Monday, July 17, 2006

The forever war

It is perhaps a good time to read "The forever war" again. Written at a time when American science fiction was dominated by a bunch of lunatic fascists, this remarkable book stands out as a post Vietnam war reflection on displacement. There is a war out there and nobody knows why it is still raging, people are caught into it for an endless period of time, with the complicity of relativistic effects that makes time back on Earth pass at a much quicker pace, making the people caught in the fighting forever displaced from any other reality, with no world to go back to, even in the unlikely event that hostilities would cease. What of our "forever war"?

The Private William Mandella of today is maybe (if you have one perspective on the current state of events) the pawn in the superpower's chessboard, the working class inner city kid drawn to the army as the only possible way to pay for his or her education and sent out on a war created to cover up major internal failures of the power structure and scam elections. Or maybe, if you take another perspective, the new forever war should be seen through the eyes of the people of the Middle East, whose countries are bombed back to the stone age by the first whim of a ruthless superpower or of its allies. The slow pace of reconstruction, the slow emergence from the darkness towards the threshold of a technologically and scientifically advanced society, all this can be annihilated overnight. Think of the siege of Lebanon, of the collapse of the infrastructures of society in Iraq, or of the more than obvious dangers Iran is running into for daring to gain access to the nuclear age. The "forever" refers then to the continuous falling back into the state of chaos and destruction, the increasing gap that separates this reality from the fast pace of development of the ruling powers.

Perhaps because I am a scientist, I tend to think that scientific development, and the possibility to support a healthy and productive scientific community, is what makes the biggest difference, in the long run, in the possibilities of a country not only to improve the lives and expectations of its citizens, but also to gain political stability and negotiating power on the international arena. Once there were two superpowers, scientifically competing on the highest possible level: their level of scientific development had a fundamental role in maintaining the status quo that we used to call the "Cold War". Today's world has no status quo and no confrontation of giants. Until the time when the new giants will emerge (India, China), ther world will see little more than a forever war.

This has little to do with Haldeman's novel, I know, but I greatly appreciated the novel and I cannot help thinking of reading it again at this particular time. Just as in the novel, on any
new mission, any new phase of the war that stretches through long interstellar journeys, the soldiers face an alien enemy that, due to the enormous time dilations of general relativity, will have had the time to develop new and vastly superior technologies, in our scenario the technological and scientific gap between the worlds (which are but parts of our world) widens after every new episode of the war.

Development, scientific and technological, is essential to the cause of stability and peace, but is it feasible? The efforts needed to create high level scientific institutions is enormous. How is one to attract excellent scientists to a war zone, or to an area that is likely to become a war zone as soon as the wind of the forever war blows its way? Corageous attempts of the past have been marred by internal inefficiencies and the bureaucratic stupidity of the local infrastructures and then finished off by the violence of war. An significant example may be the history of the Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences created in 1999 at the American University in Beirut, or one can find many examples in the creation and annihilation of not a few scientific institutions in subsaharian Africa.

CAMS - Beirut
ICTP News 1998: CAMS

Another book I've been brought to read again because of the current geopolitical situation is the book of writings of Abdus Salam, "Ideals and Realities". As the title readily reveals, the theme of bringing good scientific development and building high level scientific enterprise in the developing world is riddled with painful confrontations between idealism and realpolitik.

With all the unrealized dreams that it contains, this book maintains its poignancy today. Among the many very sensible observation and suggestions on concrete improvements of science in the developing world, one finds more philosophical thoughts, for example about science and islam (quite an interesting essay in itself). Written under the great canopy of the Cold War, the book does not represent the much more intrinsically unstable world of today, which adds enormous new difficulties to the task of scientific development. Nonetheless it remains a fundamental reading.

Abdus Salam
The Nobel Lecture by Abdus Salam

If one wants to complement Salam's observation with a good overview of the state of science in the world of today (well of a couple of years ago, that is), one can look at the very complete
UNESCO Science Report.

A later addition (July 23)
The following passage is taken from Elie Wiesel's Nobel Lecture:

"Nothing provokes so much horror and opposition within the Jewish tradition as war. Our abhorrence of war is reflected in the paucity of our literature of warfare. After all, God created the Torah to do away with iniquity, to do away with war. Warriors fare poorly in the Talmud: Judas Maccabeus is not even mentioned; Bar-Kochba is cited, but negatively. David, a great warrior and conqueror, is not permitted to build the Temple; it is his son Solomon, a man of peace, who constructs God's dwelling place. Of course some wars may have been necessary or inevitable, but none was ever regarded as holy. For us, a holy war is a contradiction in terms. War dehumanizes, war diminishes, war debases all those who wage it. The Talmud says, "Talmidei hukhamim shemarbin shalom baolam" (It is the wise men who will bring about peace). Perhaps, because wise men remember best. (...) None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims."

Elie Wiesel's Nobel Lecture

One is tempted to dedicate this quote to the Israeli army that is presently slauthering hundreds of innocent civilians in Lebanon, destroying cities, trying to annihilate a civilization, all for the sake of a demonstration of power.

What will emerge from the Beirut devastation? A Hezbollah movement stronger than ever, with newly acquired sympathies in the most unsuspected corners of the world, even in the wealthy hearts of Europe and North America? Was this what Israel wanted? Or perpahs the beginning of a "forever war" progressively involving Syria and Iran, with a devastated Iraq caught in the middle?