Wu Wei

I’ve been reflecting on the reaction to yesterday’s “Unspeakable Truth” post, about America’s self-destructive reaction to the September 11 attacks. The post began by quoting historian David Bell, who argued that Islamic terrorism, although certainly very dangerous, is not an existential threat to America. (It is unfortunate that the article was published under an inflammatory headline, “Was 9/11 really that bad?” Most of the right-wing reaction to the article didn’t get past the headline, which very likely was written by some dweeb on the Los Angeles Times copydesk and not Bell himself.)

I also quoted James Fallows’s “Declaring Victory” article from the September 2006 Atlantic Monthly, which I’m very sorry is available only to subscribers. However, I have blogged about this article here, here, and here, here, and probably elsewhere. In this article Fallows interviews a number of national security experts for their assessment of where the U.S. stands in its counterterrorism efforts. Shortly after this issue of Atlantic Monthly came out, parts of a National Intelligence Estimate of April 2006 were declassified and released, and as I noted here, Fallows’s experts and the NIE came to pretty much the same conclusions.

Among other things, the NIE and the Fallows experts agreed that the war in Iraq is growing the threat of terrorism against the United States, not reducing it. Very briefly, Bush’s Folly is not only increasing the number of Islamic hotheads who want to strike America; it is also diverting many national security resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.

The Fallows experts discuss a number of actions the U.S. should be doing but isn’t, as well as action the U.S. is doing but shouldn’t. I’m very sorry there’s a subscription wall around the Atlantic Monthly article, but if you go through my old posts linked above you’ll get a pretty good picture of what’s in it.

However, I assure you that nobody — not I, not James Fallows or his interviewees, not the National Intelligence Estimate — recommended doing nothing.

As you may have noticed if you followed yesterday’s “Unspeakable Truth” comments, righties seem to see only two options: thrashing about self-destructively and making the problem worse, or nothing.

It doesn’t matter how carefully one explains and documents reasons why the Bush Administration’s approach to national security is counterproductive. All they comprehend is “Bush’s Way” or “nothing.” Comments to the “Unspeakable Truth” post were typical, such as this one:

I find you lefties amusing. You’d rather wait until there’s a Stalingrad type siege to fight back, maybe. Of course, you’d want to poll ‘the world’s’ opinion for permission first.

Or this one:

Knock Knock.
Who is there?
Jihaddi terrorist.
What can I do for you today?
I am here to hurt your family. But only one of them. I don’t have enough bullets in my gun to kill you all.
Oh that’s fine then. Since my family will continue to exist even with the dead member, then I shouldn’t overreact to your threat.

Or this one:

I think you guys might be right. It got me thinking about how many innocent victims get killed while being mugged or raped because they fought back, or more importantly because the perp didn’t want to leave any witness because of the severity of the punishment if caught. I mean, we are just talking about a couple of bucks or a little bit of your time here people, not an existential threat, is that really worth dying over? If you just gave them what they wanted and then we all just look the other way, how many innocent lives would be saved?

What’s ironic about that last comment is that, essentially, the Bush Administration is giving Osama bin Laden what he wanted. It has been well documented by Richard Clarke and others that for many years Osama bin Laden’s game plan was to provoke the United States into invading a Muslim country. This, he figured, would incite large numbers of Muslims into vowing jihad against the U.S. And it seems he was right.

Effective counterterrorism requires a multifaceted approach, discussed in the old posts linked above; there’s no one, big, splashy, magic-bullet solution. And unfortunately, comprehending the various facets and perceiving how they work together requires an attention span somewhat longer than that of a fruit fly. Hence, righties hear “nothing.”

As a counterweight to the Extremely Stupid, see Lorelei Kelly’s article “What Progressives Have in Common with the Military” in AlterNet. It begins:

When Army Col. Ike Wilson returned home in March 2004 from a 12 month deployment in Iraq, one thought remained with him: “Why such a deliberate plan to fight the war, but none to win the peace to follow?”

Wilson, a West Point professor with years of military planning experience, knew that placing this question at the the center of national security policy discussions was the only way to truly learn from Iraq and Afghanistan. He soon founded the Beyond War Project as a hub to educate both the military and the public about a new vision for war, peace and America’s role in the world. Thus far, he’s signed up participants ranging from Cornell University’s Peace Studies Program to the U.S. Air Force.

Wilson’s approach typifies today’s professional military education, which includes a breadth of topics that might surprise those more familiar with the liberal arts. In contrast to linear Cold War themes like strategic nuclear deterrence, military schools emphasize humanities subjects such as language, international cooperation and world culture. Such lessons arrived in these academic settings in the early part of the decade–though it took the terror attacks of 9/11 and two offensive U.S. military actions before elected leaders really paid attention to the dramatic shift from Cold War thinking.

