Bitter Lake: searching for meaning in the Afghan abyss

Adam Curtis’s latest is a Heart of Darkness for the post-9/11 era.

‘We’re your boys, you stupid bitch! We’ve brought back Mujahideen ghosts!’

So shouts a disabled Russian serviceman to a woman who has asked him to stop his ranting and raving about the Afghan War of the 1980s on a subway train. The scene appears halfway through award-winning BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis’s latest piece, Bitter Lake. Afghanistan was the Soviet Union’s heart of darkness – the place where a crumbling empire sought to rediscover a last gasp of purpose. More recently it was the West’s apocalypse now.

The film, lasting over two hours and only officially available on BBC iPlayer, is ostensibly a search for the meaning of the absence of meaning that afflicts contemporary Western society. It is told through the prism of the West’s engagements with Afghanistan – specifically Helmand Province – over a 60-year period, as mediated by relations with Saudi Arabia and occasionally reaching back as far as the Anglo-Afghan wars of the nineteenth century.

As with all of Curtis’s work, certain aspects beg contestation and clarification. ‘Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality. But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow’, he begins, seemingly unabashed at the single narrative he, too, is about to tell. But while replete with contradiction, he does have a point. Authorities increasingly talk of the need for narratives today – unaware, it would seem, of the need for material and ideological drivers that might determine such narratives.

It is the first Saudi monarch, Ibn Saud, whose machinations serve as the start for Curtis’s narrative. According to this tale, Ibn Saud was supposedly involved in hoodwinking an ailing President Roosevelt in the closing days of the Second World War. Roosevelt was allegedly tricked into turning a blind eye to the Kingdom of Saud’s religious radicals in return for Saudi oil. The negotiations, held on the USS Quincy at Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal, provide both the film’s title and the deus ex machina for its plot.

A smug Saudi oil minister, Sheikh Yamani, then lectures the West on the need to get used to the new normal in the aftermath of the 1973 oil-price hike designed, in part, to chill American support for Israel. The glut of petrodollars that ensued had to find a new home, and it is here that Curtis’s second bête noir – international investment bankers – comes in. The funds were invested primarily in armaments, a ruse to support ailing Western economies. And the weapons produced were sold back to the same Arab leaders who needed to keep their neighbours and domestic populations in check.

So far, so simple. Except that surely Curtis, too, is eliding the odd complexity here?

Because two years before the oil crisis of 1973, the US had unilaterally terminated the convertibility of the dollar to gold, thereby ending the Bretton Woods agreement on monetary management and injecting considerable uncertainty into the markets – including the oil market. This, in turn, had been driven by the relentless printing of dollar bills to fund the Vietnam War and – more significantly – by the steady exhaustion of the US economy in the aftermath of the postwar boom. Unable to invest at home, capital was flooding overseas. Dubious allies were a consequence, not a cause, of America’s economic woe.

But the tendency for the rate of profit to fall never seems to make as good box office as bloody Arabs and greedy bankers. Fortunately though, Curtis does note the extent to which the bankers were then encouraged in their profligacy by Western leaders desperate to make ends meet and devoid of any political vision or agenda. But those leaders largely escape judgment in Bitter Lake.

It is probably Curtis’s bleakest vision yet, punctuated by a typically insistent soundtrack, new musical additions and copious quantities of silence. Images are made to speak for themselves – a drop of blood working its way down a camera lens, a terribly injured Afghan girl dressed up by her father as a princess with a tiara to meet the press, and a scene lasting over two minutes of a fully-kitted soldier picking up and stroking a somewhat ragged-looking dove. Such footage would usually have been left on the cutting-room floor. You wonder what Nietzsche would have made of the scene in which the squaddie stares increasingly meaningfully into the dove’s eyes.

Atrocities abound – some young Afghans unselfconsciously confirm their part in the stoning of prisoners, and US Marines joke about the number of unofficial rounds, including fatal ones, they have fired. But only the most naive or innocent would be shocked by these tales. As to the inevitable question as to what the overall montage means, surely the right response is to point to the total absence of purpose or meaning in the Afghan War itself.

The overall effect of the film is both disorienting and dispiriting. How did the West come to abandon its 1950s-era optimism, when it wanted to construct dams in Helmand to help build a modern state? Why did it opt instead to chase shadows (a British Army captain admits to defining any opposition as ‘the Taliban’)? A crisis of nerve, built on the inability to define and develop a new project for humanity in the shadow of political and economic exhaustion, was the real answer here.

