by Guy Walker
“Understand that this is not madness. It has something to do with conscience.” -Dr. Giberian, in Solaris (1972) moments before he kills himself
Americans love war. The story of America is a love story with war, a sinewed and shirtless landscape of promise. It’s a story of its endless infatuation of new frontiers of strewn bodies ripped from their limbs, armored vehicles charred into the ashen faces of hieroglyphic skeletons, little fires dotted haphazardly around the ruined countryside still billowing with black smoke. It doesn’t matter where these love stories take place—the more locations the better. In the jungles, the tendrilled ivies smother the limp bodies of good country boys, the orgiastic fecundity of life screaming with predatory insects and birds. In the deserts, the top half of a man in his light tan fatigues and shield style sunglasses drags himself across a parched eternity. In the foreign cities, the nightmarish urban chimera shimmers with the deafening chorus of explosions as if they were a good-spirited firework display.
The classic American love story is something it craves over and over again, with a quenchless appetite for conflict, for the virtues of heroism, bravery, freedom, these amorphous nameless ideas that are usually just used to justify any form of government sanctioned horror. All this is obvious. But where did the War Desire come from? Why are we enslaved to the impulses and instincts that only magnifies our inhumanness?
In 1950, Bertrand Russell gave his Nobel Prize speech on the four desires of political importance, in which he details the instincts of inextinguishable desire that separate us from the rest of the animal world. We are base creatures, wheezing our way through the filth of a biological maze, eating and sleeping and fucking our way through an embarrassingly ephemeral mortality. But since much of the developed world seems to have solved those base desires—too many days you find yourself eating a frozen pizza from your bare chest, with the blackout curtains pulled shut, nursing another excruciating hangover, swiping through the libidinal eternity on one of seven dating apps on your phone—it’s apparent we are cursed by other impulses that separate us from the frogs croaking at the edges of a rippling stream.
Russell notes that when a boa constrictor eats a meal and is satisfied, she goes to sleep, and is no longer consumed by the demands of hunger. But ours are infinite, never satisfied. Our curse is not the chronic condition of apathy, indifference, laziness, or procrastination, but the execration of conquest, the endless importunity for more. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel maps out the need of citizens who feel compelled to go to war, where we are confronted with a life and death charge of existing further, where the importance of recognition is the foundation of all other endeavors, including intellectual advancements that create the comforts of the modern age. We are under the influence that conquest will bring the betterment of our days, driven by the desire for more. The four desires that make up our political world, Russell declares, are Acquisitiveness, Rivalry, Vanity, and Love of Power.
To consider the American war machine through the lens of Russell’s four desires is to consider the decadence of our perversity, the hoary and grizzled beastliness that wants nothing more than to own the charred crumbs of earth over the next hill. Acquisitiveness is absurdity materialized into its spectacular emptiness. It’s the machine of capitalism dooming everything under its minatory storm cloud, possessing everyone into a trance of collecting things on top of more things, like rudimentary tinker toys representative of personal security. It’s why the sleaziest greased-up billionaires landing a helicopter on a hundred foot yacht aren’t satisfied with what they have, because someone is building a three hundred-foot yacht, and cladding themselves with a larger entourage of hotter girlfriends. And similarly why a homeless man hobbling through his seismic maze of blue tarps and tent poles and an emptied dumpster’s worth of old clothes and burrito wrappers still has to collect more, because more will ease his condition of imploding melancholy. But the truest political condition is the homeless man and the billionaire hand-in-hand on a magnified level of three hundred and thirty million people, creating another organism altogether. On a geopolitical level, Acquisitiveness is why after the formation of the thirteen colonies, the US continued to spread outward like a fungal scab, why it bought the territory of Louisiana from the French, why it invaded Mexico for what is now the American southwest, why it manufactured the idea of Manifest Destiny to justify the pillaging of native peoples, why it bought Alaska from Russia, and stole Hawaii as their own.
Rivalry seems more simple in a way. Russell states that Rivalry is a stronger desire than Acquisition, that we are intoxicated into a delirium of competition and conquest, that the barbarity is more palpable and evident in its execution.
The U.S.’s involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian War is a befouled sublimation of these four desires. There is a separate moral question as to whether and how the Americans should help Ukraine in their effort to defend themselves against Putin’s Russia. But because we can, we are easily compelled to engage in every gleeful convulsion of war that comes around, like a person who reliably invites themselves to every party and wedding and bacchanal. Of course Ukraine begged for help—the US has by far the most bloated military budget, and Russia is its most famous rival. The prelude of the apocalypse is always just around the next conflict. But the question as to why can we help—why do we consistently have the means to engage in every foreign conflict that beams our interest. It is a matter of the origins of desire. There is a cruel giddiness on part of the US to be in rivalry with Russia. Neither country got to truly flex their might during the Cold War, neither got to fire a missile that dominoed into a florescent circus of death. And it seems as if the litany of war generals suffered from an unrealized urological temptation, a dead-end in the cul-de-sac of a lover’s war. They got so close, and they tried with all their might to turn the world into a sprawling cathedral of rubble and charred earth. Russia and the United States are the two leading nuclear superpowers, but neither is yet bold or truly nihilistic enough to engage first, and so they fight through the proxy that Ukraine is. US intelligence sources have gloated to helping the Ukrainians kill Russian generals and sink Russian war ships, expecting that this halfhearted and indirect way of war is more acceptable. This approach, of killing a manufactured enemy for the sake of it, is Rivalry.
