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Māter Dialectica

Māter Dialectica

First as elegy, then as abasement

In the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five, he tells a metanarrative regarding his "book about Dresden" and how it came to be; he begins, by way of explaining the book's dedication and the novel's subtitle, telling the story of visiting his friend from the service, Bernard O'Hare, and his wife, Mary, who seems not to like him, and our narrator is uncertain why until they begin talking about the war. They were babies, like the children they just tended to, she points out to him, but she also points out he won't write the book that way; Kurt and Bernard would be casted for by "Frank Sinatra and John Wayne", and not the babies they were. The novel is explicit in this point: children, and everyone is someone's child, do not belong in war, any war, anywhere. This is what is meant by being "anti-war".

Material and geopolitical conditions often require conflict to avoid or mitigate violent repression; you can't reason with a force that views you as subhuman or otherwise subordinated in the calculus of executing one's will. Killing in war is different therefore in the context of an existential threat; the ontological shock is prescribed when one must kill in order to secure peace, which is something the Soviet Union had to do in order to defeat the Nazis, while O'Hare's wife ponders the larger injustice that it came down to the blood of a generation to defeat an objective evil like European fascism of this period. The question isn't which is right, both are right, one took action and one laments action must be taken, it is whether or not the condition that require this shock, this questioning of one's worldview, no matter how logically it might follow even if you don't understand it, can ever be relieved. I'd argue the varying interests in World War II had differing answers; Robert Oppenheimer believed the existence of The Bomb as a concept, after its use, would reshape the world's thinking about war, that it could be ended by being terrified of what humanity became, this is just one example.

The Soviet Union took a similar tack in choosing to fight and win the war, but then trying to remain peaceful in the post-war era even as the United States agitated conflict in, among other places, the Korean peninsula; they didn't sacrifice its boys and young men to defeat the Nazis to have to fight their ostensible ally on its own doorstep because of bad faith concerns about anti-communism, it was done because that's what the defeat of evil required of them– the only action to be taken is the one that seems the most counterintuitive if your goal is to end all war. Vonnegut and O'Hare, put into the same position, were also let with a buffer to the immediacy, in a philosophical sense: in Dresden, they're confronted by violence of a kind that is uniquely human, in a conflict rife with some of the world's most blatantly inhuman violations, but they're kids, far from home, and in very real way, this is a philosophical exercise--the decision to fight a war on behalf of an oppressed people, in this case, those oppressed by fascism- rather than a socially existential one; the United States did not win the war for the Allies, and had they lost, the consequences for it would have been substantially different, perhaps as extreme, than for that of the USSR. You win a Great War, as the Soviets saw it, against the greatest evil, and you don't expect to be castigated for it, turned into the villain for the next one, by virtue of places liberated wanting to emulate its liberators' while the west was merely content to take credit.

As philosophy, Vonnegut holds the ideal position as not unobtainable, but neither naive about its improbability; sure, they shouldn't have had to fight the war, but they did, and it was tragic in a lot of ways, for all involved, so the best you can do is hope telling the story, having made the sacrifice, has some import for the future, that you won't make needless war. What is, indeed, irrational, is how history has bore out since, unfortunately. Those who send children to war want it this way, that much is obvious from the conflict at the core of this discussion; the Korean War was an example of this– war for its own sake, exacerbating an artificial civil war between North and South, one that would've ended organically in reunification, likely closer to the North's model of governance, and because of this, the Power Elite of the United States could not tolerate this.

Of the power elite, in the text of the same name, C. Wright Mills wrote:

“Once war was considered the business of soldiers, international relations the concern of diplomats. But now that war has become seemingly total and seemingly permanent, the free sport of kings has become the forced and internecine business of people, and diplomatic codes of honor between nations have collapsed. Peace in no longer serious; only war is serious. Every man and every nation is either friend or foe, and the idea of enmity becomes mechanical, massive, and without genuine passion. When virtually all negotiation aimed at peaceful agreement is likely to be seen as 'appeasement,' if not treason, the active role of the diplomat becomes meaningless; for diplomacy becomes merely a prelude to war an interlude between wars, and in such a context the diplomat is replaced by the warlord.”