By the 1970s, rich, hippy kids were travelling from the West to Afghanistan in search of authenticity. It spoke volumes about their inability to find meaning domestically, and more so of the failure of Western elites to promote a purpose for them. A decade later, when wealthy US socialites like Joanne Herring were sent to Afghanistan to connect with the Mujahideen, her Orientalist fantasies about saving ‘these people who believed so much in their God’ sound as shallow and libidinal as those of Joan Sims in Carry On Up the Khyber, which Curtis uses clips from.

Repeating one of my contributions to his 2004 three-part, BAFTA award-winning TV documentary series, The Power of Nightmares, Curtis notes how we in the West no longer believe in anything anymore. It is to compensate for this that thousands of young people in the West now seek to find meaning in Islam – with some embracing particularly backward versions of it. But it was really 40 years earlier that the rot set in, as the sons and daughters of the well-to-do paved the way for today’s Islamist meaning-seekers with their own hippy-ish escapism.

It may well be – like the Russian soldier railing on the subway – that elements of the Afghan abyss will come back to stare into us here. But, as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it seems more likely that it is we who will have ended up exporting our confusions over there.

Along with the army of security consultants, legal advisers and civil-society reformers who fleeced the fledgling Afghan state of its funds in recent years, the West also sent some ‘experts’ to improve Afghans’ wellbeing and culture. So it is that the abiding image of the film for me is that of an English art teacher enthusiastically extolling the meaning of Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual artwork, Fountain, an inverted male urinal, to a group of recently liberated and incredulous Afghan women.

‘The horror! The horror!’

First published on spiked, 5 February 2015

How CSR became big business

Corporate social responsibility allows governments to avoid accountability and gives companies a sense of purpose.

Whenever society faces a crisis there tends to be a wave of moralism. So it is not surprising that, as the private-equity crisis has transformed into the public-debt calamity, there is now much discussion about the correct conduct of business and finance.

The last time such a significant conversation occurred on these matters was in the mid-1990s. Back then, economic turmoil and the dramatic downfalls of corporations and businessmen like BCCI, Polly Peck and Robert Maxwell – all tainted by accusations of fraud – led to the promotion of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR). The ideas behind this concept were articulated in a landmark inquiry by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (RSA), Tomorrow’s Company: The Role of Business in a Changing World. It seems fitting, therefore, that the RSA’s current chief executive, Matthew Taylor, recently sought to articulate his vision for ‘enlightened enterprise’, laying out how ‘business can combine a strategy for competitive success with a commitment to social good’.

Looking back, though, it seems many of the corporate contributors to the original study might have been good at talking the CSR talk, but they were considerably less interested in, or capable of, walking the CSR walk.

Quite a few of the companies, including British Gas, British Airways and National Grid, were relatively recent creations of the privatisation boom under the previous Conservative administration. In their cases it is reasonable to suppose that their chief executives were keen to get behind the calls for change. Many others, such as electronics company Thorn EMI, transport and logistics firm Ocean Group, and the IT company FI Group, got caught up in the late-1990s wave of mergers and acquisitions, and so ended up being subsumed or disappearing entirely. No doubt, quite a few individuals got rich in the process.

Some of the original supporters of CSR – like The Strategic Partnership (London) Ltd – were more like tiny, shoestring-budget quangos, staffed by individuals whose intended policy clout far exceeded their business significance. At the other end of the spectrum, among those who pontificated about what makes a responsible company, were the leaders of Barings Venture Partners Ltd. Barings Bank collapsed in 1995 after one of its employees, Nick Leeson, lost £827 million due to speculative investing. So much for being responsible.

Tomorrow’s Company was a product of its time. Bemoaning the absence of non-financial measures for business success, it fed into the growing demand for procedural audits and targets that were to become one of the emblematic pledges of the New Labour government. And, in what was to become typical New Labour lingo, the inquiry demanded greater ‘dialogue’ and ‘inclusivity’.

The RSA inquiry complained of the ‘adversarial culture’ of the business world. This heralded later attacks on various supposed institutional cultures, including the ‘canteen culture’ of the police force, critiqued in the 1999 Stephen Lawrence inquiry, and the ‘club culture’ of the medical profession, lambasted in the 2001 Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry. There have also been critiques of the army’s ‘barracks culture’ and, more recently, of the ‘macho culture’ of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This was following the controversy involving the former IMF chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was claimed to have been protected by a French ‘culture of secrecy’.

