"The Worst Addiction of Them All"
February 1, 2008 8:12 PM   Subscribe

"The Worst Addiction of Them All", by Kurt Vonnegut, 1983. A classic and prescient essay on addiction to war.
posted by stbalbach (18 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You know, most alcoholics have a family history of alcoholism. I imagine Herodotus bellied up to the bar like a toothless old friend of our poor, dear old drunken dad, telling us stories about the old times. We look wildly about the room for a way out, because jeez, who wants to hear about old shit like that.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:52 PM on February 1, 2008

I don't understand why this essay is "prescient." He predicted that the US would keep going to war? Who'd've thunk it!
posted by nasreddin at 9:43 PM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

War has long been the resolution to internal state conflicts. Ask the Romans.

I guess it's not working as well as it did in the good old days.

Dammit, I miss Vonnegut so bad. And I will, every day, until I too am dead.

See you in Trafalmadore.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:49 PM on February 1, 2008

Hate the war, etc, but this is crap.
posted by localhuman at 9:58 PM on February 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

360 days to go?
posted by norm111 at 10:28 PM on February 1, 2008

So it goes.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:41 PM on February 1, 2008

I like Vonnegut when he was still a semi-recluse. The image of him I have of his later life is just a shrill aging hipster. Shame really.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:47 PM on February 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hate the war, etc, but this is crap.

Hey, yo, he used to be alive. And it was really good then. So back off. He'll be good and dead soon enough and then you can casually scorn the once-living might of Kurt Vonnegut.

Until then, either write the new Slaughterhouse Five or else step the heck off.
posted by humannaire at 10:55 PM on February 1, 2008

My name is...

Go ahead.

Yeah, OK...my name is America, and I'm... a waraholic. I wasn't to start with. I mean, when it was always right in my face, when I was a kid, I really hated it. The violence, the pain, the privation, it was horrifying in retrospect, but then it was just part of growing up, y'know? Even when it tore my own home apart, it made me who I was, and it made me stronger. As I grew older, I was able to partake in moderation. I was able to convince myself and others of the rightness of my actions, sometimes despite... uh... despite...

You're doing really well. Go on.

..despite ulterior motives that weren't necessarily as altruistic as I led everyone to believe. And even when I knew I had to ...do the...thing...

Go to war?

Even when I had to, I still sometimes did things I wasn't proud of. Not at all. But I still tried to do right. I did. And it got me POWER. Respect. I got strong because of it. And nobody could touch me. Nobody could hurt me, and if they even so much as tried, oh man. Few questioned me when I really let fly with the worst, with the Hell I had in my hands. I was fucking invincible, right? And I knew that everyone would back me up no matter what I did, because the whole world LOVED me, and FEARED me. Sure I started to get paranoid - what is it, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" and so on. I started putting myself in situations, in, um, compromising... I maybe shouldn't have done that. Shit. This is where it starts getting hard. Places I shouldn't have been. I started to lose, but it didn't hit me that hard, I mean, I didn't do it in the house.

I started to spend more and more money, money I didn't really have. If I had the most, biggest, baddest toys, I could maintain. I started making alliances indiscriminately, for strategic advantage. I was still on top, but inside, I knew I was slipping badly.

Sorry, I don't want to monopolize everyone's time...

You're fine. How did you come to be here?

That's the thing. I started making excuses to get a fix, to assert myself. My past came back to bite me. Hard. I LIED, lied to my own people and to the whole world, so I could do what I wanted, and they even bought it for a little while. Not for long, but long enough. I was condoning... I was... oh Jesus. Corruption. Spying. Torture. How did I turn into this? I look in the mirror and think that if my past self could see me now, I wouldn't recognize me. I would shoot me in the face. Please help me. I have to stop. But I can't.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:25 AM on February 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

The image of him I have of his later life is just a shrill aging hipster.

Yeah, funny thing about "later life", it usually involves "aging". As far as shrill, hmm, I don't see it. He was cranky and crotchety, pretty much like he was as a younger man, with a delicious sarcasm and wit and outspokenness, but shrill? You really think so? And "hipster", I gotta wonder what the hell does that mean? I mean, he was a pretty hip younger man (by my definition, anyway) and he stayed pretty hip, even if he became (naturally enough, in his old age) a little less cogent and likely to ramble. But what, he's supposed to become... square? Republican? At any rate "hipster" strikes me as a decidedly inappropriate and inaccurate term to describe Vonnegut.

Until then, either write the new Slaughterhouse Five or else step the heck off.

Hear hear.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:15 AM on February 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

See you in Trafalmadore.

Dude, you were just here.

That was me that said that. In a post on the internet back in early 2008. Just two days before the Big One.
posted by hal9k at 4:32 AM on February 2, 2008

It'll be even better now that there are American based corporate mercenary armies with very very close political ties to at least one of the major parties and ready to cut cheques for the other. They won't just sell the weapons they will be firing them too. Forward Vertical Integration at it's finest.
posted by srboisvert at 6:11 AM on February 2, 2008

He'll be good and dead soon enough and then you can casually scorn the once-living might of Kurt Vonnegut

but.. or maybe I missing something. Not that I think anyone should be dancing on his grave.
Vonnegut was one of just seven American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive (the fire bombing). "Utter destruction", he recalled, "carnage unfathomable." The Germans put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial. "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes."
War is sweet to those who don't know it. -- Erasmus, 1508
disclaimer: I got Vonnegut's article and the above quotes from Lapham's Quarterly, volume 1, issue 1, "States of War" - excellent. See Patton's kicken-ass speech.
posted by stbalbach at 6:16 AM on February 2, 2008

