Fiction and fact

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

The end of war is the means of war...- The Wanting Seed (1962) by Anthony Burgess.

IN the current setting of languishing wars, two novels, written decades ago, spring to mind for their eerie prophesies. One is The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess, published in 1962. The other is George Orwell's 1984, written 15 years earlier. Some emphases and aspects are obviously divergent. Burgess' fictitious future portrays an obsession with over-population. But Orwell's, which deals with the suppression of truth (apart from liberty), is a perennially hot topic, and cannot be more to the point for the day. Both books make telling observations on war. The present resounds with their echoes.

"War is Peace!", says a slogan of 1984's fictitious superpower, Oceania. Today, the "Allies" all but fly this slogan on their banners of war while saving the world from Monsters and Weapons of Mass Destruction. And The Wanting Seed carries a blurb that says, among other things, "Shocking, provocative novel of the future, ... when the phony war is permanent... "

The war in Iraq is not phony in one sense. It is real enough, where real people are dismembered and killed and rendered homeless. After that war "ended", the war of attrition continues, a war that looks to be permanent.

Although the superpower is not fighting the people of Iraq according to its claim, it has come to be seen by weary Iraqis as an army of occupation and inimical to Iraqi interests. The soldiers of the superpower and its chief ally must be equally weary as they are picked off in a steady trickle in daily bloody encounters.

But the word "phony" applies to the casus belli of that war. What then was the casus belli? At one time anyone could have answered that question. Even a child. "WMD," he could have lisped. And then if he had struck a bellicose posture he would have convinced the gullible of his precocious acumen.

"It (the voice of a government MP) spoke of the desperate dangers that England... that the great globe itself would soon be running into unless certain strong measures were, albeit regretfully, taken... " (The Wanting Seed).

Now when that righteous casus belli is called seriously into question with all the evidence against it, the perpetrators try as coolly as possible to call their own bluff with more righteous posturing.

"Only three superpowers remain to dominate a world of hatred, isolation, and fear. Oceania... is always at war with one of them" (1984). This is the "permanent" war. Ever since George Bush came to power, the now sole superpower has been engaged in war. While one war continues in Afghanistan, another is unleashed on Iraq. The direct cause in the case of Afghanistan was September Eleven. An unspeakable crime was committed in downtown Manhattan at which the whole world recoiled. But the arena of war selected by Bush was Afghanistan. The "Taliban", "Al Qaeda" and "Osama bin Laden" were sought as the country helplessly teetered and cratered under relentless bombing. Saddam was resurrected with careful orchestration after a 12-year lull. And Iraq was the cratered arena. "It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who... have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference" (1984).

When the legitimacy sought from the United Nations, traditional camp followers and the rest of the world was not easy to come by, the "Allies" threw aside such niceties and clapped their hands imperiously to cry, "Let the games commence!"

In the meantime, many had come to hate Saddam, the monster etc., and linked him in their hate capsule with the recent terrorism. Saddam is Osama is Saddam ... They are jointly the bogeyman of Orwell's 1984, against whom regular "hates" are mounted until citizens are wound up to hysteria pitch, ready to kill for the good of the nation. "... a hideous, grinding speech... burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one's teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one's neck. The Hate had started" (1984). The triumphant display of Saddam's sons' gruesomely got-up bodies indicates the outcome of such "hate", assuming carte blanche in the ferocious hunting down of Saddam himself. (One remembers the medieval practice of displaying decapitated heads chopped off at the behest of despots.)

"G... was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party... (He) had been condemned to death." The world only sometimes remembers that Saddam was an ally of the U.S. and was armed by them before the falling out. After the Kuwait invasion, the first Bush sent search missiles nosing into bunkers to put him to searing death. "The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible" (1984).

"Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: ... perhaps even... in some hiding-place in Oceania itself" (1984). The search for the assumed perpetrator of September Eleven, Osama bin Laden, was launched through a ferocious attack on the country said to harbour him. Even now, one is not sure if he is alive. And if alive, if he is in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. If super model Naomi Campbell is to be believed, he is in Saudi Arabia. Saddam too has disappeared. You could get some other super model to float a rumour that he (Saddam-Osama) is roaming in downtown Manhattan in an orange wig and pink sunglasses. Should a ferocious bombing of the great city island commence? A phony bombing! You splutter. No. The bombing would be real, but the cause would be phony. Phony speculation! You mutter this time. The irony would be, of course, that Saddam-Osama (or one of their/his doubles) would have achieved his end with a superlative bang by playing the ultimate suicide bombee...

"Freedom is Slavery," another slogan from 1984, emphasises the hierarchical world order where "`the proles' have to be kept down... natural inferiors to be kept in check" (1984). They, the despised lower orders, Iraqis, Afghans and other such members of the nether world, are freed of the "bad" and their countries docilely enter the expanding backyard "democracy" of the American Nation. Any rebellion is mercilessly put down for the sake of peace. "... I[I]f leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings... would... learn to think for themselves; and... they would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority (read `Superpower') had no function, and they would sweep it away... in the long run, a hierarchical society (read `world') was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance" (1984).

Many passages in the books need no commentary:

"All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals... " (1984).

"... the people who get fat through making ships and uniforms and rifles. Make them and destroy them and make them again. Go on doing it for ever and ever. They're the people who make the wars. Patriotism, honour, glory, defence of freedom - a load of balls, that's what it is. The end of war is the means of war... " (The Wanting Seed).

"... [T]he race to turn out more armaments, to capture more territory, to control more labour power, to turn out more armaments, to capture more territory, and so on indefinitely" (1984).

"But it stands to reason you've got to have a war... because there's an army... An army here and an army there and armies all over the shop. Armies is for wars and wars is for armies... " (The Wanting Seed).

"... [A] member of the Inner Party... may often be aware that the entire war is spurious... but such knowledge is easily neutralised by the technique of doublethink" (1984).

And we come to the third and final slogan of the Oceania government, "Ignorance is Strength!" (1984).

However long ago these books were written, their chilling validity today is hardly surprising. After all, they bring to light the recognised, though often forgotten, attributes to war. One can often turn to literature to find significant comment on such phenomena.

The imaginative world of fiction, where the reader anxiously follows the individual's fate, brings these bigger than life phenomena close. Often they can give a warning. Just as, so the psychoanalysts tell us, fiction produces remarkably valid dreams, so too does the fiction writer's intellect, through again, his concern for his imaginary protagonists, precipitate valid insights.

In this case, there is one terrifying insight, one that is not necessarily concomitant with war always, unless looked at philosophically - not just the preoccupation of the superpower with monstrously consolidating its place at the top, but possibly, to be engaged permanently in war.

Kamalini Sengupta, a former Indian Administrative Service officer, is an author and a freelance journalist.

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