I write this essay with a degree of concern and trepidation. Being fully aware of the sort of stigma that could be attached to a person who openly professes an interest in the topics of war and violence – particularly a male person born in an incorrigibly belligerent part of the world such as the Middle East – I am afraid to further state that this interest of mine does not conform to the dominant ethical anti-violence views of my colleagues and fellow-travellers in the Australian literary scene and academia. I have participated in anti-war rallies. Cruelty towards animals, domestic violence, school and workplace bullying and corporal punishment are things I unconditionally detest. But this apologetic preamble does not occlude my view that much of today’s discourses on violence – particularly perspectives that are blatantly opposed to violence – are determined by a highly questionable dominant ideology.
This essay is a critique of one such perspective, as advanced in the novel R&R, the new work by the Australian writer Mark Dapin, which explicitly deals with the themes of military conflict and violence. It’s my argument that, in dramatising and deprecating acts of direct physical violence – however menacing their perpetrators and however innocent their victims – a work such as this war novel and, perhaps by extension, many others associated with other genres in which grisly violence is central, such as horror and crime fiction, suppress the much more prevalent, far more significant instances of symbolic and structural violence that underpin and regulate our supposedly non-warring, peacetime societies. My argument draws on the theses of the great Walter Benjamin who saw violence as absolutely crucial to the foundation of society and the law, not only in times of war and under military rule but also under the aegis of an apparently peaceful, democratic capitalism; a radical thinker who also did not shy away from acknowledging – much to the consternation of many pacifists and champions of non-violence – violence’s capacity for transforming societies’ unjust, unequal foundations.
Dapin’s R&R is the tale of an irreverent, sex-obsessed American military policeman and his upright, virginal Australian sidekick who are caught up in the midst of what the Vietnamese call, rather correctly in my view, the Resistance War against America. Despite its entertainingly crass humour and refreshing propensity to breach the boundaries of today’s conventionally hypersensitive, politically correct narratives – the novel’s foulmouthed characters are blissfully unaware of many a middle class reader’s phobia of a variety of swearwords and racist and misogynistic jokes, with one character boasting to another, ‘I see more yellow ass than your ma sees truckers’ cocks’; or a US sergeant threatening a subordinate by telling him, ‘I’ll ram a pool cue down your throat and use your balls for billiards’ – R&R still provides a lucid account of what I see as the commonly accepted contemporary commentary on violence.
The key tenet of this ideology is the perception of violence as a negative, both in a semantic and a moral sense: violence is bad, and it has an antonymous relationship with the good; violence, understood in this way, is unnecessary, undesirable and unpleasant. It is evil, if one must, and it is also counterproductive and ugly (the opposite of beautiful). This view of violence coincides, in my understanding of it, with Hannah Arendt’s highly influential thesis, according to which violence is the destructive opposite of constructive – good – political power. For both Dapin and Arendt, genuine, legitimate human power and capacity (to do good, to love, to respect the Other, etc.) begins where violence ends.
Dapin’s narration does not in any way shrink from representing violence, and perhaps even takes a guilty – or guiltily transgressive – pleasure in depicting murder, military conflict, police brutality, fistfights, a quasi-pornographic ‘fight between two naked women’, among other instances of physical violence. The novel begins with the mutilated corpse of a Vietnamese man being morbidly desecrated and then shot by drunken American soldiers in a brothel in a so-called rest and recuperation centre (hence the book’s title) in the US-occupied town of Vung Tau during the Resistance War. Not long after, an Australian soldier has his legs ‘come away, as if at the twist of a key’, courtesy of a Viet Cong landmine. In a pub in Sydney, a petty criminal called Izzy Berger – one of the novel’s most interesting and carefully constructed characters, prior to him too finding his way to Vietnam – shoots an old nemesis ‘in the back of the head’ and sees the dead man’s ‘brain splattered over the wall of the pub’. In a hut in the Vietnamese village of Long Tâm Thu, Australian soldiers find the decapitated ‘head of a man, mouth open, eyes wide, as if it were looking for its body’.
Dapin’s depictions of violence are effective, explicit and visceral. In a key passage, which explicates both the novel’s treatment of violence and also its ideology, an Australian military nurse contemplates, after seeing an Australia soldier die, that
the human body was just a breathing, eating, bleeding machine. It wasn’t sacred. It had been defiled. It was meat, that was all, and one day it would be dead meat, and the real glaring, blaring, screaming, gigantically obvious wrong thing wasn’t using your body for love or sex, it was men organising themselves to kill each other, and calling it war so it didn’t look like a crime.
The insertion of an openly anti-war sentiment in a novel dominated by brutish soldiers, their sexual escapades and macho misadventures (mostly at the expense of the working class women of the country invaded by the selfsame soldiers) may seem anomalous; but both the view that violence is in the first and last instance something which affects the body – and its supposed meatiness – and that, it is therefore merely a ‘crime’ which ‘defiles’ the ‘sacredness’ of the body and the possibly for obviously desirable things that one can do with one’s body – such as ‘love or sex’ – constitute what I see as the novel’s particular, and particularly ideological, renditions of the theme of violence.
The reduction of violence to the physical and the somatic obfuscates the role and devastating power of violence in the non-bodily, non-sensory spaces of the social and the politico-economical. Dapin’s depiction of violence is, to use Slavoj Žižek’s taxonomy, limited to what the philosopher has described as a ‘directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent’. It is the violence of legs being torn off by landmines, brains being splattered on walls, and so on. The novelist’s focus on these configurations of easily perceptible, visually sensational and affective violence does not simply aesthetically enhance the plot of a novel such as R&R. It also enables the narrator to steer the reader’s analysis of the incidents of violence away from an exploration of the foundational, structural regimes of punishment, fear, coercion and intimidation embedded in modern social systems, which often have no need to resort to acts of physical violence, due to these regimes’ enshrinements in normal institutions of daily, supposedly non-violent life such as the law, work, family, media, communication and so on.
It may by now be quite clear that my understanding of violence is one premised on a Marxist philosophical tradition. I shall cite some of the key insights of the thinkers of this tradition apropos of animosity and violence later, and explicate how violence does not merely ‘defile’ the body but makes and preserves political, legal and economic power. For now, I’d like to emphasise that the view that violence is ‘a gigantically obvious wrong thing’ is not simply a flippant rumination by one of Dapin’s marginal fictional characters. It is an ethico-ideological position that comes to determine the development of the novel’s plot, which culminates in the khaki-clad protagonists striking anti-war, humanitarian poses in the book’s final pages. The novel concludes with a description of the war as ‘futile’, the soldiers’ realisation that building an orphans’ school had been ‘the only good thing’ their forces had done in Vung Tau, and with the now repentant US military policeman advising his Australian assistant, apropos of the Vietnamese women in the city’s brothels, ‘“We’ve got to help them” […] “Not fuck them”’. Former whoremongering-military-men-cum-international-aid-activists, Dapin’s heroes seem to be in complete agreement with the former socialist-radical-cum-Christian-mystic, Simone Weil, who famously wrote: ‘War and Eros are two sources of falsehood among men’.
I believe this narrative trajectory is not only a symptom of a progressive bourgeois ethics – in keeping with the middle class preoccupation with helping the poor of underdeveloped nations through charity, philanthropy, foreign aid, ethical consumerism, and so on – but an ideological posture consonant with a particularly un-Marxist, capitalist-democratic theory of violence, one which has been most eloquently and compellingly put forward by Arendt in her famous essay, ‘Reflections on Violence’ (1969). I’d like to consider this piece in a little detail, since Arendt’s essay was written during Vietnam’s Resistance War against America, and it expresses a view very similar to Dapin’s penitent protagonists apropos of the impotence and futility of the US and its Western allies’ military might in the conflict.
The German-born philosopher bemoans her adoptive country’s ‘years of futile fighting in Vietnam’ and observes:
we have seen in Vietnam how an enormous superiority in the means of violence can become helpless if confronted with an ill-equipped but well organised opponent who is much more powerful.
As mentioned before, Arendt’s decisive differentiation of power from violence is at the heart of her essay, and it is this binary opposition which enables her to view the Viet Cong as more capable than the US army. The Americans’ technologically advanced military – or their ‘superiority in the means of violence’ – was ultimately no substitute for the ‘support and consent’ of the Vietnamese people. For Arendt, the latter kind of strength – premised on ‘the power of the people’ and ‘the support of the laws to which the citizenry had given its consent’ – is synonymous with true power.
