Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Fort Hood and history

I hope it isn't too soon to grind on abstractly about this story (update: and this one), given that both are very real disasters.

The shooter was, apparently, a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Which got me thinking - why does this sort of craziness seem to happen in the United States more often than other developed countries? Which in turn led me to the improbable answer - because of historical exceptionalism and the denial of empire.

That is: if America faced up to its de facto imperial status, then the stresses of constant warfare, the projection of power, global responsibility, etc. would be both predictable and rationalizable. However, because America believes itself to be an exception to the historical pattern of empire, the consequences of its actual imperial position impact the national psyche as unexpected and irrational traumas.

And madness ensues. 

Ok - it is probably bad taste to say that this is why the Fort Hood shooter did what he did, and so greet human disaster with mental masturbation. So I won't go that far. I will, however, point out the following.

Against historical exceptionalism, one can say that a nation's main advantage in conceiving itself historically is that it allows it to make the analogies that constitute self-recognition and understanding; and from that, to build heuristic models. If I can see by means of comparison that I am this or that type of power, I can also see what is likely to follow as consequences of being that type. We don't always need history to make analogies, but superpowers usually do as only one or two major superpowers exist at a time - you might need to go back a bit to find a useful comparison.

Imagine, for instance, that I didn't know I was middle class. My life wouldn't just be unpredictable, it would be a series of disjointed, unexplained, and terrifyingly odd consequences - why do they insist so urgently that I watch Scandinavian TV programmes? do they all imagine that food is so very interesting? who or what is Yotam Ottolenghi?

So one advantage of putting oneself in the right category, or of doing the semantics right at a national level, is that it turns events into entailments and so makes experience more predictable and less traumatic.

A further advantage is that it allows for cultural conditioning, including at the level of the individual. I think this is something America understood in its past specifically with regard to empire building - life on the frontier colonizing the West was hard and violent, and so this way of life was built up into the armature of the cowboy archetype. These discomforts were not anomalous or irrational, no matter that they felt so to the person undergoing them - they were entirely in place and more than that, the meaningful building blocks of a bigger cultural project. Trauma was made bearable.

The same goes, I have heard it said, for Australian 'mateness' - comradeship was necessary just to survive and expand in such a hostile environment, but the notion grew (or has grown) into a unifying idea of Australianness. 

I do not at all see that the modern United States has anything to hand that could condition its national psyche for the reality of maintaining its foremost place in the world. The Davy Crockett type is now a mannerism and a fiction. And despite a much more warlike attitude since 9/11, there still seems to be a common feeling that the boys should be brought back home, and that having men fighting overseas is somehow un-American. But the world being such as it is, the trauma of constant warfare and violence is entirely congruous with being world superpower.

I am being simplistic here, I realize. The British empire, for instance, wasn't as automatically keen on fighting wars as one might assume - parliamentary debate in the 19th century could be surprisingly anti-war: it was costly to the Exchequer and bad for trade. But I’d be very surprised to hear that imperial Britain ever suffered a trauma like Vietnam - not just a trauma of lost life, but a trauma of irrationality ('why is this even happening?').

The notion that without these basically deceitful cultural accretions, war can be seen for what it is and therefore avoided is clearly untrue in this instance.

Consider Kipling's remarkable Recessional, written 1897 at the zenith of British imperial power to celebrate Victoria's diamond jubilee:

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

The equivalent moment in the equivalent period of US history may well be George W. Bush in that jump suit, on that aircraft carrier (with that banner). America's decline, if it happens, will be long and slow (hopefully) - but I wonder if it has the psychological means, or even the will, to prepare for decline. The benefit of embracing empire is that decline becomes a corollary instead of a shock. It happened to Nineveh and Tyre, it happened to the Brits, and now it's happening to us.

Without this, the trauma will surely be more traumatic than it needs to be.


  1. Interesting argument. It's effectively the same one that's sometimes used to explain similar terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists: that global political machinations have impacted their individual psyches. The societies they attack have perpetrated violent acts against their culture in the form of wars; and so terrorism by a small minority is supposedly provoked. It's difficult to imagine how this works exactly, but perhaps these global political events spark something within individuals who are already vulnerable to psychopathy (and in your example, there is no overarching understanding or identification of the reality of the context to temper this or fall back on).

    1. Yes - though the problem with the fundamentalist is that he or she is all too well equipped with a worldview and cultural edifice that makes sense (or claims to) of their trauma.

      The American soldier or bereaved relative or whatever still doesn't have a satisfying answer to the question 'why am I traumatized?' because the truest answer (America is basically a modern empire) is deeply repressed for cultural and historical reasons specific to America. (I'm not, btw, saying that having an empire *morally* justifies trauma - but it explains it).

      The Islamic fundamentalist has all sorts of answers to the question 'why am I traumatized?', supplied by the Koran, radicalized imams, and militants. But he is overly certain that this answer is right and always right for everyone, and holds that the answer explains more than the question ever asked.

      Hence victims of political violence in Saudi Arabia thinking they need to kill thousands of American civilians - the answer to their trauma expands to the degeneracy of the West, the absolute truth of Islam, etc.

      The American mission is under-defined. The Islamicist mission is over-defined, Just goes to show - a happy medium is always best.