The meaning of CSR today

Matthew Taylor, in his recent exposition of ‘enlightened enterprise’, also asks for a ‘shift in our national culture’. But whereas the 1995 RSA study called for change in response to the ‘increasingly complex, global and interdependent’ conditions within which businesses were allegedly operating, for Taylor the key problem to be corrected is human nature.

‘[H]uman beings are complex social animals’, he suggested in a recent speech, ‘influenced more by our nature and context and less by calculating, conscious decisions, than we intuitively believe’. Like other adherents of the new orthodoxies of behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology, Taylor talks of the need to create ‘more capable and responsible citizens’.

So what does all this have to do with business behaviour? One important clue was provided by Mark Goyder, programme director of the original RSA inquiry. He brought up ‘the notion of business as the most important agent of social change, in an age when governments are redefining and limiting their own sphere of influence’. Taylor, for his part, identified the idea of behaviour change as a key aspect of corporate responsibility and explained that the Lib-Con coalition has set up its own behaviour-change unit and that ‘the idea that we need to move from a government-centric to a people-centric model of social change is central to David Cameron’s vision of a Big Society’.

Against the backdrop of these two elements – the changing role of government and the view of ordinary people as little more than natural impulses on legs, as beings who need to be nudged into changing their behaviour – the new role of business becomes transparently clear. Businesses are to act on behalf of governments that can’t be trusted and for people who don’t know what’s good for them.

Taylor is quite explicit about this. ‘[T]he state’, he noted, ‘has many competing objectives and when it uses its power to nudge it opens itself up to charges of paternalism and social engineering’. Businesses, however, have the ability ‘to build on a relationship based on choice and consent, and in some cases a good degree of trust’. All these qualities are presumably no longer to be expected, or demanded, from government.

No doubt, many in the business community will jump at this invitation to take over the levers of power by acting as de facto school prefects on behalf of states that no longer want, or cannot be trusted, to rule. Many will also be excited by the ability to play an ever bigger role in the government’s nudge agenda and to take on the mantle of responsible agents for change.

From profits and growth to ‘performance with purpose’

Today, CSR is big business. And so the success of enterprise in this age is not to have the spirit that took people to the Moon, but to play a part in slimming waistlines and reducing carbon footprints. It’s simply a question of ‘selling the right stuff’, as PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi has put it. Nooyi has committed her company to ‘performance with purpose’, which includes providing healthy snacks. Likewise, the Mars Corporation’s new focus has little in common with the bold ambitions of the space-race era. It now wants to concentrate on selling products ‘as part of a balanced diet’ and on encouraging people to get ‘fit not fat’.

Taylor is aware of the possibility that not all of us would choose to pursue the ideals that he and his fellow nudge-enthusiasts espouse. To counteract this, business has to take the lead, ‘prompted by NGOs in a sense acting as quasi-regulators and intermediaries with consuming households’. The RSA has taken the lead in this respect, working with Shell and taxi drivers to make fuel-efficient behaviour more habitual.

Ultimately, Taylor comes across as gullible for buying into the idea that corporations want to put social responsibility first. He even cites ‘Flora’s cholesterol-cutting margarine’ as a service in protecting people’s health. This despite the fact that Flora’s claims are highly dubious, and the purported link between high cholesterol and heart disease is increasingly disputed and discredited. Perhaps Taylor will be promoting anti-ageing creams next?

A major error of CSR proponents is to assume that the key determinants of success for businesses and their employees is not making money, but being fulfilled in some other way. Taylor cited a Gallup survey which showed that ‘beyond obvious basic factors like health and a reasonable income, the key determinant of whether someone described themselves as thriving in their lives as a whole was whether they saw their employer – or manager – as a partner rather than a boss’. Here, he sounds rather like one of his predecessors at the RSA, Charles Handy, who, in answer to the question ‘What is a company for?’, said: ‘To talk of profits is no answer because I would say “of course, but profits to what further purpose?”’

CSR: the displacement of responsibility

But real profits, good health and reasonable incomes cannot so readily be assumed. They still have to be achieved, and cannot just be dismissed as ‘obvious’ in a desire to promote a new business agenda. In fact, the CSR agenda has helped businesses get away with ignoring the self-expressed needs of its employees. British Airways, for instance, was commended for its social and environmental reports while simultaneously undermining working conditions for its staff.

In fact, the most ideal CSR scheme focuses its supposed benefits elsewhere – typically it is directed at poor people ‘without a voice’ or better still on animals or the environment that can’t talk back at all. That way, businesses can offer token sums and gestures to impoverished communities and satisfy eco-activists and their media groupies at the same time – all the while compelling staff to subsidise the schemes by volunteering their own time and energies.

