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The Veteran (2011) – The Consolations of War and its Theories

May 13, 2011

Humans are a curious species in so far as our desire to understand the world frequently outstrips both our analytical skill and our willingness to accept the truth. Nowhere is this tension better expressed than in the explosion of conspiracy theories that invariably follow the unexpected death of a celebrity.

As JG Ballard correctly diagnosed in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), celebrities are not merely people but symbols and signs. These signs and symbols bind culture together in such a way that, when the celebrity attached to them suddenly dies, the symbol continues to exist simply because of the structural role they play. Dimly aware of the undead symbolic status of these celebrities, humans attempt to account for the cognitive dissonance by either denying that they are dead or by seeking to transform their deaths into important historical moments: Osama bin Laden is simply too important to be shot dead in some Pakistani suburb.

Our desire to see the world in terms that make sense to us is also evident in our attempts to build theories that account for such random and chaotic events as war. Matthew Hope’s The Veteran explores the idea that, far from being a violent and random convulsion of the body politic, war might actually be a force of nature.

Film Poster

Decorated for his heroism in Afghanistan, Miller (Toby Kebbell) returns home to find a boarded-up council estate. While the leaflets on his doormat may speak of ‘community’ and ‘togetherness’, Miller’s home is nothing but a warren of dark corridors populated by drug dealers and those with no place else to go. Desperate to leave the war behind him, Miller tries to find a job in the real world but the only doors open to him are those of the local drug lord Jones (Ashley Bashy Thomas) and that of sleazy intelligence operatives Chris (Tony Curran) and Gerry (Brian Cox). Opting for what he takes to be the lesser of two evils, Miller takes up with the intelligence services and helps them to uncover a series of terrorist cells operating in the London area. Clearly, just when he thought he was out… they pull him back in. Miller’s slow re-absorption by the War on Terror is neatly reflected in the realities of life on the estate.

Miller’s only friend on the estate is Fahad (Ivanno Jeremiah) who is at his wits’ end over his younger brother’s decision to go and work for Jones. Fahad’s concern for his brother is compounded by the fact that his family’s move to London was supposed to keep the brothers from precisely the sort of violent lifestyle that Jones is offering. Much like Miller, Fahad came to London in order to escape war only to realise that it is over here too. The Veteran suggests that while the estate’s turf war and the War on Terror may seem to be quite separate entities, in reality they are merely symptoms of the same larger and more threatening disease. Hope establishes the universality of war by having his characters buy into a series of weirdly unconvincing conspiracy theories:

Firstly, Jones attempts to bond with Miller by suggesting that the pair of them are already on the same side. After all, Jones asks, is it not the case that the war in Afghanistan is being waged purely in order to safeguard western access to Afghan poppy fields?

Secondly, Miller’s informer Alayna (Adi Bielski) tries to explain both the nature of the threat and her reluctance to inform on the terrorists by claiming that the CIA, Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban are not only on the same side but are, in fact, all a part of the same thing.

Thirdly, once Miller realises that the British intelligence services have turned a blind eye to a known terrorist cell he confronts his handlers.  Gerry responds by explaining that the British state needs the War on Terror in order to continue functioning and so British intelligence is actually serving the state when it decides to turn a blind eye to certain terrorist activities.

All three speeches are reminiscent of such great cinematic moments as Donald Sutherland’s Mr. X speech from Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), Ned Beatty’s primal forces of nature speech from Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and Bob Hoskin’s realisation that he is not just dealing with a bunch of Irish criminals in John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1979). Moments in which all of history and all of politics are revealed to be part of an elaborate lie that is either foisted onto the public for the purposes of social control or bought into willingly by a population only too eager to avoid the unpleasant sensation of too much reality. Moments best articulated in JFK by the immortal line “We’re through the looking-glass here, people”.

However, unlike Beatty’s slow-burning rant and Sutherland’s hushed debriefing, none of The Veteran’s conspiracy theories successfully connects either with the real world or the world of the film.  All three conspiracy theories are tainted by the desire to exculpate the person offering them and so they all come across as strangely incomplete, uninformed, naïve and piecemeal. Of course a drug dealer will see himself as on the same side as the government, of course a reluctant informer will find a reason not to inform and of course a morally bankrupt intelligence agent will seek to find some political rationale for his own ethical failures. The fact that all three theories fail to push us through the looking glass suggests that the characters’ desire to justify their actions blinds them to the real truth. A truth that is heavily implied by The Veteran but never completely spelled out.

The characters of The Veteran are all attempting to grapple with the suspicion that, while they may appear to be only tangentially related, there are in fact deep connections between the turf war on the estate, the war in Afghanistan and the domestic struggle against Islamic terrorism. Miller’s capacity to move between all three conflicts with perfect ease reflects the fact these three conflicts are merely different aspects of the same entity; a universal war that expresses itself through criminality, terrorism and traditional warfare but which pre-exists all of them. This idea of violence as a separate entity that merely expresses itself through organised conflict is one that features in Carl von Clausewitz’s Trinitarian model of the state at war.

Though best known for coining the dictum “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s actual theory of war was somewhat more complex. According to Clausewitz, war is the product of an almost Freudian trinity comprising:

  • Primordial violence, hatred and rage (a natural force)
  • Blind chance and probability (a space for human creativity)
  • Subordination to political aims (the imposition of reason)

Clausewitz suggested that these three forces exert a continuous pressure upon the nature of a conflict, forcing it to swing between crude militarised wrestling matches and the more refined political forms of engagement where military commanders obey their political masters and politicians enter a state of war with clear political goals in mind. Clausewitz’s aim, according to the French philosopher Raymond Aron, was to gain enough theoretical purchase on war to prevent the pendulum from swinging away from political reason and towards libidinous violence.

