Further on Pathos v The Drones: Conventionalizing the Unconventionalizable

When a blog thread goes over 200 comments and starts in on Star Wars trivia, then we can usually declare it devolved beyond rescue1, though there may still be opportunity to develop specific side-discussions to one or another useful end. One such side-discussion under the “Catechism of War” post we were just discussing helps to explain the dysfunctionality of much contemporary debate on The Drones and other “terror”-related issues as reflecting application of obsolete terminology and political precepts to transformed historical circumstances.

Kuznicki replies to my comments (of which the initial one was the basis for my prior post) by converting my criticism, that his approach was “self-subverting,” into a more final assessment of “self-refuting.” Finally recognizing my concession from the outset that he is addressing authentic failures of policy, realized among other things as the deaths of innocents, he sarcastically asks whether he can consider himself “allowed to notice some problems” after all. A completely rather than incidentally self-refuting post would be a post that fully disappeared itself. I do think that Kuznicki’s incidental self-refutations threaten such total self-overthrow, at least for anyone not already convinced of his case, but my criticism was more specific. When the post turns to abstractions and remote possibilities – for example, the government turning against its own citizenry in general – it turns real harms, real “problems” such as the deaths and suffering of foreign populations and the arguably extra-legal assassination of traitors, into mere pretexts.

To return to a key passage from Kuznicki’s “Catechism,” he writes as follows:

What of the liberties you say you enjoy?

There are no liberties on the battlefield.

Where is the battlefield?

The battlefield is everywhere, including the entire world, without any exceptions.

Logically, if there are no liberties on the battlefield, and the battlefield is everywhere “without any exceptions,” then there are no liberties. Yet, obviously, we still enjoy some liberties in any normal, political sense of the term. As my initial criticisms of the post were meant to emphasize, the author is clearly availing himself of his liberty to claim that there are no liberties, for example. He enjoys the freedom to claim just about anything he wishes, and we retain the freedom to write 200+ comments on his claim and on all manner of sub- and counter-claims and irrelevancies. Kuznicki’s trivializing sarcasm notwithstanding – “because they haven’t gotten around to killing political dissenters on the Internetz, it’s all good?” – this freedom is not trivial: It is central to any claim by a liberal democracy that, whatever its imperfections, it remains a relatively decent regime, with the potential to correct its injustices or to develop and consider alternatives to its own possibly self-disfiguring or -perverting or -endangering or increasingly obsolete ways.

So apparently there are in fact some liberties on this universal battlefield. It may be, contrary to Kuznicki’s logic, that there are always some liberties, even on the classic battlefield. “Die Gedanken sind frei.” Yet no one wants to be left a refuge only in completely abstract freedoms. The real question is what kind of battlefield is it, this battlefield that is everywhere? It turns out that the battlefield that is everywhere is a very different kind of battlefield from, say, Omaha Beach, or Kursk, or Verdun, or Jena, or Thermopylae. It is a battlefield that extends even beyond the terminological innovation in the 1990s that proposed the term “battlespace” as an improvement on “battlefield.” In being broadened to encompass the entire world, the universal battlefield is also stretched to an extreme thinness or insubstantiality relative to the inherent contradiction, or possible dialectical relationship, between war and liberty, similar to and critically overlapping the opposition state of nature vs. political state.

This new universal battlefield is defined by its maddening, uniquely dangerous lack of definition and of even the barest geographical or temporal fixity. We apply the term “low level” or perhaps “4th Generation warfare” to it, the latter a coinage of Martin van Creveld’s, anticipated in writings on the development of the international law of war and the “Theory of the Partisan” by Carl Schmitt. Compared to the previous generations of warfare, what we might call “War 1.0 – 3.0,” War 4.0 may seem only just barely to exist as “war” at all: A universal battlefield under War 3.0 would entail a global holocaust, with the freedoms only of the Concentration Camp for those not directly involved.2 As an ongoing re-definition of war or of the reigning “war convention,” War 4.0 is frequently quite sincerely rejected by serious observers as “really” war at all. It seems almost to suggest the end of warfare or the decay of warfare, war as a radioactive element past its half-life point. The actions or climaxes of this new war or pseudo-war, even and specifically when they employ the latest bleeding-edge technological advances, seem to resemble the minor, non-determinative skirmishes, demonstrations, and sideshows of the great confrontations typical especially of 19th-20th Century mass warfare, which at its peaks involved millions of soldiers in campaigns of transcontinental scale. As is typical under such a simultaneously historical and conceptual, fully “concrete” major development, the new, unheard-of phenomena seem constantly to “cross the borders” and in the process to destabilize them – the borders of nation-states, the borders between mere criminality and war-making, the very borders between history and concept. The effect is to make a self-recursive hash of a conventional understanding of conventional understandings, and requires anyone seeking a truly up-to-date perspective to reach back all the way to medieval and ancient discussions that often seem to have pre-exhausted the stuff of 200+ comment discussion threads on yesterday-afternoon’s popular blog-post (with the occasional mythic or religious allusion in place of the movie references).