It is not at all obvious what it is about businesses, and still less self-styled civil-society groups and NGOs, that makes them legitimate representatives of the public’s needs. For the government, recruiting business to its behaviour-change agenda seems like a further evasion of accountability. Ultimately, whatever companies say about putting people and the planet before profit, they only ever have a partial view of the world.

Only states have, and are authorised by the sovereign people to promote a more universal view. Whether society should be aiming for healthy living, sustainability or anything else should be part of a broad, democratic discussion, not sneakily foisted upon us by businesses acting under the guidance of NGOs, policy wonks or ministers looking for ways to show they’ve ‘made a difference’.

The original advocates of CSR focused their attention on culture, as do their supposedly more people-centric descendants, because it is at this level – the level of the informal relationships between people – that the potential for contestation and resolution initially emerges. This can be a messy business, and one that states that doubt their own direction and purpose are loathe to engage in. They would rather outsource this messy function to others, and attempt to replace all those informal, uncertain and uncontrollable interactions with more predictable formal codes, regulations and responsibilities. That they find willing lap-dogs for this in the ethereal world of think tanks, as well as businesses that are suffering from their own crisis of confidence, is not that surprising.

However, if we truly want to change the world then it is ordinary people who will have to assert what really matters to them. CSR – it has been noted by many – is invariably a by-product of business success, not the cause of it. Likewise, it is people’s aspirations for a better world – however we imagine it – that should be the only prompt for the kind of behaviour we adopt.

First published on spiked, 2 November 2011

Recession: impact on security and cohesion

No sooner had the economic crisis emerged than officials and security agencies started worrying about its implications for social stability. This tells us more about their crisis of confidence than inherent tendencies. The recession will not necessarily lead to social problems. Politicians should engage the public in debating it.

Read the full paper as a PDF here.

Durodié, B. (2009). Recession: Impact on Security and Cohesion. (RSIS Commentaries, No. 048). RSIS Commentaries. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University.

Death of the warrior ethos

Weaving a path from Achilles to Rambo via Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Christopher Coker’s insightful new book captures the increasing demonisation of war – even ‘good wars’ – and the denigration of honour, duty and glory.

In his 1998 BBC Reith lectures, ‘War and Our World’, the military historian and journalist John Keegan described war as ‘collective killing for a purpose’ (1). It is hardly surprising, then, that societies in which a spirit of solidarity has been diminished, the necessity to fight dismissed, and attempts to impart a sense of direction or meaning discredited, are unable to celebrate their wars and their warriors.

Primarily, of course, it is the ‘killing’ part of Keegan’s definition that contemporary societies feel uncomfortable with, or reject outright, rather than the ‘collective’ or ‘purpose’ elements, which many would dearly like to rediscover while remaining sceptical about some of their earlier incarnations. But it is precisely the absence of these latter factors that have served to create confusion about the former.

Anyone wishing to pay tribute to warriors today, or to compose a paean to war as ‘a test of, and testament to, a nation’s resilience’, would be ill-advised to do so. Christopher Coker, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, has done the next best thing. His book The Warrior Ethos, while imbued with a sense of loss, also appropriately captures the ambivalence and ambiguity of our times.

Despite copious notes and references, this is far from being an academic text. In parts The Warrior Ethos feels more poetic than polemic, as Coker endeavours to weave a path from Achilles to Rambo via Shakespeare and Tolstoy. His sense that the spirit of an age can be captured through its literature and culture, rather than historical and political analysis alone, proves most rewarding, especially in revealing what has changed.

It is not simply a lost world that is unravelled, but lost words, too. ‘Honour’, ‘Duty’ and ‘Glory’ lose their meaning, and their use, if we forget the past, dismiss the present and refuse to face up to the future. ‘Heroism’, stripped of its subjective factor, appears merely to be bred-in, or institutionalised. Alternatively it is pathologised, as a self-serving and dangerous obsession, or worse, as the sad struggle of trauma victims.

Henry V’s decisive defeat of the French at Agincourt in 1415, as well as Shakespeare’s account of it with the infamous ‘band of brothers’, can now be portrayed as being about people suffering from ‘a centuries-old “deception” about the glory of war’. Inverting this new orthodoxy, Coker reveals brilliantly how ‘we tend to deprive them of the fullness of their lives in order to support and sustain the smallness of our own’.