Today, nearly every general that testifies before Congress claims that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan do not have purely military solutions. This sea change means that many members of the military and progressives are philosophically much closer than either believes and they are both hurt by the lack of meaningful interaction. Understanding and aligning with the military around shared concerns could be a crucial new strategy for the left.

The rightie approach to national security is what I call the “bison herd stampede strategy.” A big herd of terrified, stampeding American bison (buffalo to us old folks) generates huge, destructive force, but it’s got no brain. And the herd is as likely than not to stampede right over a cliff.

The approach described in Ms. Kelly’s article, however, puts thinking ahead of stampeding. I’m not going to excerpt any more of it, because it’s better to read the whole thing.

Thinking about “nothing” reminded me of the Chinese principle of Wu Wei, which is usually translated as “not doing” or “without action.” Wu Wei is often misinterpreted as passivity, but Wu Wei is an important principle in Chinese martial arts, which is a clue that it is not passive at all. There’s a pretty good explanation of this in this article:

True martial arts masters understand wu wei as “spontaneous action” or “effortless flow”. You might know that Bruce Lee founded Jeet Kune Do, a style that, like the man himself, was imbued with an emphasis on speed and power. But you probably didn’t know that he also founded Wu Wei Gung Fu, a fighting art that expressed his ultimate philosophy: “Learn technique. Practice technique. Forget technique.” At the highest level of this discipline (as well as other martial arts), the warrior becomes one with the flow of reality around him. In that state of oneness, he is able to act without the necessity of volition. To the bystanders, he doesn’t seem to do much, and yet he delivers the exact minimum of impact at the exact right time to accomplish what needs to be done and not one iota more.

Not that I was ever a martial arts master — my best sport was croquet, but it’s been years since I’ve played even that — but I understand some basic principles, such as using the energy of your opponent’s momentum to bring him down. The master who uses no more energy than is necessary is harder to defeat than one who is fighting as hard as he can.

This Wikipedia article on Wu Wei isn’t bad; I like this part: “The aim of wu wei is to achieve a state of perfect equilibrium, or alignment with the Tao, and, as a result, obtain an irresistible form of ‘soft and invisible power’ over things (the self, others, a country).” Tao may be a little too mystical for some of you, but the essential point is that it’s best to do just enough; not too much, not too little.

The power of water is a frequent theme in the Tao Teh Ching, such as in #78:

Nothing in the world is softer than water,
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.

The Tao Teh Ching also takes a dim view of hardness and rigidity. This is from #76:

Just as a sapless tree will split and decay
So an inflexible force will meet defeat;
The hard and mighty lie beneath the ground
While the tender and weak dance on the breeze above.

From a Taoist/martial arts perspective, the U.S. has made every possible mistake in the “war on terror.” We’re like the big, dumb, muscle-bound brute that Jackie Chan whips every time. Wu Wei looks like “doing nothing” to some people, but it’s just the “nothing” that needs to be done.

13 thoughts on “Wu Wei

  1. ‘using the energy of your opponent’s momentum to bring him down’…….sounds familiar……Bush’s huge war momentum, swinging wildly out of focus then headstrong out of balance, brings him down.

  2. Part of the anger about 9/11 comes from or own ignorance of history. I don’t know how many people said, after 9/11, that it was totally unprecendented to attack civilians and that 9/11 was the biggest attack on innocent civilians in history. They had never heard of the Luftwaffe bombing of England in World War II and were stunned to hear that about 50,000 British civilians were killed in the British Isles by German bombs in World War II. As the discussion progressed with these people, come to find out they also didn’t know there had been any British or Canadian troops in the D-Day landings; they thought after the British “ran away ffrom France” (their phrase) at Dunkirk in 1940, the U.S. had entirely taken over the war effort in Europe and that no British soldiers OR civilians had fought in Europe after that. They actually thought that Winston Churchill and England had not run any risk or paid any price at all for standing alone against Germany. In fact, one of these people said to me with a completely straight face, “I thought Churchill wanted Germany to win the war.”

  3. Beautifully described.

    What’s missing though, is a discussion of our real motives for being in this fight. I don’t believe that BushCo’s actions are really about the war on terror. To me, this is window dressing, a useful cover, a very useful boogeyman to keep the masses from thinking.

    Any discussion of why we’re there has to include both oil and Israel. There are zillions of dollars of high quality oil in this region, close to the surface, easy to extract. I am certain somebody in the Republican hierarchy figured if they could conquer and pacify Iraq, the oil could be drawn out and sold for about $30 a barrel or less. The resulting economic boom would produce enormous profits for the energy companies and solidify Republican rule forever. This comes at a time when the planet is running out of oil, and the competition for the remaining supplies is intensifying. I suspect that future historians will refer to the current war as the beginning of the oil or resource wars.

    As for Israel, that’s a touchy subject, about which I know little. I do know that the neocons have strong ties to the right wing in Israel, and it’s been said by some that this faction “owns” our foreign policy (and please forgive me maha if this triggers a massive stream of angry comments – this subject is one of the third rails of blogging).

