Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Cannon fodder

Asura by Anand Neelakantan is a novel based on the Ramayana from Ravana's point of view. In it, Ravana has an illegitimate son called Athikaya who he dislikes and with whom he has a testy relationship. But Athikaya strikes up a good friendship with Ravana's favourite son, Meghnada (also called Indrajit). Athikaya had been brought up by a poor man called Bhadra who turns up off and on in Ravana's life. In the final war with Rama's army, both Meghanada and Athikaya are killed by Lakshmana through deceit.

The war dead were placed on chariots and were drawn through the street towards the palace. Ravana sat tearfully with Meghanada's head on his lap. Everybody was crying for Prince Meghanada. Bhadra thought, 'My son is dead and these people were turning this into a spectacle.' He couldn't spot his adopted son's body anywhere. He finally saw the palace gates closing and two pyres being prepared one having Meghanada and the other having the unmistakable bulk of Athikaya.

He managed to push his way into the palace and begged Ravana to give him his son's body. Ravana refused but his wife Mandodari made him relent and  finally he snapped at Bhadra, 'Take him. Had he not been my Meghanada's friend, not even a dog would have cared about his death.' Hearing this, Bhadra thought:
Yes,I know, my king, not even a dog cares for the death of young men like my son, who died for you.The round medals you give away, the petty jobs you offer to the kin of those who die for you, the paltry compensations which you throw from your brimming coffers, are nothing but bones, to entice more dogs to die for you. Let me take my little dog from you. He has served his purpose. You showed young men how glorious it was to die for such abstract causes as the motherland and racial pride. You honoured him, and fooled the public, in arranging such a big procession for the dead. Everyone is happy that our country has not forgotten the young who laid down lives for their motherland. Everyone who has been a martyr will be remembered - until the next meal.  Great show, my king. Now more young men will come to die, enticed by your bones, two minutes of glory and a stone memorial by the street corner which real dogs will piss on. My son has served your purpose, now let me take him to his mother.  
I did not say any of this. If I had had the courage, then many like me would have had the courage to echo it, and there would not have been any Ravanas and Ramas left.
I get a similar feeling when I see live telecasts of honouring military causalities or of impassioned pleas for building war memorials. This obsession with war matters (present mainly in the educated middle classes) seems to have grown in recent years. You will sometimes hear concerns being expressed about the budget deficit, how costs should be 'rationalised', better targeting of subsidies, reduction of the budgets for various departments etc.

What you can be quite sure of is that the expenditure on defense will not be reduced. On the contrary, whatever increase is there will be deemed unsatisfactory.  Imagine the defense budget being reduced - there will be howls of protest. Sacrilege! Anti-national! How can you ask the defenders of the nation to make monetary sacrifices? As Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds, one has to be ‘skeptical of state-sponsored anxieties about national security , especially when this concept of security is invoked to demand sacrifices from social sectors least able to make them’. He writes in another essay in the same book:
The ranks of the army and the police in all countries come from the relatively poor, powerless or low status sectors of society. Almost invariably, imperfect societies arrive at a system under which the lower rungs of the army and police are some of the few channels of mobility open to the plebians. That is, the prize of a better life is dangled before the deprived socio-economic groups to encourage them to willingly socialize themselves into a violent, empty lifestyle. In the process, a machine of oppression is built; it not only has its open targets but also its dehumanized cogs. These cogs only seemingly opt for what Herbert Marcuse calls 'voluntary servitude': mostly they have no escape.
He says that in America, in the case of the Vietnam war, the highly placed were able to dodge the draft thus ensuring that the men who went to fight were the socially underprivileged, people who were already being abused by the system. Many of them developed a pathological over-concern with avenging the suffering of their colleagues by stereotyping the Vietnamese or by becoming aggressive nationalists. So the war was effectively 'a story of one set of victims setting upon another, on behalf of a reified, impersonal system of violence'. In an analysis of the Gulf war of 1991, George Lakoff writes:
When President Bush argues that going to war would "serve our vital national interests", he is using a metaphor that hides exactly whose interests would be served and whose would not. For example, poor people, especially blacks, are represented in the military in disproportionately large numbers, and in a war the lower classes and those ethnic groups will suffer proportionally more casualties and have their lives disrupted more. Thus war is less in the interest of ethnic minorities and the lower classes than the white upper classes.
Also hidden are the interests of the military itself. It is against the military's interest to have its budget cut, or to diminish its own influence in any way. War justifies the military's importance and its budgetary needs. 
Those most wedded to folk theories of a strong nation-state seem to be the most insecure and keep seeing conspiracies everywhere. The JNU incident illustrates this condition: some people shouted anti-India slogans and one was given the impression that something serious had happened that threatened the country's peace and security. These people have their counterparts in Pakistan as shown by the arrest in Pakistan of a person who had hoisted an Indian flag because he was a fan of Kohli. As Ashis Nandy said in another context in Bonfire of Creeds, it is like 'the manner in which village lunatics are pursued by stone throwing teenagers while greater lunatics are allowed to become national leaders or war heroes'.

