Scarry, Elaine. Who Defended the Country? Elaine Scarry in A New Democracy
Forum On Citizenship, National Security, and 9/11. Eds. Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers. Boston: Beacon,
- The collection, "Who Defended the Country," with title essay
by Elaine Scarry and reply remarks by a host of well-known scholars like
Richard Falk, Ellen Willis, Antonia Chayes, and others, invites us to
re-examine our roles as citizens within a particularly postmodern frame. Scarry argues against the centralized war power now exercised by the U.S.
government and encourages the populace to endorse a more egalitarian, distributed form of national defense. Together with her
commentators, Scarry analyzes the events of 9/11 in an effort to articulate the duties of individual and
collective national citizenship. While thinking about the agency or passivity inherent in American citizenship is nothing new,
neither in contemporary nor historical discourse ranging from Tocqueville to Unger, this collection employs some vital,
particularly postmodern concepts which not only help us to consider the ways we enact our citizenry, but also invite us to
reshape our conceptions of democracy and empire. The collection assists us in asking what it means to be a citizen of a
democracy, what constitutes contemporary boundaries between the ordinary and the extraordinary, and what "national ground,"
"territory," and "affiliation" entail in the increasingly blurred spaces of ideological and geographical placement.
Ultimately, the text alerts us to the ways our discursive terms highlight the problematic contradictions of democratic forms.
Scarry begins her essay with the observation that the United States had difficulty defending itself on 9/11.
Noting that defending our country is "an obligation we all share" (3), Scarry seeks to explore how our national defense
systems can be improved through citizen involvement. While Scarry's impulse to provoke us, as citizens, into participatory
governance is laudatory, she serves us even more importantly by inviting us to explore what "we as a country" means. By
thinking about the link between individual or group identification and responsibility for the maintenance of the structures
comprising the "country" we purportedly need to "defend," Scarry and the text's other authors unravel the notion of agency's
relationship to "country" while pondering several postmodern themes already in discursive play: speed, space, and motion.
A main tenet of Scarry's argument is that the speed with which nuclear war can be initiated without citizen consent stands in
stark contrast to the extensive time the government had, and failed, to respond to the hijackers before they flew into the
Pentagon. According to Scarry, this disparity demonstrates the government's inadequate defense of the nation and its
inappropriate usurping of control over the potentially more effective populace. Scarry's concerns about the government's
ability to act hastily, without citizen consent, in the event of a nuclear attack echoes contemporary fears about the
irreversible and dangerous levels of speed American culture is already witnessing in multiple arenas. From popular cinematic
hits, including one actually titled "Speed," to research being conducted on faster connections through fiber optics,
culture is no doubt reacting to a world that, in temporality and architecture, arguably leaves the human behind and bereft.
Scarry's points about speed are troubling. She claims, for instance, that the Constitution has been bypassed by the
country's doctrine of Presidential First Use of nuclear weapons, because officials argue that the "pace of modern life" does
not allow time for consulting Congress or citizens before a nuclear strike. Scarry movingly juxtaposes deadly force with the
beneficial potential for communication between the government and the populace in her ironic statement that "with planes and
weapons traveling faster than the speed of sound, what sense does it make to have a lot of sentences we have no time to
hear?" (5). Noting that the need for speed has been invoked by the government in recent history to explain the
centralization of war power as opposed to the distribution of consent across the citizenry (14), Scarry argues that
time should not pose as an excuse for refusing to involve the American public in key policy decisions.
