War as performance art


It’s settled then. A newly minted fighting organization in Iraq and Syria, rampaging through the region, butchering captives, and coldly beheading hostages on Youtube, has finally provoked the planet’s warrior powers into unleashing their might to destroy the thugs, and save the region from their opression. With bombs.

Bombing guerrilla fighters from the sky has a long, if ignoble, tradition . In Vietnam, the Vietcong dug foxholes a few feet deep and escaped the effects of carpet bombing by B-52's. They would emerge unscathed into the ravaged countryside, and continue to fight with rifles and knives.

In “Bomb everyone”, George Monbiot wonders at the absurdity of it all:

“Let’s bomb the Muslim world – all of it – to save the lives of its people. Surely this is the only consistent moral course?”

Moreover, bombing from the sky is as likely to succeed in destroying ISIS as it was against the Vietcong. So why do the great powers insist on this absurd practice?

The sensation that we are witnessing something that is absurd is instinctive and immediate. We see two people sheltering themselves under an umbrella on a perfectly sunny day, and immediately this shocks our rational sensitivity. What is wrong with these people? Can’t they see it’s not raining? Are they insane?

But this is only if we assume, unconsciously, that an umbrella only serves to protect from the rain. As soon as we realize, or someone tells us, that they are using the umbrella to protect themselves from the Sun, the sensation of absurdity disappears completely. We understand; rationality is restored.

Absurdity depends on a context that is implicitly, but wrongly, assumed.

So could the bombing of ISIS only seem absurd because we are making a wrong assumption?

The necessary assumption is that the purpose of the bombing is to destroy ISIS. And this is quite wrong. The purpose of the bombing is to seem to be acting to destroy ISIS. It is, quite simply, a performance.

Bombers take off and arrive at their destination in a matter of hours. They are loud, and sleek, and shiny. The power of the bombs is quite tangible. Their effects are photographed, and reproduced on TV, in newspapers and websites, and yes, on Youtube. Buildings are reduced to rubble. No humans appear to be hurt, since they are too far away to be seen. No torn limbs, no streams of blood. The power of our weapons can be safely seen without turning our stomachs, or our natural empathy for the suffering of other human beings. Our power is great, and noble, and abstract.

So we applaud with righteous satisfaction the hygienic dispensation of justice. And that, dear reader, is precisely the point. The bombing is a performance, for the benefit of you and me, and when we understand that, it is seen not to be absurd at all.

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