Power, as such, is not a negative force – a negativity that may be discerned in the unjust subjugation of one person/nation/class/gender by its more powerful other – but a positive element, ‘inherent in the very existence of all political communities’, which belongs ‘to the same category’ as peace. Unlike violence, power is ‘an end in itself’ and not the means for achieving an end (such as defeating the Viet Cong). Arendt therefore asserts the ‘fundamental ascendancy of power over violence’. According to this formulation, it would have been far more preferable for the Americans and their allies to have created a true democracy in South Vietnam and bolstered the nation’s civic institutions – by perhaps, as Dapin would have it, building more orphans’ schools – than to have hurled bombs at the North Vietnamese.
Arendt’s rejection of violence and her espousal of peaceful democracy may appear progressive, even Left-leaning. But it should not be forgotten that it was not her putative reservations vis-à-vis the US war in Vietnam that precipitated the writing of her essay. As noted by the Arendt scholar Richard Bernstein, her essay was written due to her feeling ‘alarmed by the growth of the Black Power movement and the increasingly shrill rhetoric of violence in the student movement throughout the world’. Much of the essay takes the form of an argument not against US imperial aggression but against the bellicose anti-colonial rhetoric of Frantz Fanon and Fanon’s enthusiastic supporter Jean-Paul Sartre. She refutes, quite mercilessly, much of the bluster of Fanon’s and Sartre’s bloodcurdling calls for violence against European colonialists. And interestingly, her opposition to these radicals of the Left is premised upon a highly appreciative reading of their revered, bearded nineteenth-century secular saint, Karl Marx.
This is not the place for a detailed critique of Arendt’s reading of Marx, nor is it necessary to stress my agreement with much of what she sees as non-Marxian in the discourse that would come to be called postcolonialism. Suffice it to say that there is nothing controversial, from a Marxist perspective, in Arendt’s view that ‘Marx was aware of the role of violence in history, but this role was to him secondary; not violence but the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end’. But Arendt does not stop at observing, quite accurately in my view, that Marx did not see violence as central to a revolution. She goes on to claim that for Marx,
the actual power of the ruling class did not consist of nor rely on violence. It was defined by the role the ruling class played in society, or more exactly, by its role in the process of production.
This is a highly questionable claim. Where precisely does this ‘process of production’, which apparently has no reliance on violence, originate? How exactly does the ruling class come to take and maintain its dominant role in the process of production, if not through the exercise of some kind of force and violence? And does production occur in a prelapsarian Eden of peace and harmony where there exists neither conflict nor an imperative to resort to violence? Certainly not, according to Marx himself. He, of course, saw antagonism as foundational in the world. As he wrote in his powerful 1847 critique of humanist socialism, The Poverty of Philosophy:
The very moment civilisation begins, production begins to be founded on the antagonism of orders, estates, classes, and finally on the antagonism of accumulated labour. No antagonism, no progress. This is the law that civilisation has followed up to our days. Till now the productive forces have been developed by virtue of this system of class antagonisms. To say now that, because all the needs of all workers were satisfied, men could devote themselves to the creation of the products of a higher order – to more complicated industries – would be to leave class antagonism out of account and turn all historical development upside down. It is like saying that because, under the Roman emperors, muraena [large Mediterranean eels] were fattened in artificial fishponds, therefore there was enough to feed abundantly the whole Roman population. Actually, on the contrary, the Roman people had not enough to buy bread with, while the Roman aristocrats had slaves enough to throw as fodder to the muraena.
Marx is here arguing against a central, seductive myth of capitalist ideology – as prevalent in his time as, sadly, in ours – that abundance and prosperity can be naturally achieved and production may be unproblematically, magically boosted – without any producers being victimised or exploited, without the bosses having to use force, intimidation or coercion – and that everyone can be a success, and all we need is a belief in our natural ability to make it, and so on; or, as Marx’s metaphor would have it, we simply need to believe in the eels’ disposition to naturally grow fat in fishponds and therefore provide food for everyone. But this is of course an absurd fantasy, as the generation of surplus-value – i.e. wealth, prosperity, etc – is entirely dependent upon the rulers’, managers’ and employers’ ability to make the workers and employees work harder to produce more exchange-value than the owners have invested – or have allocated to the workers, in the form of salary – in a given instance of production. Due to these productive relations, workers and their work’s managers and owners are in a state of perpetual disagreement and antagonism; and, to quash or at least temporarily subside the revolutionary potential of this antagonism, the powerful do not hesitate from using violence, force and even terror, as seen in the image of slaves being fed to the eels by Roman nobility.
