The quintessence of “humanitarian intervention” has rarely been displayed so completely than in a recent post by Hullabaloo contributor David Atkins: “The bloody work of hairless monkeys.”
Much like Martin Amis — who at some point in the early 21st century realized that Joe Stalin was one bad hombre and then wrote a book informing the world of this revelation — Atkins has apparently just now discovered that human tribes and religious groups have been senselessly killing each other for, like, forever. Not only that: Atkins has also uncovered the hitherto unsuspected notion that “people everywhere are essentially hairless monkeys whose basic dispositions haven’t evolved that much despite our larger brains and capacity for more moral decision making.”
Indeed, the inescapable, inherent, endemic violence of human nature (or rather, hairless monkey nature) is so powerful and so overwhelming that “if the reasons to fight don’t exist, they will be invented.” Atkins couples this with yet another shocking discovery: “Human beings everywhere love to form in-groups and out-groups, and those groups will fight each other for the stupidest possible reasons.” Not since stout Cortez stood amazed on that peak in Darien has there been such a wild surmise of illumination.
To recap, then, Atkins asserts that human beings are nothing more than beasts driven by primal instincts to band together in vicious in-groups and savagely attack any outsiders whom they perceive as a threat — or even for no good reason at all. This is a most grim and gruesome vision of our common human fate, our existential reality. We are “stupid,” “morally insane” hairless monkeys doomed to intractable violent conflict. Caught in a trap, can’t walk out, as that venerable existentialist E.A. Presley once put it.
Or are we? Perhaps not. For despite the fact that we are all unevolved hairless monkeys with a basic disposition to make up reasons to kill each other, it seems that there is at least one avenue of escape from our inherent nature, one way out of the eternal cycle of violent conflict. Guess what it is.
I kid you not. After postulating that hairless monkeys cannot overcome their propensity for in-group/out-group violence, Atkins then proclaims that we need to form — wait for it — an incredibly powerful in-group capable of inflicting irresistible violence on any out-group that opposes the will of the in-group. Nation-states, and their hairless monkey populations, cannot be “left to their own devices,” he says.
Minimization of war and human suffering will depend on tightly binding people and civilizations to one another, and on taking a dim view of the in-groups and out-groups that people use to separate themselves from one another. And that in turn will require a stronger multinational peacekeeping force, not a weaker one.
So we must “tightly bind” people together — by force. We must enforce the unity of all humankind at gunpoint (and bombpoint and dronepoint). A “multinational force” is required — is the only way — to minimize the suffering from human conflict. And this multinational force must be so strong that it can oversway — defeat, destroy, crush, humiliate — the military forces of all nation-states and all other human monkey groupings outside the in-group behind the “stronger multinational peacekeeping force.”
Unfortunately, having given us the answer to the age-old problem of human conflict, Atkins suddenly gets a bit coy on a key point. He doesn’t address the question of who will control this all-powerful multinational force, which will require trillions of dollars and millions of soldiers to “tightly bind” the world together. Who will staff it, fund it, arm it, supply it, command its operations? Who will decide who commands it? Who will decide when it must be used to punish a recalcitrant tribe?
And these questions lead to another pertinent point: Surely whoever is in charge of this armed leviathan — capable of bending whole nations, whole civilizations to its dominion — will, in the end, be nothing more than a bunch of inherently violent, morally insane hairless monkeys themselves, won’t they? Won’t this in-group behave just as senselessly and stupidly as all the others?
Or can it be that Atkins believes that there are perhaps a few hairless monkeys out there who have evolved a bit further than the rest? And that perhaps these higher beings could be trusted to use an implacably powerful global war machine only for the greater good of the lesser breeds, only to “tightly bind” the insufficiently evolved masses and reduce their suffering? And might these wise guides be known as “humanitarian interventionists”?
Atkins was prompted to write his piece by the sectarian violence that erupted across Iraq this week. The slaughter of Shi’ite worshippers is indeed an instance of our human propensity for senseless killing. But from this current event, he leaps immediately to instances from history, from all over the world, to further illustrate this propensity. The effect of this sudden leap is that the events in Iraq get lost in the general historical flood — just one more piece of flotsam drifting by in the bloody current. Its context is lost, subsumed in general assertions about our intractable nature. Why did these Iraqi slaughters happen? There was no cause — just our stupid violent monkey nature. Atrocities just … happen.
Atkins says that when he read of Iraqi slaughter, he was reminded of the sack of Magdeburg during the European religious wars of the 17th century. That’s a bit odd. The first thing I thought of when I read about the Iraqi slaughters was something a little nearer to us in history: the “humanitarian intervention” by American-led military forces into Iraq in 2003. It was the intervention of this “multinational peacekeeping force” that directly and explicitly created the conditions for the recent slaughters that so disturbed Atkins and made him think about the Holy Roman Empire, and then a story he heard one time in a college anthropology class about Amazonian tribes, and also about the “bloody and brutal” culture of the “native Hawaiian kingdoms.”
