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Friday, July 23, 2010

A Comment on Green Lanternism

This post is a brief reflection on what MY and others have called the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics. This theory, in a nutshell, is that willpower--not firepower, not alliances, not other factors--is the deciding factor in war, especially. This is an old idea, but found it's most recent manifestation in the neocon fantasies of the 2000's. The phrase, "Green Lantern theory" is, of course, mocking the theory, so although the theory has many proponents, they probably wouldn't call it that.

Like I said, it's an old idea. I am reading Hastings's Winston's War (2010) right now, and of course Winston Churchill was something of a believer in the theory, although it had not yet been formulated as such.

Reading WW, I have a new corollary to the Green Lantern theory: Willpower alone is never sufficient to win a war. You need something, some kind of advantage, to actually win a war. (Sometimes, facing an enemy with inferior morale ("willpower") may be close to enough.) So the Green Lantern theory is wrong, sort of. But, and here's the corollary: Willpower is often enough to prevent losing a war.

Take the situation of the Brits in 1940, after the fall of France. It is not inconceivable that HMG might have sought terms with Hitler at that point and thus lost the war. Indeed, that would not have been a particularly unreasonable course of action, even though it would have been a bad result. The Brits, without allies, simply could not conceive of a course of action for winning. The British Army was not an effective fighting force, was under-equipped and poorly led, for the most part. The RAF and Royal Navy were better, but fighting a land war on the Continent was not a realistic possibility, even with Dominion and imperial forces.

Churchill's only real hope was to bring in the United States, but he couldn't actually do that. It was the Japanese, who in one of the worst manifestations of the Green Lantern theory ever, succeeded in doing that.

But Churchill refused to give up, and that was important. He was never able to instill his "will" in his fighting forces. The British forces surrendered at Singapore (three times the losses sustained in France in 1940) to smaller numbers of Japanese attackers, for example. But simply refusing to quit was enough to avoid losing.

That and, of course, the English Channel.

The same basically holds for Stalin and the U.S.S.R. after June 22, 1941. The refusal to capitulate was enough to prevent losing, but without more, not enough to win; vast distances, weather, massive resources, allies were enough to win.

Now, of course, in our contemporary situation: the will to continue may be enough to forestall losing in, say, Afghanistan--if "losing" has any meaning in that context--but given the difficulties of the war, it is almost certainly not sufficient for "winning"--and again, I'm not sure how one defines that in this context.


At 12:26 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

What, no mention of Vietnam? For the American right that's the Ground Zero (or "Ground Yellow"?) of Green Lanternism.

I don't have much to add except that, from years of teaching, I find this to be the default assumption of almost all my students. It comes out especially in essays involving Machiavelli, whom they read as saying little more than "you gotta be willing to do anything to win," and "you just gotta want it more than the other guy." Like he's some schlock hybrid of movie gangsters and football coaches. They invariably miss the tragic elements of power--circumstantial limits on application, the fall of Borgia, etc. Why is this their default? Pop culture is obviously huge here, but it may be, at a more basic level, the widespread psychological absorption of our hegemonic status in the world. To doubt would be to lose our wings and plunge from the sky.

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