Warlight and secrecy

I’ve been bothered lately by war. I feel closer to it than I’d like, through my location amid the bland-yet-menacing military-industrial office parks of Washington suburbia, and due to my job. And like a borderline conspiracy theorist, I begin to see trappings of ubiquitous war everywhere in our politics and society.

Annoyed and anxious, I look forward to a world wherein war is not always simmering at a low level, forgettable, stable, unpopular and yet generally uncontested.

Is this my desire to bury my head in the sand, to pretend the world is a different place than it can ever be? Am I simply naive? Or is my peace-seeking a virtue?

Thinking of my desire for a different reality, I am reminded of the chapter from Jenny Odell’s “How To Do Nothing” (still highly recommended) in which she explores the history of attempts to escape objectionable society. From Epicurus in ancient Greece to the various experiments in “dropping out” through the 1960s to recent visions of libertarian techno-utopias, the desire to simply leave it all behind is not a new impulse.

But one of the many reasons these experiments have failed is that we cannot insist on living in a utopia of our own making without becoming autocrats. Odell refers to Hannah Arendt’s 1958 “The Human Condition:”

Throughout history, she observes, men have been driven by the desire to escape “the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents.” Unfortunately, she concludes, “the hallmark of all such escapes is rule, that is, the notion that men can lawfully and politically live together only when some are entitled to command and the others forced to obey.”

Odell at 48.

Odell also writes about a sort of utopia of particular interest to me: the “peaceful project.” Doesn’t that just sound lovely? But, unfortunately,

regardless of how high-tech your society might be, “peace” is an endless negotiation among free-acting agents whose wills cannot be engineered. Politics necessarily exist between even two individuals with free will; any attempt to reduce politics to design…is also an attempt to reduce people to machines or mechanical beings.

Odell at 52.

These passages struck me intensely: I’m often standing grand about how much of politics seems to me to be conflict for conflict’s sake. But I have to confront the fact that not everyone is like me. Not everyone privileges interpersonal harmony so highly above other values (as I do as a 9). Freedom inherently requires disagreement, because free people must be able to approach each other with a variety of beliefs and experiences. To eradicate the conflict that inheres in that, I’d have to eradicate people’s freedom, or remove myself from society.


I’m also reflecting, during my futile search for a peaceful country, on a book I read last fall: “Warlight,” by Michael Ondaatje. It’s a strange novel, hard to summarize, but it focuses on the memories of an Englishman who as a boy during and after World War II was abandoned by his mysterious mother. Through his search for his mother, the man learns that she was a secret agent during and especially after the war, engaged in various unsavory events (to put it far too mildly) in war-torn countries.

This book bothered me so much. It made me quite upset. I recommend it highly, if you’re into that sort of thing.

It forced me to confront the choice I have made, which is to favor harmony and stability (both for myself and for my countrymen, if they’ll only allow me) over power and efficacy. I’d rather belong to a modest, peaceful nation than a successful, warfaring one.

I can hear the objections now: safety requires sacrifice. Peace must be defended. But surely a world is possible, if not easy to achieve, that contains safety and stability, and peace?


It’s not just peace I seek. It’s also honesty. This is another element of “Warlight” that got under my skin and stayed there: the characters are all patchworks of concealment and falsehoods, and even when we see them head-on we cannot see them completely.

This is a topic running through my own Book One, as well, although in a very different way than in “Warlight.” Secrets run deep. They develop their own momentum. They justify their own existence. They cannot shrink, only grow, or else they die through exposure.

There is an explanation to this in psychology: the “secrecy heuristic.” Because of our need to sort good information from bad, our minds are biased in favor of information that we have been told is secret. We will judge the same information to be more truthful and reliable when we believe it to be (or have been) secret than when we believe it to be public. Perhaps we are honored at being let into the back room, behind the curtain. We believe that secrets would not be kept without a good reason, which probably means they are true.

This is logically false, of course. But once you see this effect, you can’t stop seeing it. Look in the news: as you’ll see, people often argue about whether information is secret, rather than directly about whether it is of good quality. Secrecy is substituted for merit, because it has a value all its own.

What does this all have to do with “Warlight,” and with my search for peace? For those who keep secrets, as the characters in “Warlight” do, secrets are life or death. But secrets corrupt. They take on a life of their own, demanding to be kept alive. And the people hurt by the secret-keeping (in “Warlight,” the children) are excluded from the process of judging whether the secrecy is warranted. Thus, the only voices invited to speak are those who are in favor of the secrecy they feel honored and honor-bound to maintain.

Another example of this: the show “Radiolab” has been doing a series investigating a Moroccan man who shares a name with a “Radiolab” host. The Moroccan man has spent years at Guantanamo Bay for his activities with al-Qaeda. As the hosts try to tell his story, it slips between their fingers: much of the information about his activities is classified and therefore cannot be discussed. All the other information makes little sense, and does not seem to prove any of the allegations.

It is possible, of course, that the classified information proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the man is guilty of everything. But because that inculpatory information is secret, a shadow descends on those of us who cannot be privy to the information. We are left only with the doubt. We must either choose to take it on faith and trust that what is alleged is true, or we be left with the uncomfortable concern that a man has spent nearly twenty years in a Kafkasque nightmare with no recourse. As the host reflects, thinking about the early days of the war in Afghanistan, when the United States was dropping bombs on al-Qaeda members or civilians or both, depending on who you ask:

I just felt haunted by this image, this image of this pinpoint, laser-guided bomb, juxtaposed against this just fog bank, this informational haze, that is actually justifying that very bomb. 

Latif Nasser, “The Other Latif: Episode 4,” https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/other-latif-episode-4

Latif Nasser’s “informational haze” is Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight.” It’s the fog of war, but seen from the other side. It’s those of us who have no say in the matter scratching our heads, futilely searching for the truth.

At the end of the day, I have to choose what to do about my discomfort: should I vainly wish to be a dictator of peace? Should I drop out and escape, either by actually leaving (fat chance) or by numbing out and avoiding thinking about these unpleasant things mentally (my favorite activity)? Or should I stay and try to do what little I can to make the world the way I hope it can be?

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One thought on “Warlight and secrecy

  1. Pingback: Some other place. The right place. | PsychoPomp

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