Aron’s reading of Clausewitz is somewhat controversial but this, Aron explains, is due to the fact that Clausewitz was in many ways an immature thinker who never quite managed to articulate his ideas to his own satisfaction. This lack of clarity explains both the gaps in Clausewitz’s conceptual infrastructure and the numerous incompatible and competing interpretations of his work.

Clausewitz’s vision of the state at war is eerily reminiscent of Freud’s vision of the tri-partite self. Just as Freud posited the existence of a chaotic and libidinous id that needs to be counter-balanced by a repressive superego, Clausewitz depicted the state’s population as a seething cauldron of racial enmity and primordial violence that needs to be controlled and directed by the dispassionate rationality of a ruling class. Profoundly reactionary and steeped in precisely the sort of autocratic sentiment you might expect from a man who was a part of his nation’s military elite, Clausewitz’s vision of society and warfare are decidedly the product of their time. Indeed, as both John Keegan and Martin van Creveld have pointed out, Clausewitz’s model of the state as the basic unit of military conflict completely fails to allow for the existence of wars involving non-state actors such as political factions in a civil war or Al Qaeda in the War on Terror. In response, Clausewitz’s defenders have pointed out that Clausewitz’s trinity is not simply Chance, The People and The Government but rather Chance, Passion and Reason, principles that can express themselves through the people and the ruling elite but which are not limited to these modes of expression. Indeed, there is some basis for this reply as Clausewitz’s own remarks on the trinity are ambiguous to say the least:

War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

While Clausewitz’s defenders may have a point, their move is a dangerous one. By inviting us to view the Trinity not as a simple description of the role of chance, the government and the people in determining the nature of a conflict but rather as a more abstract theoretical construct in which vague ‘principles’ and ‘forces’ interact in non-specific means, Clausewitz’s defenders have effectively traded the Trinity’s explanatory strength for a trivial sort of universal truth. Indeed, if the Trinity is taken as stating that the character of a war is determined by chance, the government and the people then it is making a substantial theoretical claim about the nature of war. A claim that is either false or incomplete given that war can evidently take place between non-state actors with neither ‘people’ nor ‘governments’. If, on the other hand, we take the Trinity as stating that the character of a war is determined by the interplay of passion, reason and chance then the Trinity may well be universally true, but it is not telling us anything that is either substantial or interesting. Everything in the world of human action is the product of an interplay between passion, reason and chance!

Clearly, if the Trinity is to remain relevant then detaching it from a state-centric metaphysics is not enough. In order to be a useful theoretical construct, the Trinity must continue to make substantial theoretical claims about the nature of warfare. Claims that Clausewitz never quite managed to articulate himself. Indeed, Clausewitz is not the only thinker to suggest that the primordial violence of war is ontologically prior to the state.

In their essay “Nomadology: The War Machine” (1986) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari suggest that the state does not contain or cause violence. Rather the institutions of the state acquire the capacity to wage war (either against another state or against its own people) by attaching itself to a War Machine embodied in military institutions. According to Deleuze and Guattari, we are confused about the nature of warfare because we see war as something created by the state:

The problem is that the exteriority of the war machine in relation to the State apparatus is everywhere apparent but remains difficult to conceptualize. It is not enough to affirm that the war machine is external to the apparatus. It is necessary to reach the point of conceiving the war machine as itself a pure form of exteriority, whereas the State apparatus constitutes the form of interiority we habitually take as a model, or according to which we are in the habit of thinking.

The War Machine exists outside of the state and while the state can make use of it, War merely expresses itself through state institutions, it is neither caused nor encapsulated by them. The War Machine existed before the nation-state and it will continue to exist after the nation-state has ceased to be.

This theoretical strategy is further developed in Reza Negarestani’s work of Theory-fiction Cyclonopedia (2008).  Drawing on the sloppy metaphysics of Deleuze and Guattari’s decision to multiply their epicycles by creating a new class of entity in order to account for social phenomena, Negarestani suggests that the War on Terror can be explained by the existence of oil.  For Negarestani, oil is a Lovecraftian entity intent upon destroying the world by turning it into one huge desert. Oil influences both Islamic fundamentalism and US foreign policy in such a way as to force them into an eternal world-destroying conflict.

The attempts by characters in The Veteran to make some kind of sense out of the endless violence that surrounds them mirrors attempts by thinkers such as Clausewitz, Aron, Negasestani, Deleuze and Guattari to understand war through a process of theoretical abstraction. Where Negarestani creates an ancient god to account for the War on Terror, Oliver Stone creates a vast conspiracy involving political connections between the CIA, the US Military and defence contractors. The more horrible something is, the more we want it to make sense and the more we multiply our epicycles in order to support our theories. If the relationship between the government and the people can’t account for war then create non-state actors.  If this isn’t enough, create War Machines and if this isn’t enough create an entire cosmology of monstrous entities bent upon our destruction.

Like the tales of Fire and Water told by pre-Socratic philosophers to account for the creation of the world and the gods created by primitive cultures to account for the setting of the sun and the change of the seasons, conspiracy theorists and Theoretical metaphysicians give birth to an endless cavalcade of Explaining Things seemingly unaware that ancient gods and War Machines only explain the waging of war if they actually exist. Our psychological need for an explanation in no way guarantees the truth of our most pleasing theories because the World is deaf to our cries and indifferent to our endless cogitations.

The ending of The Veteran speaks to the futility of our desire to understand war as Miller refuses to pick sides or accept one theory over another.  Instead, his concerns remain strictly on a human level; he decides to save his informer from the clutches of the local drug dealer. The violence he dispenses is relentless and, ultimately fruitless, but his understanding of war as a threat to someone he cares about seems noble when compared to the increasingly baroque attempts at self-justification wheeled out by the other characters. Miller does not seek to understand war, he merely wishes to survive it.

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