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Why Not War? Dialectics Of The Will To Aggression In The Recent 'U.S.'-Led War On Iraq

The Letter, Issue 28, Summer 2003, Pages 38 - 46


Eve Watson

But war cannot be abolished as long as the conditions of existence among nations are so different and their mutual repulsion so violent, there are bound to be wars. The question then arises: Is it not we who should give in, who should adapt ourselves to war? Should we not confess that in our civilised attitude towards death we are once again living psychologically beyond our means, and should we not rather turn back and recognise the truth?[1]

Much was made of the signifier 'civilised' in the build-up to the U.S. led coalition invasion of Iraq. George W. Bush routinely employed the word to elucidate the cultural, political and spiritual dichotomy between the U.S. and Iraq, or 'us' and 'them/Other,' as we shall refer to these opposing forces in this paper. It is perhaps appropriate to begin with looking at the meaning of the word 'civilised,' of this exceptionally incisive and divisive signifier. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word 'civilise' has two meanings: the first, 'to bring to an advanced stage of social development,' and the second, 'polite and good-mannered.' We are thus left to surmise which meaning Mr. Bush had in mind in employing the word. Admittedly, we live in a world of meaning that heavily utilises binary divides and the us/Other divide speaks to a historic malaise in adequately elucidating and recognising difference and sameness. There is a power at work in the formation of the us/Other dichotomy that is set in motion by the employment of the signifier 'civilisation' that serves both as a justification for war by bringing "civilisation" to those deemed to be without it and at the same time lies at the very root of the notion of an uncivilised Other. We can say that this confrontation with the uncivilised Other in the form of Saddam Hussein stirs is us echoes of primal drives that are too terrifying to actually contemplate in ourselves. It is much easier to contemplate them in the Other. In the style of Lacan, we could say that in attempting to 'civilise' the Other, we see a powerful illumination of the 'pyrotechnics of the word exploding with supreme alacrity - toward the locus of the Other.'[2] Heavily sanitised war images in our print and television media leave us sanguine in our mis-recognition of the brutal reality of war and their effect is to embed us even more firmly within the gap of language created by the act of language. Here, we might say, is a literal illustration of Lacan's notion of how the 'symbol is the murder of the thing;' how the real once signified loses its reality; how we kill with representation; how when we speak the thing, we are no longer within it and it loses the efficacious proximity of reality.

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