Russell continues on in his acceptance speech, noting how potent and intoxicating the desire of Vanity is in political thought. He likens it to a child who is always performing, always demanding his parents to “Look at me.” Look at me! Maybe it warrants an eye roll from time to time, but at least the “look at me!” of a child is the relatively innocent conceit of him or her trying to show the adult how capable they are of doing adult things like making their bed, or tying their shoes, or wiping their own bum. But as things usually do, it gets less palatable with age. The look at me! of a trophy wife plopped into the passenger seat of a sports car zooming around with the owner’s bald head shimmering and bobbing above the convertible doors is quantifiably more ostentatious, although presumably still not warranting any organized violence yet. We see these, and the opaque steam of regret billowing out from our heads like coal-choked smokestacks.
Vanity might at first seem unusual here to include. Maybe it’s just a little adolescent ego that hangs on to the tethers of old age. We all have some lingering symptoms of Narcissus, staring at ourselves in the bathroom mirror too long every single morning morning. But the “Look at me” of political desire isn’t the quaint innocence of Narcissus. Narcissus was a Boeotian pederastic myth of banal pedantry. To think of the Narcissus story now is to envy his sapient—although archaic—virtues. Because no one else was affected by his self-obsession but him. He was a Thespiaean hunter who merely rejected the romantic advances of others and stared into a pond his whole life. Once he died, a bunch of daffodils grew in his place. The Vanity we are cursed by is a ghoulish temptress crawling down the plank of self-consciousness on all fours, her mouth foaming with selfish delight, luring you into her black leather-stained dungeon. You are a slave. You can’t get away from her, her fangs are plunged into your throat, inscribing fate with parasitic dictation. “’Look at me’ is one of the most fundamental desires of the human heart,” Russell said. A child doing a summersault in the park is an acceptable, appropriately banal act of conceit. But when the world stage of geopolitics is grossly divided into good guys and bad guys, then the pretense of vanity on a global order compels the US to swoop in on a white horse, bloated like a false prophet, the venerating cameras of its own fabricated culture industry glistening the sky with spectacle. It wants to parade in slow motion, lit only by the low stems of an ancient candelabra, saving the dogs even if it has to kill the young men.
The US knows it hasn’t fought a good war—or at least one that will stand through the reputation of time and popularity—since the Second World War. In its war in Afghanistan, it exhausted itself over twenty years, spent $2 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and famously and flamboyantly achieved nothing in the end. The Taliban took the country back in two weeks in one of the most embarrassing big budget spectacles in recent history. The Iraq War already seems like an antiquated footnote of imperial despair, a militaristic death drive that was so disoriented with the senselessness of revenge, and its wild-eyed berserker rage, that it would have invaded the local park if it could have. The Gulf War was too short—a triumphant hammer of premature ejaculation that left the US unsatisfied and wanting more, alone in the desert amongst its brumous blankets of burning oil wells. The Korean War, the forgotten war, a dramaturgy of dementia, a completely stupid and pointless slaughter. This keeps going, but the bottle of wine I’m drinking is getting low, so I can’t sustain our military failures all night. But the logic goes, maybe the Russo-Ukrainian War will serve as a redemptive force, a conflict that we can get involved with that will edge the needle back a little in our direction. We can help the underdog, the country with a former comedian as its president.
Most of the major downtown streets in the US are unlivable ruins of depression, shellshocked corridors of queazy juxtaposition: with apogean sprawls of open casket human suffering on one bit of sidewalk, and a garish litany of graffiti-painted purple wings you can take your photo in front of as you give the peace sign on the next. You’re a cute eagle, feeding into an algorithmic demon world, floating somewhere between countless blocks of homelessness, zombies shuffling barefoot across shattered glass, and the pink florescent sprawl of a minimalist bar that serves twenty dollar simple cocktails. A nativity scene of modernity: dying families asking for your spare change, next to a linen bourgeoise army serving only expensive arugula enemas. But as Trotsky famously said, “foreign policy is an extension of home policy.” Of course none of even the basic social services provided in nearly every European country is available. If you slip up for a month or two—miss your rent because the interest on your student loans are crawling through the windows like predatory invaders, or you get your car booted because too many tickets have collected over the months because the No Parking signs are incoherent five-lined equations and there’s no reliable public transportation to get to your job that’s an hour-and-a-half away, or four miles, just across the city—you’re shoveled out onto the streets, left to rot amongst the undulating tremors of dreams turned to nightmares.