Several of the respondents to Scarry embrace the discourse of speed while rebutting her arguments about its impact on
democratic practices. In "A Success of Democracy," Charles Knight argues that Scarry's reliance on the pace of events as
being a large part of the difficulty of defense is "overstated" (58). Claiming that strategic surprise was more to blame for
the events of 9/11 than quick pacing, Knight goes so far as to refute Scarry's version of the facts by offering a few
alternative narratives and timetables to those she presented in her argument. While acknowledging the problems of speed in
his essay "A Policy Failure," Stephen Walt asks the reader what other lessons we should learn from the attack on the
Pentagon. Unlike Scarry's conclusion that the government has used speed as an excuse for centralizing what should be a
distributed responsibility for defense decisions, Walt asks, "Was the Pentagon struck because we have placed too much
emphasis on 'speed,' or because we did not emphasize it enough?" (53). Randall Forsberg's article, "Citizens and Arms
Control," opposes Scarry's conclusion as well by asserting that the speed of nuclear armed missiles "has not eliminated
democratic control altogether" (78). Forsberg claims that Congress has not itself ever attempted to "require administration
support" for policies of nuclear disarmament, despite having that opportunity each year (78). Thus, each author accounts for
the contemporary phenomenon of technological speed in warfare, yet ultimately leaves the reader wondering about the extent to
which speed does or does not affect our democratic forms.
To a degree, then, Who Defended the Country? might be retitled, without reference to subjectivity, "What is a
Democratic Form?". Scarry is indeed calling for an egalitarian, distributed system of defense. She claims that the plane
that hit the Pentagon, viewed alongside the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, "reveals two different conceptions of
national defense" (6): the Pentagon crash represents an authoritarian, centralized system of defense that ultimately failed
as the Pentagon was struck, while the plane ostensibly brought down by citizen heroes rushing the cockpit represents an
egalitarian, democratic form of defense because the constituents, with informed consent, voted and acted. Despite Scarry's
literal, and admirable, sense that a democratic form must not be "top-down" (7), but of, by, and for the people, the
collection nevertheless asks us to look further into forms of democratic practice. In "The Realities of War," for example,
Ellen Willis claims that democracy throughout the world has historically (and currently) "always been more aspiration than
achievement" (83). While noting that, even as an aspiration, democracy seems threatened in the contemporary political arena,
Willis suggests that the process of democratic practice is itself part of its goal. This has certainly been true in
American law, where we consistently see gaps between the intent and the fulfillment of justice.
The search for democratic form through process is referenced throughout the collection through numerous and varied metaphors
of traveling and motion. Assuming a unified national "we," Scarry herself uses travel metaphors to urge the populace to act
against governmental interference that threatens to prevent our reaching national goals which we, as consumers, have bought
into. Worrying about centralized forms of authority blocking "the destination towards which we were traveling together" (33),
Scarry cautions that "the destination for which we purchased tickets was a country where no one was arrested without their
names being made public, a country that did not carry out wars without the authorization of Congress, a country that does not
threaten to use weapons of mass destruction" (33). Contributors to the collection address these metaphors of propulsion and
seizure. In "Too Utopian," Richard Falk maintains that "there were grounds for projecting American exceptionalism as
a goal, even if not as an attainment. Such claims depend on the future tense, a sense of trajectory toward a goal
that seemed plausible in relation to race relations, the status of women, and sexuality" (40). Despite cautioning that this
national trajectory has changed for the worse and condemning Scarry's vision for being utopian and politically unattainable,
Falk is nevertheless invested in imagining an attainable position, even if it cannot be immediately realized. In "Democracy
Won't Help," Paul Kahn similarly invokes historical democracy to contemplate future imagination and concludes that traveling
back to eighteenth-century models of democracy to find solutions for contemporary problems is unlikely to be helpful (47).
The historical and traveling metaphors used throughout the text do point us towards examining the ways in which the
metaphorical architectures of America have been constructed by temporal and ideological pillars that are increasingly
difficult to locate in discrete spaces. The difficulty of this location no doubt helps explain the phenomenon of citizen
ignorance and passivity that Scarry and her contributors urge us to overcome.
The spatial analyses offered by the collection's authors consider democratic practice within postmodern spatial paradigms.