    And so there are powerful forces drawing us into the Middle East for reasons much deeper than merely making the country safe from terrorism. It infuriates me to no end, that five or six years after 9/11, and three or four years after our invasion of Iraq – based entirely on lies – that very few people are willing to touch these driving reasons why we are there. Until we can have this honest discussion, we’re only scratching the surface of the problem.

  4. Yes, exactly – this administration has been that of the neighborhood bully. Who doesn’t love seeing the bully finally getting his behind kicked? When its the USA though that’s the bully – not so good. That we have been backed into such a corner is quite extraordinary. The righties blame us for something in our character that is lacking, something that brings us to hate Bush more than we hate the enemy AND hate Bush so much we’d rather have the USA lose, which is what they say we are asking for when we ask to have the troops pulled out of Iraq. Being bullies, they can’t see things any other way. “Either you are on defense or you are on offense they say.” We want to see Cheney and Bush impeached so we can see them get knocked on their butts – but would they be? Supporters who have gone quiet would surely rally to their besieged President and then where would we be? Could we prevail without a quorum?

  5. moonbat, your comment reminds me of exactly why I think the time has come for Al Gore to run for President. He’s been a man before his time up until now, but with his knowledge of energy and his insights into the Middle East from having been Vice President I really think his time has come. I can’t think of any other potential candidate or current candidate that would have the same insights that could win. We have two years to go, this could and may very well change but at this point in time, this is how I see it.

  6. Breaking news on CNN – “some” military personnel think that Iran was behind the incident on January 20th where enemy combatants got into our green zone and killed our soldiers. Here we go…

  7. Has anyone noticed that the L.A. Times has changed the title of Daniel Bell’s article?

    Now it’s “Putting 9/11 into Perspective”

  8. Maha, great post. Moonbat great comment. Big oil and Israel’s role has been obvious for some time now in this debacle but the military industrial complex also disserves a passing mention since they’ve profited so handsomely from the death and destruction. I think I heard Richard Lugar the other day say that Congress needs to support the surge so that “we can secure the oil assets”…or something like that. WTF? I guess it wasn’t about WMD after all? The follow-up question to Lugar should have been …secure the oil for whom? …and Americans wonder why… so much of the ROTW wishes ill upon them? Bushco has sold the lie that citizens are sacrificing their sons and daughter’s lives to “protect our freedoms” or whatever such drivel when in fact they are been sent into the grinder to make that part of the world safe for Exxon-Mobil. The significance of 911 is that it has become an enabler for your government to hide its true intent…which I might add is clearly evil. The Iraq government is currently been pressured to adopt a law drafted by Bushco that will give Big Oil the upper hand over Iraqi resources for years to come. In today’s news the administration denies that they’ve muzzled scientists about Global Warming or that their political hacks on loan from Big Oil have been parachuted into government agencies such as NASA and apparently these guys get to approve what gets reported and what doesn’t to you… the people. A few years ago NASA announced that since there was no such thing as Global Warming they were going to get out of the business of studying it. The Dems need to shine lots more light and they should put impeachment of both Bush and Cheney back on the table.

  9. That Wu Wei sounds a little like the strategy that some Democrats are advocating..Don’t do anything to bring Bush to heel,just let him proceed on his way of doing things,and he’ll do more damage to himself than any Democrats could possibly do.

    I don’t think Bush is the best example to illustrate the working principles of Wu Wei because Bush’s insecurities are so pronounced and his actions are so predictable that he doesn’t rise up to a level sufficient enough to present a challenge to the theory or the art. A halfway decent working knowledge of adolescence behavior is all one needs to steer Bush in the direction you want him to go. Look at what the neocons managed to get little Georgie to do.. A little stroking of his ego, and affirming of his greatness was all the Neocons needed to get little Georgie charging head first into Iraq.

    C U N D gulag posted a comment a day or two ago about Bush supporters fashioning him as the American Churchill, it’s laughable to us who are grounded in reality, but to Bush that kind of fluff is hypnotically controlling.

  10. moonbat’s point is well-taken; I’m not sure you can necessarily correllate the war in Iraq per se with overreaction to 9/11. There’s a tenable link, sure, but it comes more from the way the war was sold to the American public than any actual connection. Evidence indicates that the neocons wanted to invade Iraq long before 9/11, right? The more self-destructive aspects of our reaction to 9/11 have to do more with things happening domestically (warantless wiretapping, for instance).

    Of course we should do something. In addition to diplomacy abroad, that something should involve properly funding effective anti-terror initiatives (and doing things like getting a first-responder communication system that actually works up and running in New York and not giving Homeland Security money to petting zoos).

  11. There is nothing mystical about the Tao. It is simply the way things are.

    And there are no invisible sky gods in it, either.

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