer [a thing] fought between armies but between whole peoples. All the resources of a country…would focus on the war effort” or, as it is commonly called, “total war” (C&L 5). Thus the rise of total war saw with it the rise of a new kind of geopolitical strategy, that of threat calculation in regards to so called “critical infrastructure”.  In addition, total war’s rise created a whole new beast, the unpredictable threat. This new kind of threat, one that “did not fit within the strategic framework” of the time, necessitated a new kind of response, that is to say, a new kind of outlook on threats in general (C&L 3). Everything was perceived as a potential target, from the obvious military bases to the less obvious roads and water towers (the “critical infrastructure”).  Everything was under attack and everyone was a potential combatant and thus the reign of the constant threat began.


Part 2: The Rise of the “New Threat”

            The rise of the unpredictable threat, in turn, necessitated the rise of a new approach to dealing with it, a new form of security. But before one can further a legitimate discussion of this “new securitization”, one must understand the nature of security and sovereignty in a historical context. Back in the good old days of the king, security was viewed as “getting out of the state of nature”, that is to say, to quell the fear of the violence that was innate to humanity. This was the view of security that Thomas Hobbes advocated in Leviathan (Der Derian). In this view, the threat to the security of the nation state that was being defended was the potential for disorder and chaos. In a word, Hobbes’ view of security was about ordering the chaos that came with all human life ie. All humans were a threat to the stability of society. But this view of security had to change with the times. As the individual became prioritized, security was less focused on collective survival as it was on individual maintenance of property. This view of security viewed the threat as defined, distinct individuals who threatened the autonomy and property of others. Hence came the Lockean view of security that dominated until Marx decided to mess up property rights (Der Derian). For Marx, security was the supposed “right to life” for the worker from the bourgeois owners of capital, the defined enemy. As with all prior forms of security, an antithesis must exist to which security is a response, and this antithesis, according to Marx, was capitalism…or more specifically, the concentration of the means of production eg. “Fields, Factories and Workshops”(to quote Kropotkin)[2]in the hands of a few. Or, to put it how most people do, the thesis in society at the time was Capitalism to which Marx’s critique was the antithesis (his critique being the supposed “right to life” for the worker from the owners of capital). Despite these different forms of security and their respective responses however, one common thread runs true: an “other” was defined. Allow me to explain, in each of the aforementioned forms of security a specific individual, or group of individuals, was/were defined as the enemy. They were an enemy to the populace, the goals of civilization, the peace, and ultimately, the state itself. All these “others” could be quantified and classified, their attacks could be anticipated, and their effects mitigated accordingly. In a word, they were predictable. In the American Revolution, the British knew the Americans would strike their troop patrols, not civilians. During the American Civil War, the North knew the South would attack troop garrisons and basses, not individual northern famers. And thus the threats to security were predictable and manageable. But that positive balance of creation and destruction[3]was not to last as the rise of total war displayed. There are two major implications to this change (and I’ll explain each more in depth in order): First, threats were no longer predictable and controllable. Second, this unpredictability meant that everyone (the populace of the nation securing itself, the populace of foreign nations, everyone) could be, and is considered, a “threat to national security”.
            The rise in total war saw with it a change in the very fabric of threat construction itself. Wars were, to rehash above, no longer fought between armies, but between whole nations. This change in the way war was fought made the threats to the populace unpredictable. An example would be the bombing of the civilian city of Dresden in World War II. Had you dropped Robert E. Lee[4]in Dresden on the eve of the attack, he would have not been worried at all because for him, war was fought between armies, not between soldiers and civilians. And thus, if Robert E. Lee was in charge of the defense of Dresden (for which there was no defense), he would have been woefully unprepared precisely because the threats to the populace were infinite and thus unpredictable. Now there is a very glaring issue with “the rise of the ‘new threat’”… that of the other. For historically, the threats were foreign armies, tanks, submarines, etc. but with the unpredictability of threats, everyone is a possible target or, what’s worse, everyone is a possible assailant. So what is a nation to do when fighting an enemy that is both everywhere and nowhere, both all-powerful and weak? What is a nation to do when fighting the citizens of the very nation itself? The answer lies, for America, on both October 26, 2001, and November 25, 2002, with the creation of the “Patriot” Act and the Department of Homeland Security, two things which deprived citizens of the freedom in the name of “national defense”. These creations are just two small examples of the way in which the unpredictability of threats controls policy (and there will be more later).There was a quotation said regarding something of a very similar manner that goes: “An evil exists that threatens every man, woman and child of this great nation, [w]e must take steps to ensure our domestic security and protect our homeland”. From the rhetoric, one would think Bush, Cheney, or one of the other neo-conservatives would have said this but in fact, it was said by none other than Adolf Hitler addressing the people of Germany and explaining his rational for creating the Gestapo (Hitler Quotes).
            But what happens when an attack does occur, what happens when these potential threats do strike, such as on 9/11? Well, according to the administration (both past and still to some extent, present), a “War on Terror” must be launched. This “War on Terror” includes not only foreign wars against potential “combatants” or “terrorists”, but it also includes a war on you. This “War on Terror” was the precedent for creating the DHS, TSA, the “Patriot” Act, and numerous other organizations that deprived citizens of their liberties as mentioned above. But, the war on terror was also the excuse used to launch two illegal and unprovoked wars in the Middle East, one against Iraq, and one against Afghanistan. These two wars (and the countless civil liberty violations both at home and abroad) constitute the response to an unpredictable threat. These wars demonstrate the United States’ willingness to “intervene” for the sake of “national security” in the affairs of other nations. This willingness, and subsequent actions, by the United States are part of what Julian Reid calls “global governance”, that is to say, a superpower exercising its hegemony over the rest of the world for its own gain. As Reid argues in “The Biopolitics of the War on Terror”, these two wars have set an unmatched precedent for the use of what Foucault calls “biopower” (this will be explained shortly) to coerce other nations and ultimately, support US imperialism (Reid). Biopower is, in the simplest definition, the ability for the state to grant life or death to certain segments of the population, that is to say, the state decides who lives and who dies, who is important and not important (Foucault 135-159). This manifests itself in many facets but according to Reid, it shows its ugly head in the context of controlling foreign populations. The only reason X and his family living in Kabul are allowed to remain alive, is because the human flying the drone above their house decides not to press a button. This is the epitome of the state controlling the right to life and death and this same situation is the one that happens daily in every country the US has a stake in. This “threat calculation” or, should I kill X and his family?, makes up the crux of US foreign policy. As LaFeminista, a writer for the Daily Kos[5], said: “Any sign of anyone getting even mildly upset with what we do should just have to look up at the predator overhead” (LaFeminista).

