The continuation of politics by other means

3 Nov

The military has always played an important role in science fiction, especially American SF. Heinlein was, seemingly, enamored of military service, sometimes proposing in his fiction that citizenship should depend on ‘doing one’s duty.’ The tradition is rich and not completely one-sided in its conservative and occasionally jingoistic views. Joe Haldeman and Elizabeth Moon have both subverted the ‘traditional’ view of military service and its role in a civil (and civilized) society, though they each approached the task from a different angle.

What I find interesting, from a Canadian point of view, is the extent to which science fiction has embraced Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism: “War is the continuation of Politik by other means.” The German word, Politik, can be translated as either ‘politics’ or ‘policy,’ though most cling to the former rather than the later. Some, I suppose, don’t see the difference.

Country A may have a policy of ensuring its energy security and uses its military to invade and control another country that has a rich supply of oil. This is indeed the continuation of policy but it is a one-way street. Once utilized, the problems caused by the military solution can only be solved by further application of the same instrument.  A political approach is much more subtle and utilizes a variety of means to achieve ends: negotiation, moral suasion, bribery, threats (both economic and military), forming alliances, public opinion, subversion, shunning and so on.

The political solution engages civilians to reach mutually (if not equally) beneficial agreements. The military solution only becomes central when all else fails. That is to say, war is not the continuation of politics but its termination. It is sometimes alarming to someone who truly believes in civility, democracy and the power of compromise to see how often politicians and activists, both right and left, who don’t entirely get their way resort to metaphors of war or actual violence. Still, it is surprising how often politics works, even in unlikely places.

We might use a real world example. The United States attempted to force Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons by threatening an attack. Russia, who had blocked international efforts to topple the Assad regime, saw a political opportunity and persuaded Syria to allow international inspection and destruction of its stockpiles. Why? Not simply to preserve an existing ally in the Middle East (though that was a factor) but to increase its credibility both there and on the world stage. Undoubtedly, Russia used all sorts of levers to accomplish in a few days what the American military establishment had failed to achieve in a year but that’s the whole point. Politics averted war – or at least a war that spread far beyond Syria’s borders. Meanwhile, Syria’s populace continues to suffer – who said politics was always about helping people?

War is more than the failure of politics; it is the enemy of an effective political system. States of war, real or imagined, have always been a tool for suppressing political activity. Louis Riel was hanged as a traitor, when his political efforts to hold governments to negotiated treaties failed and rebellion ensued. The British delayed workers’ rights and votes for women by either co-opting them or, when that failed, portraying the leaders of both movements as traitors to the War Effort in the Boer and First World Wars. World War II justified internment of Japanese citizens in Canada and the USA, effectively curbing their economic (and hence political) power for more than a generation. The Korean War helped fuel McCarthy’s attacks not just on supposed communists but also on civil rights leaders, union activists and other progressives. The Vietnam war justified harsh crackdowns on the left – Kent State, the Chicago 7 – though the hammer came down harder on black activists than on white middle class radicals like Tom Hayden and his then wife, Jane Fonda. As for the War on Terror – apparently the price of freedom is now eternal surveillance.

But let’s not leave the left out of this merry litany. Robert Mugabe came to power as a socialist reformer but soon picked a fight with former colonial powers to justify the confiscation of the farms of the rebellion’s putative leaders. Zimbabwe has since degenerated into a pirate state and Mugabe, now 89, rules on as a ‘democratic’ figurehead for a military dictatorship. The state of perpetual war footing in North Korea has ended all forms of political activity other than worship of the glorious Leader. Indeed, Kim Jong Il is merely following in the footsteps of Joseph Stalin, who saw counter-revolutionaries under every bed. I could go on but you get the idea.

What is it about a man in a uniform? Why do dictators immediately give themselves military ranks (if they don’t already have them) and parade around with chests full of medals? Why do democratic politicians find such a need to wear flak jackets and hang around with our men and women in the forces? Why do we elevate the military accomplishments of our ‘candidate’ and do everything we can to diminish the military record of theirs? I suspect it comes down to the status games of our primate brain. Of course, that tactic doesn’t always work – evolution rearing its ugly head. Pierre Trudeau, for example, has accused of avoiding the draft in World War II but he went on to spend 15 years as the Canadian Prime Minister (and, according to my father, did more to support veterans than any PM before him).

This may seem like I’ve drifted a long way from publishing and science fiction – and maybe I have. However, it arises out of my current editorial tasks. An amazing number of stories received for the Strange Bedfellows were military science fiction. Most of these came from Americans – though not all. Few made it to the second round – not because they weren’t good stories but because they weren’t political. A soldier who feels angst or confusion about war or has to pay a moral or physical price for doing their duty is not engaging in a political act. Crises of conscience can be deeply moving, can be important stories, but they are personal stories. While the personal may become political – as the feminist movement made clear – it is the act of ‘becoming,’ of moving from the private crisis to the public outrage that makes a story, or any human act, political.

Few of those military stories made it past the first round but some did; a couple will make it into the final anthology but only those one who examine war as the consequences of politics or explore the political fallout of militarism. Hopefully that will ring a bell – other than alarm bells.

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