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The “Virtuous” War

James Der Derian | June 14, 2012
The Virtuous War

I wish to make the case that there has been a fundamental continuity to U.S. foreign and defence policy, stretching from the first George Bush to the second, with only minor deviations in the Clinton administration, and now the Obama administration, and that this continuity can be traced through the concept and practice of what I call “virtuous war.”

I believe definitions, more often than not, close down rather than open up the kind of debate that I hope will follow this online forum. So, rather than define this term, I wish to offer a provocation, presenting “virtuous war” only as a felicitous oxymoron that expresses a contemporary dilemma of world politics. What is the dilemma? In the process of making war virtuous, we, as a people and as individuals, have become less virtuous.

Getting to the heart of this dilemma requires a bit of deep thinking, which is why, in my research, I have leaned on a group of German thinkers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl von Clausewitz, and Walter Benjamin. Nietzsche said, “Only that which has no history can be defined.” So, rather than a definition, I intend to present a very short history of virtuous war, in all its shape-shifting forms.

Clausewitz, who did define war, rather famously, as a “continuation of politics by other means,” also cautioned against the arrogance of reducing war – which he presented as a historically contingent phenomenon befogged by complexity – to any single, fixed definition. Through Clausewitz, I wish to convey the unintended consequences of virtuous war.

The third thinker is Walter Benjamin, who, in an earlier interwar period, made the observation that, “history now decays into images, not stories.” So, I want to begin with a montage of virtuous war, which I hope will do a better job of capturing its historical, complex, and increasingly pixelated nature than any definition or linear story might. I intend to draw as much on images as words, to show, rather than tell, how virtuous war has become the driver of U.S. foreign and defence policy.

This embedded video is the product of almost two decades of research in search of what became the staging grounds for virtuous war – or, as I called it, with apologies to general-turned-president Dwight D. Eisenhower, the military-industrial-media-entertainment network, or MIME-NET.

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I hope this montage gives you some sense of the genesis, as well as the hubris, of virtuous war. I hope the short history conveys how its founders sought to project a technological and ethical superiority, in which computer simulation, media dissimulation, global surveillance, and networked violence would combine to deter, discipline, and, if need be, destroy the enemy. Up to and including the early stages of the Iraq War, virtuous war promoted a vision of bloodless, humanitarian, hygienic wars. I wanted to show how virtuous war predates and post-dates George W. Bush, and how the road to Afghanistan and Iraq, and back to Afghanistan, emerged from a series of armed humanitarian interventions in Grenada and Panama, Somalia and Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Virtuous war is the closest we moderns have to a deus ex machina swooping in from the skies to fix the dilemmas of world politics, virtually solving intractable political problems through technological means. However, these virtual solutions inevitably give rise to new political problems. We see these cycles renewed with every Predator drone that takes out the wrong target, and with every wrong door that gets broken down in pursuit of the “bad guys.” When war becomes the first, rather than the last, means to achieve security in the new global disorder, what one technologically can do begins to dominate what one legally, ethically, and pragmatically should do. Virtuous war thus presents a paradox: The more we resort to virtual means to resolve political problems, the more we undermine the very ground upon which our political virtues rest.

As long as the U.S. remains the dominant military power, with no real or potential peer competitors, virtuous war will prevail. But the story waiting to be told is the advent of a new heteropolarity, by which I mean the emergence of actors who are different in power and kind (state, corporate, group, individual) and connected nodally through networks rather than hierarchically through states. Sovereign states are still the most powerful actors, and one does not have to be, say, Chinese or a Somali pirate, to recognize that a single state, the U.S., is definitely more equal than the rest. However, from the power of the powerless that emerged from the Velvet Revolution, to the range of insurgencies that followed the global “war on terror,” to the hope and uncertainty of the Arab Spring, new globalized identities and asymmetries of power are re-inscribing the map of world politics. Now, our theories and concepts of war need to catch up.

Photo courtesy of Reuters