It is our contemporary construction of events that can transform these historic episodes from being ‘full of meaning’ to being seen as a ‘futile waste’. In that sense, the postmodern disposition towards not taking anything too seriously is quite disabling, even in the absence of any enemy we may face. But we should be clear, that this ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ (2), stems from an interpretation of the world rather than being inherent.

‘All of us in the Western world come from a culture which doubts its own first principles’, rails Coker. So freedom must be fought for afresh in each generation. Stuggle, too, despite its rejection by those of sensitive dispositions, is also a necessity in nature. ‘Only in the last thirty years have we begun to imagine living at peace with nature’, he notes, yet increasing numbers seem to be forgetting this at their peril.

War, like all struggles, is transformative, both for the individuals concerned and for society. Little wonder then, that societies which – despite their rhetoric – fear change, rejecting the uncertainties it creates and endlessly seeking to control risks, should have such qualms about it. Fighting forces them to take a view of the future, regardless of whether they prefer the present or believe in any particular cause.

This transcendental element of existence is most acutely felt by warriors, who are asked to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the ‘greater good’ – another unfashionable concept, and one invoked by The Military Covenant that has only relatively recently been codified and released (3). But again, a ‘greater good’ presumes a ‘collective’ with a sense of ‘purpose’, despite these being noticeable by their absence today.

Coker does not romanticise killing, although, like a recent report accusing the British Army of glamorising warfare (4), he notes a growing reluctance in military circles to use the ‘K’ word. The preference for euphemisms, such as ‘engage’ or ‘suppress’, can rightly be interpreted as defensive. As in animal testing laboratories, when researchers avoid the ‘K’ word, or claim to prioritise ‘welfare’, their evasion allows opponents to run riot.

It was enlightened modernity itself that put paid to Homeric heroes such as Achilles who, living in an unfettered Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, could go about butchering their opponents with little sense of remorse. The modern warrior is accountable to society, choosing to fight for a shared interest. We are not driven mindlessly into feuds through genetic blood ties, but determine our course by our own reason.

But society, suggests Coker, by sanctioning its warriors’ actions, simultaneously removes the determination of their destiny from them. This suppression of the one to the many works so long as there are many who wish to be one, and so long as all parties trust one another and themselves. If these bonds are broken, a vast array of legal codes is imposed upon would-be warriors to patrol their actions and even their thoughts.

In addition, the American cultural historian Paul Fussell suggests that the attenuation of religious belief in the modern world contributed to making modern war and especially death much harder to bear than in the past (5). ‘How does a society cope with death when it no longer dreams of eternity?’ asks Coker, noting how it has been turned into a risk to be avoided, thereby robbing it, and life, of their significance.

The error is to measure life in terms of risk at all. Life, argued Freud, loses its interest when death may not be risked (6). Another way to put it is that there is more to life than mere existence through risk management. As Coker argues, ‘Reason serves the passions; it doesn’t suppress them.’ Yet, in recent years, the military has tied itself in knots assessing risks, thereby encouraging its detractors to do likewise (7).

Take one example, the tragic deaths from gunshot wounds of four young soldiers at the Princess Royal Barracks in Deepcut, England, between 1995 and 2002. This has now led to, by one count, 17 separate inquiries, including those by members of parliament, the Ministry of Defence, the Official Review, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and a two-year independent review of the various re-investigations (8). No wonder the military feels paralysed.

Meanwhile, the West’s enemies in the ‘war on terror’ claim to embrace death. But suicide bombers are not warriors, proposes Coker, because they are not accountable to society. The problem here is to take them at face value, or to view them as that different to us in the first place. It is not just the Ummah that is not consulted nowadays, but the self-disenfranchised millions in Western democracies, too.

Maybe, in the absence of a cohering society, we are all afflicted by a form of nihilism to some degree. Coker cites Nate Fick in his memoir of the Second Gulf War exclaiming: ‘Death before dishonour. Marines tattoo it on their forearms, but these fuckers [the Iraqis] live it.’ (9) Other, more dispassionate observers, however, characterise self-styled jihadists as making a lot of noise but saying very little, and as having a passion for self-publicity.

Image influences reality, but is limited too, notes Coker. He sees how today’s ‘Jarheads’ are more likely to style themselves upon one-dimensional Hollywood heroes, hip hop and the lyrics of Marilyn Manson, than to have read or appreciated the psychological depth of Greek epic poetry, and bemoans the ‘bad ass’ influence within the US military of those for whom Tupac Shakur is a more familiar figure than Abraham Lincoln (10).