But this brutal image should not obscure Marx’s examination of the much more crucial, foundational – in other words structural – aggression and cruelty which is needed for one class or agent (patricians, plutocrats and the managers and CEOs of today) to dominate and bring into obedience slaves, factory workers and employees. And it should be emphasised that this domination occurs through means other than the overt exercise of physical or subjective violence, a phenomenon noted by Benjamin when he wrote of ‘a violence indirectly exercised by the employer’. One of today’s workers, for example, can be coerced to work overtime without fair payment or to work more than she is obliged to according to her terms of employment if she is threatened with being fired or with losing her rights as an employee. Such a threat is nothing short of an exercise of violence and degrades and victimises its subject, even if it does not involve fists and bullets and does not leave bruises on the victim’s body. And it is this kind of violence which the contemporary Marxist Žižek distinguishes from subjective violence and describes as an instance of ‘the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism’.
Arendt, in her attempt to disentangle power from violence, has not only misrepresented Marx’s thought – and by so doing undermined Marx’s view that economic and hence political power cannot be established or sustained without systemic antagonism and its accompanying violence – she has also had to ignore Walter Benjamin’s important essay ‘Critique of Violence’, a rather glaring omission, considering that Arendt herself was one of the key champions of Benjamin’s works in the Anglophone milieu. Arendt’s avoidance of Benjamin’s theses is even more surprising when we note that both philosophers see (most) violence as a means and not an end. However, Benjamin’s conclusions from his contemplation on violence are radically different to Arendt’s. While Arendt does not see an interdependence between power and violence – and, indeed, sees their relationship as oppositional – Benjamin notes that violence, if seen as a means, can pursue two specifically legal ends; and, as such, it assumes, first, ‘a lawmaking function’ and then a ‘law-preserving function’. ‘Police violence’, as Benjamin notes, provides a lucid illustration of his theory:
It is lawmaking, for its characteristic function is not the promulgation of laws but the assertion of legal claims for any decree, and law-preserving, because it is at the disposal of these ends.
Benjamin’s essay incorporates, as with many of the philosopher’s other most striking works, religious motifs and symbols, and he comes to term both of the abovementioned forms of legal violence as ‘mythical’. Furthermore, he terms ‘divine’ the revolutionary violence exercised by those victimised by the law and the police – ‘a pure immediate violence that might be able to call a halt to mythical violence’. This divine violence may be another reason for Arendt’s reluctance to engage with Benjamin in her essay as it is clearly a very rare genus of emancipatory violence which is no longer a means but, as one commentator, Signe Larsen, has noted, a separation between means and ends. However, the central challenge for Arendt – and other advocates of non-violent power and liberal democratic ideology – resides in Benjamin’s succinct observation that power and the law are not undermined by violence, but are in fact made and preserved through the application of violence, either directly/physically or indirectly/systemically. Power and violence are not opposites; and power cannot be maintained without the exercise of physical and/or systemic violence.
To return to Mark Dapin’s R&R, it seems to me that this Australian novel about Vietnam’s Resistance War against America, in abiding by today’s general ideological assumptions about violence – which we may term as liberal democratic, or even Arendtian – presents a narrative in which violent soldiers come to see the folly of their ways and the novel’s most violent, hence most villainous character – ironically named Caution – is brought to a rather unhappy ending, perhaps in way of punishment. The born-again ethical soldiers come to perceive a vision of power that is not predicated upon Weil’s much-reviled twin infamies of ‘War and Eros’, but one which is very much in concert with Arendt’s vision of a people freely giving their consent to their rulers. The American military policeman and his Australian colleague ruminate about ‘the good’ Vietnamese, ‘who came to Vung Tau for our protection. And the refugees in town, they ran from the north because they worshipped God or spoke French or made their own money the American way’. These people, supposedly persecuted by the godless Communists for their religious and cultural practices, have seemingly given their consent to the Western soldiers’ power in exchange for protection. But will theirs be a happy, peaceful existence under the aegis of their now respectful guardians? Is capitalism – the system of ‘making one’s own money the American way’, as Dapin puts it – not founded upon antagonism, and will the rulers not have to resort to systemic and subjective, lawmaking and law-preserving violence to subdue the antagonised, the disposed and the exploited?
