Some Weeks Are Worse Than Others
It’s hard to view the last couple weeks as “good” if you have a news feed & a shred of empathy. Between ISIS, Gaza, the Ukraine and atypically violent weather, it’s been pretty dismal. In common with many retired Marine officers, I am by habit interested most things international, including international geopolitics and the inevitable conflict inherent in the practice thereof. But as regular readers of this blog also know I have some less than typical viewpoints about both.
Look, I’m not naïve. By nature, genus Homo sapiens is a violent, aggressive organism. For a nation like the United States with global “interests” the need for organized violence (read that military action) is virtually certain. When it becomes necessary, I will reluctantly support its use. But these days, I am less inclined to default to violence, even when many are inclined to advocate it in the name of “strength.”
Some of my former comrades in arms may find this heretical, but I’m convinced America has lost its way with respect to its role in the world. A lot of ink and air has been spent over the decline of American global leadership, since Mr. Obama has occupied the Oval Office. To those inclined to decry our “weakness,” no crisis abroad is too small for self-appointed strategists to advocate our direct and often violent involvement, castigating the President as feckless and weak.
Are Mr. Obama’s policies flawless? No. But they’re better than many would have us believe. And we would do well to remember he is not the architect of the decline of America’s influence, if in fact it has declined at all. If anything has eroded America’s stock abroad, the real culprit has to be institutionalized violence and our increasing reliance on it.
Organized Vs. Institutionalized Violence
We can all infer what organized violence is from the term itself. When I use the term organized violence, I mean:
“The organized and deliberate use of physical force against a group or community, resulting in or potentially resulting in injury or death.”
Scholars will recognize I have selectively cherry-picked portions of the World Health Organization’s definition of violence. My selective editing of their definition should not be construed as disagreement. It is the result of restricted focus, rather than disagreement.
What raises organized violence to the status of “institutionalized” is its elevation to the default coping mechanism. Institutionalized violence is:
“Organized violence grown so entrenched in psyche of the organization benefiting from it that few if any alternatives are explored by the organization contemplating its response.” (Definition mine.)
Please note that I’ve used the word “organization” in my definition above, rather than state or nation. While the most spectacular, sustained examples of institutionalized violence remain nation-states at war, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, gang violence and organized crime are capable of incalculable harm and equally guilty of institutionalizing violence.
The Problem with Institutionalized Violence
What makes organized violence institutionalized is its habitual nature; and it is the habit which renders it problematic. At the national level, institutionalized violence encourages a large standing military, on the grounds that we never know when we’ll need it. War today is “come as you are,” we tell ourselves. It is difficult to argue with this observation in our tech-heavy age, and the outcome operationally. has been difficult to argue with.
The professional, all-volunteer force, has shortened training time from declaration of emergency to actual hostility and not been fraught with long ramp-ups to effectiveness in battle. But large standing professional militaries are expensive “luxuries,” not simply in direct attribute costs. Large standing militaries siphon off resources from peaceful expenditures such as education, infrastructure and peaceful research and development, to name a few.
Large professional militaries also make war too easy—especially if they are all-volunteer. The populace becomes distanced from the consequences of war because proportionally few fight. Worse yet, decision-makers are less likely to have served in any capacity. They have little real appreciation of the practical, operational and strategic challenges inherent in war. What little they’ve learned, they gleaned watching it all unfold on television, like any other sporting event.
The Organization and Institutionalized Violence
The institutionalization of violence is a largely organizational vice, because it is within the “safety” of organizations and mobs that violence finds both cover its and its justification. More broadly, the performance of any act of which we should be individually ashamed can become normalized and justified in organizations, because no one is personally responsible. Blame is shared.
In my soon to be released novel, West of Tomorrow, Clay Conover discusses the organizational dynamics by which reason is so often subverted…
“Organizations are inimical to ethical decision-making. They invariably acquire an agenda of their own…usually benefiting the few who stand most to profit from the organization’s success, ultimately at the expense of the society.” Mastrovik smiled. “The problem isn’t that we don’t understand this. It’s that we allow ourselves to be seduced by organizational loyalties, or our own agenda…or both.”
“Surely there are organizations that remain true to their best founding principles.” Clay observed.
“Really? Name one,” Mastrovik challenged. “As organizations grow in power, the ambitious rise up and hijack…thank you for that earlier characterization…hijack the agenda and the objectives.”
Mastrovik paused, winding up for the kill shot. “The powerful then leverage the organization to satisfy their appetite. If it goes sideways, they distribute the blame across the organization, in precisely the same way they divvy up the work. It is the very essence of cooperative behavior.”
Mastrovik looked Clay in the eye. “Does any of this sound familiar? And have you not been guilty of it yourself?”
Institutionalized Violence West of Tomorrow
In the snippet above, Clay confronts his own role in the elaborate, life-long deception we’ve all cooperated in perpetrating. He’s in good (and bad) company. We’re all guilty. But when we become aware of this dynamic, are we not morally obliged to do something about it?
Unpalatable as this truth may be, the United States is addicted to violent solutions to essentially human problems. This tendency reached its cowardly zenith in Iraq, but we must resist the temptation to conclude the Bush Administration did not invent it. Or that Mr. Obama is not equally culpable.
In the 69 years since WWII, the US has been engaged in organized violence somewhere in the world for more than 32 of those years, in 20 separate conflicts—or one every 2.2 years. Can you name a dozen of those conflicts…or what was putatively accomplished? That’s what I thought. Please remember that the next time the saber rattlers advocate involvement “over there.”. As importantly, remember it the next time you vote. War and big business have way too many friends—and the less fortunate way too few—here and around the world.