When War Loses Its Power, ‘We Must Have a New Concept of the State’

Jim Sleeper in Washington Monthly: Berkowitz’s must-read essay argues that the nature of war itself has changed enough that massive militaries are useless and that war itself is unwinnable by any “side.” His essay opens with Hannah Arendt’s prescient observation that since sovereign states have no “last resort” except war, then “if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.”

Roger Berkowitz essay in The American Interest ‘When The Hell That Is War Loses Its Power‘:

We live in an age of total war, a concept developed by the German writer Ernst Jünger. Total war is a rational war that makes use of all necessary means and fights without limit…total war is not the same as Clausewitz’s “absolute war,” an abstraction without ends. On the contrary, total war is horrifically rational and rooted in reality, not in abstraction…When the ideology of total war is combined with the nearly unthinkable technological instruments of violence, war is no longer conceivable…

Roger Berkowitz

THE prejudice that there must be a solution to the mess in the Middle East assumes that one even knows what the problem is that is to be solved. One side says the problem is terror. The other says the problem is occupation. The humanitarians say the problem is the killing of children. The internationalists say the problem is war crimes (either disproportionality on one side or using civilians as shields on the other). Somehow, “we”—whoever we are—must solve the problem.

Maybe the problem is that there is no realistic and meaningful and humane vision of a solution to what now must be seen for what it is: a tragedy without end. The long-dangled promise of a two-state solution is in shambles. The hope for a non-denominational multi-ethnic single state—a dream that Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Hannah Arendt thought possible in the 1940s—has been shattered by war, occupation, and mutual dehumanization; it is held together today only by the utopian ecstasies of well-meaning yet deluded idealists. In Israel, the occupied territories, and Palestine, the roadmap to peace has been shredded. What is left looks more and more like hell.

That the Middle East is turning into hell is the conclusion of Sari Nusseibeh, a philosopher and President for 20 years of al Quds University in East Jerusalem. Reflecting on the mess that is the war in Israel and Gaza, Nusseibeh mourns the friendships and hopes he as a Palestinian intellectual once shared with Israeli Jews. He also mourns the Israel that once was, a land of dreamers seeking to build a beautiful and just world. And he mourns the loss of hope for Palestinians and Israelis alike:

I cannot see an Israeli government now offering what a Palestinian government can now accept. I can therefore only foresee a worsening climate – not a one-time disaster (say, an avalanche following the killing of a Jew while performing a prayer in the Noble Sanctuary, on what Israelis call the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) that can once and for all be put behind, by whichever side, but an increasingly ugly living climate in which only those who can acclimatize and be ugly themselves can survive.

Nusseibeh has always been one of the most thoughtful of minds when it comes to the Middle East, for even when he sees Israelis as his enemies, which he does, he seeks to understand them. “My enemies, I told myself, had their story to tell.” Nusseibeh is one of those few today who still understands that enemies act rationally too. He has sought, through what he calls his “personal experiment,” to humanize his enemy. He has sadly concluded, however, that such efforts at humanization are coming to an end. He no longer sees the beauty and humanity in Israel:

But I had tried through my personal experiment, and succeeded, to see the “other side.” And doing that, I felt there was hope. A human space exists – I came to believe – in which their people and mine could still live our ideal dreams. A beautiful future can still surely be built for both of us. But now, I must say I can no longer see that “beautiful side” of the nation, however hard I try.

While he insists that there are still beautiful individuals in Israel—“Israel boasts so many of them – poets, writers, journalists, scholars, artists – and just ordinary people in ordinary jobs, trying to live their harmless lives”—Nusseibeh has largely abandoned his hope in the state of Israel.

[T]hat special luster of an idealistic nation to be admired has vanished. I can no longer see it anywhere. It has become replaced, in my mind – sorry to say – by what appears to have become a scientifically skilled colonialist group of self-serving thugs, bent on self-aggrandizement, capitalizing on world-guilt for past pains and horrors suffered, and now hiding behind a religious fiction to justify all the pain and suffering it does to my own people, our heritage and culture.