            But while all that is important, there is something more important, and that is the effect of discourse on the actions of other nations. What happens when the US denounces other nations, places them in the “Axis of Evil”, or even makes subtle military hints? Well, the answer can most easily be seen in the supposed “Rise of China” (although not in the “Axis of Evil”, many on the right think they are untrustworthy and thus bad eg. Donald Trump and Mitt Romney). When the US badmouths a superpower, or makes subtle military actions against them, they will retaliate, that is just a simple fact of life, and yet we act shocked when this happens in the context of China. During the late 90s and early 2000s, the US displayed itself as the shinning beacon of freedom, the sole benevolent hegemon in a world of terror and thus defined all those not directly under our nuclear umbrella eg. Japan, the EU, etc. as “other”. China thus felt alienated, they were defined as the other simply because of the legacy of Mao Zedong (although China today can hardly be considered Maoist even by the most lax of definitions) and thus they displayed aggressive rhetoric. But that’s not all: the creation of new missile defenses near China to “protect the homeland” and new troop movements also made China weary about what the US was going to do and thus they started militarizing in reaction (Pan). This militarization is not unexpected in the slightest and is perfectly justifiable in the wake of US offensive rhetoric and actions. Chengxin Pan sums up China’s reaction best when he says:

For instance, as the United States presses ahead with a missile-defence shield to “guarantee” its invulnerability from rather unlikely sources of missile attacks, it would be almost certain to intensify China’s sense of vulnerability and compel it to expand its current small nuclear arsenal so as to maintain the efficiency of its limited deterrence. In consequence, it is not impossible that the two countries, and possibly the whole region, might be dragged into an escalating arms race that would eventually make war more likely (Pan).

               The aforementioned is a very prime and very close to home (metaphorically speaking) example of how the US’ discourse and actions directly effect and, in the case of China, causes a reaction that scares the populace. 
 

