End of the State or State of the End?


Fifth Estate # 343, Fall-Winter, 1993

As of mid-November, Bosnia appears headed toward its second winter of war as attempts at a peace treaty failed to satisfy any of the competing factions. Systematic rape, torture, and a murderous policy of ethnic cleansing marked the break up of this once peaceful region.

What can those who desire the collapse of governmental authority and the disintegration of large coercive states into smaller autonomous regions make of these terrible events?

Many anti-statists originally looked approvingly on the break up of the multiethnic Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, but many of the mini-states which arose in their place are little more than sophisticated warlordism, encouraging racism and nationalism to further their political goals.

This is not “anarchy,” as it is often called by the corporate media, but war between states—Clauswitz’s diplomacy by other means. And, in this civil war-wracked region, armed diplomacy is influenced and manipulated from the outside by larger states such as Germany, Russia and the United States. Dismissing the tragedy of Bosnia as a Balkan quirk ignores the universal implications of the experience.

War is state-sponsored terrorism. The way to make one’s enemies submit or flee, short of liquidating the whole society, is to terrorize them. Force is the ultimate argument, and once it has been invoked, in author Gwynne Dyer’s words, “the only effective reply is superior force; the internal logic of war has frequently caused it to grow far bigger in scale than the issue in dispute would justify.”

Horrid Deeds/Human Faces

As the following quote from Dyer’s book, War, illustrates, the terror and killing of war has always been deliberate state policy:

“Modern soldiers do not behave any more ruthlessly than their ancestors. The residents of Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945 suffered no worse fate than the citizens of Babylon in 680 BC, when the city fell to Sennacherib of Assyria, who boasted: ‘I levelled the city and its houses from the foundations to the top. I destroyed them and consumed them with fire. I tore down and removed the outer and inner walls, the temples and the ziggurats built of brick, and dumped the rubble in the Arahtu canal. After I had destroyed Babylon, smashed its gods and massacred its population, I tore up its soil and threw it in the Euphrates so that it was carried by the river down to the sea.’

“It was a more labor-intensive method of destruction than nuclear weapons, but the effect (at least for an individual city) was about the same. There is no significant difference in what Sennacherib did to Babylon in 680 BC and what British Bomber Command and the United States Eighth Air Force did to Dresden in 1945. Sennacherib, being Assyrian, unquestionably took more pleasure in it, and the means of execution seem rather more exotic to us, but the ultimate consequences for the victims were identical.

“So was the moral basis for both acts. According to the conventional morality of every civilized society, it is justifiable and indeed praiseworthy to inflict death and suffering on the enemy when states are at war with each other. From time to time there have been quibbles about including noncombatants in the category of ‘enemy,’ but they are not to be taken seriously in a world of nuclear weapons. Most of the major cities of antiquity met a fate similar to Babylon’s when the fortunes of war left them exposed to their enemies. The difference between the destruction ancient military commanders wrought in war and what the commanders of today’s strategic nuclear forces could do in war is determined mainly by their respective technologies and resources, not by a different mentality.”

Dyer follows with a detailed explanation of why the tribal fighting that predates civilization is not just different in degree from what we know as war, but different in kind. His convincing thesis is that a pre-civilized human, when put in a situation of civilized war, would do the intelligent thing and leave immediately. War is not something in our “nature,” but rather a social construct of civilization that conditions people to remain in a situation where slaughter is occurring, knowing that their chances of dying in the next few minutes are excellent. Our capability for such behavior is what allowed civilization to occur in the first place, and may indeed prove to be a fatal flaw. The horrid deeds soldiers commit in war are necessary components of armed coercion, the foundation of civilization.

Still, horrid deeds have human faces. One prominently displayed in the Yugoslav war has been that of Borislav Herak, a Bosnian found guilty last Spring in Sarajevo of raping and murdering unlucky Muslims who came into the path of his Serbian military unit. Herak was a regular guy, a textile mill worker who fled Sarajevo one month after the siege began in order to join the Serbian irregulars in the hills. He is what the state produces when it conditions its people to accept terror as a way to further political goals. He is not so much a serial killer like Ted Bundy as he is an instrument of the state like William Calley, the platoon leader in Vietnam whose troops committed the My Lai massacre.

Obscure Wife Beaters

The process by which the human subject in a civilized world is objectified and turned inert creates a generalized rage. Some find perverse satisfaction in venting their rage on targets the state designates as legitimate prey. War is the catalyst. Once society sanctions killing in the fashion of civilized war, once soldiers are sent into that situation, a certain number will always become brigands. War allows people like Herak and Calley to realize their potential as perpetrators of massacre rather than living out their lives as obscure wife-beaters or the like.

The soldiers in the field know that terror is their job. The American grunts in Vietnam were fond of saying, “When you got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” Yet mass atrocities are so commonplace in civilization’s history that the perpetrators seem more mundane than monstrous. And who is more horrid, the enraged soldier on the ground shooting unarmed people in basements and ditches, or the coolly detached pilots in their temperature-controlled cockpits toggling switches that cause maiming and death on a far greater scale 5,000 feet below them?

