Does warfare ever change over time?

Outside of the machines and techologies that humans have invented to kill each other, I’m not convinced that warfare is a suitable historical subject, if the measure of a historical subject is demonstrable and meaningful change over time.  For example, check out this nationalist, masculinist rhetoric from the White House about the killing of Osama Bin Laden on Sunday.  (This Washington Post article was reprinted in my home-delivered copy of the Denver Post this morning:)

The Obama administration presented new details Monday about the death of Osama bin Laden, portraying the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda as a reclusive figure who had lived in relative luxury and whose final moments had finally exposed his cowardice.

As Americans solemnly remembered those killed at bin Laden’s command, senior administration officials sought to turn their tactical military victory into a moral one by undermining the heroic image he had long cultivated among his followers. They stressed that he had been discovered not in a remote cave, but in a mansion in a wealthy Pakistani city. They also sought to suggest that, as he tried to escape U.S. Special Operations forces, he may have used one of his wives as a shield.

“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” John O. Brennan, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, told reporters at the White House. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

Bin Laden’s narrative isn’t the only false or misleading narrative.  Brennan’s narrative is strikingly similar to colonial trash talk about military and political foes, which makes me automatically skeptical of it.  His words are guided by a nearly ancient script.  Accusations of unmanliness and [effeminate] luxury were two prominent rhetorical weapons wielded by Anglo-American men against both Indian and French men, and Indian men gave as good as they got on this score. 

I wrote a whole book about this kind of rhetoric in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I kept searching for change over time, extending the end date of my project, but I never found it.  Clearly, I could have extended it to the present, because Bin Laden was hardly a man, he was hiding behind a girl when they got’im!  And he lived a life of effeminacy and luxury, not manly self-sacrifice or military discipline.  I especially liked that touch that “he may have used one of his wives as a shield.”  It’s the same objectification of Muslim women’s misery and drudgery that’s always in play in wars with Western powers, with a bonus dig at the manhood of a Muslim man found cowering behind a woman’s skirts before his spectacularly violent death.  Behold the power of the narrative:  Anglo-American colonists were fond of tsk-tsking about the fate of “squaw drudges,” Indian women who were made to toil endlessly in the fields while their husbands played at sport like fishing and hunting. 

It’s strange that when history was professionalized in the nineteenth century, warfare (along with politics) was considered an appropriately manly historical subject.  To the contrary, the primitive rhetoric and role-playing in warfare is more impervious to change over time than any of the so-called “feminine” interests in the supposedly changeless realms of women’s lives, domesticity, family and community life, or sexuality.

On a related note:  is anyone else appalled by the non-stop, mostly information-free coverage of Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals?  Why is the U.S. hyping and celebrating this, when it should hang its head in shame that it took 9-1/2 years, untold numbers of human lives, and billions of dollars to find a 6-1/2 foot tall Saudi on dialysis who was living only 35 miles outside of Islamabad?  (And if that joint is “luxurious,” then David Koresh’s compound was “luxury” too.)  I could craft my own narrative about the profligacy, cowardice, and bloodthirstiness of the American Empire–but I’ll decline, for the moment.

Even more childish is the belief that somehow one man’s death makes everyone in the U.S. and around the world “safer.”  That’s another thing about warfare and our pleasing nationalist and masculinist narratives:  they makes us (like Harry and Lloyd) “dumb and dumber.”  All Hail the National Security State.  When the next terrorist attack happens in direct retaliation for American celebrations of the death of Bin Laden, it will be used as an excuse to deny us more liberty.

(For a better critique of the exploitation of women’s bodies in the “War on Terror,” see Tenured Radical.  For a more concise critique of the Osama-death-o-rama, see Comrade PhysioProf.  TalkLeft has been all over the holes in these narratives, too, and don’t miss Roxie’s “The Truth is in the Typo.”  Are you scarred or scared by 9/11/2001?))

61 thoughts on “Does warfare ever change over time?

  1. I think that Frautech made a significant point in that, for many college-age young people, Osama Bin Laden and 9/11 are associated with larger developments have made their lives less secure. Things like increasing surveillance in society, economic hard times, and general feelings that “life in this country isn’t what it used to be” – I wouldn’t be surprised if all of these are vaguely connected with 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden in many peoples’ minds. This might help explain some of the emotion surrounding news of his death for some young people.


  2. That is a good point–I understand that. And yet, if you read the link above to the story at Inside Higher Ed on the celebrations of Bin Laden’s death on college campuses, people who have surveyed college student attitudes for the past decade say that 9/11 is nowhere near the top of the list of their concerns & they don’t pick it as a major event that’s changed their lives.

    I thought many of the comments on that story were very sensible, such as the comment by a recent grad who pointed out that the news broke late on a Sunday night when 1) few other adults are awake and have the time or inclination to mass publicly, and 2) it’s the end of classes/finals on many campuses, so college students might have had even more time on their hands and would have been looking for something to celebrate. (And I might add–it’s May! The weather is generally pretty nice in North America.)


  3. Okay but college students have been historically over-entitled douchebags for what, thousands of years? I’m just saying -people- in general have a -right- to celebrate the death of a mass murderer. I don’t think it’s distasteful (in the same way comparisons are made to those in the middle east who celebrated after 9/11, death of civilians /= death of murderer).

    Who cares if he was unarmed! He’s not an american citizen and doesn’t enjoy citizenship rights. If you think there’s no difference between a civilian who has rights and an enemy combatant than you’ve never had a conversation with a soldier who’s trying to do their job and protect their unit. Should we have captured him alive and brought him to America where he could have enjoyed being a mouthpiece for another 10 years? Enjoyed life that was denied to thousands of victims of his plots?

