Saturday, April 12, 2008

One Hundred Years of Hebetude
Senator McCain did not in fact endorse a hundred-year war in Iraq. He imagines a future in which we maintain a peaceful military presence in the country in the same way we have kept large forces in Germany and South Korea since World War II. Unfortunately, even on a favorable (and accurate) interpretation of his much-debated remarks, the strategy he endorses reflects a serious misunderstanding of history and Real Politik.

The forces we keep in Europe and Northeast Asia have generally been understood to be defensive in character since no one seriously believed that the U.S. had the power or the will to use them as a springboard for military expansion—the Pax Americana worked as well as it did not only because we were powerful but because our power had obvious limits. The soldiers in Germany and Korea were not the vanguard of a potential invasion. They were hunkered down. They had, and to some extent still have, the role of hostages, reassuring our allies that any attack on them would automatically be an attack on us. A couple of divisions in the Fulda Gap probably couldn’t hold back the Soviets, but their sacrifice could trigger a nuclear response and that represented a credible disincentive. Meanwhile, propaganda aside, the Russians and the Chinese were not threatened in their own spheres and everybody benefited from a situation in which boundaries were frozen in place—I note that the postwar period is the longest stretch of time in recorded history in which no army crossed the Rhine with evil intent. Unfortunately, none of these considerations apply to an endless American occupation of Iraq.

We’re not in Iraq to fend off the aggression of a neighboring nation. There is no Soviet Union or Red China staring at us across the ridgeline of the Zagros. The notion that large military formations armed with terror weapons are necessary to fend off terrorism is really quite peculiar when you think about it: it’s a little like employing cavalry against submarines. While our existing bases in the Persian Gulf might possibly be characterized as defensive in purpose, the enormous facilities we’re building in the Mesopotamian desert are obviously intended to support further interventions in Iran and Central Asia while securing privileged access to petroleum resources. I doubt if Iraq can ever be a safe place for American soldiers. Insurgencies wax and wane; and enough bombs and troops can keep a lid on things for months or years; but the inflammation is probably incurable so long as the foreign body remains lodged in the victim. But even if the people of Iraq could somehow be so browbeaten as to peacefully accept foreign domination, the rest of the region and the rest of the world would surely view the big bases as a perpetual provocation if not simply as a modern version of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Which is why McCain’s hundred-year plan is the dumb idea of a rather dumb man.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Practical Monadology
Perhaps because I’m doomed to be a philistine anyhow, I’ve embraced programmatic philistinism as a way of rethinking philosophical concepts. For example, I propose to consider human freedom, not as an edifying postulate that can only be defended by complicated transcendental maneuvers but as something that becomes merely obvious once you stop imagining that freedom is evidence of our celestial provenance. So far from evincing our kinship with the angels, human free will is an intensified version of the functional autonomy that goes along with being an animal.

I got to thinking about human freedom most recently while watching a cable show about a maximum-security prison. In one sequence, six or seven burly guards had to equip themselves in elaborate armor to safely subdue a not particularly large man. Even with all their gear, they had a terrific struggle on their hands. It simply happens to be the case that human beings are extremely hard to control by direct means, a fact which, like our descent from some sort of monkey, ought to be as clear to parents as to prison guards.

Except for the most extreme and uncharacteristic situations—high security prisons and locked insane asylum wards—people are ruled by rewards and punishments. Even when the rhetoric in play involves whips and hot pokers, people have to be persuaded by enticements and sanctions. No society could afford to manage the behavior of very many individuals with the physical methods used at Pelican Bay. Short of simply annihilating people, the worst tyrant in the world is obliged to address the purposes of his victims, though the purposes at issue may be mere survival or the avoidance of present pain. A forteriori, no one get useful work out of workers by main force.

You are out of luck if you’re looking for a magic kind of free will that is as uncaused as the decay of a neutron and yet intimately rooted in the personality of the willer. That kind of free will is a conceptual chimera, an Unding, useful only to inspire Sunday homilies or give the executioner a good conscience. Chasing such metaphysical dreams may distract us from noticing the zoological reality of garden-variety freedom or exploring its very significant implications. It matters very much that the individual components of human society interact primarily by final rather than efficient causation. We may not inhabit the kingdom of ends mandated by the ethical system of Immanuel Kant, but we aren’t pool balls on a pool table either and that’s simply a fact.