Plotting Pre-emptive Strikes

by JAMES BUNN

As a teacher of literature I am struck by the dearth of literary, historical or philosophical works that celebrate or even sanction pre-emptive strikes. Most great plots in history are scripted in moral favor of the people who have resisted invading or occupying forces. I recall Leonidas, the leader of ten thousand Spartans, who withstood King Xerxes’ hundreds of thousands of invading Persians at the narrow pass at Thermopylae. Or I remember Michelangelo’s statue of young David with his slingshot, waiting easy in his naked silence and ready to hurl a stone from his slingshot at the heavily armed giant, the braggart Goliath. Both of those figures, one Greek and the other Judaic, feature fighters central to the tradition of Western civics, who are poised in potential energy, ready to fight, but awaiting the right timing. They are icons of readiness. They await with certainty the exact time for action.

Hamlet’s dilemma, however, is just the opposite of those two heroes. For Hamlet cannot seem to find the right time to act. He vacillates indecisively, even when faced with fairly clear evidence that his uncle had murdered his father. Yet he later says, at a crucial moment in his tragic plot, "If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all." The historian and civil libertarian, Bernard DeVoto, thought the last phrase to be the "greatest statement in English." Later, in his most sublime tragedy, Shakespeare has King Lear say poignantly, "Ripeness is all." In Shakespeare’s plays there is something of fatefulness in seeking the mature time in which to act.

I recall, furthermore, the statue of the Minute Man, lightly armed like David, ready to withstand the first shots of the invading Redcoats at Concord Bridge. Does pre-emptive action, in itself, violate the principle of guarded readiness that symbolizes the Concord statue of American liberty? Do Americans act out of character when we are told by our leaders that we must invade before violence is expected to be taken against us? Do unto others before they do unto you? Not just the timing of a violent action is the issue. Not simply action, but right action, seems the stake. When you act, where you act, and above all, whether you act, all seem tied up in the justice of a violent action.

Why do most pre-emptive strikes violate one’s moral sense? An act of pre-emption interrupts the expected sequence of events by turning the tables. It is like the unfairness of jumping in at the head of long a line of patiently waiting ticket buyers. A pre-emptive strike first depends for its legitimacy on quickly passing time, on seizing the day, the same sense of urgency as a news show that pre-empts the normal schedule in favor of breaking news. Pre-emptive strikes and breaking news seem to go together. But the planners’ judgment had better be extremely important if it is to violate one’s habitual sense of the normal order of things. We hate to be interrupted, especially if we have been waiting patiently for the outcome of an action.

This kind of pre-emption bears on the conduct of life, one’s own as well as the conduct of our leaders. Was theirs a right action or was it immoral, or was it something in between? Did they manipulate evidence or did they use the preponderance of data available to them at the time? How were they inclined to act? What should we learn from the pre-emptive action taken against Iraq? What are the ethics of pre-emptive strikes? What issues surround the timing, the right time, for taking action? What was the larger end or purpose, both the apparent end and the real reason only gradually revealed? How was the plan for pre-emptive strikes plotted or scripted? What were the reasons given for taking action now? What were the descriptions of the sorts of things that might happen if we were not to take action? What outcomes seemed probable, and what seemed necessary? These questions will certainly be debated in coming months and years. As a teacher I am convinced that education may be devoted to many disciplines, but above all it should prepare us to act rightly for our futures. Readiness is all.

One of the purposes of literature, in theory, is to enlighten a future. Indeed the oldest form of interpretation was divination. One hoped to interpret the design of things. Cicero said in his essay on divination, "Thus, in the beginning the world was so made that certain signs come before certain events." Shelley said cryptically in his "Defence of Poetry": " Poets are the heirophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present." The European social philosophy called phenomenology lays out a "horizon of expectation" as the basis for hermeneutics, the study of interpretation as intentionality. Interpretation is a projection forward, said Martin Heidegger. As he asserted in Being and Time, "the basic tense of existentialism is the future." Ernst Bloch taught that art and literature latently exhibit what he called an "anticipatory illumination" (Vor-schein, "to shine before"). Karl Popper, the philosopher who featured the social science of unexpected consequences, spoke of a "searchlight" metaphor for the very act of knowing. To know is to conjecture forward, to project a light in a dark direction

Some works of literature are specifically designed to warn against what might happen in the near future. For instance, Margaret Atwood’s recent sci-fi novel Oryx and Crake warns against bioengineering and global plagues wrought by mad scientists. In Aristotle’s "Poetics" there is a remarkable definition of literature as being a kind of hypothetical action that bears on future acts: "the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen, for example, what is possible as being probable or necessary." Perhaps most importantly, Aristotle describes a kind of recognition that forestalls, at the last moment, a violent act about to happen that would lead to tragic consequences. His word for that kind of forestalling action that avoids a violent pitfall is anagnorisis. Pre-emptive strikes assume a certain kind of interpretation of facts and events that depends upon a point of view of story telling that lays out future events as a kind of projection forward into a future that is not hypothetical but that is fixed like fate. But good writers script whole sequences of expectations that turn out to be surprises. Then as possibilities are modified by actualities, the projections forward are corrected by retractions backward.