Image insert by despardes.com: ‘An 80-yr-old cartoon

In other words, hope is fleeting; it may even be gone. Nusseibeh knows that there is a conceivable solution, what he calls a “mathematical” solution. At the end of his essay he even spends a few lifeless paragraphs sketching out what it would take for such a solution to work. But this is a game and he knows, the obligatory offering of hope at the end of an essay that is required today in polite society. His heart is not in it. Rather, Nusseibeh believes that the entire project of the state of Israel as a religious state as helplessly corrupted. And with the corruption of what once was a wondrous dream comes the loss of the beautiful Palestinian dream as well:

Do I see Israel now as a failed project? Do I see a time when, like South Africa, it will disintegrate from within? I cannot say I can see that. But I can easily imagine it happening. I can easily see how whatever it is that is rotten and has embedded itself in the system will eventually wear it out of existence, replacing it by something else. Not by war, but by its own body-grown cells. This I can imagine, especially since I cannot easily imagine a reasonable two-state solution happening anymore, a solution that will spare Israel that sad future. Not because such a solution is mathematically impossible, but because it is has become politically unrealistic.

Amidst this failure, all that is left is war, occupation, terror, fear, pain and horrors. In short, Hell.

In simple words, even if called “holy,” I can foresee this place turning into a hell for all those who live in it. It will not be place for normal human beings who want to pursue normal lives, let alone a place where anyone can hope to fulfill a sublime life.

It is time to face the fact that there may very well be no realistic political solution to the problems in Israel/Palestine. Despite the unbelievable optimism of technocrats, in spite of modern man’s incredible hubris at his ability to fix any situation with technology, ingenuity, and reason, there are and have always been problems that exceed the grand schemes of human artifice. There are, as little as we like to admit it, times when unreason, distaste, and hatred emerge victorious over reason, love, and friendship.

In the absence of a political solution to problems, the usual recourse is to war, which as Clausewitz writes is the continuation of politics by other means. In a system of sovereign peoples, there are disagreements that simply will not be resolved by peaceful means. This has been the case forever and since time immemorial. The answer is war. At least it has been.

But the problem we have today is that war no longer works. War no longer serves as a stop-gap, a fail-safe, to resolve those problems that cannot be resolved politically. In an age of total war in which the distinction between civilian and soldier is meaningless, in an age of nuclear and chemical weapons, in an age of drone warriors, war—at least war amongst two powerful enemies—has lost its power to resolve disputes.

We live in an age of total war, a concept developed by the German writer Ernst Jünger. Total war is a rational war that makes use of all necessary means and fights without limit. Since civilians are necessary to produce munitions and farms are needed to feed the soldiers, total war erases the traditional distinctions that underlie the law of war. Civilians are willingly used as shields and children are seen as reinforcements. Since in total war, the decimation of an enemy is the only path to victory, the logic of total war, as Jünger understands it, is inherently escalatory. Nothing can be held back.  It should be noted, however, that total war is not the same as Clausewitz’s “absolute war,” an abstraction without ends. On the contrary, total war is horrifically rational and rooted in reality, not in abstraction.

When the ideology of total war is combined with the nearly unthinkable technological instruments of violence, war is no longer conceivable. War, as Hannah Arendt writes,

has become impossible owing to the monstrous development of the means of violence…. Between Sovereign states there can be no last resort except war; if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.

The tragedy that is the Middle East would, traditionally, have been solved by a war. One side would win, the other would lose. It is not predictable which side would prevail. The Israeli advantage in weapons of war would be met by the Palestinian advantage in unconventional warfare. But war would decide the issue once and for all and after its hellish baptism by blood, new lives would grow.

But war today is increasingly impossible, at least wars with clear victors and losers.  War is being replaced by police-actions, patrols, terrors, and assassinations that go on without end. It is nearly inconceivable that Israel and Palestine would fight a war to the end in which one side was defeated—imagine the unthinkable horrors that defeating either side would require. Victory is impossible, just as it was inconceivable during the cold war that the United States and the Soviet Union would fight World War III. From such a war, there would be little hope of any life remaining.

And thus we are left with the condition of eternal war without end and mini-wars that corrupt political and peaceful institutions. In a world in which war has lost its power to settle disputes, we have ongoing wars that mobilize societies. The war on terror is a permanent part of our always-mobilized societies. We are left, as Nusseibeh sees, with the hell of war as a relatively permanent part of everyday life. Nowhere is that possibility more visible than in the Middle East.

In such a world hope remains, but it will be found neither in war nor in a system of international law, which simply projects sovereign disagreements onto a higher plane. The hope is that some new arrangements and new ideas will emerge in which eternal disagreements can be resolved or at least contained. What these will be are unknown, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards them. But the first step is facing the true extent of the failure of our current system of sovereign states. Few accounts of the irresolvable problems facing Israel and Palestine are more humane and true than Sari Nusseibeh’s. His essay is well worth your read.