How To Wage A Forever War
Can forever warriors solve the problems they claim to address?
One of the most profitable things an ideological movement can do is declare war on an abstract concept, preferably one that is a constant of human nature. Hate, greed, misinformation, etc. have all made great targets. The reason these ideological wars are so profitable is that a movement can demand massive increases in power to wage a forever war on the target concept or aspect of human nature. Though they will never win the war, the movement can expand their power, which is the real purpose of such a venture.
One of the best examples of a forever war was the Victorian campaign against masturbation. The Victorians saw sexuality as harmful and doctors declared that masturbation was the source of all sorts of physical, social, and moral ills. They waged a campaign intended to wipe out this “problem.” Victorian doctors knew that no one could ever end masturbation. Sexuality is a constant of human nature. However, in declaring a forever war on this human constant, the medical system expanded its power over sexuality, and specifically children’s sexuality, which was the real goal of the campaign.
Previously, parents were the primary power holders over children. The campaign against masturbation meant that parents had to watch their children for “signs” of masturbation and call the doctor at the first sign of them. This turned parents into surveillance for the medical system. This power structure continues today, with parents bringing their children to pediatricians who determine if the parents are hitting the correct milestones regarding their child’s development. Just as in the Victorian age, parents observe the children, but the doctors are framed as the only ones capable of solving the child’s problems, be they real or merely socially constructed by the medical system.
This pattern of declaring a forever war to expand power continues today with the medical response to COVID-19. Viruses and disease are a constant of the human experience. Reaching the elimination of all diseases or “zero-COVID” is an impossible goal destined to fail. However, the medical system has massively expanded it’s power over all aspects of human life through the forever war on COVID. From this perspective, it does not matter if medical policies actually stop COVID, only that they increase medical power.
The failure of any policy can always be blamed on lack of power. If someone somewhere did not comply with masking, vaccines, social distancing, etc. then it must mean that medical power should be expanded to force compliance, rather than that the policy itself did not work. Admitting the policies did not work would mean relinquishing power. Since seizing power was the whole purpose of these policies, COVID must always be framed as a grave never-ending threat.
For a forever war, it is best if the problem is unsolvable. For example, if a war on racism defines racism as specific policies or forms of discrimination, then the war could actually be won. If racism is defined as an unseen hidden force that permeates every aspect of society, then the war can continue indefinitely. It is best if the defined target includes some unchangeable aspect of human nature. Since human minds are pattern-recognition machines, if we define racism to include pattern recognition applied to groups of people, then a war on racism opposes a basic aspect of human nature and can be waged indefinitely.
These definitions can be changed as a movement progresses. By the time a movement succeeds, there are likely powerful non-profit organizations and leaders who have amassed power attempting to solve the problems of the movement. Rather than relinquish that power, those leaders can maintain power by simply expanding the problem they are addressing. For example, a movement intended to achieve equal rights could shift its focus from legal goals to less tangible ones like “unconscious bias.” Once macroaggressions have been solved, the harm of microaggressions must be inflated.
Any movement can wage a forever war, not just political ones. A spiritual movement can achieve the same results if it attempts to stamp out “the ego” or reduce “selfishness.” Perhaps one of the most successful forever wars in human history has been the religious war on “sin.” Sin is the most broadly defined and unsolvable problem of all. If one were to accept all of reality as it is (as Buddha did) or believe the problem of sin was already solved (through Christ), there would be no more need to expand power. Instead of war, one would be at peace. Of course, these beliefs don’t give you an excuse to wield power over other people. Thankfully, they can be turned into a forever war of converting others or enlightening all beings.
The philosopher Rene Girard suggests that calls for unity often result in scapegoating. If one calls for unity, then those who don’t unify become a problem that must be solved. Instead of unity, a mob forms to attack those who refuse to join the union. When the union fails to achieve the desired result, the failure is blamed on those who refused to join, rather than the impossibility of conforming all humanity to a single ideological vision. In this way “unity” can be a forever war for any ideology that claims total compliance is needed to achieve its goals. Though a forever war for unity can expand power, actual unity would mean accepting people as they are and allowing them to remain different, including allowing them to not unify or join the group.
There are many ideologies and movements that use forever wars as a tactic to achieve power. When the powers they demand are questioned, those involved usually respond by claiming critics don’t care about the problem they’re making war on. Don’t you care about stopping hate / stopping COVID / stopping racism / burning witches / ending sin / stopping masturbation / whatever this forever war is on? Some targets of forever wars might be real problems. However, even if the problem is real, the solution of a forever war will not solve it and could cause more problems by massively expanding the power of people who exploit that problem.
The question to ask forever warriors is: Can you actually solve this problem? Does your plan have any realistic possibility of ending this problem? What checks or balances will there be on the power you are given? What ensures that you don’t misuse that power and cause further problems? How does your war end?
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