War Pabulum: The Perils of War as a Master Narrative

Photo by Paul Nadar (1891), from a French postcard

W.J. Astore

I was reading the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin and came across the following commentary by her:

“A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me, and I detest the hormonal war orgies of our visual media … War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous.  By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.  This is puerile, misleading, and degrading.  In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance.  All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win.”

This passage is copyrighted 2012, and surely Le Guin is commenting in part on the American political and war scene, even if these comments came as an afterword to her novel “A Wizard of Earthsea.”

The stories we tell ourselves – our driving narratives and metaphors – are very powerful.  I learned this almost three decades ago from one of my professors at Johns Hopkins.  We were talking about the scientific revolution, the label applied after the fact by historians to the era of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.  Did that era truly deserve the label of a “revolution” in thought?  On one level, yes.  A heliocentric vision replaced a geocentric one.  Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian metaphysics.  But on another level, the label was misleading.  If you view this era only through a “revolutionary” lens, everything gets magnified and refracted through it.  You’re always looking for evidence of the “revolution” that you know is there.  The revolutionary narrative/metaphor, in other words, restricts and distorts your vision.  It also tends to answer questions before they’re even asked.  Certain historical figures get labeled as “revolutionaries,” others as “reactionaries,” some as winners, others as losers, almost without having to think about it.

That’s disturbing enough for a historian dealing with the “dead” past.  Think about how that distortion, that resort to easy categorization, applies to the living, to the present, in “wartime.”  Viewing everything through a war lens both restricts and distorts our vision.  We quickly force people to take sides, or we assign them a side regardless of their complexity (“You’re either for us or against us,” as George W. Bush noted in the aftermath of 9/11).  Just as quickly, the “heroes” adopt the violent methods of the bad guys (witness the bombing, the invasions, the use of torture, performed by the U.S. in the stated cause of “liberation”).  No ethical complexity is tolerated since “our” troops are on the right side (so we think).  Even when they embrace violence and lose control, deadly mistakes and even war crimes are readily excused as aberrations that should be forgotten, rare exceptions that do nothing to besmirch America’s exceptional and heroic nature.

The power of narratives is remarkable.  The United States continues to be driven by one that’s dominated by power, violence, and war.  Is it any wonder, then, that the two major party candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, fit so easily and readily into this narrative?  Hillary plans to continue to wage war even more aggressively than Obama has, and Trump is all about violent solutions and an “Us” versus “Them” mentality.  (Build a wall!  Biggest, baddest military!  Make America great again!  Punch the protesters!    Extreme vetting!  Throw the illegals out!)

Until we change our national narrative from one of constant war and violence to something more pacific and modulated, our political scene will continue to be, to borrow Le Guin’s words, puerile and misleading and degrading, with candidates serving up heroic violence as pabulum, as infantile reassurance.

12 thoughts on “War Pabulum: The Perils of War as a Master Narrative

  1. Thanks for the clip from the novelist Le Guin. The bland and insipid narratives that are profusely pushed by the pabulum progenitors seeking to simplify and reduce their mental exertions with tired labeling and scurrilous invention responsible merely to self-satisfaction at the expense of thinking that includes true ethical sensibilities and verifiable factual contexts is disheartening to say the least.

    It’s not just that “ethical complexity” is not permitted, apparently “ethical simplicity” is off the table as well. And the ever-present muddle of lies with a straight face is exemplified by Kerry’s comment in reference to the Saudi killing spree in Yemen. He said: “I think the Saudis have expressed in the last weeks their desire to make certain that they are acting responsibly and not endangering civilians.” Oh brother!



    And since this post brigs up the Hilligulan plans to up the ante of aggression, I offer this reminder:



    1. Thanks, Greg. Here’s an interesting article (with excerpt) on Hilligula:

      “Although the FBI’s press release is terse, the documents themselves indelibly portray the Democratic presidential nominee as dishonest, entitled, and thoroughly incompetent.”