Part 3: “Being and Security”

            In part two, I discussed the physical, that is to say geopolitical, implications of security discourse and specifically, US discourse. This section of the paper however will be a little more nuanced and not so intuitive. Here, I shall examine security discourse and how it relates to ontology which is the study of being. Before I jump right in, I must first explain what “being” mean. “Being” is a semi-intuitive but very hard to describe concept. It is basically who you are as a person, your supposed worth in the world, and most importantly, your identity as an individual whilst still part of a group. Ontology is an almost always overlooked subject in the field of geopolitics but I would argue that determining value, “meaning”, and being are a priori issues to any policy action. And here is where we break with part two entirely, we take a turn toward the absurd. Politicians, scientists, and in fact most people are under the assumption that the universe is understandable, quantifiable, knowable. I mean, we have math to help explain natural phenomena right? Wrong. Math is an attempt to make sense of a senseless universe. Yes, we got pretty damn lucky and found out that some numbers seem to represent natural events but those are few and far between and even when they do, competing theories don’t work out.[6]More importantly though, and more relevant to our studies of the political, is the question of the supposed “order” of social structures and institutions as well human interaction. The assumption that all of politics is founded upon is that humans are inherently controllable and orderable and thus governmental institutions can be, and are, successful. But unfortunately, that is not the case. According to the fictitious  research group “The Institute for Somehow Managing to Hold it All Together”, this is just not the case. In fact, they conclude that “everything appears to be falling completely apart and ‘getting way out of hand’”(Onion). But all kidding aside, the universe as well as human interaction is jumble of half-truths, screwed up friendships, ruined lives, and incoherent sentences (similar to this one). We have dreams of chaos and disorder and then wake up to (hopefully) find meaning and order in the world. Well, philosopher Kerry Gordon takes a different approach. According to Gordon, when one looks around at social institutions, they all fail, our “carefully constructed truths” about the universe are shattering with each “advancement” in the fields of science and philosophy (Gordon). In fact, this is what Gordon himself has to say on the issue:

Making my way through the day, I am indeed overwhelmed by a sea of detail that I can’t ever seem to get a handle on…all the variables of my life rushing toward me in flood of chaotic uncertainty. This is not my beautiful life. Where are the security and order that was promised me? All my carefully constructed truths, everything I have counted on and identified with, seems suddenly false or lost or changing. And when I pick up the morning newspaper, there’s more. Not only my life but the whole world seems to be deconstructing. I’m back in my dream—drowning in a sea of uncertainty (Gordon).

            But so what? What’s the big deal if we try to order a chaotic universe? Isn’t that a good thing? Well the answer is a simple no. Attempts to order and constrain human behavior via appeals to threats, war, social collapse, etc. are just ploys used by those in power to gain an even bigger foothold. In fact, some of history’s worst atrocities were committed in the name of “order” and “security”[7]. When one has a desire to impose order on a disordered world, any kind of self-regulation is removed. Gordon cites four main examples of this running its course in history: “Stalinism, Nazism, McCarthyism, and fundamentalism of all stripes are examples of the kind of irrationality of which institutions and governments are capable in the name of order” (Gordon). In fact, Gordon takes it a step further: “it is precisely our resistance to chaos and uncertainty and our almost pathological need to impose order where there may, in fact, be none at all, that is the cause of so much of our disease” (Gordon).
            So here one may be asking a few questions: “Why is this section so chaotic?”, “How does this relate to ‘being’?”, and “When will this end?”. The answers lie in the winding road ahead. This section is chaotic precisely because I am writing about chaos and disorder and, compared to other authors, this is pretty sane.[8]
            So thus the question arises, how does disorder and the attempt to structure it relate to being? The answer lies simply in two assumptions that all of science is founded upon: that the universe is rational and that experiments are repeatable and demonstrate things. Although scientists don’t like to think about it, all of their work rests on the aforementioned assumptions and science too has it’s limits. The issue then comes when science, or more specifically, scientists, reach those limits, those limits “from which they “gaze into what defies illumination”(Seigfried). When this happens, the scientist wonders what’s wrong, “Why can’t I pierce the veil?”. The scientist thought the universe was understandable, knowable, quantifiable, so why then can they not understand it. This is the issue that has plagued many a scientist has driven just as many to “despair and nihilism” from which they shan’t emerge (Seigfried).  This denial of the self arises from an internalization of the absurd universe. When people believe that the universe is understandable and controllable, they subconsciously create a utopian ideal: a world in which all truth is known and everything is just dandy and peachy. The issue with this is when one becomes confronted with the beast of absurdism. When one eventually sees that the world is not orderable, understandable, and even to some extent, knowable (as indicated by the Gordon and Seigfried evidence above), this leads one to question oneself. Because here one is confronted with something that is different. Humans have always been told that the universe is “rational, knowable, understandable, etc.” and when one doesn’t reach one of those utopian ideals, the individual doesn’t look to the actual explanation (the absurdity of the universe), but rather towards oneself. This leads to a feeling of constant anxiety, self doubt, and worthlessness (Gordon). In addition however, when the utopian idea of understandability is not met, when the goals to be perfectly safe, perfectly ordered, etc. are not achieved, one then blames themselves leading to what Nietzsche calls “ressentiment” (pronounced res-an-ti-ma) or, a hatred of the self. This ressentiment leads one to fundamentally deny themselves and their place in this world (Nietzsche). This denial of the self and the question of ordering the absurd being placed prior to policy action should, even to some innate degree, be self evident but nevertheless, “everything’s an argument”. The French philosopher and writer Albert Camus posited in 1942 that “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (Camus). (I would normally put this in a footnote but this is such an important concept that I must address it here; when Camus speaks of suicide he speaks of it as a way of coping with the disorder in the world, a kind of cop-out, and thus the question of whether or not we should kill ourselves is fundamentally a question of how to deal with the absurd.) For Camus, this is thequestion that all of humanity must answer for the question of making meaning out of the universe is fundamentally a question of accepting ourselves and living in this chaotic world. Until this matter is sorted out, all policy will be in a state of constant error-replication and self-hatred (Camus) (Campbell and Dillon).
 
