War is a Remix: Organized violence from blood sacrifice to cyberattacks
The democratization of information and publishing tools made available by the internet have demystified some of the more transcendent aspects of culture and creativity and revealed a pattern that some have suspected all along: the “new” is created on top of and out of the “old.” From this perspective, our (often justified) scorn for “copying” and “plagiarizing” blinds us to the empirical facts of cultural (re)production, and we underestimate the extent to which creativity recycles, repurposes, and remixes existing ideas. This is essentially the thesis of the 2015 documentary by Kirby Ferguson Everything is a Remix, a film whose logical implications go far beyond the debate over copyright and intellectual property to which it is most directly addressed. Part of why I enjoyed the film so much is that Ferguson offers our generation of peace scholars a fresh vocabulary to discuss what war historians have long understood: that the technologies and tactics of war build off of and copy from each other, creating long-standing traditions and sudden cultural shifts as they move from time to time and from place to place.
If we take the problem as beginning with a current war – for example, the US-led occupation of Iraq – we can see that it is composed of “parts”: policies, strategies, technologies, etc. that were largely developed in previous conflicts. For the US, the most obvious sources would be the only slightly earlier conflict in Afghanistan, as well as the previous war in Iraq, the so-called Gulf War of the 1990s. (Indeed, these are so similar that the idea of remix war seems almost too obvious to point out.) Following the thread further back, however, we could also consider the multitude of occupations and military interventions of the Cold War, many of which were in Latin America, which in hindsight seem to have served as a staging ground or rehearsal for the current conflicts in the Middle East. To understand the US in Latin America we could go back to the Spanish-American War of 1898, where the United States first established itself as an “expansionist” or imperial power – but with a twist: unlike the European model of direct imperialism, the US told themselves that they planned to only temporarily occupy Cuba and the Philippines, emphasizing economic and even ideological “guidance” for these territories, rather than pursuing purely political and geo-strategic or directly colonial policies. This was an important remix of earlier imperial ideas, which were, of course, remixes themselves – the British remixed the Dutch and Spanish models, the Modern Europeans remixed the Arab and Romans, who remixed the Greeks and Persians, etc., etc. How far back does this chain of aggressive cultural and territorial expansion go? What is kept the same and what changes with each new imperial project?
Going back to Iraq, we could take the other side as well: the “insurgents” and resisters of occupation. The genealogy of guerrilla warfare is no less worldly and ancient than that of their adversaries, traveling again through the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and North Africa, with new variations added to longstanding tactics of sabotage, subterfuge, and concentrated acts of violence. In general, the resistance fighters hope to leverage force and foment widespread hostility against what are typically technologically powerful, but how they do this is heavily influenced by the examples and references they have available to draw from.
As Jonathan P. Roth points out in his lecture series on the history of war, parties to violent conflict are not just learning from and responding to those who came before – but they are also, and most directly, learning from each other. This opens another channel for tactical and technological exchange to take place, this time between competing forces themselves, and seems to be where a lot of the actual “remixing” takes place. Using the typical examples of a revolution in military affairs, we can see how this makes sense. If someone begins dropping bombs from planes, for example, as the Italians did in East Africa, this will immediately cause counter-reactions – changes to troop formations, camouflage, etc., as well as the development of anti-aircraft weapons, and the adoption of similar techniques by all parties. Observing parties who aren’t even directly involved will also take note and make changes anticipating that the newly introduced tactics or technologies will become part of the “new” way that war is done. Something very similar is happening now with drones, cyberwar and other aspects of contemporary conflict, again, building on previous conflicts (the Cold War and WWII were essential for developing the technological infrastructure upon which these newer ideas are even possible) and stimulating the tactical and technological advances of warring factions of all shapes, sizes, and allegiances. Interestingly, the result of all of this exchange and interaction is a remarkable parallelism between warring parties. For all of their efforts to distinguish themselves as “good” and their opponents as “evil”, they are quick to adopt each others most violent ideas and technologies.
The other important boundary line challenged by this perspective is that between peace and war or between different wars. Ever since Hugo Grotius wrote On the Laws of War and Peace in 1625, we have thought of particular wars having definite beginning and ending points: those declared by law. So, for example, we can say that the Russo-Japanese war began on 8 February 1904 (with a Japanese surprise attack that led both sides to declare formal war) and ended on 5 September 1905 (with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth). In peace studies, however, we have long recognized that the causes and effects of war stretch beyond the formal start and end dates recorded in legal processes, with grievances and injustices often even further aggravated by the onset of so-called “peace”. These structural and cultural carriers of violence – if not properly addressed during the peace process – make further outbreaks of collective violence likely if not inevitable. This is established wisdom in military circles as well: Clausewitz’ famous (and often misinterpreted line) that “war is politics by other means” calls our attention to a similar phenomena; more classical still, Sun Tzu in the Art of War explains that war has its own momentum – those who win are emboldened to fight again, and those who lose wish to regroup and fight again in order to recover from their defeat as soon as possible. All of these insights lead in the same general direction: that war does not have a tidy ending, but is rather part of a long chain of human experience, remembered and reasserted – remixed – from generation to generation.
