· A Case for Conflict ·

Sailing the Caspian Sea (August 16th, 2014)

Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.

   - Ronald Reagan.

It is somewhat intriguing and amusing to observe that the crisis in Ukraine, the downing of the Malaysian airlines flight and the loss of all lives on board (let alone those who never got into the air), could result in heightened progress in the renewable energy realm. Via the sanctions the West has placed on Russia and therefore the handicap being placed on their fuel and the West’s ability to procure it, there is a renewed drive to supplement the energy losses in the West by alternate means given the implicit instability in the relevant geopolitics, which could ironically lead to a better world for us to live in, rather than just one of escalating conflict. Whomever says war is wholly bad just doesn't look hard enough. Our reliance on each other through the effects of globalisation and free trade has, counter intuitively, weakened us in some key respects. We do not always find our own way, which would breed variety (or simply new perspective), and instead go for the easiest option rather than the best.

The enigma that is the US/Russian relationship runs even deeper, more nefarious and particularly more risible. The rockets which launch America’s defence and intelligence satellites are, almost without exception, of Russian technology. America needs Russian technology to spy on Russia. And Russia allows this to happen, in exchange for billions of dollars, with which they place grad rockets in Ukraine to shoot down commercial airliners, among other things. The slow chill enveloping their diplomacy again could potentially have a silver lining thus; it seems that, despite some large exceptions such as the space program (Russia does fuel systems, America does electrical systems), in many respects a fully thawed dynamic between the two superpowers is not conducive to a safer world. Even in matters that indirectly involve them - the state of Syria, how to maximise agricultural production of wheat sustainably, tactical response procedures for natural disasters, or what to do with Robert Mugabe - one could reasonably suggest that conflict between the two could engender more robust conversation and, finally, a more robust solution, one that is stripped down and not just casually agreed upon. 

In the turmoil which engulfed Egypt at the start of the Arab Spring, the traditionally Western leaning government was thrown right, to the Muslim Brotherhood. Even though that has now been reversed, for a moment Egypt was the most geopolitically powerful country on the planet as it parlayed its status as the harbinger of the region to the US and Russia, both vying for influence amongst the rest of the Middle East through the incumbent trend setter, and who both had to achieve some sort of balance there in order to curry favour. The conflict laid the ground bare; destruction before creation. Time and again conflict allows a clearer picture to emerge. It is Aristotle and Plato engaging in brisk verbal sparring, and Plato and Socrates before that. It’s the mundanity of two lovers not being able to agree on which house to buy. Or which cereal to have for breakfast! If you run the same line, there is no point of difference to which you can explore more vigorously. Debate, more widely known as conflict, is absolutely vital for the burgeoning of new ideas, new solutions, and diplomacy in general. While I may be no true fan of capitalism, given it has largely led humanity to the major quagmires it now faces, I still recognise that it will be competitive progression that pulls us out and into the clear, too. Innovation is bred in the darkest moments.

This theme extends to all sorts of relationships. In fact, every relationship. The Darien Gap in Panama and Colombia, for example, marks the only section of the Pan-American highway, running from Alaska to Cape Horn, to remain uncompleted. Alvaro Uribe, the former Colombian president, made the latest push to connect the two frontiers about a decade ago in anticipation of booming commerce and curbed activity in rebel and drug trafficker ranks, for whom the inhospitable nature of the Gap is an indispensable gift. And he had a point. But so too do those who highlight the fact that a completed road would lead to the spread of disease from the south to the north (e.g. foot and mouth cattle disease), the destruction of natural ecosystems and the incumbent biodiversity via logging and just the general human tendency toward destruction, and the loss of indigenous culture, not unlike those remote locations in the Brazilian heartland. Effectively, Panama’s fraught relations with Colombia have resulted in this intractable piece of land remaining intractable, and we are to be the judge of whether this is a positive thing or not. Entropy can be viewed as both beneficial and otherwise, it is just a matter of which way the utilitarian scales tip. Sometimes it will be found that chaos should reign supreme; after all, if it’s good enough for the wider universe, from big to small, then you can hardly argue against it for us.