The US is not the epitome of virtue in all spheres but it showed more maturity in handling the case of a footballer when he chose to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,”  He said that he will continue his protest until there is “significant change”. Obama observed that the footballer “cares about some real, legitimate issues”

“Sometimes [protest is] messy and controversial and it gets people angry and frustrated,” Obama said. “But I’d rather have young people that are engaged with the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people that are just sitting on the sidelines and not paying attention at all.” Prof. Apoorv Anand makes a similar point in the beginning of this talk in Hindi.

PS: Not all army officers are obsessed with the idea of a strong nation-state as shown by this talk by Former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas. (The talk is a mix of Hindi and English.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Deadly metaphors - II

The most common discourse form in the West where there is combat to settle moral accounts is the classic fairy tale. When people are replaced by states in such a fairy tale, what results is the most common scenario for a just war. Lakoff sketches the plot of such a fairy tale of the Just War whose cast of characters include a villain, a victim, and a hero. The victim and the hero may be the same person.
The scenario: A crime is committed by the villain against an innocent victim (typically an assault, theft, or kidnapping). The offense occurs due to an imbalance of power and creates a moral imbalance. The hero either gathers helpers or decides to go it alone. The hero makes sacrifices; he undergoes difficulties, typically making an arduous heroic journey, sometimes across the sea to a treacherous terrain. The villain is inherently evil, perhaps even a monster, and thus reasoning with him is out of the question. The hero is left with no choice but to engage the villain in battle. The hero defeats the villain and rescues the victim. The moral balance is restored. Victory is achieved. The hero, who always acts honorably, has proved his manhood and achieved glory. The sacrifice was worthwhile. The hero receives acclaim, along with the gratitude of the victim and the community.
The fairy tale has an asymmetry built into it. The hero is moral and courageous, while the villain is amoral and vicious. The hero is rational, but though the villain may be cunning and calculating, he cannot be reasoned with. Heroes thus cannot negotiate with villains; they must defeat them. The enemy-as-demon metaphor arises as a consequence of the fact that we understand what a just war is in terms of this fairy tale.
The metaphor of ‘state as a person’ and the fairy tale help structure the over-all metaphor of ‘war is politics pursued by other means’ which implies the metaphor ‘politics is business’ i.e. political management  is no different from business management. There is the favorite metaphor of economists and strategic relations experts of a ‘Rational actor’ who always acts in self-interest. Mathematics  of gambling with dice is used i.e probability theory, game theory, decision theory. Such metaphors are common and decision-makers often forget that they are just about simple dice games.

The Ludic fallacy - the use of the statistics of simple dice games to compute risk in complex social domains - was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan. According to Taleb, statistics is applicable only in some domains, for instance casinos in which the odds are visible and defined. Using this, many social scientists gravitate towards mathematical purity and fail to take various aspects into account like the impossibility of being in possession of the entirety of available information. They apply flawless statistical models to situations where they actually don’t apply.  This can result in the over-confidence in probability theory. Lakoff writes that viewed in this way, a war:
...requires a calculation of the "costs" and the "gains" of going to war. What, exactly, goes into that calculation and what does not? Certainly American casualties, loss of equipment, and dollars spent on the operation count as costs. But Vietnam taught us that there are social costs: trauma to families and communities, disruption of lives, psychological effects on veterans, long-term health problems, in addition to the cost of spending our money on war instead of on vital social needs at home, as well as the vast cost of continuing to develop and maintain a huge war machine.
Barely discussed is the moral cost that comes from killing and maiming as a way to settle disputes. And there is the moral cost of using a "cost" metaphor at all. When we do so, we quantify the effects of war and thus hide from ourselves the qualitative reality of pain and death. 
The rational actor uses the mathematics of gambles to minimize risks and losses and maximize gains. Dead bodies of your own soldiers are among the losses and bodies of enemy soldiers are among the gains.Here the rational actor doing cost- benefit  analysis is the State. Then there is a metonymy where the ruler stands for the state, eg. ‘We have to get Saddam out of Kuwait’. This allows a country to be seen as a single person rather as an amorphous state.

The metaphor system used to justify war may sound scientific and rational. What is missed is the moral dimension of war. When you remove all the fancy verbiage, you get the reality of war which would be considered serious crime in any other situation. The metaphor system promotes what psychologists call isolation: the dissociation of actions and feelings which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by feelings. There is a dichotomy in the use of this metaphor system: it is used only to describe the enemy; when it comes to one's own side, the real horror is described. Lakof writes:
Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice, highlight what we do see, and provide part of the inferential structure that we reason with. Because of the pervasiveness of metaphor in thought, we cannot always stick to discussions of reality in purely literal terms.
There is no way to avoid metaphorical thought, especially in complex matters like foreign policy. I am therefore not objecting to the use of metaphor in itself in foreign policy discourse. My objections are, first, to the ignorance of the presence of metaphor in foreign policy deliberations, second, to the failure to look systematically at what our metaphors hide, and third, to the failure to think imaginatively about what new metaphors might be more benign.
As Ashis Nandy says in The Intimate Enemy, modern oppression "is a battle between dehumanized self and objectified enemy, the technologised bureaucrat and his  reified victim, pseudo-rulers and their fearsome other selves projected on to their ‘subjects’”.