Take the example of Frankenstein. Like Atwood, Mary Shelley was worried about contemporary experiments in the artificial creation of life, such as those of Galvani and Erasmus Darwin. The mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, has succeeded in creating life, but in fleeing from his monster and by avoiding his own responsibility as creator, he has created a serial killer. Nevertheless, having heard the monster’s moving narrative, Victor agrees to construct a female companion. As he assembles the female being, he frets that the female has not been party to their social contract: that the pair of beings will leave Europe and hide out in the wilds of America. He fantasizes that the female and her future progeny might not consider themselves bound to the original agreement. This question of binding future generations by a dated social contract is Tom Paine’s main argument in The Rights of Man, that future generations are not bound for eternity by their progenitors’ written laws. So Victor passionately dismembers the female monster. Is his interpretation an anagnorisis that avoids a future threat of violence? Or is it a pre-emptive violence that forestalls a peaceful future? Was it an action that had come to maturity, or was it premature? Mary Shelley leaves the issue up in the air.

Was the Bush team’s interpretation an act of prudence that forestalled the imminent action of Saddam Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction? Or was it instead a premature violence that forestalled the gradualism of the United Nations’ deferential restraint? Now the country is in a period of interpreting backward, of second guessing, and taking stock. It is not yet clear whether we are concluding a tragedy, where there will only be dead bodies all over the stage of events; or whether we can imagine a reconciling comedy, where all the participants can gather in the end at some kind of reconciling feast.

What we do know now and always is that any decision to act is based upon imperfect evidence. To choose is to select among alternative possibilities. Were the evidence overwhelming, no choice as such would be necessary or indeed possible. The decision would be self evident. Before the invasion the Bush administration overwhelmed us with evidence of nuclear weapons of mass destruction and the insidious technology of bio- warfare in the semblance of our own anthrax fears. It seemed as if we had no choice but to strike then. The weapons issues were coupled with the overwhelming prognostications of imminent attacks on American people, like those that happened on 9/11. All members of the administration spoke as with one voice of warning. Now the retractions and extenuations are taking place, and the moral of the narrative shifts with the latest disclosures. Now the script is changing. Now the argument is that Saddam had killed overwhelming numbers of his own people over the years. Was he not an imminent killer preparing to massacre Americans? If not, what right does an American president have to pre-empt the role of the United Nations in handling these kinds of massive but vague perils?

Did the Bush administration conflate technological readiness to pull the trigger with moral readiness? David stands ready to hurl his stone. The Minuteman leans into action, ready to fire in a minute. But the projection of a moral choice about the future should not be confused with the technical projection of a Minuteman missile. The aircraft carriers that converged in battle groups from around the global oceans, the long-range bombers re-positioned on perimeter bases, the missiles programmed, all those silent men and women, were mobilized into an enormous potential energy, all leaning into action. The confluence of energies and forces all seemed so overwhelming as inevitable movements that moral choices between alternatives were lost in the univocal argument of a world power, its finger already tightening on the trigger. Did the overwhelming technological readiness make the moral reason seem self evident in the mind of the Bush team? The readiness is all mobilization?

In Greek tragedies the voice of the chorus provides running commentary on the plot. The chorus asks questions and makes assumptions during the action that are sometimes stupid, sometimes insightful, and sometimes wrong. The chorus admits to being puzzled by the actions of their leaders. Did the univocal voice of the administration script a fiction for our consumption? Was the plot a piece of noble propaganda? If the script was a fiction, it was not good literature, nor was it good ethics. For though literature may warn about the possibility of a coming event, it doesn’t preach a single course of action as solution. Literature works by indirections, expectations and surprises, oppositions, and multiple voices. Hence Hamlet’s indecision; the choice is agonizing.

Right now, I am part of the bewildered voice of the chorus who represents the puzzlement of the audience. But once we decide, then we become the voice of judgment, of eventual sanction or condemnation. At the end of a play the chorus may at last choose to express future fears and hopes. For instance, I fear that if this pre-emptive strike into Iraq turns into a tragedy, its moral may be T. S. Eliot’s:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

from Murder in the Cathedral

JAMES BUNN is professor of English at University at Buffalo. His most recent book is Wave Forms, published in 2002 by Stanford University Press. He can be reached at: bunn@counterpunch.org


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