      “Considering that Hillary has been accused of mishandling classified information on an almost industrial scale, what shines through is that Clinton is utterly clueless about classification matters, betraying an ignorance that is shocking when encountered in a former top official of our government—and one who wants to be our next commander-in-chief.”



  2. No other nation on the planet makes war as often, as long, as forcefully, as expensively, as destructively, as wastefully, as senselessly, or as unsuccessfully as the United States. No other nation makes war its business.” — Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers

    The United States makes “war” the way Donald Trump makes a “reality” TV show. Just make some shit up and the rubes will believe it. Perhaps the United States does deserve this circus barker for a Commander-in-Brief. The country and the clown do seem made for each other.

    Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming …


  3. Mention of the science fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, reminds me of the summer right after I graduated from junior high school. In those days (1960), this Bookmobile — a library on wheels — would stop near a local park where I used to play basketball and baseball with my friends. For some odd reason, I went through the science fiction section of the bookshelves one day and decided that I would read eight novels a week until I had exhausted the entire collection. My mother gave me unshirted hell for “wasting” my summer vacation doing what I spent most of the year at school doing anyway: namely, reading and studying. I think she just wanted me out of the house so she could have some time to herself. Usually, she had only two instructions for me during summer vacations: “Just be home before dark and stay out of trouble.”

    Anyay, I read so many science fiction novels that they all seem to blur into one memory of one story where the hero travels to the future and comes back to the present to report on what lies ahead for humanity. “They have only two laws,” he said of the time to come. “One, you must not annoy other people. Two, you must not allow yourself to become annoyed too easily.” Then the author restated the moral of the story, just to make certain that young minds like mine wouldn’t miss the main point: “It’s amazing how much freedom you can allow people if you know they won’t abuse it.” Later in life I often thought back on this memory and recognized in it one of the Buddha’s most well-known admonitions: “You can’t give offense to anyone unwilling to take it.”

    But, anyway, regarding science fiction authors, I mainly read Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert and Kurt Vonnegut, whose work rather grew and transcended the science fiction label stuck on it during the early phases of his writing career. As concerns the present topic of politicians and their tawdry, self-serving “communication” narratives, Vonnegut dealt with the subject in short order in his novel Breakfast of Champions wherein he had his fictional alter-ego, the down-and-out science fiction author, Kilgore Trout write another of his typically brief, illustrative vignettes:

    “As for the story itself, it was entitled “The Dancing Fool.” Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate.”

    “Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.”

    “Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the household brained Zog with a golfclub.”

    Apropos of the current puppet-show presidential campaign, we have Kilgore Trout’s roles somewhat reversed, wherein the two “acceptable” earthling candidates communicate by farting and tap dancing, only they have in mind starting wars instead of preventing them; and neither seems at all concerned with curing cancer or any other debilitating disease. A visiting alien from the planet Margo would, of course, receive the same braining with a golf club or other handy weapon should he (or she or it) dare to comment objectively on the foul odor and ludicrous physical performances that pass for American political “leaders” “communicating” with the American electorate, a truly “exceptional,” if not “indispensible” plague upon a world better off without their peculiar form of “understanding.”

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    1. When I was roughly that age, Mike, I also read a lot of Sci-Fi. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was a favorite; also liked Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy. I was also a big fan of Roger Zelazny and his Chronicles of Amber (the five original), and loved the main character, Corwin. But I just read and read — Stephen King horror books, Jack London, Tolkien of course, Stephen Donaldson and his six books about Thomas Covenant the leper anti-hero, and so on. I read a lot more then than I do now. I think my power of concentration, as well as my need to escape into a book, were far more keenly felt …


  4. Three by Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five & Breakfast of Champions are a must for all Human Beings everywhere… I hated to see our Bookmobile leave our fair City after Proposition 2 & a half passed… They always brought the best Books to our Firehouses in the City. I worked all Seven Houses!. Mike, that’s a name “Bookmobile” I hadn’t heard in a long while…


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