Books

How George Orwell's Dystopian Novel '1984' Illuminates the U.S.'s Endless War on Terror

One can’t help but be reminded of another forever war, the endless shape-shifting struggle fought within the covers of the novel.

Photo Credit: Alexander Smulskiy / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War by Mark Danner (Simon & Schuster, 2016): 

After all his warnings about defining the war lest it define us, President Obama finds himself alighting on the status quo as the least unattractive option. We go on with our endless war and our unending state of exception. The president has mostly stripped away the politically costly “boots on the ground” conventional wars in favor of his “light footprint,” a far-flung anti-terror campaign built of drone strikes and Special Operations Forces raids, to which the air campaign in Iraq and Syria has now been added. Even as the president denounces the specter of “perpetual war,” the war machinery whirs along around him and his administration makes plans for precisely that. There is, for example, the “disposition matrix,” which, The Washington Post told us in late 2012, “the Obama administration has been secretly developing [as] a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list” and high-tech database that “goes beyond existing kill lists,” and to which “the government expects to continue adding names ... for years.” The disposition matrix is a perfect symbol of that “other Obama,” the one who, though troubled by the prospect of perpetual war, is troubled more by what seem to be the risks of truly ending it. Bemoan as he might the perpetual war, he has determined to armor himself against the politics of fear, and the result has been a state of exception regularized, legitimized, normalized.

One can’t help but be reminded of another forever war, the endless shape-shifting struggle fought within the covers of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four between the superpowers of Oceania, Eurasia, and East Asia in what was then a distant future. Of this endless struggle, Orwell wrote, 

"If we judge it by the standards of previous wars, it is merely an imposture like the battle between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal, it is not meaningless. It helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs." 

The war on terror is not an imposture. We have seen tanks, artillery, infantry divisions. Though these have largely departed the scene, we know that beyond our ken drones are striking and special operators are raiding. People are dying. But alongside this invisible war stand the ghostly political benefits that Orwell has in mind. War produces fear. But so too does the rhetoric of war. As terrorism’s ultimate product is not death or mayhem but fear, the rich political benefits of that most lucrative of political emotions will ultimately be shared, between the terrorists who create it and the political leaders who conduct the fight against them and who, more often than not, attempt to exploit that fear to their own advantage.

For the politician, however, the benefits can be fleeting indeed. We should recall here the true purpose of the “politics of the worst”: to instigate “an escalatory spiral,” one whose momentum is controlled by the terrorists, not by those who seek to destroy them. To the political leader, this spiral may seem to offer power and political leverage but in the end it may well escape control, for it is governed by reaction, not wise and considered action. As we have seen, such a spiral may lead to policies that, however powerful and dramatic they seem, corrupt our values and undermine our interests. Writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the literary critic Irving Howe remarked that

"The book appalls us because its terror, far from being inherent in the human condition, is particular to our century. What haunts us is the sickening awareness that in 1984, Orwell has seized upon those elements of our public life that, given courage and intelligence, were avoidable." 

Photo Credit: 
Wikimedia Creative Commons / Photo of George Orwell

Image: Author George Orwell.

Certainly we are not living in anything like the totalitarian state painted so vividly in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we do find ourselves in a parallel situation particular to our new century: under the influence of a worldwide war on terror unbounded in space and time, trapped in a state of exception the end of which we cannot see. And surely those scenes from the black sites are, as Howe said of the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, “elements of our public life that, given courage and intelligence, were avoidable.” What it took to avoid them at the time was, indeed, courage and intelligence. We did not get these from our leaders.

The politics of fear was used to great advantage during the Bush years, and its influence remains strongly with us. In the event of another devastating attack it may well grow stronger. Perhaps, with diligence and wise policy and a good bit of luck, we will be able to avoid this. I hope so. For when I hear the former vice president speak of the necessity of torture and criticize as foolish and reckless those who renounce its use, I hear the distant stirrings of that whirlwind.

In the end it is the power of the politics of fear that keeps us imprisoned in the state of exception. It is easier to let stand or expand a fourteen-year-old authorization for the use of military force than it is to repeal it. In the end it is impossible to legislate courage and intelligence in our public life. But only with these can we avoid being swept deeper into that cycle of fear if and when the next attack comes. Meanwhile the one element that since ancient Rome all states of exception have shared—that they come to an end—remains wanting in ours. In this forever war, what was the exceptional has become the normal. The improvisations of panic are the reality of our daily lives. 

From SPIRAL: TRAPPED IN THE FOREVER WAR by Mark Danner. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Danner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 

Mark Danner is a New Yorker staff writer and a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War.

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