One critique directed against Scarry by Falk, for instance, claims that she fails to consider how to counter terrorist
activity that "cannot be definitively situated in space" (42). Noting the problem of indefinite location and pointing out
Scarry's spatial omission seems most appropriate, given how Scarry herself anchors her argument in an intriguing discourse
which links the geographic with the ideological. She calls planes "the ground," for example, asserting that each plane was a
"small piece of U.S. ground" (6). Knight comments that if the "internal ground" was the plane, then its protection failed
(60). Scarry's notion of ground is even more intriguing, given her similar version of territory. Scarry claims that Flight
93 was a "small piece of American territory" that was "restored to the country when civilian passengers who became
'citizen-soldiers' regained control of the ground--in the process losing their own lives" (20). But in a postmodern era
marked by diaspora and hybrid identifications, one must wonder at the ability to locate ground and territory so fixedly in a
traveling object. Quite clearly, the hijackers of 9/11 wished to do damage to Americans and others on the doomed planes,
those individuals residing within U.S. borders, and American ideological tenets housed in the World Trade Center buildings,
the Pentagon, and myriad other locations throughout the globe. The collection nonetheless invites us to think further about
how our notions of abstract civic involvement are linked to our perceptions of territorial agency across the globe. How do
we locate American territory, or ground, when we are heavily responsible for either democracy or capitalism (not to be fused)
permeating borders and infiltrating spaces in visible and invisible ways?
Elaine Scarry commends the "citizen-soldiers" who allegedly stormed the hijackers in their cockpit and prevented a larger
attack on America for their collaborative work and exercise of informed consent (20, 25, 30). Certainly their
self-sacrifice is worthy of considerable praise. Yet even beyond Scarry's point that our nation needs a consenting public,
this collection leads us to question what informed consent entails in contemporary America, and how we might reconcile the
inconsistencies of fragmentary knowledge with an agenda for action. Forsberg suggests that the general public's lack of
knowledge about Defense Department spending threatens democratic institutions and the safety of ordinary citizens (79-80).
Chayes, however, faults an over-abundance of limited, incoherent knowledge for citizens' passivity, arguing that "it is an
art to piece together a picture from the millions of scraps of data that are available" (64). The oscillation between
excessive and insufficient knowledge points towards the oxymoronic inconsistencies inherent in democracy itself--like, as
Willis observes, the project of a democratic defense which values surprise and secrecy in strategic war while striving to
achieve an open, democratic society (81). The collected essays inspire us to inquire into what we might expect from an
innately contradictory democratic practice, as we struggle to understand the norms of and exceptions to democratic forms.
Who Defended the Country? inserts the reader into a dialogue about normativity and exceptionality. Whereas
Scarry uses the two different plane crashes on 9/11 as a barometer for the problems with our overall national
defense systems, some of Scarry's contributors don't agree that these events can be used metonymically. Stephen Walt argues,
for instance, that Scarry does not adequately account for the historical record of U.S. decision-making and erroneously
these plane crashes in overarching ways. Walt writes, "If one looks at the historical record [...] rapid
been the exception rather than the rule" (52-53). Given the competing narratives the book offers us about the ways we might
coherently understand U.S. policy decisions in light of a democratic state which is itself theoretically grounded in
contradictions, this collection is most useful not for answering our questions about domestic policies, the role of
international law and politics in our domestic policy decisions, or our stances on creating or defending the state of war.
Rather, this book motivates us to think about how our architectural and geographic boundaries affect our
national or individual agents. The text moves us to examine the ways our personal trajectories are intertwined with
attending to or ignoring the borders of our ideological foundations. Who Defended the Country? splendidly
brings us to an examination of the alliances between the three elements with which Scarry concludes: "those who wish to
injure its [the country's] population, its skyline, or its democratic structures" (100). The book leads its readers to
consider the relationship between these three foundations of American life, as we must ponder the ways metaphoric and material architectures of our contemporary lives structure and inform the ways we see the ordinary and the
exceptional. We must ask ourselves how we might prevent horrific human murders across the globe not only by reinforcing or
reconstituting the terms of defense, but also by examining how everyday actions predictably and randomly lead to cruelty.
University of Rhode Island
COPYRIGHT (c) 2003 BY Valerie Karno.
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