Whatever the case, it’s irrelevant to the war machine, because the military budget is a force of indiscriminate hunger, a bloated man-eating tumor that needs more bodies and more money every succeeding year. Both parties agree on this, year after year, it’s the only agreement they have across party lines. Let the people degrade further into ruin, but let us have a military that can kill with unbroken splendor. But still, the first three political desires of Acquisitiveness, Rivalry, and Vanity are not enough on their own to let a people openly suffer as the military reliably get their coffers resupplied with the most lustrous and bedazzled bombs.
Russell’s fourth desire is by far the most potent and powerful: The Love of Power. But in this example, Russell begins to falter. He makes some rather insipid distinctions between Vanity and Love of Power, stating that in Vanity, there is glory, which does not typically exist in the Love of Power. He claims that a boss will derive more satisfaction by denying his employee extra time off rather than approving it, and this proves the dangers of a Love of Power. I don’t fully agree. Or at least, this is a terrible example. Look at the behavior of children, boys mostly, when inspecting something as innocent as a row of ants. With an a priori compulsion for violence and power, unified as a single interwoven arabesque of cruelty, the children won’t just let the ants carry on their way. Either, they will build a wall as an impenetrable confusing obstruction, or they will do something more obvious, like burn the whole line of ants with a magnifying glass, commanding with the fiery bolts of Zeus blazing down on screaming villagers. The thing is, we don’t really grow out of this into adulthood—the Love of Power just transforms from playing God with helpless bugs, to flying predator drones over a real village in Yemen, and destroying it with hellfire missiles with an Xbox controller in a warehouse in Las Vegas. Our tools get better, but our targets usually remain without names or faces, as abstract as an anthill.
Deleuze and Guattari argue something similar in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, that of a “desiring unconscious”, a transcendental motive woven into the fabric of man, that comes before any knowledge or power or culture exists in any sort of relatable context. The deterritorialized flows of capitalism are in direct conjunction with the desiring machine of politics, a “plane of immanence” that has already dictated the fixations of its trajectory. You hear leftists regularly make calls to get money out of politics, as if they were two separate entities, as if politics has been slurried with the interests of too many wealthy people, and if we could only turn over Citizens United and maybe a few other similar rulings, we could reverse the trajectory of its contamination. Maybe to a degree. This is a notable aim. But money is politics. It’s an inseparable distillation of what that position of power is. In A Thousand Plateaus, the concept of the War Machine was in direct opposition to the State apparatus as a foreclosure of possibility, working in conjunction with nomadic people.
Of course, Putin fabricated false reasons for invading Ukraine. He previously claimed that Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO was the cause. This was a lie. Because, of course, the true reasons fall under the same four desires. The invasion of Ukraine has already led to incredible amounts of death and misery, the miasma of its hell billowing beyond its murky shores. But what is there to do about it? If we really feel bad for the Ukrainians, we can put their flag up in front of our house, or repost an article headline that we never actually read on social media, or donate to another war machine that will fill the pockets of someone else. The monster chews away at us, as we despair in helpless barracks.
The US is amidst a love story with war. Since its inception, the US has invaded Tripoli, Marquesas, Algiers, Cuba, Greece, the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, Fiji, Samoa, Colombia, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Japan, China, Haiti, Hawaii, Korea, Philippines, Panama, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Iran, Lebanon, Congo, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Brazil, Indonesia, and on and on. It never ends. They have around 600 military bases located oversees, unnumbered and unnamed black sites. Russia has fulfilled its similar share of invasions, stacking a totem of conquests the way frat boys stack pyramids of empty beers cans. Their involvement in Ukraine is just another drunken brutal mess.
The US should always condemn these types of invasions, and in some cases there is justification for helping militarily. But it has to begin by ending and reversing its own imperial legacy. In its darkened and smutty nightmares, the US dreams of what the world could look like: the star-spangled sky as a tapestry of blood-soaked ribbons, a finale of an everlasting sunset shining across the ruins of a pulverized city. A fourth of July marching band marching through smoldering streets littered with castaway limbs. Its foreign policy is now is domestic policy. It brought the war home. And we’re at home when we are at war.
3 thoughts on “That Taste for War”
Pointlessly admiring the problem is the epitome of dilettante behavior. Oh, so noble writer, glowing with pride in getting stuff published.
This is a blog
Vanity might at first seem unusual here to include. Maybe it’s just a little adolescent ego that hangs on to the tethers of old age. We all have some lingering symptoms of Narcissus, staring at ourselves in the bathroom mirror too long every single morning morning.
‘You’re a cute eagle, feeding into an algorithmic demon world, floating somewhere between countless blocks of homelessness, zombies shuffling barefoot across shattered glass, and the pink florescent sprawl of a minimalist bar that serves twenty dollar simple cocktails.’
Beautiful writing, thank you.