Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Umberto Eco has one of those fertile minds that helps us to comprehend contemporary reality by coming up with a whole new range of categories to slot it into. One of these is his concept of neowar, the conflict model for the globalised world.

During the cold war which followed centuries of paleowar, there was equilibrium at the centre of the two first worlds, but conflict was normative at the periphery, he notes. Paleowars had fairly clear fronts and the enemy was either systematically attacked behind theirs or rounded up and put in camps.

In the modern era of neowar however, the enemy is just as likely to be talking to us in our own homes using our TVs and broadband connections and we are much more likely to be sympathetic to them, or at least the 'innocent' victims on their side of the non-front that separates us.

9-11 was, Eco feels, the initiation of a permanent state of neowar in which disequilibrium arrived at the centre. The response from Washington was to immediately engage in the 'simulcrum' of a paleowar in Afghanistan and later Iraq.

The biggest danger he suspects, is that the rhetoric of paleowar (Crusades etc..) becomes the conduit for talking ourselves into a new macro-polarisation, which under the conditions of globalisation, would be unwinnable for both civilisations. The front of such a crusade would exist only in the politcal discourse; and anyway, history has shown how pointless an exercise the crusades were even in the context of the pre-Modern world.

This intellectual model is certainly interesting, but it starts to come apart the moment Eco tries to use it to explain the whole of our current confrontation with 'Terror'. Is there really more 'disequilibrium' at the centre now than there was say in the 1970s? Surely he remembers the Red Brigades in Italy? How does globalised conflict look to the Taleban fighter on the ground in Helmand province? In spite of all the dire warnings from our politicians and policemen, it strikes me that so far 'Al Qaeda' has proved far more resilient as a wager of localised paleowars on the periphery (albeit asymmetric) than as a bringer of death and destruction to our doorsteps.

Concepts like paleowar and neowar are useful, but instances of conflict in today's world are still likely to be different kinds of hybrid, especially when you look at how the various levels of participants (politicians, grunts, terrorists, insurgents etc.) actually internalise their motives.

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