Atkins seems keen to move on from Iraq as soon as possible and dissolve its true context in this vague anthro-philosophical goo. His anxiety on the subject is understandable. For of course Iraq is the great scandal of our earnest “humanitarian interventionists.” It is the unfortunate outlier, the stumbling-block that gives holy (sorry, humanitarian) war a bad name. For the fact — the incontrovertible, historical fact — is that modern Iraq never suffered from the atrocious level of sectarian violence that we see there today — until the intervention of the “Coalition of the Willing” plunged the country into death, fear, ruin and chaos. The mass-murdering intervention not only fertilized the ground for the rise of sectarian violence; its Anglo-American leaders funded and armed and empowered several of the violent extremist groups directly.
The sickening violence in Iraq this week did not spring from the intractable nature of hairless monkeys blindly following their unevolved hormonal surges. It didn’t spring from Amazonian tribesmen killing a boy who was not their kinsmen. It didn’t spring from the bloody and brutal culture of the native Hawaiian kingdoms. It didn’t spring from Imperial Field Marshal Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim and the other hairless monkeys who plundered Magdeburg in 1631. It springs — directly and unmistakably — from the intervention of the multinational force that invaded the country in 2003 and then continued to kill, destroy, corrupt, and foment extremism there for many years afterwards.
Now it’s true that I am not comprehensively au fait with oeuvre of Mr. Atkins. But having read some of his offerings since he began binding himself tightly to Hullabaloo, I think it is highly likely that he himself opposed the intervention in Iraq. I’m sure he feels that it was the wrong kind of intervention, not a real humanitarian intervention. (How could it have been? It was launched by a Republican.) Yet here he is advocating precisely the same thing — an all-powerful military machine heedless of state sovereignty imposing its will by violent force — as the way to “peace and the reduction of human misery.” I must say such logic leaves me slack-jawed, like old Cortez. Here we see Orwell’s hoary tropes come to life: War is Peace. Slavery (being tightly bound under threat of violence) is Freedom. Death and Ruin are the Reduction of Human Misery.
No doubt Atkins’ bright vision is based on the wild surmise that this world-controlling “multinational peacekeeping force” will be led by “morally responsible” leaders (perhaps even by, say, Nobel Peace Prize laureates), and that the nation-crushing operations of this global army will be carefully targeted, limited in scope, minimizing collateral damage whenever possible, and accompanied by humanitarian relief and civics lessons for the survivors, etc., etc. But if, like Atkins, we make human history our argument, how likely is it that we would see a more peaceful, less miserable world under the iron rod of such a force? Perhaps in answer we should adapt his own shrugging dismissal of all other alternatives to armed interventionism, and say that, “sadly, a study of human nature from before civilization to the modern day tends to disprove the hypothesis that [this] will lead to world peace.”
Atkins strains for grandeur in his big finish:
At this point in our evolution we’re still as overgrown toddlers playing foolishly with loaded guns in a grand, modern technology version of Lord of the Flies. Turning an isolationist eye of indifference toward all of this will not prevent bloody conflict for stupid reasons from enveloping humanity. It will simply guarantee it.
Once more, I confess that my non-large brain cannot follow the logic here. In our present evolutionary state, we are as toddlers. Or hairless monkeys. Or lemurs with sideburns. Or something. In any case, we are physically, genetically incapable of stopping our primitive urges to form in-groups and engage in bloody conflicts for stupid reasons. This is our nature. We have not yet gone beyond this point in our evolution. But if this is so, then how can we possibly form an armed Super In-Group without collapsing into the same pre-determined pattern (again, unless some of us have somehow taken a step up the evolutionary ladder)? And how can questioning the notion of military intervention be seen as the equivalent of turning an “eye of indifference” to the problems of human conflict? Are there no other alternatives? Things less grand than a tightly-binding war machine, perhaps, but less destructive? Less tyrannical? More humane?
Atkins’ contortions seemed design to obscure — not only from the reader but (one hopes) from himself as well — what he is really asserting: that, for our own good, we hairless monkeys should be ruled by a small, more evolved elite who will impose their benevolent dictatorship on the world by massive armed force. And that anyone who opposes this sacred, unchallengeable truth is an “isolationist,” indifferent to human suffering. There is no alternative. It’s his way — the way of war, of enforced unity (and uniformity of belief; the war machine will “take a dim view” of people “separating themselves” according to their own ideas and inclinations) — or the highway.
I must say that reading this has prompted me to my own historical recollection — the famous passage from Tacitus: “They make a desolation, and call it peace.”