Thursday, July 20, 2006

 

Corpse Metrics

In the 1990s I closely followed the unfolding Irish peace process. This was and is a confusing, complex issue laden with all sorts of political and historical and cultural contradictions. And the process itself was and is perpetually on the verge of collapse. At various points it actually did collapse, only to rise again and stagger on.

It's easy to get lost in all the arguments and counterarguments when you're trying to make sense of this kind of a messy situation, where even the most apparently sincere actors clearly have more than one motive and are obviously responsive to more than one set of imperatives and one class of audiences. But of course the fact that some political issue is difficult is no excuse for ignoring it, or for refusing to pass judgment on the grounds that it might damage your own standing, whatever that is; that is of course the dishonorable way out, tempting as it may be to keep silent, or to just ignore it altogether. I have this crazy idea that reasonable people need to develop a reasonable language with which we can describe these seemingly unreasonable conflicts, in the hopes of perhaps maybe one day solving them. Eh.

I mean, there is a powerful censorship effect that is exerted by all such struggles, like the Troubles, and also of course Israel/Palestine. This censorship effect is not just negative, producing silence, although that is of course quite powerful. Whatever you say, say nothing, as Heaney diagnoses it. But even more important: all knotty conflicts produce their own jargon, their own set of cliches and expressions, their own more or less irreducible linguistic chunks of ossified ideology. "Israel has the right to defend itself"; "the Zionist entity." This is an insidious kind of productive censorship, one that defines the conflict in language that does not explain anything but protects the speaker from having to, well, run the risk of encountering an uncomfortable explanation. Heaney again:
As to the jottings and analyses
Of politicians and newspapermen
Who've scribbled down the long campaign from gas
And protest to gelignite and Sten,

Who proved upon their pulses 'escalate',
'Backlash' and 'crack down', 'the provisional wing',
'Polarization' and 'long-standing hate'.
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours
On the high wires of first wireless reports,
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:

'Oh, it's disgraceful, surely, I agree.'
'Where's it going to end?' 'It's getting worse.'
'They're murderers.' 'Internment, understandably ...'
The 'voice of sanity' is getting hoarse.
It occurred to me at some point as I was watching the events in Northern Ireland that part of the confusion I felt was confusion over what I really wanted to see happen. What would be the best outcome?

I think the kind of censorship I'm describing obscures a simple answer to this question.

It is my opinion that the only reasonable metric that can be used to figure out the best way forward in these situations is to count corpses. The best approach is the one that produces the fewest dead people. This approach would be the one that performs the magical feat of transforming an actual armed conflict to one that is essentially symbolic, where saving face is a matter of diplomacy and not of missiles or special forces.

To put this another way, a difficult conflict, like the one in Northern Ireland, or in the Middle East, can really only be achieved when the true goal is shifted from that of victory to that of peace.

Sounds banal, I know. But I don't think this argument is widely understood, let alone accepted. Certainly not by this administration.

Fewest corpses wins. How about that as a foreign policy objective?

Comments:
To put this another way, a difficult conflict, like the one in Northern Ireland, or in the Middle East, can really only be achieved when the true goal is shifted from that of victory to that of peace.

Peace is for pussies. If you can't cockslap the other side then there's no point.
 
can really only be achieved when the true goal is shifted from that of victory to that of peace.

Took the micks 800 years. Think the middle east has that long?
 
Was thinking about this today when Tony Snow said no one had ever successfully negotiated with a terrorist group....
 
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