This is not to say that collaboration between humans should not be the default option for terms to allow the most expedient progress of our race. It is, and always has been. This old ghost Soviet era ferry I’m on currently, crossing from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan at an exorbitant price and through the most spectacular amount of red tape and sheer innuendo (no one knows anything about it until it leaves, days later) you are ever likely to encounter is testament to that. The treaties in place for Antarctica are a splendid show in favour of that conviction too, despite it’s intrinsic flaws and treacherous ground (now widening) in lieu of the energy deposits currently lying dormant. Middle Eastern politics, in particular, show utmost cause for working in concert. Situations like those in Pakistan baffle and sadden me endlessly. For instance, I feel the pull of Imran Khan’s charisma, and allow my hope to blossom, but I then check myself in my feelings of positivity to the man, because at the end of the day, despite the brilliance he displayed on the cricket field and in his oratory, he is probably just one more head which another can (and probably will) chop in the name of power, inciting another bloody coup or war, and it is another head which will not change the status quo if it indeed has it’s momentary time sitting on the nations shoulders. Such is the state of their multi-partisan interests and fractured (shattered) ground on which they attempt to stand, and on which they continue to fall. And, apart from anything else, society in general needs peace and concordance in order to flourish. Is it any wonder the Taliban thrive? If your country is being attacked every ten years, surely you'd harden up too and become militaristic. It becomes a self-defeating stance, the one taken by America.

The Middle Eastern culture and mindset, and the external influences rubbing against and exacerbating their inherent predicaments, do not allow them the benefits for which they yearn. It is just a more severe parallel to Obama, American congress and the subsequent domestic policy, or lack thereof. It quells my hope and dries the seeds of my inspiration for something better and more profound, an apathy which precedes the lamenting of two such staggering and unrecoverable losses through such seemingly inescapable futility. Even when Gandhi achieved such striking success in the thirties and forties, his legacy was simply a nation that fractured into civil war, bigotry incited persecution and unquantifiable poverty. Social norms in South Africa following Mandela’s renaissance have not been much better and are steadily descending. At the same time, however, I cannot help but revel in and appreciate these obstinate and volatile edges in the human psyche, because no matter how destructive they can be, they are also beautifully human and thus beautifully creative and complex. There is no Winston without Adolf, no Sartre without Beauvoir, no David without Goliath, and that constant rebalancing through conflict is what gives humanity its most luminous and exquisite colour. There is a beauty in war, all sorts of war; just ask any war correspondent, and they will tell you not just of the horror but of some of the most inspiring and moving humanity to ever percolate out of this planet and inspire the area which the lightbulb illuminates. They will tell you that that is a major reason in why they are where they are.

Order and disorder are meant to clash. The ancient Greeks gave form to these two sides of human nature in Apollo, who stood for the rational and the self-disciplined, and Dionysus, who represented the spontaneous and the emotional. Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that the interaction of the Apollonian and the Dionysian was the foundation of creative work, and modern creativity research has confirmed this insight, revealing the key relationship between breaking and making, challenging and refining, disrupting and organising. The theatre of war is the place you want to be. That is the place where knowledge dilutes from knowledge. If you ever want to see humanity at its most raw, at its most visceral, then explore the depths of the most profound relationship you know, or travel to the heart of a war zone. Love and war. In both there is chaos and the desire to stem the entropy. In both there is an authenticity in the people involved; everything is real, because time is a luxury. There is no time to waste on frivolities when you are concerned with the extremes of the human experience. There is no pretence. Whole cultures have been moulded around this concept. Israelis have a reputation for being blunt, for lacking subtlety. Their entire existence is predicated on buffering back the enemies they have on all sides. Palestinians too. They cannot leave anything to ambiguity, for their lives are spent under occupation and they do not have the benefit of conjecture. It makes everything more sincere.

It is in the extremes that the focus is narrowed and fierce. It is in the extremes where people work in concert and utilise the deepest parts of their resource, where innovation is bred. One can look at The Space Race, and see how the mutual enmity between East and West propelled all the technological advances in the 1960’s. Even that run to the moon was accomplished on the back of World War II, as the Americans used V2 rockets that were devised by the Nazis to overwhelm the Allies. We discovered more in these moments because we weren’t fighting against the void. No doubt that fighting for pride, fighting for dominance, is often a rather immature way to conduct yourself, but if we accept that forces will clash for these sort of reasons, then we can at least be positioned to take advantage of the by-products. War often takes seemingly benign technologies and turns them into killing machines, yet conflict simultaneously accelerates the pace of innovation, allowing for wider benefits when peace returns. There’s no doubt that fighting in the air created a chilling new chapter in the history of warfare, but without it, many of the benefits of aviation we rely on today would not have happened as quickly. Violence gives a nod towards the inherent aggressiveness in our humanity, which is a beautiful force when directed correctly. Besides which, armed conflict will continue to exist for as long as we do, because for it to go extinct diversity amongst our race would need to go extinct also. For diversity to go extinct, for homogeneity to reign supreme, it would follow that there would only be a solitary individual left behind.

