I live in a country where war is an abstraction. For many of us, perhaps most of us, war is something mediated by actor-appropriate (not always pretty) men who demonstrate the right mien. War is precisely the absence of suffering and loss; rather, it secures borders and selves. And it is always something that happens “over there.” While one could certainly trace the relationship between massive increases in defense spending and massive reductions in public spending—slashing the US defense budget might free up all kinds of necessary money—war remains abstract. It is not bodies on streets, missing electricity, food and fuel shortages, the destruction of publicly owned buildings and memorials. It is present, instead, as yellow ribbons on cars, the most palpable sign that we are at war.
The over-thereness of war is palpable in reports about Kenya’s actions in Somalia—actions now supported materially and otherwise by the US. We are going “over there” to prove something about ourselves “over here.” But this is not expected to have any repercussions. In fact, the loud and relentless war rhetoric envisions overwhelming success—the triumph of abstract principles of rights and sovereignty. Baby is no longer going to sit in the corner. And with the US in our corner, how could we fail? Right is on our side. We can go kill over there.
In our euphemisms of “rooting out” and “demolishing” and “clearing nests,” we have constructed those “over there” as weeds and unsightly buildings and vermin. There are no people over there, certainly not people like us with hopes and dreams and affections and quirks and laughter and tears and neuroses and psychoses. The spatial construction (and deconstruction) of over there justifies all actions over there—after all, populations who live over there are over there. Tautologies abound. Those who occupy “over there” deserve what happens “over there,” which is not expected to happen “over here.”
Grotesquely, Kenya’s mainstream media has been beating the war drums louder and louder—daily the number of articles supporting this thing we are doing increase. There is too much consensus. Almost no introspection. And the few satirical articles allowed into press fail because of their tone.
Who are these people we are rushing to kill? What do we know about the houses we are rushing to destroy? What complexities of living and being are we obscuring in deploying the languages of “clan” as markers of under-development? What does it mean to wage a war against non-state actors? This is, we are told, not a war against Somalia. It is a war against non-state agents.
As I write this, I am in transit, from the States to Kenya. I’m at the Dubai Airport, a press of bodies and scents and races and ethnicities and religions. It is too crowded for me to be comfortable. But these bodies, with the stories inscribed in their modes of dress, their gaits, their travel-scented torsos, their joys, their fatigue. These too-many bodies remind me of what it means to hold life valuable. They remind me that the decision to kill others must be accompanied by the incredible difficulty of understanding those others as human. Not as weeds or decrepit buildings or vermin.
I wish the Kenyan voices loudly urging on this war would contend with the difficulty of killing human beings.