Dapin’s novel does not quite end with the Western protagonists’ ethical turn. In the very last pages of the novel, we are presented with the perspective of some of the novel’s minor Vietnamese characters, among them a few covert Viet Cong agents. This is a welcome break with what I’ve described as the narrative’s prevalent discourse, and its view of violence as a futile, immoral spectacle. For the anti-American fighters, war is unavoidable and purposeful. This conclusion, however, does little to significantly differentiate R&R from many other recent contemporary novels about war and violence, such as Edna O’Brien’s much-hyped but frankly underwhelming The Little Red Chairs, which portrays a military figure as an initially seductive, then morally abhorrent war criminal, a novel which also shares with R&R, in addition to a moral epiphany in the development of its central character, a rather narrow focus on the impact and actuality of physical or subjective violence.
R&R can also be classed alongside other contemporary Australian war novels which, while denouncing violence in the course of the development of plot and character – each concluding with a socio-culturally palatable anti-war message – nevertheless include more than their fair share of the thrills, tragedy and other aesthetic qualities realised in representing subjective martial violence. One may view this tendency as something of discursive deviousness, according to which an author tries to have their military cake and eat it peacefully. Consider, for example, the recent Gallipoli-themed novel Seasons of War, by Christopher Lee, which, in the words of one effusive reviewer , Ross Southernwood, expresses ‘the futility and pity’ of the Great War while, at the same time, and in the words of the same reviewer, describing the ‘increasingly bloody landscape’ in a ‘rhythmic text [that] takes on a poetic sense and feel’. Or Richard Flanagan’s much-awarded World War II novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which, as noted by Michael Hoffman in his (now infamous) review , war ‘either matters, or it doesn’t. Flanagan tries both, and neither seems right’.
I should like to conclude this essay on a more enthusiastic note, and with a recommendation. Bosnian writer Selvedin Avdić’s Seven Terrors – first published in 2010, and available in English since 2012 – is a rare instance of a work of contemporary fiction that portrays violence as systemic, as brutally unjust and yet entirely central to the functioning of ordinary life in today’s societies in accordance with the political and social interests of the economically powerful. This novel’s discourse on violence is not characterised by shocking depictions of physical conflict or a narrator’s expected ethical revulsion at these depictions (an often insinsere revulsion which may be seen as the basic disavowal of an initial fascination with violence). Avdić is instead interested in non-physical, mental and societal forms of force and aggression that shape and dominate modern life.
In Avdić’s gripping debut novel, the Bosnian War, with all its undeniable horrors and atrocities, is presented as but one dimension of a much more insidious, harrowing matrix of power, coercion and control, one which is grounded in the economic exploitation of workers, the ruthlessness of wealthy owners of local industries, and the owners’ will to expropriate all material means of life, subsistence and production. But don’t let this description intimate that Seven Terrors is a turgid, theoretical book. It is a suspenseful, at times spinechilling Gothic tale which involves mythological demons and rather hilarious observations about women’s fashion magazines, alongside a terrifically compelling discourse on war, violence and humanity’s dark heart.
Hannah Arendt, ‘Reflections on Violence,’ New York Review of Books (27 February 1969).
Selvedin Avdić, Seven Terrors, translated by Coral Petkovich (Istros Books, 2012).
Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, edited by Peter Demetz, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Random House, 2007).
Richard J. Bernstein, Violence: Thinking without Banisters (Polity, 2013).
Michael Hoffman, ‘Is his name Alwyn?’ London Review of Books (July 2014).
Signe Larsen, ‘Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin: Critique of Violence,’ Critical Legal Thinking (11 October 2013).
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Foreign Language Press, 1978).
Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs (Faber & Faber, 2015).
Ross Southernwood, ‘Gallipoli from a soldier’s eye in a novel by screenwriter Christopher Lee,’ The Sydney Morning Herald (12 April 2015).
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr (Routledge, 2002).
Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (Profile Books, 2009).