Part 4: “Order the Chaos”
            So where does this leave us? The rise of total war saw with it the rise of the so called “new threat” that was not only unpredictable, but everywhere. This “new threat” meant that a new form of threat calculation and thus securitization had to be created in which everyone and everything is a possible enemy to the state. This posture not only has destroyed civil liberties as we know them in America, but has actually fueled the supposed “Chinese aggression” that politicians are worried about. Our very act of defining an other in an attempt to place blame leads to that other’s retaliation and produces a cycle of endless violence. But more importantly, governmental institutions that seek to shape and control human life by way of imposing order and structure are not only doomed to fail because of the inherent chaos in the universe, but are actually the roots of oppression and totalitarianism. In addition, this desire leads to the creation of utopian ideals which, when not met, leads one to question oneself and in turn, turn upon the self in hatred and confusion. The question of discourse, specifically in this case, discourse designed to “secure the populace”, must come first and foremost because without addressing this issue we are left to stray “as through an infinite nothing” (Nietzsche).
 

Works Cited

Campbell, David, and Michael Dillon. The Political subject of violence. Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1993. Print.

Camus, Albert. The myth of Sisyphus. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1975. Print.

Der Derian, James. “The Value of Security: Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, and Baudrillard.” On
Security. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 22-38. Print.

Dolman, Dr. Everett.”The Marshall Institute – Toward a U.S. Grand Strategy in Space.” The
Marshall Institute – Science for Better Public Policy. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Foucault, Michel. “Right of Death and Power Over Life.” The history of sexuality. New York:
Pantheon Books, 19781986.135-159. Print.

Fromkin, David. “Entangling Alliances | Foreign Affairs.” Foreign Affairs | Political and
Economic Insights | Articles, Interviews, Videos & Information.N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Gordon, Kerry . “The Impermanence Of Being: Toward A Psychology Of Uncertainty.” Journal
of Humanistic Psychology 43.2 (2003): 96-117. SAGE Journals.Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

“Hitler Quotes.” babson.us.N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2013.

LaFeminista. “Daily Kos: America Should Rule The World!.” Daily Kos :: News Community
Action.N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2013.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. “Idk the chapter.” On the genealogy of morals. Somewhere in
Germany: I don’t know, 1887. 89-90.
——– “Internet History Sourcebooks.” Parable of the Madman. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 May 2013.

Onion, The. “Everything Falling Apart, Reports Institute For Somehow Managing To
Hold It All Together | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.” The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

Pan, Chengxin. “The “China Threat” in American Self-Imagination: The Discursive Construction
of Other as Power Politics.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 29 (2004): 305-331.JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Reid, Julian. “The Biopolitics of the War on Terror: A Critique of the ‘Return of Imperialism’
Thesis in International Relations.” Third World Quarterly 26.2 (2005): 237-252. JSTOR.Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Seigfried, Hans. “Autonomy And Quantum Physics: Nietzsche, Heidegger, And Heisenberg.” Philosophy of Science 57.4 (1990): 619. Web.


[1] “War, war never changes.” – Ron Perlman (narrator for the Fallout series)
[2]The title of the book written by the Russian anarcho-communist, Peter Kropotkin, in 1912.
[3] Dang, I slipped in two song references from the rapper Immortal Technique.
[4] I’m assuming you know who he is but to keep the essence of a research paper I shall have a footnote: A famous Civil War General
[5]Left-wing blog roll/news source thing.
[6] A prime example of this is quantum mechanics and special relativity. These two supposed “truths” about the universe are wholly incompatible and many a scientist have spent their life trying to combine them but to no avail thus leading some to despair (forshadowing!).
[7] Refer back to section two with the quotation from Adolf Hitler.
[8] Be glad I’m not like William S. Burroughs writing his novels while “tripping” on LSD…talk about chaos.

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