This is a lazy caricature, for while not describing Iraqis as ‘motherfuckers’ or themselves as ‘cool because we’re so good at blowing shit up’, it is the elites who are confused in the current period. They fail to lead for lack of purpose or belief in themselves. And contrary to Coker’s assertions, films do capture mythical dimensions and transcendence, as epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Pan’s Labyrinth prove.

He is also in danger of overstating the role of technology. Coker seems mesmerised by the world of cybernetic warriors and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Quite how much he knows of the ‘hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis’ is anybody’s guess. True, such developments impact on the conduct of war, but it is the loss of confidence in humanity that drives these developments, rather than the other way around.

Technology need not erode tradition and myth, as he suggests. If, for myth, we read a self-affirming narrative that inspires, instructs, enables and connects, as he proposes, then this necessitates the engagement of human passions. For tradition, we could prioritise the truth, as we see it, one that has to be fought for and engaged with, not just imparted. This is the business of politics, not technology or management.

‘Theory’, wrote Marx, ‘becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses’ (11). It is the inability of the elites today to appreciate the material power of ideas, let alone fight for them, that leave them unarmed, looking to technology or management to fill the gap. Ensuring ideas ‘grip the masses’, and become the truth, combining objective evidence with subjective will, is a labour of love entirely alien to them.

There is a real irony, then, in the US military having now introduced a ‘Warrior Ethos’ programme across its force, from basic training to the Army War College, to remind its personnel as to what is expected of them. Like ‘citizenship classes’ in the UK, this seems doomed to fail where it is most needed – at the level of lived ethos as opposed to paper exercises where, unlike on the battlefield, targets are readily met.

The British military is not immune to such instrumental trends. Reports highlight how a career in the Armed Forces ‘equips people with skills and qualifications that can be transferred to civilian life’ (12), or provide ‘an opportunity that may have been denied in civilian life’ (13). In general, the approach is one that emphasises what people can get out of the military, rather than what they will need to give.

Unsurprisingly, then, with such confusion at large across society, as well as embedded in the ranks of the military, Coker identifies how a ‘Therapy Culture’ further confuses matters. It acts as an ‘invitation to infirmity’, he proposes, noting ‘we heal psychic wounds when we are able to give meaning to our experiences. Clearly, if an experience is deemed ‘meaningless’, then ‘so is the pain and suffering that results’.

We are now a long way away from George C Scott’s portrayal of the great American General, George Patton. Talking about war at the start of the 1970 movie, he is depicted as confessing, ‘I love it. God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life’. Nowadays, it is journalists who self-depict themselves as the real heroes of war, risking it all in search of ‘the truth’ and without killing anyone to boot (14).

There is no glory in killing but, as Plato reminds us, ‘What makes us human … is not nature or nurture but our capacity to rise above both’. If we do not want, as Nietzsche warned, to find the abyss looking into us when we look into it (15), then it is high time we were reminded of these few basic truths. The fight for truth and for freedom is essential, and Coker’s book goes some way towards highlighting this.

The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror by Christopher Coker is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

First published on spiked, 29 February 2008

(1) War and Our World: The Reith Lectures 1998, John Keegan, Hutchinson, 1998, p.2

(2) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard, Manchester University Press, 1984, p.xxiv

(3) Soldiering – The Military Covenant, Army Doctrine Publication Volume 5, 2000

(4) Informed Choice? Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom, David Gee, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, 2007

(5) The Bloody Game: An Anthology of Modern Warfare, Paul Fussell, Scribner, 1991, p.24

(6) Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, Paul Ricoeur, New Haven, 1970, p.329

(7) Informed Choice?, op. cit.

(8) Breaking the Covenant: Governance of the British Army in the Twenty-First Century, Anthony Forster, International Affairs, 2006, Vol.82, No.6, p.1048

(9) One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, Nathaniel Fick, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p.82

(10) Generation Kill: Living Dangerously on the Road to Baghdad with the Ultra-Violent Marines of Bravo Company, Evan Wright, Bantam 2004

(11) A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx, 1844

(12) Ministry of Defence Responds to Independent Report ‘Informed Choice?’ on Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the UK, Government News Network, 7 January 2008

(13) House of Commons Defence Committee, Duty of Care (Vol.1), The Stationery Office 2005, p.5-6

(14) This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Line of the War on Terrorism, Andrew Exum, Gotham, 2005, p.233

(15) Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886