    Really I didn’t realize I had to enlist in order to “deserve” the right to take some small satisfaction in this moment. The reason there are no videos of military celebrating sunday night is because many were probably doing their jobs overseas and those here on base would have made difficult media spotlights since it’s extra hard to get on a base this week.

    I see this is an issue where it’s okay to say “for me, celebrating is not appropriate” versus saying “i will decide who can celebrate over this, and what emotional reactions are appropriate for others”.


  4. Like other folks, my FB blew up that night. My own status was something along the lines of “I would have preferred capture and trial, but I’ll take what I can get.” Most of my friends from HS were in a similar boat although exceptions both ways. That’s kind of relevant because I went to HS (indeed spent my whole life until age 22 or so) in Manhasset, NY, one of the hardest hit 9/11 towns (you can read about Manhasset in The Tender Bar, J.R. Moerhinger’s memoir of boyhood and manhood in the town’s premier watering hole). While none of my friends died, my brother’s classmate, two people on the street I grew up on, and the wife of the guy who bought the house next door after 9/11 who married his grief counselor (who was also a friend of his in high school). Most folks weren’t particularly happy or sad, but it was personal for us. The emotion that hit me was grim satisfaction. I’m not happy that I feel this way and intellectually I know they’re stupid and OBL’s death doesn’t change a whole lot, but those are my feelings and seemed to be echoed by the majority of my hs peers on my fb page.

    And now to more important stuff, anybody remember that article about Jeff Davis in a dress? Was it Nina Silber in Divided Houses?


  5. Right, FrauTech: This blog is so all-powerful I can prevent people from doing whatever they damn well please. People are free to behave however they like–but I’m also free to share my opinion about that behavior.

    I haven’t seen or heard a lot for Americans to be proud of in the past 72 hours, but clearly, I am in the minority in the U.S., which was kind of the point of my post above.


  6. Not at all Historiann, I think you’re in the majority. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but clearly this is an event that pleases nobody. The left complains about unnecessary violence and the continued poor quality of US foreign policy and the right reminds us we are still in danger and freaks out a bit more while trying to use this as another opportunity to shape the world the way they want.

    I certainly didn’t mean you had that kind of influence. I recognize it’s just your opinion. But honestly it must be a lot of people’s opinions since how “inappropriate” celebrations were or how burial at sea is apparently not proper for a muslim were discussed virtually all day Monday on NPR, and I don’t consider them wholly leftist.


  7. To me the reason why people disaprove of celebrating and the way this went down is that it doesn’t exactly put the US on any sort of high ground, moral or otherwise.

    OBL was murdered, unarmed in his home, without trial. According to the West’s sense of justice, this isn’t justice. Where is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law by peers? (Especially given that there is considerable scepticism about whether OBL was responsible for 9/11.) And, how can the US now ever complain about justice human rights violations and poor criminal procedure across the world, when it ignores those same values in the prosecution of its enemies? Especially in the current context where it has used those same justifications to get involved in military actions.

    How can the US complain about the celebrations in Iraq or Afghanistan that sometimes accompany the death of American troops (who probably have killed some of the family members of those celebrants, rightly or wrongly), when the US does the same?

    And, possibly most agregiously, how can the US claim to respect national sovereignty, when it has no issue going over the head of a national government (of an ally no less) and executing a military engagement on their territory. If this had happened in the US, it would have caused an international crisis. This decision showed no respect for Pakistan and didn’t think about the consequences for the Pakistani government, who is now left trying to deal with the backlash in a nation that continues to have real problems with radical religious behaviour. Plus, Pakistani is a government that provides a whack of intelligence on terrorism- will that now be jeopardised?

    It just gives the US absolutely no creditability as a international actor- and the fall out from that might be problematic in the long-term.


  8. Well said, Feminist Avatar.

    And it turns out–at least today, that is–that only one of the people in the Bin Laden compound was armed. Four out of the five people killed were unarmed. Like I said: this was hardly the valorous “firefight” that was originally reported. It was an assassination. “Bringing someone to justice” means putting him on trial, not assassinating him.

    Too bad this not-ready-for-primetime-White House can’t get its stories straight:

    President Barack Obama on Wednesday ruled out publicly releasing photographs of the deceased Osama bin Laden, and White House officials said they would give no new details about the raid on his compound in Pakistan, an information clampdown that followed fitful attempts to craft a riveting narrative about the killing of al-Qaeda’s leader.

    . . . . . .

    The conundrum mirrored problems that the Obama administration has had communicating its national-security approach in the past. From the immediate aftermath of an attempted airliner bombing on Dec. 25, 2009, to the early management of the H1N1 flu crisis, the White House has repeatedly labored to prove its command of inflammatory facts during fast-moving events.

    This time, officials backed away from several of the most provocative elements disclosed in the first 24 hours. Bin Laden was not “killed in a firefight,” and he did not use his wife as a “human shield,” as originally claimed. White House officials volunteered the corrections, saying the errors were caused by haste as investigators debriefed the Navy SEALs thousands of miles away and officials attempted to brief reporters in real time.

    Further questions about the original story surfaced as well. A White House claim that the compound was worth $1 million appeared to be contradicted by property records showing that the land was worth $48,000 when it was purchased in stages in 2004 and 2005, according to The Associated Press.


  9. Yes I am flabbergasted by all the contradictory and information free stories, and by the assassination. 9/11 did not scare me although I was in DC for it basically, and the death of Osama does not make me “feel safer.” (Also, I do not agree with the whole “feeling safe” thing that seems to be so important and such a perceived inalienable American right now.)


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