Given enough social encouragement, suspension of consequences, and dehumanization of the enemy, anything is possible. Or, even desirable. According to a New York Times report, Herak said he had been “motivated by the urge to have things he never had before the war, including women and items like television sets and videos.” He added that his commanders encouraged the pillage, telling their troops that “raping Muslim women was good for raising a fighter’s morale.”

It wasn’t state policy for American soldiers to rape in Vietnam, but state-instilled racist hatred of the enemy makes the “stopping point” indistinct. At the Winter Soldier inquiry into American war crimes, held in Detroit in 1971, a marine sergeant testified, “When we went through the villages and searched people, the women would have all their clothes taken off and the men would use their penises to probe them to make sure they didn’t have anything hidden anywhere; and this was raping but it was done as searching…The main thing was that if an operation was covered by the press there were certain things we weren’t supposed to do, but if there was no press there, it was okay.”

Vietnam was more a bureaucratic war than an “ethnic cleansing;” despite the racism and the dehumanization of the enemy, the war was ostensibly to save “good” Vietnamese from “bad” Vietnamese, not to exterminate them all. Nevertheless, it was state policy to terrorize, drive out, and slaughter large numbers of people in countless horrible ways, making atrocities like those committed by Calley’s platoon inevitable. Thus, the U.S. imperial war machine managed to slaughter upwards of three million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. In Bosnia, with permanent removal of one’s enemies and settlement of their land the primary goal, systematic killing and rape as state policy is deliberate and explicit. Herak’s comments certainly enforce that perception.

Mass rape is an ancient manifestation of civilization’s wars. Women are used, in Robin Morgan’s phrase, as envelopes to carry the message of conquest from one group of men to another. Raped women are supposed to be a lingering reminder to their communities not to return to their ancestral lands; whether the state officially admits it or not, this too is diplomacy by other means.

Of course, the state will deny culpability in such atrocities, the way an intelligence agency will deny involvement if one of its operatives is caught. The brigandage of Serbian irregulars serves the interest of the Serbian politicians by doing the dirty work of ethnic cleansing by terror so that the “regular” forces will not be tainted by it.

A comparison can be made to the situation in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The Haganah was the “authorized” Jewish armed force, yet the “legitimate” Zionist leaders allowed the Irgun and Stern Gang irregulars a free hand in perpetrating atrocities that furthered the common goal of driving Palestinians out of territory they coveted. After the establishment of the state, Israeli politicians denounced these groups as being terrorists that were out of their control. With the war won and the desired territories conquered, these groups no longer served state interests. In fact, they were an impediment to the new rulers’ consolidation of power, so when they would not disband voluntarily, force was used to destroy them. The Serbian irregulars will also be broken up when their usefulness has ended.

Live a Life of Resistance

Those of us who desire the disintegration of state authority need to ponder what is occurring in places like the former Yugoslavia. Would it be any different in America? Would factional warlordism or mini-states occur here, as well? In any nation state, there are always political cliques around charismatic figures who arm themselves and mobilize in such chaos, thus, what we see in Somalia and Eastern Europe is not anarchy, which is an absence of archons (rulers) and hierarchies. These situations are just the opposite, battle zones of coercive despots and their henchmen, no matter what statist apologists say.

Yet can human beings conditioned by civilization imagine social organization that does not rely on bosses and thugs? What we call civilization is less than ten thousand years old, an eyeblink in planetary time, yet life without the authority of the state and even such recent human gadgetry as automobiles, air conditioning, and television seems inconceivable to many civilized inhabitants of the earth. How then does one caught up in such a world imagine another way?

According to the ecological concept of “biological irreversibility,” an ecosystem can become so degraded and undermined that nothing done to it or by it can make it recover. Even though Dyer argues that “[w]hat has been invented can be changed; war is not in our genes,” could it be that civilization has brought about a condition of social irreversibility? Just as our habitat may already be compromised by ecological decomposition, perhaps human beings too have become so mutated by the behavioral gamma rays of civilization that we are no longer collectively capable of bringing about communal and visionary social/political change.

As the crisis of civilization accelerates towards ecological collapse, changing its trajectory would require much more than tinkering. It would require a fundamental break with dominant ethics and practices. However, one need not have an unshakable belief that the tyranny of the state will sooner or later be overthrown in order to live a life of resistance. Many anti-authoritarians would agree the chances of world revolution in the next fifty years are remote, yet find this no reason to don a necktie and start selling insurance. We live as we do because we feel it to be an ethical and satisfying existence. We try to create as much community and mutual aid in our lives as we can; we want it now, regardless of what the future may hold.

Still, world events continue to bring me back to this very disturbing question: is it possible we’ve reached a point where the only thing keeping us from warlordism is now the mega-state itself—the hideous institution that is the result of that ancient authoritarian warlordism associated with the earliest unravellings of human community? Are we now trapped within a feedback loop running between total centralized power at one outer edge of possibility and vicious decentralized gangsterism and social implosion at the other? Or, can this pessimistic view still be countered by the uncertain, positive possibilities brought on by drastic social change, where unforeseen conditions arise that surprise everyone? Is what this newspaper calls anarchy humanly possible anymore?


See response in this issue, FE #343, Fall-Winter, 1993.