Absurdity as the Theatre of War

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
14 Jan 2007

“Don't wait for the last judgment - it takes place every day”, remarked Albert Camus, the existentialist philosopher of life in the face of the absurd. An atheist himself, he also once challengingly declared: “What the world requires of the Christians is that they should continue to be Christians.” You don’t get more theological than that.

Since George W. Bush made the unlikely assertion, via press secretary Tony Snow, that his summer 2006 vacation reading had included Camus’ famous novel ‘L’Etranger’ (‘The Outsider’ [1]), one has to wonder what the US President would make of these observations – especially in the light of his own current plans concerning the future of Iraq.

Confronted with an independent study group report (the Baker-Hamilton Commission) calling for military de-escalation, dialogue with Iraq’s neighbours Syria and Iran, and a coherent Middle East strategy based on recognizing the centrality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, President Bush has decided to go pretty much in the opposite direction.

In the week that Saddam Hussein was executed in Baghdad, the American president decided to take his cue not from an expert bi-partisan commission that consulted in detail with 170 key protagonists, but from a hawkish spoiler called ‘Choosing Victory’ headed up by arch-neoconservative Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.

It’s not known if Kagan has much time for Camus’ moral agonizing on the edge of despair, but he has little practical sympathy for all this namby-pamby Jesus stuff about reconciliation and restorative justice. “Let the Christians be Diocletians” is surely closer to his own philosophy.

Kagan’s people note haughtily that a country of 300 million people with a GDP of 12 trillion dollars and more than 1 million soldiers and marines – the USA – should have no difficulty in “regaining control” of Iraq, “a state the size of California with a population of 25 million and a GDP under 100 billion dollars.”

The AEI report therefore proposes an economic and military “surge” (yes, that’s where the White House picked up the term) based on a massive troop deployment and “a national commitment to victory”. Politics, be damned. Winning is all about willpower and unassailable force.

By all accounts there are few wholesale buyers, even in the Bush heartlands, for this new-style revanchism. Around 60 per cent of the American people are said to oppose it, many Republicans among them. Generals and GIs are with the skeptics.

“True absurdism is not less but more real than reality”, commented Serbian-American literary critic John Simon, conscious not just of Camus’ sense of “the absurd” as meaninglessness that has to be confronted with a life truly lived, but also the commonplace definition of it as something ridiculously incongruous or irrational. It is with this latter meaning that a number of commentators left and right have been describing President Bush’s commitment to defy reality in Iraq with what, in the circumstances, is likely to turn out to be a paltry and inadequate 21,500 more US troops.

In fact the Bush plan is worryingly rational. As The Independent on Sunday and other newspapers have pointed out, the Iraqi Council of Ministers is on the threshold of approving a new hydrocarbon law principally drawn up by the United States and the UK. This “will allow the first large-scale operation of foreign oil companies in the country since the industry was nationalised in 1972”, it proclaims.

The new law is likely to take effect from March 2007. It will give Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell and other carbon allies of the White House what amount to ‘sweetheart deals’, enabling them to pump unprecedented profits out of Iraq's nominally state-owned oilfields for the foreseeable future.

This is why Frederick Kagan and the Bush dynasty see pacification in Iraq as a strategic necessity. The gambit may be absurd, but it is far from absurdist. “The only real progress lies in learning to be wrong all alone”, said Camus on another occasion.

Meanwhile, the US President is left to contemplate 'L’Etranger', a complex book he found “a quick read” according to Tony Snow. It concerns a man who kills an Arab for no reason and who, bereft of the capacity for remorse, wishes for his own execution as a kind of perverse consolation.

Six months after Mr Bush is supposed to have been contemplating Camus’ biting tragedy, he welcomed the execution of Arab (and killer of countless Arabs) Saddam Hussein, saying it represented “an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy.” These words, too, are likely to come back to haunt the President, as his faith in redemptive killing as the path to security and peace is found wanting on all fronts.

In Matthew Ward’s English translation of 'L’Etranger', the simultaneous murderer and victim Meursault reflects on his plight as follows: “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

Cries of hate certainly greeted Saddam at the gallows, yet he was probably never more isolated than as he faced his fate. The images of his death were beamed around the world in hours, and caused widespread revulsion. The voyeurism was indeed repellent. But if we are going to kill, is it not appropriate that we should be faced with its stark reality?

What we learn when we look such reality in the face is that there is no democracy, no hope, no repentance, no restitution, no restoration, no forgiveness, and no life-giving in the calculated infliction of death. None of the things we really need.

Jesus’ final cry at his state execution was, according to St Matthew, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet it was not ultimately lonely. In absorbing rather than inflicting suffering, God’s person showed that life cannot be defined by those who wield the power to destroy. A small company of hope will always arise to resist the logic of death.

Or as Camus, whose righteous refusal of false religion carried an intense sense of divine abandonment, put it: “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

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NOTE [1] This is the usual way it is rendered in English. A better translation would be something like 'The Outside-Insider'. The Camus Society UK rightly points out: "It's worth noting here that 'L'Etranger' is sometimes translated as 'The Outsider' but this is inaccurate. Camus does not want us to think of Meursault as ‘the stranger who lives ‘outside' of his society' but of a man who is ‘the stranger within his society'. Had Meursault been some kind of outsider, a foreigner, then quite probably his acts would have been accepted as irrational evil. But Meursault was not an outsider; he was a member of his society – a society that wants meaning behind action."

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