Of course, history is also littered with examples of when conflict has led to a degradation in society. Oftentimes it’s a matter of scale. If you go close enough to one of these examples, it all seems negative. The Great War was gritty, torturous, the one in which the romance was definitively lost. With the onset of aviation, machine guns, shells, barbed wire, war finally became a business. After the French Revolution, finally weapons were given to the proletariat, rather than just being the province of the monarchy. One hundred years later, the interim lacking a momentous conflict to really embed the changes in stone (or blood), World War I marked the definitive end of the Old World, monarchs and emperors and tzars. Suddenly, though, the numbers involved - Germany’s army that strode into Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan - one column - numbered at anywhere up to 1.5 million men, which is twice what the Roman Empire had at its height, across all of its provinces. The scale just changed prolifically. War often takes seemingly benign technologies and turns them into killing machines, yet at the same time, conflict accelerates the pace of innovation, allowing for wider benefits when peace returns. There’s no doubt that fighting in the air created a chilling new chapter in the history of warfare, but without it, many of the benefits of aviation we rely on today would not have happened as quickly.

I’m not suggesting whatsoever that we should be thankful that the war, or its successor, occurred. Or that we should be ecstatic to have gone through the entirety of the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is just to say that there is colour and vibrancy within the squalor. No rain, no trees. Machiavelli, writing early in the 16th century, suggested that power led to oppression, oppression to resistance. This pendulum swing of human life is true in all things, in love as well as in politics, in nature as well as in business. We learn, every time the cycle completes, the pros and cons of each stage of the clock. If we seek power in our lives, on an individual level or otherwise, then we lean into conflict. Despite the notion that we need a steady and strong hand to guide the world, as Empire’s throughout history have done, eventually all must fail. If we want to find peace, one could argue that the most logical way to do so is by having ingrained in the collective consciousness of our species the combined knowledge of all of these failures, all of these resolutions from power and resistance, the path to equilibrium that is eventually established. If we could only attain some semblance of long term foresight, we might be able to avoid the negative effects of conflict, while retaining the advantage.

Perhaps, if resolution is indeed the goal, in the end we just need to strip it back to where less is more; smaller entities entail less complex interests and more transparent and frank dialogue or action. It is the reason why the UN has progressively become more and more incompetent and incapacitated, paralysed from the ground up to a point where it’s words mean little and it’s actions even less. There is a Russian I met in Siberia while crossing it by motorbike two winters ago, who was absurdly generous, gifting our little group of combatants woollen socks, balaclavas, gloves and food out of simple concern for our wellbeing and general insanity, and with whom I struck up a Facebook friendship as a result. This kind man, unsurprisingly given the gun and two knives on his person at first meeting, turned out to be the archetypal nationalist Russian, pertinaciously advocating the reintegration of ex-Soviet states, the persecution of homosexuality, the destruction of America and Western ideals which have ‘infiltrated and perniciously degraded Russian society’, and so on. Ergo, me being me, he and I went to war online in what became an increasingly exasperating affair. However, despite our clear separation in ideals, conclusions, ethics and morals, at the base of it all, from a man to another, he was still intelligent and kind (to me at least, and to the American in my group, might I add), and the conflict we engaged in made us both think and grow and create. After all, good and bad are subjective, viewed only through the prism in which you exist.

On a personal level, I’ve always found the people that exist in conflict zones, or areas of true insecurity (not that which the Republican Party would foist upon the world), to be the most authentic I’ve ever met. There’s an honesty that arises when the small of your back is being relentlessly pushed by the barrel of a gun. There’s no room, no time, for pretence. Israelis, for all their faults, know this. You go there and, while it takes some time to get used to, to stomach, you come to appreciate their brutal candour. They know how to live, given every one of their neighbours wishes them gone. I’ve always been more interested in the side of death that is life than the side that is nothingness, actual death, after all. It’s just more real. All of this is not to say that humanity is best when in isolation, clearly. It is just to say that, between some peoples, naturally of completely different mindsets, perhaps there are exceptions to the rule - as there are in every aspect of humanity - and that conflict should be cherished. And that the concept of ‘progress’, as we tend to look at it, is often just a shimmering illusion which masks where our efforts should really lie.