What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Of casualty-aversion and heroic professionals

I always enjoy reading Pat Porter's essays over at Kings of War, and I've just begun catching up on what I've missed over the previous weeks. Reading this piece with Porter's critical remarks about ideas of the supposedly post-heroic society we live in, I had some ideas myself, some of which I'll note down here.
(Of course you didn't ask for this, but that's what you can read here, anyway.)
Of casualty-aversion
Casualty-aversion is an extremely under-conceptualised notion. The oft-heard statement that people in democracies (sometimes simply "people in the West" instead) do not want casualties is not even a concept. It's a random hypothesis without a theory of causation.
Do Western people or people in democracies prefer to die out of casualty-aversion if they are directly attacked, instead of trying to defend themselves? Or are they not THAT casualty-averse? So then casualty-aversion is restricted to not willing to die or see other people die for a reason one doesn't accept as rational? But isn't that something typical of people in general, something not restricted to people in either democracies or the West?
The phenomenon of casualty-aversion is, in reality, the result of the interplay of a multi-actor interaction involving political elites, the media, opinion leaders, experts, the average citizen and a lot of others still. And this interaction is affected by all sorts of variables, including, among others, regime type. Work needs to be done to define casualty-aversion a bit more clearly.
Of heroism
Having red the other essay by Christopher Coker, which one can find in the comment threads below Pat Porter's post, I thought of how the way the notion of what makes one a "hero" has evolved over time is more complex than what is suggested there. It is not simply that instead of exceptionally daring warriors we nowadays call only victims, who have endured extraordinary hardship, heroes. That's what the example, put forward by Coker, about Audie Murphy vs. Jessica Lynch, might suggest. But that example is misleading: just because we don't fool ourselves into thinking that Audie Murphy's world-war kill score included only such enemy soldiers who had fought in the devil's service as genuinely evil thugs themselves, it doesn't mean one cannot become a hero by courageous decisions today. It doesn't mean one can only become a hero the way Jessica Lynch has become one.
But being a hero has become more ordinary in some ways. It's a title that is sort of democratically more available nowadays.
I'll outline what I mean by that, specifically based on my experience about the discourse in the Hungarian media (which of course ought not necessarily be very different from others' experiences elsewhere).
Hungary is a relatively small country. If something happens to a Hungarian, it makes it into the news on the national TV channels. When a road accident occurs, they will use the word "tragedy" to describe it in the news. And sure it IS a tragedy for the people involved. But most viewers will go on about their daily lives forgetting the news of the accident in a minute. It is barely enough to keep the average viewer in front of the TV screen, providing the critical dose of blood and twisted metal (or the mere mention of the latter, when no footage is available). So hearing about a "tragedy" in public discourse is not such a big deal.
Similarly, when a Hungarian soldier dies abroad in a foreign mission, like the one in Afghanistan, everyone involved in the mainstream discourse - journalists, expert commenters, anyone - will say that the soldier died a hero's death. Whatever killed him or her. Even though the audience is not really particularly interested, one feels. Public interest is certainly not reflected by frequent spontaneous commemorations for the country's fallen soldiers. Talking about heroism in these instances is more like ISAF's practice of lowering national flags at the major bases to half-mast when a soldier dies somewhere. It's automatic. It's regulated routine.
This all is partly the consequence of liberal thinking which doesn't really tolerate designating only some accidents tragic, instead of seeing all of them as tragic, by rule. And, similarly, liberal thinking doesn't tolerate designating only some soldiers' sacrifice heroic. Since everybody has an equal right to life, those people, who join the military profession where the job description includes potentially ending up in harm's way (or any other such profession), they are heroes by their decision to serve.
This altered, widened, more inclusive notion of being a hero, employed in the mainstream discourse, is an interesting and incoherent hybrid of individualism (a tenet of liberalism) and biopolitical thinking (the fetishisation of living, the preference of the longest possible life for the greatest number of people), both of them characteristic of contemporary electoral democracies in the West.
The two systems of thought are not necessarily in a clash.
For one example, biopolitical arguments are traditionally useful for democratic liberalism against authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes usually don't sacrifice one for the many on truely rational grounds. They do this at times out of negligence. They are also arbitrary. They are purely malevolent at other times. They generally prefer regime interests (the interests of the few) over those of the population (the latter's common interests, i.e. the public interest).
Calling every accident a tragedy is another example of the possible harmony between individualism and biopolitical thinking. In accidents, noone's death is more regrettable than others' (hence it deserves being called a tragedy in every individuals' case). In accidents, noone's death is less regrettable than others' (hence it is bad from the point of view of the common good, as biopolitical thinking conceptualises the latter).
But there can easily occur a clash between individualism and biopolitics. Such is the case of heroism. An "old school" hero may save a thousand lives upon sacrificing his own. Why liberal individualism is uneasy about this, is because it is not ready to easily tolerate the idea that one's life may be worth less than that of others,' under any kind of circumstances. It cannot tolerate that the taking of a life be claimed to be valuable by rule in certain situations, justified by the prevention of the potential loss of others' lives. The fear is that someone, claiming to act in the name of the common good, may make us a hero without consulting us, depriving us of the actual choice of heroism. Another fear is that heroism, if it becomes the norm, may turn into oppression by consensus, a tyranny of the majority - should it become strong enough to influence the individual's will to survive.
Biopolitical thinking is therefore compromised, but in this way, liberal individualism may actually esteem heroism even more. In its view, it is not your duty to become a hero. You may decide truely on your own if you want to become one. Enroll as a soldier out of your own will. By that decision you exclude yourself from the protection of the rule that everyone ought to be provided with an opportunity structure that offers an acceptable probability of survival (within an acceptable interval). If you do that, you are already extraordinary. You are a hero.
This is not at all to say that there will never be heroes in an old school sense in democracies any more. Sometimes, when instances of such heroism occur, and the biopolitical preference of saving more lives does prevail through an individual's own choice, it may come to be widely accepted as legitimate and esteemable. It's the nature of a democracy that in these instances, when someone acts taking risks for others, the proper way to judge this, based on the clashing imperatives of individualism and biopolitical thinking, will be intersubjectively negotiated. It will be continuously and dynamically negotiated in a debate that is more or less open to the "public," i.e. those with an opinion, in a discourse meeting a certain minimal, democratic standard.
Old school heroes may be praised for their deeds just like they used to be. It's the amount of attention their sacrifice gets that will distinguish them, not merely the nominal title of "hero" - in the mainstream of public discourse, being a hero is nowadays the default option if one is a soldier.
Of course not only mainstream views are voiced in the public discourse. So the official designation of the soldier as a hero, even when echoed in unison by the mainstream media and expert commenters, does not mean that other people may not debate the heroism of what, say, a soldier had done. Some people may just shrug, and opine that soldiers can only blame themselves and their own bad choice for ending up in harm's way, instead of just having fun back home. And so on. In a democratic discourse there isn't only one view of heroism.

1 comment:

Guy said...

Absolutely superb post and a more than worthy addition to the stuff at KoW.