Ehrenreich on war

I guess I have gotten used to how bad the Nation magazine has become, but every once in a while I run into something so rancid that I have to pause and catch my breath. This was the case with a review by DSA leader Barbara Ehrenreich of 3 books on war. This review was accompanied by a review by Susan Faludi of Ehrenreich's new book on war titled "Blood Rites". All this prose is dedicated to the proposition that large-scale killing has been around as long as homo sapiens has been around and that it has nothing much to do with economic motives. Looking for an explanation why George Bush made war on Iraq? It wasn't over oil, "democratic socialist" Ehrenreich would argue. It was instead related to the fact that we were once "preyed upon by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator...but that of a creature which has learned only 'recently,' in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night."

In a rather silly exercise in cultural criticism, Ehrenreich speculates that the popularity of those nature shows depicting one animal attacking and eating another are proof of the predatory disposition we brutish human beings share. I myself have a different interpretation for what its worth. I believe that PBS sponsors all this stuff because of the rampant oil company sponsorship that transmits coded Social Darwinist ideology. Just as the leopard is meant to eat the antelope, so is Shell Oil meant to kill Nigerians who stand in the way of progress.

One of the books that Ehrenreich reviews is "War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage" by Lawrence Keeley. Keeley argues that material scarcity does not explain warfare among Stone Age people. It is instead something in our "shared psychology" that attracts us to war. Keeley finds brutish behavior everywhere and at all times, including among the American Indian. If the number of casualties produced by wars among the Plains Indians was proportional to the population of European nations during the World Wars, then the casualty rates would have been more like 2 billion rather than the tens of millions that obtained. Ehrenreich swoons over Keeley's book that was published in 1996 to what seems like "insufficient acclaim".

I suspect that Keeley's book functions ideologically like some of the recent scholarship that attempts to show that Incas, Aztecs and Spaniards were all equally bad. They all had kingdoms. They all had slaves. They all despoiled the environment. Ad nauseum. It is always a specious practice to project into precapitalist societies the sort of dynamic that occurs under capitalism. For one thing, it is almost impossible to understand these societies without violating some sort of Heisenberg law of anthropology. The historiography of the North American and Latin American Indian societies is mediated by the interaction of the invading society with the invaded. The "view" is rarely impartial. Capitalism began to influence and overturn precapitalist class relations hundreds of years ago, so a laboratory presentation of what Aztec society looked like prior to the Conquistadores is impossible. Furthermore, it is regrettable that Ehrenreich herself is seduced by this methodology since she doesn't even question Keeley's claims about the Plains Indian wars. When did these wars occur? Obviously long after the railroads and buffalo hunters had become a fact of North American life.

The reason all this stuff seems so poisonous is that it makes a political statement that war can not be eliminated through the introduction of socialism or political action. For Ehrenreich, opposing war is a psychological project rather than a political project:

"Any anti-war movement that targets only the human agents of war -- a warrior elite or, on our own time, the chieftains of the 'military-industrial complex' - risks mimicking those it seeks to overcome ... So it is a giant step from hating the warriors to hating the war, and an even greater step to deciding that the 'enemy' is the abstract institution of war, which maintains its grip on us even in the interludes we know as peace."

Really? The abstract institution of war maintains its grip on "us"? Who exactly is this "us"? Is it the average working person who struggles to make ends meet? Do they sit at home at night like great cats fantasizing about biting the throats out of Rwandans or Zaireans in order to feast on their innards? The NY Times has been reporting more and more concern among Clinton administration officials about Kabila's drive toward the overthrow of Mobutu, our erstwhile puppet. It is not out of the question that Clinton and his European allies would put together an expeditionary force to protect "democracy" in Africa. Who would be responsible for this war? The ruling class or the poor foot soldiers who get drummed into action?

Louis Proyect