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How do we examine lives?

September 3, 2010

This blog takes up the challenge Socrates left us in his Apology: he claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living (38a). As my students know — or will know — I’m kind of ambivalent about Socrates, and I definitely don’t want to take his word for it. Even he wouldn’t want me to! So this blog is about examining lives, our own and others’, without a presumption such examination makes them worth living. We are also examining our collective lives. After all, Aristotle, a sort of an intellectual grandson to Socrates, thought humans are zoon politikon, political animals.

How do we do it? First, how do we, the contributors to this blog, do it? We consider the questions from the perspective of political theory, an academic subdiscipline that these days lives in departments of political science. We do it by considering answers others — folks like Socrates, Machiavelli and Hobbes — have offered, in texts that are now canonical parts of the so-called Western Civilization. But we also do it by considering more contemporary answers, maybe even our own, many of which are not expressed in texts. This blog is not an anthropological examination, at least not in the academic sense of the term. But even we theoretically minded folks had better look beyond texts and our comfy office if we want to say anything interesting.

I recently saw Restrepo, a harrowing documentary about the experience of a U.S. Army company in Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007-2008. There are lots of great things to be said about the film (also lots of sad and depressing things), but here I want to focus on a seemingly small technical aspect that nevertheless matters a lot for the question of how lives are examined.

Stories of war, fictional, real, and in-between, are a staple in human culture. For some, war is a site of inspiring heroism, even excitement. For others, it represents the worst about us. “War is the decisive human failure,” the economist J.K. Galbraight said. You might or might not agree (although you must agree that Galbraight’s sentence is rhetorically powerful). Whatever you think, it’s obvious that wars matter. What Restrepo does really brilliantly is that it shows us a perspective of what it means to be a soldier in a war. (I think it does; I haven’t been there.) Part of this is technical, made possible by modern video technology.

OK, so wars have been televised since Vietnam, and there were movie cameras on the fronts as early as in the First World War. But, as all of us who’ve shot footage with our cellphones and mini dv-cams know, portable video technology makes a constant, ubiquitous and intimate recording of lives possible more effectively than ever before. Some of the footage in Restrepo is in fact from the soldiers, from their cellphones and handheld cams.

So what? you might say. Don’t modern digital video technology and its distribution channels such as YouTube also make the most inane, boring, superficial, narcissistic stuff possible. Maybe; there certainly is a lot of stuff out there that belongs either in the TMI or the Yawn department. But a lot of very cool stuff is available, too, and Restrepo is an example.

One of the coolest things Restrepo and its footage, whether from the soldiers or from Junger and Hetherington somewhat more professional equipment, show us is what the soldiers’ lives are like, what they see and what they don’t see.

Not once in the film do we get footage that is different from the soldiers’ perspective. We get a bit of aerial footage when the guys are shipped to and from Korengal valley, from the very limited perspective of the transport choppers. We get some distance shots, equivalent to what you might get with binoculars or a rifle scope. We get footage of largely baffling encounters — because of language issues — of the locals. And we get the soldiers going about their daily lives, always dangerous and frequently deadly. That’s it.

So here’s an assignment: Think about how that would affect your perspective of politics and policy, war, cultures, and the like if you were there. Second, think about how it affects your perspective as someone who is not there.

Here is where a political theorist, a politician, or even a general comes along and says, “Yes, yes, and that’s why we need folks who sit in offices, not in outposts, and can think about the big picture.” I wouldn’t be a political theorist if I didn’t think that that perspective, too, is valuable. But to forget about or ignore the perspective of the soldiers in Operating Post Restrepo and its equivalents — both military and civilian, in Afghanistan and down the street from you — might be to miss something important. And it’s a perspective that technology makes possible in new ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying, “Yay, technology! Things sucked until the iPhone 4.” I want to push two, somewhat more modest points. First, “technologies of inquiry,” as we might call them in our pretentious moments, matter. This means, second, that the Socratic exhortation to examine our lives forces us to ask and answer the nontrivial prior question, How?

One Comment
  1. November 7, 2010 1:59 PM

    Interesting post. I really liked the “Restrepo” trailer and found that the movie looks awesome. Only viewing footage from the people experiencing War as a movie is a great idea. As for your assignment question, my perspective is obviously different from a person experiencing it. All I can do is have sympathy for the people involved and never really know the truth. All we can do is question, kinda like the idea of questioning authority. We question the truth and validity of what we are told as a responsibility of keeping those involved honest. Just like with authority. We question authority to protect ourselves and make sure authority does not abuse its power and take advantage of it.

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