When we take the broadest possible view of human history, we may see that “what works” as a means of projecting violent force is carried along and developed in new contexts, while what doesn’t is shuffled away in the catalogue of possibilities, either to be forgotten, or perhaps to be remembered and remixed again at some later point when it may find new and unexpected usefulness. This might explain, for example, why outdated methods of medieval warfare continue to be depicted in new cultural products (films, books, animation) and kept alive by enthusiasts – who knows, they might come back. Here we can turn our attention to the artists, poets, and historians who keep such ideas alive and furnish would-be warriors with narratives of the nobility and necessity of war, and romantic imagery of violence.
One possibility, suggested by Barbara Ehrenreich in Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, is that the components of war are memes – self-replicating ideas that travel through history, perhaps in the cultural substrate of human societies, and are easily adaptable and applicable to new contexts. I find this view to be surprisingly optimistic, as many of the deeper emotions that Ehrenreich describes – heroism, loyalty, belonging, creativity, bravery, etc. – which are certainly part of the culture of war – have themselves been remixed from other, less-destructive aspects of human behaviour, most of which may have actually been necessary for our species’ survival. The heroic ideal of self-sacrifice, for example, Ehrenreich suggests may have been of dramatic importance in our early cultural formation, as we learned to put the interests of the group above the individual, and rewarded those who did with elevated social status or cultural relevance. Those who were chosen for self-sacrifice in the name of defending or advancing the interests of the group through violence were almost always young men or boys – often considered the most expendable members of society. The weight of accumulated culture reinforces these demands, telling young men throughout history that their most important contribution to society, their ultimate expression of love and affection for the group, is their willingness to kill and die for it if need be. This may have been a logical and necessary application of the core ideas of heroism, sacrifice, and belonging, but from twenty-first century perspective, they are in need of a new remix, emphasizing the positive and useful and de-emphasizing the unnecessary and self-destructive. This is all the more true when we consider how hollow the social celebration of self-sacrifice actually is, and how little real respect is offered to those who return from war. The promise of social status, it seems, is intended to manipulate the young and is fulfilled only in very rare circumstances.
Technology also crosses the boundary between what has been useful in war and what has been useful in society more generally, and an appreciation of these connections can similarly help us arrive at a much more nuanced and potentially redeeming view. The list of technologies developed initially for warfare would be far beyond the scope of this article – but would include fabrics and materials, engines and mechanics, communications and information processing, transport and logistics, medicine and health care, and much more – including nuclear technology. These advances, of course, were remixed from existing elements related to hunting and gathering, providing food and shelter and other basic needs of a group, attending to the sick, and developing our cultures and abilities generally. Again we have to confront the possibility that good and evil are inadequate guidelines for assessing contemporary or historic human activities – including war. We have to instead come to terms with the idea that basic elements – Ehrenreich’s memes – are fundamentally neutral, simple carriers of cultural ideas and solutions to problems that have been remixed in innumerable ways at different points in time and space.
The most pessimistic reading of this process may belong to Sigmund Freud whose correspondence with Albert Einstein Why War and subsequent work Civilization and its Discontents express the view that the chain of violent experiences leading to the technological and cultural “advancement” of civilization discussed so far is part of a larger historical process – humanities eventual realization of the capacity to fulfill an instinct towards collective suicide, the so-called death wish. Given that Freud developed this interpretation during WWI and its aftermath, it is understandable that he connected the heights of civilization with the worst savagery that humanity is capable of, having seen “civilized” Europe tear itself apart with the efficiency and scale offered by industrial society. The negative view would again appear in the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School, with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, for example, criticizing the triumphant liberalism that emerged, satisfied with its own civilizational accomplishments, and willfully blind to the violence and hypocrisy that it embodied. (Interestingly, cultural criticism is remixed as well, and this particular line can be traced back at least to the Jewish prophetic tradition.)
Personally, however, I find the negative view to be unsatisfying. Clearly human history is a catalogue of outrages and tragedies, but, as Elise Boulding has shown in Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History, this very same history is overwhelmingly peaceable, and full of creative potential to negotiate conflict and find contextually appropriate solutions. Perhaps we already have the necessary elements to remix more inclusive a lasting processes of peace and to remix the best impulses behind our warrior traditions into more healthful and truly heroic directions.
Ross Ryan is an Instructor and Programme Liaison at the University for Peace.