Belmont Club

The Post-Heroic Age

The age of heroes

Hans Bachofner who rose to become a general officer in the Swiss Army, argued in a thoughtful article that the age of heroes is not only over but must never return. Heroes break things rather than administer them: “they are more successful and robust in violent disputes than post-heroic societies, which are characterized by law, trading, pursuit of prosperity, and peacefulness. This constitutes a fundamental threat to peaceful civil societies.”  As a result the unshakable modern political consensus is “show me a hero and I’ll show you a threat”.

Two experiences led us to this post-heroic stage: the monstrous sacrifice of mass heroism in World War I, and the misuse of the terms “honour” and “sacrifice” driven by totalitarian regimes in World War II. There is also demographic development. One-child families have a very different relationship to the loss of sons in the service of a nation than families with six or more children and a high child mortality rate.

Self-destruction and de-heroization in the wake of the two world wars have had a lasting effect. We are happy to put peace above everything, to consider human life as the supreme good, and to strive for prosperity in globalized openness. We have a huge learning process behind us. Going back is not an option.

But even “fundamental threats” can sometimes be fundamental necessities.  Bachofner notes the unfortunate side effect of banishing heroes is the growing vulnerability of Western society. Even the threat of violence is now ‘triggering’ to Europeans who cannot psychologically accept even the “vanishingly small” risk of attack by primitive warriors. Europe in the Age of Terror is as the title of his article suggests, vulnerable in its post-heroic state.

The attacks now underway against the West represent not just a clash of armies but a clash of civilizations.  “The asymmetrically fighting weak person knows no defined territory … is omnipresent as a network … has time and does not need much money … makes pinpricks and evades every decision. … The costs of war are enormous for the opponent, the patience of his own population is limited; without rapid victory, the legitimacy of political and military leaders quickly fades.” Terrorism has forced politicians to accept that “even post-heroic societies need a basic foundation of heroic values. Without willingness to sacrifice, without heroes, such systems, which are used to purchasing services with money, do not survive either.”

There are growing signs that more “real soldiers” (Ehud Olmert) are required again. The “miles protector” must be replaced with the “miles pugnator,” the fighter. Even the civilian citizens must change. They must know that they are the target of the attacks, rarely physically, but always psychologically. They must acquire great composure; a “heroic composure,” as it was called following the London bombings.

We don’t know how to defend.  Defense itself has become distasteful and to some, even unacceptable. Why can’t we just get along? Part of the problem, as Nick Ottens article suggests is that the American warrior has feminized Europe and to a certain extent large swathes of the United States itself by his sheer success.  Europe doesn’t do defense any more.  “America’s share of total NATO spending has only risen since the end of the Cold War, from roughly 50 percent before the Soviet Union collapsed to more than 75 percent today.” (emphasis mine)

as American politicians learn to live with an increasingly isolationist electorate of their own, perhaps they can sympathize with their counterparts in Western Europe whose voters have long seemed — not altogether unreasonably — under the impression they face no security threats whatsoever? Due in no small part to American efforts to keep the region both free and divided, it has had no war in almost seventy years. Little wonder so many Western Europeans don’t see the point in keeping huge standing armies.

Today it has a nervous breakdown just thinking about it. This mental state did not descend overnight.  Rather it is the culmination of three generations of Western experience and indoctrination.  Even today the forward Western lines in the War on Terror are manned by the United States but the fact that America provides this protection has become an embarrassment. If America still mounts guard on the Wall, it must do so in secret.   Recent events show that only acceptable way to provide the guard is with Special Forces and drones and spooks and PMCs.  In a word, the West must be defended by things that are deniable and disposable.

One of the most striking things about reading Clinton Romesha’s Red Platoon, a first person memoir of the Battle of Keating is how exotic the experience of heroism has become. The experiences of Red Platoon are no longer like the Band of Brothers story of World War 2, which resonated with an entire generation. Instead Romesha’s stories are dispatches from some strange planet that most people will never visit and hope never to, comprehensible only to those who commit suicide in a VA parking lot or will die of opioids on some tarpaper porch, strangers in a strange land.

Secret wars are the new normal and Barack Obama has set the precedent for having wars that don’t exist.  To his supporters this is an achievement.  Luke Hartig, a former adviser to president Obama on Yemen says in his final months in office the president will unveil his proudest achievement: the abolition of the Heroic Age and its permanent replacement by Bands of Lawyers.  The new Iliad is the PPG.  We no longer sing of Achilles, but of Daniel Kaffee, the military lawyer who does things according to the rules.

the Presidential Policy Guidance “Procedures for Approving Direct Action … has been driving US policy since 2013. In May of that year, President Barack Obama gave an ambitious speech in which he used the PPG to help make the case for an effective, just and legitimate framework for conducting drone strikes and capture operations against terrorist threats. The PPG lays out Obama’s rigorous standards regarding the prevention of civilian casualties and only striking those who pose an imminent threat to Americans. It also offers pages of meticulously detailed prescriptions for the bureaucratic, legal and operational process for the use of force — including which specific senior officials from across the government review proposals to capture or kill terrorists and what factors they are to consider.

Barack Obama’s great strategic innovation was to hide heroism in all its ugliness and glory from his political base; to conduct secret war. Though his secret conflicts may in actual terms be as bloody, dangerous and destructive as any before in history, as the Syrian victims will attest, it is largely unseen and therefore acceptable the post-heroic electorate. We don’t know means we don’t care.  In terms of the movie, “A Few Good Men” it is as if Obama in the role of lawyer Daniel Kaffee convicts Colonel Nathan Jessup but lets him out him at night to continue to guard the wall, paroled on condition that he never remind the world again of his existence. Maybe we can’t handle the truth. The administration’s great achievement was to add: “and we don’t want to”.

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