If our system, from the early 20th century on was demonstrably defined by a march toward corporatist autocracy, war became the quickest way to hold the state to task for the purposes of corporatism. It became a matter of making conflict less than human, more than merely commodity, just data, ledger lines, the human cost is abstract, they've sold you merch for the goodies or the baddies (and this is important; consider that despite winning the war for the Allies, even before it was over, the USSR was villainized as on the same side, that is oppositely interested from the US, as the ontological evil it freed Europe from), no criticality. The immediate post-war shift, my point being, is that Vonnegut and Mary's shared understanding about the nature of tragedy, becomes obsolete, at least as far as the logic of an American state that cares about peace (distinct from being antiwar, only if the state engages in combat to end that which is not reasonable, which of course, this has not been since– to read Mills correctly, one must understand the US became the unreasonable imperialist hegemon) is concerned.

That is tragedy. Worse, still; this benefits no one, it's hegemony for hegemony's sake, for capital's sake, a bet against tomorrow's humanity. The grotesque nature of this shift in the superstructure/the elite view of conflict is that it presumes good faith on the part of the public, and sure, for the most part, it is good faith; you can't argue that, for example, circa the Iraq War, that American troops didn't have at least some idea that they were not fighting for anyone's freedom, but for at least a few of those who did enlist a sense of fighting on behalf of a struggle they perhaps did not have the total picture of, but did, however misguided, have misplaced faith in their leaders to direct them, and therefore a sense of something just about fighting another (hypothetical) man's war.

In The Republic, Socrates questions the basis of the "luxurious city" as one that provides for its citizens in a materially significant way, but that this comes at the expense of its neighbors, and the main vehicle for exploitation usually includes war; the flip side of the psychology of the modern soldier not totally clued into the class interests of the elite for sending children and young men to die is that one must confront that the just war must always be a sacrifice, and that the history of the developed world making war on the underdeveloped world has never been about sacrifice but exploitation. This luxurious society “be[ing] driven to make war on its neighbours to feed its excessive appetites”. In many ways the United States is not Rome, it's Athens, and it bears repeating that The Republic was written in the downfall of Athens; it can be read as a postmortem, a reformer's manifesto of the luxurious city that consumed itself into collapse, that this collapse was the only way to satiate the insatiable, atop the good intentions of its citizens living under a false metaphysics imposed by a corrupted leadership. It is concluded, "the fully just city must be prepared to fight wars, partly to defend itself, and partly to vindicate and spread justice"– essentially the just position in a just society is to fight when given no other recourse to end conflict (or oppression, or injustice) as conceptually, materially significant.

This bring us back to Mary and Vonnegut; Vonnegut, perhaps speaking to the less than virtuous reasons and methodologies of the Americans in the war, doesn't defend his role in it as defense, vindicating of or spreading justice, he doesn't even characterize the American war in Europe as particularly helpful in the scheme of things, vows to devote the work to the children– symbolic of the ultimate desire of a conflict to end all conflict, the virtue in fighting another man's war, all being Platonic in this sense, to the benefit of a peaceful world for one to mature in. This is not the world of conflict we live in today; this is no longer the calculus one enters into when they fight a war in the modern era on behalf of hegemony, that which must be resisted, but remains no less an indictment of conflict as a means to justice, something postmodernist ideals of antiwar thought in western liberal democracy would have you believe is binary, rejecting the Platonic significance of conflict in just, contradiction in dialectics, thereby attacking the root of all critical thought.

In The Republic, it is written, “Excess of liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”– per Mills, this is the foundation of the corrupt state of affairs of a hyper-empowered elite; this is the ideological foundation of hegemony, that our liberty, without bounds, must be preserved even at the cost of endless exploitation of others. That is, again, tragedy, for all but the elite; this is who wants you disempowered, thinking flatly about the role of conflict in the pursuit of justice, to see factors only one way, as a tool for good or evil, whose use is either good or evil, compliant with the mass culture or therefore in favor of its destruction, and after long, not even reform is tolerated. Surely this does not strike one as familiar.