We can explain this ancient-present predicament as follows: Those great confrontations, with their all but unimaginably great death and destruction, produced the “conventions” of war within and against which 4th Generation warriors define themselves. By design and necessity, “un-conventional” warfare cannot be handled entirely by “conventional” warmaking, “conventional” thinking about warfare, or the legal and political “conventions” that have not caught up with it and that it means to defy. We feel as though we are in a void between the former, obsolete conventions and that which has not been conventionalized and perhaps cannot be conventionalized, or, possibly, that we do not and cannot want to have conventionalized, in part for reasons that Kuznicki hints at. The full conventionalization of the universal low level battlefield seems to imply the full conventionalization of all life, a kind of totalitarian legalism. The problems in designing an “assassination court,” like earlier “torture warrants” proposals, express this danger concretely: Such would-be reforms can easily be imagined as the basis of precisely the reign of terror they are intended to legalize preventively into non-existence.

We do not want legalized torture or legalized assassination of citizens. Similarly, if we can minimize the threat to the conventions that we feel have served us, we may prefer that compromised if intellectually and emotionally less than perfectly satisfying solution very much over the exposure of those conventions to wholesale re-construction. So we seek to manage the unconventional threat/threat to our conventions. We strongly suspect that on the other side of their overturning may be something much worse than indefinite management of a low level threat alongside the pathos of the frustrated political intellectual. If, alternatively, I approach those same defining conventions of our way of life from an implicitly extreme position, if I already operate or imagine that I might operate according to moral and political concepts that fundamentally deny the validity of those conventions, then obviously there is nothing to lose for me or at least for my discourse. A position with nothing to lose is a position that has no stake. From the perspective of practical wisdom, it counts for nothing, or at most for what uses we can make of a utopian and merely pathetic statement despite its implicit disinterest in being useful to us.

It is quite possible for a thinker’s discourse to present more radical or fanatical implications than the person sustaining it recognizes or for whatever reasons chooses or is able to think through. The problem is perhaps, somewhat like this universal battlefield, a somewhat universal problem of discourse. Though usually manageable, at certain points it can become the most important fact about a set of statements, and an explanation for their peculiar dysfunctionality, for the diversion of their potential into pathos rather than politics. The overall dysfunctionality of a political discussion can be the product of countless such lesser dysfunctionalities, though the overall dysfunctionality of that discourse may in turn be what makes it manageable, or manageable enough. We dislike things the way they dysfunctionally are, and that is how we like things.


  1. …suggesting a corollary to Godwin’s famous law []
  2. Much of popular literature and art is devoted to depicting such a turn of events, and possibly serves to re-acclimate us to the merely uncomfortable rather than utterly “post-apocalyptic” terms of contemporary everyday life at least for the majority of citizens on the right side of liberal-democratic hegemony. []

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7 comments on “Further on Pathos v The Drones: Conventionalizing the Unconventionalizable

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  1. The truth is we’re kind of spoiled, luckily after KSM was nabbed in 2003, there was no one that could really pull off a second wave attack like we saw in London or Madrid, and that was pulled off by Setmarian, who was subsequently retired, hence the ‘lone wolf’ attacks preferred by Aulaqi, however, one cannot consider that a generation of fighters, trained in the battlefields of Syria, Libya, and the Maghreb, will make a lateral move across the Atlantic,

    • Useful article, and typical of the treatment of these issues by academic partisans of universal human rights law. She fails to distinguish between conventional and unconventional warfare sensibly, and instead substitutes the rubric “total war” for the latter, which effectively equates mass targeting of civilian populations and attempted annihilation of enemy states with extra- or quasi-legal attacks on extra-legal individual fighters. The enemy states – Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan – subject to total war were states that had flagrantly violated the then existing war conventions especially regarding the targeting of civilians, an act which was always understood by parties to the treaties to put the violator’s own citizens at risk. The Nazis not only violated those conventions, they treated them as somehow decadent and inimical to their interest. Total war was a positive goal for them, as was the total state, and they got the former at the expense of the latter. The terrorist likewise denies the validity of the war convention and asserts his own notion of just war, and is very much a crypto-totalitarian. The difference is that he doesn’t possess a state, and, unlike the fascist solders, rather than merely violating the war convention, he never observes it at all. Under both old and new regimes he is a war criminal, but a war criminal is a criminal in war, not “merely” a criminal.

      Her discussion of “perfidy,” in which the drone bombardier is like a sniper only worse, is typical of her method. “Perfidy” against a uniformed combatant of a state capable of being treated as a “just enemy” as under the older war conventions is very different from the same conduct against an “unjust” or “perfidious” enemy, as reflected in the special and harsh treatment of spies and other out-of-uniform combatants, subject to summary execution and denied other privileges afforded regular prisoners of war. (Snipers have also been subject to harsh “battlefield justice” – i.e., outside the war convention.) The basic difference was central to both older and newer regimes, a major part of what war conventions are supposed to address in the first place. The writer certainly knows this very well, but, perhaps for the sake of reducing her article to op-ed form, she chooses to ignore the difficulty in her own argument in order to press her polemical point more “cleanly.”

      It’s political perfidy. She’s a partisan disguised as an academic. It’s a good disguise, and most of us want to be on her side. The problem is that the very criminalization of war that her fellow partisans have been seeking is what has produced this situation in which the only war that takes place is “criminal” in the sense of being outside the legal regime. The new war convention ends up covering everything, so it covers nothing.

  2. Why would you want to be on her side, she gives cover to those who deliberately kill noncombatants, and then hide behind them, it’s not surprising Al Jazeera, which was UBL’s public relations firm, at least in the early years, would publish it,

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