Much as I love Vonnegut (and point-and-laugh at people who call him "a shrill aging hipster"), this is neither classic nor prescient—it's just a dashed-off op-ed piece using a lame analogy to try to get through people's heads what he spent his entire life saying in one way or another: War is bad. It's an important message, but this Nation piece isn't going to convince anyone, and frankly it's a little embarrassing.
And please understand that the addiction I have identified is to preparations for war. ... I am not talking about an addiction to war itself, which is a very different matter. A compulsive preparer for war wants to go to big-time war no more than an alcoholic stockbroker wants to pass out with his head in a toilet In the Port Authority bus terminal.
That's just stupid. The reasons people have an "addiction" to war (and therefore to preparing for it), if you insist on that silly metaphor, are tangled and buried deep in the recesses of our past as a species; I sure hope we can get past it, because otherwise we're doomed sooner rather than later, but cute little thumbsuckers like this won't bring the day any nearer. Sorry, Kurt. So it goes.
posted by languagehat at 6:36 AM on February 2, 2008

a lame analogy .. tangled and buried deep in the recesses of our past as a species

Hmm.. it doesn't seem to be what he's saying. He's not saying war is caused by addiction (or anything for that matter). He's saying people can get addicted to preparing for war (it causes a thrill by release of internal chemicals). He also doesn't contradict what your saying, in fact seems to support it, the rush of self-generated chemicals happens for a reason, as you say, it's hardwired by evolution (although not everyone agrees with that view, the source of violence has at least a dozen theories). I think you've over-simplified and de-nuanced his article to more easily tear it down as being a "lame analogy". Even if it was just an analogy between alcoholics and war pigs, analogies are still powerful ways to see the world. Is it an op-ed or essay, who cares. Is it an explanation of what causes war? No, anyone who thinks they know for sure what causes war probably doesn't.
posted by stbalbach at 9:17 AM on February 2, 2008

The image of him I have of his later life is just a shrill aging hipster

I heard him speak at a lecture and I thought he was sharp, sarcastic, amusing but not shrill.

I liked the essay, not one of his best in my opinion, but still reinforcing his perennial anti-war committment. But then I'm a shrill aged hippy.
posted by francesca too at 9:42 AM on February 2, 2008

"From now on, when a national leader, or even just a neighbor, starts talking about some new weapons system which is going to cost us a mere $29 billion, we should speak up. We should say something on the order of, "Honest to God, I couldn't be sorrier for you if I'd seen you wash down a fistful of black, beauties with a pint of Southern Comfort."

Vonnegut's a great writer and a good man. It's not that great a piece, but I get where he's coming from.
I think the analogy could have been better especially in the above where I quoted. It's not new weapon systems that start wars, or preparation for war that takes food out of kid's mouths or deprives them of education, it's the policies.

Right now in the U.S. we have a system within the system (a 'shadow government' one might say).
Anyone who's fought, built something, a farmer, chess player etc. - will tell you that you need planning, preparation and above all a system in place to keep a cycle going.

What's failed is not preparation, but the system. The system now is geared towards a war footing. (Orwell said all this much better).

But one man is not responsible for this kind of thing. Even in groups, no matter how powerful they are.
To use an analogy if a trained fighter who's prepared himself fights a stronger, bigger opponent who doesn't throw combinations but just tries to lay his opponant out with haymakers, the trained fighter, the one with a systematic approach (no only to the actual event, but the training, preparation, etc) will win.

This is why one scouts opponents, to gauge their tactics, how they've trained themselves to do things, react, initiate, etc.
The defense industry, the military industrial complex Ike warned about, has a stranglehold on the system. For all intents they have enough influence on U.S. foreign policy, economics, etc. etc. to be a system unto themselves. Such a situation Ghandi could not remedy from within. (Which, really, he didn't in his own struggle).

Isolating 'preparation' - no, preparation is crucial. Ask a firefighter if they should sell off their engines or stop developing fire science and technologies because there haven't been any fires lately.
Maybe in the past one man's hubris could lead a country to war. Not anymore. Not without support.
War is far too sophisticated - especially given the nuclear threat - for one man's ego to drive.
No, it's a systematic approach to war maybe some anti-whoever-the-bad-guys-are to get support from the ideologues. But I agree (with Vonnegut on a slight tangent) the system is flawed.
And the essay's criticism is as outdated as the current M-I-complex approach to war. In a few short decades the large scale WWII style country on country marquee show stopper type war will be so impractical as to render it completely moot.

Oh, it's fine now for kicking over someone's tea wagon, taking over turf and grabbing stuff. But borders are getting less and less visible to economic and other interests. Matter of time before that gets backed up with force especially given the proliferation of nukes and wmd tech in general.
Then it's going to be ALL about preparation and training with surveillance outstripping destructive technology. Like "Brazil," "Dune," and "Brave New World" combined.

And we'll look back and laugh and laugh and laugh and say "Kurt - you guys had it easy"

(Want to reflect the U.S. as an individual I prefer Lewis Black tho - "Can you imagine if you worked with a guy who every day came into the office and said 'I'm the BEST guy here and you fuckers are damn lucky to have me around!'")
posted by Smedleyman at 12:36 PM on February 2, 2008

[insert sound of overthinking here]
posted by humannaire at 10:52 AM on February 3, 2008

« Older where the guns come from, where they go   |   The Greater of Two Evils Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments