Wring Out Your Dead

Exorcising the demons of the last crisis with the nightmares of the present.

Every year, on September 11th, the man who sold the Iraq War enters a fugue state, and performs what has become the defining ritual of the National Security State.

Every year, former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer recounts, on twitter, in close to real time, events from 7:59 am Eastern, Tuesday, 9/11/2001 until 6:54 pm Eastern. The thread, 127 tweets in total, is filled with images, and the Thread Reader app estimates it takes 24 minute to read all the way through. It is roughly 5,000 words long.

It was never not weird. It is, in 2020, set against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed 194,000 people in the United States, also a crystal-clear distillation of the way the ritual or war and remembrance has entirely and utterly failed to actually secure anything close to lives and livelihoods.

On this particular September 11th, Fleischer’s weird invocation was set against a pacific coastal sky, orange with smoke. As the fires swept into Oregon, the tangible connection between the ritual and the tragedy was finally clear: six Chinook helicopters with the Oregon National Guard, capable of carrying 2,000-gallon buckets of water for fighting fires, were instead deployed to Afghanistan, in the last weeks of year 18 of the war launched after 9/11.

Fleischer’s actual words have long since been irrelevant; history is clear about the failures that went into that day, and the crimes it inspired. So long as the United States refuses to look backwards and reckon with crimes committed by prior administrations, the most justice we can possibly hope for is that Fleischer is resigned to increasing obscurity, save for the one day a year when he must perform Never Forgetting. The harm is done.

My beat, inasmuch as it exists, is about the machinery of the Forever War, a conflict set in motion when I was in seventh grade. It seemed, for the whole of my adolescence and young adulthood, the defining event of the 21st Century. As the war was handed off to one, and then another, administration, it receded to background noise, no less deadly for the people experiencing it, but just an assumed part of what the United States does.

The Oregon National Guard sent helicopters to Afghanistan, formally as part of a kind of “troop draw-down” in advance of planned peace talks and a presidential election. It will be at least the third draw-down of US forces in Afghanistan tied to a mid-term presidential election.

The draw-downs get forgotten. The ritual of remembering only ever focuses on the spark, the harm done to the US. The death tolls of the war, from soldiers deployed to fight in a conflict authorized when they were toddlers, to the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed as a direct result of the war, get lost in the remembering of the attack. 

Rituals exist as a way for the person performing the ritual to mark some kind of special significance. What reliving 9/11 does for the authors of the Iraq War is reiterate, in their minds at least, that the needless invasions they ordered were in fact justified, and just.

To relive 9/11 is to avoid re-litigating it.

Historical memory will not, I think, be particularly sympathetic towards the logic that launched the forever war, or that sustained it. Without the ritual, and the necromanced rage it animates, the dead are left to rest, instead of carried about as open wounds demanding sacrifice. If the dead are left to rest, then the wars carried on in their name must be seen clearly, as tragedies launched in pursuit of phantoms.

The ritual of remembering, of vivid remembering, is a way to make the national security state make sense, to understand how a ready-made list of police requests to bypass due process could be shoveled together as a PATRIOT Act. The ritual of remembering is used to justify the continued existence of the Department of Homeland Security, even in the face of its clear predations on people in the United States. Without the harm we did to ourselves, goes the ritual, a greater form of unknowable evil would have befallen us instead.

Hard as it is to prove the counterfactual, to argue with certainty that a different administration or a different course of action would lead to a better future, it is easy to see the failures that come from actions actually taken. We are living in the aftermath of the decision to create a Forever War, and the decisions made to sustain it.

To pretend that the wars abroad had no consequence for people living within the United States is to be willfully obtuse.

“War nationalism always turns itself inward,” writes Adam Serwer, “but in the past, wars ended.”

Serwer’s line comes from The Nationalist’s Delusion, an essay published by the Atlantic in November 2017. It’s a piece I revisit often. The line is worth reading in its fuller context:

In the meantime, more than a decade of war nationalism directed at jihadist groups has shaped Republican attitudes toward Muslims—from seeing them as potential Republican voters in the late 1990s to viewing them as internal enemies currently. War nationalism always turns itself inward, but in the past, wars ended. Anti-Irish violence fell following the service of Irish American soldiers in the Civil War; Germans were integrated back into the body politic after World War II; and the Italians, Jews, and eastern Europeans who were targeted by the early 20th century’s great immigration scare would find themselves part of a state-sponsored project of assimilation by the war’s end. But the War on Terror is without end, and so that national consolidation has never occurred. Again, Trump is a manifestation of this trend rather than its impetus, a manifestation that began to rise not long after Obama’s candidacy.

The war nationalism remains, even as American deaths in the Forever War have fallen precipitously. It is, in another sense, the culmination of the Nixon-initiated shift to an All Volunteer Force, of war made less objectionable to the public by its participants knowing assent to battle.

There is a technology story here: medical advances, improvements in armor and vehicles, stabilization of fronts, and possibly battlefield surveillance technology have all, maybe, contributed to the sense that, at least within the US, the war is only background. The chief accomplishment of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, whose v-shaped hulls protect occupants from improvised bombs, may be that they calmed public skepticism, after the bloodiest years of the Iraq War. A truck full of traumatic brain injuries is a series of personal stories; a truck full of deaths is the front page of several hometown papers.

Those MRAPs are returning to the United States, to join the war nationalism that never left. Both find a home in police forces, ones that view some armed bands of civilians not as a threat to their power but as a useful proxy in a public conflict over the expansive repressive power of the state. We are nowhere near the end of seeing all the second- and third- order effects of the forever war and its war nationalism.

The ritual of reliving is designed to hide all of these follow-on effects. It is to evoke a mythic sense of shared vulnerability, without extending even the basic acknowledgement that the immediate feeling of the early 9/11 era was acute vulnerability for some communities, especially but not exclusively Muslims and Sikhs, as white Americans targeted them for violence.

I have no doubt that the most dedicated practitioners will continue the ritual for years and even decades to come. For the public at large, it is impossible to imagine the ritual surviving the pandemic. A threat literal orders of magnitude greater, and one that cannot even superficially be solved with missiles, is a clarifying moment, it is an abrupt break with the past, it is, in real ways, an entirely new era.

The War on Terror may yet stagger on for years from sheer inertia, animated only by ritual. Until the state is capable of imagining a new purpose for itself, the war will remain the hollow project of a hollow state. 

ESTATES, GENERALLY

The Pentagon refers to everything under the Department of Defense, but not cleanly under a specific service branch (Army, Navy, Air Force, etc) as the “fourth estate.” To modernize their networks (and, in theory, save money), the military is looking at creating a whole shared network infrastructure. The contract for “Defense Enclave System” is set at $11.7 billion over ten years, which is a staggering sum to contemplate in any context outside military spending.

The National Security Agency, most often seen in the news collecting vast troves of private information of little actionable value, is, like offices all over, now more open to remote work. That has led, in part, to a new emphasis on some cybersecurity reporting done without using classified information, since it is hard to secure secrets on home networks.

At Forbes, I wrote about a computer/robot so small it is printed on microchips, with little legs folded into place. Powered by lasers, this literal nanomachine can move, possibly through blood. The Army Research Office funding suggests this might lead to an innovation in battlefield medicine. In the endless wars of the 2030s, a weary zoomer medic could save the life of an injured private by making sure she has sufficient robots in her blood. Maybe!

Over at The Loopcast, I spoke with David Klion about the notion of the American Empire as the “Sick Man of North America,” an article of Klion’s published in April 2018, which only rings more true now! The conversation is far ranging and I think it expresses well our frustration with the limitations of what foreign policy is, versus what it can actually be.


Last Monday, I sent out “Labor, Force Revisited,” the subscriber-exclusive for Wars of Future Past. It’s a return to an old Tomorrow Wars essay of mine about the complicated relationship between coders in Silicon Valley and the Pentagon’s desire to bend that code towards war. You can read it now with a paid subscription.

I very much enjoy writing like this, and reader support is what lets me take it from a weird, time-intensive hobby into part of my patched-together freelance income. Paid subscribers will gain access to more ways to directly contact me, and I’ve included a survey in my paid posts so I can better respond to what it is that subscribers actually want me to cover.

That’s all for this fortnight. Thank you all for reading, and if you’re in the mood for more newsletters, may I recommend checking out what we’re doing over at Discontents?