A British soldier near the Pimon military camp in Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, 25 March 2010. Photo by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty


Reading John Gray in war

As a soldier, I was hard-wired to seek meaning and purpose. Gray’s philosophy helped me unhook from utopia and find peace

by Andy Owen + BIO

A British soldier near the Pimon military camp in Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, 25 March 2010. Photo by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty

‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
Blaise Pascal (1623-62)

I first read the English philosopher John Gray while sitting in the silence of the still, mid-afternoon heat of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), Gray showed how the United States’ president George W Bush and the United Kingdom’s prime minister Tony Blair framed the ‘war on terror’ (which I was part of) as an apocalyptic struggle that would forge the new American century of liberal democracy, where personal freedom and free markets were the end goals of human progress. Speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008, Gray highlighted an important caveat to the phrase ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs,’ which is sometimes used, callously, to justify extreme means to high-value ends. Gray’s caveat was: ‘You can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette.’ In my two previous tours of Iraq, I had seen first-hand – as sectarian hatred, insurgency, war fighting, targeted killings and the euphemistically named collateral damage tore apart buildings, bodies, communities and the shallow fabric of the state – just how many eggs had been broken and yet still how far away from the omelette we were.

There was no doubt that Iraq’s underexploited oil reserves were part of the US strategic decision-making, and that the initial mission in Afghanistan was in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US, but both invasions had ideological motivations too. I had started the process to join the British military before 9/11. The military I thought I was joining was the one that had successfully completed humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and Sierra Leone. I believed we could use force for good, and indeed had a duty to do so. After the failure to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ was developing, which included the idea that when a state was ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect its people, responsibility shifted to the international community and, as a last resort, military intervention would be permissible. It would be endorsed by all member states of the United Nations (UN) in 2005 but, under the framework, the authority to employ the last resort rested with the UN Security Council, who hadn’t endorsed the invasion of Iraq.

Despite the lack of a UN resolution, many of us who deployed to Iraq naively thought we were doing the right thing. When Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins delivered his eve-of-battle speech to the Royal Irish Battle Group in March 2003, he opened by stating: ‘We go to liberate, not to conquer.’ We had convinced ourselves that, as well as making the region safer by seizing the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we were there to save the people of Iraq from their own government and replace it with the single best way of organising all societies: liberal democracy. This feeling was so persuasive that it led to many troops feeling that the Iraqis were somehow ungrateful when they started to shoot at us for invading their country.

By my second tour of Iraq in 2005, it was clear that no WMD would be found and the society that was evolving was far from the one envisaged. Morale was at a low ebb as the gap between the mission and what we were achieving widened. We were stuck in a Catch-22. We would hand over to local security forces when the security situation improved enough for us to do so. However, the security situation couldn’t improve while we were still there. It would improve only if we left. The conditions that would allow us to leave were us already having left. Most troops were stuck inside the wire, their only purpose seemingly to be mortared or rocketed for being there. I was asked why we were there, especially when soldiers witnessed their friends being injured or killed, or saw the destruction of the city we’d come to liberate. They needed meaning, it couldn’t all be pointless. Meaning was found in protecting each other. My team of 30 or so men and women found purpose in trying to collect intelligence on those planting deadly improvised explosive devices along the main routes in and out of the city. Members of both the team before and the team after us were blown up trying to do so.

Much of the criticism levelled at the post-invasion failure focused on the mistake of disbanding the Iraqi state, the lack of post-conflict planning and the lack of resources. There was less focus on the utopian aims of the whole project. But it was only through Gray that I saw the similarities between the doctrines of Stalinism, Nazi fascism, Al-Qaeda’s paradoxical medieval, technophile fundamentalism, and Bush’s ‘war on terror’. Gray showed that they are all various forms (however incompatible) of utopian thinking that have at their heart the teleological notion of progress from unenlightened times to a future utopia, and a belief that violence is justified to achieve it (indeed, from the Jacobins onwards, violence has had a pedagogical function in this process). At first, I baulked at the suggested equivalence with the foot soldiers of the other ideologies. There were clearly profound differences! But through Gray’s examples, I went on to reflect on how much violence had been inflicted throughout history by those thinking that they were doing the right thing and doing it for the greater good.

‘Killing and dying for nonsensical ideas is how many human beings have made sense of their lives’

A message repeated throughout Gray’s work is that, despite the irrefutable material gains, this notion is misguided: scientific knowledge and the technologies at our disposal increase over time, but there’s no reason to think that morality or culture will also progress, nor – if it does progress for a period – that this progress is irreversible. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the flawed nature of our equally creative and destructive species and the cyclical nature of history. Those I spoke to in Basra needed no convincing that the advance of rational enlightened thought was reversible, as the Shia militias roamed the streets enforcing their interpretation of medieval law, harassing women, attacking students and assassinating political opponents. By the time bodies of journalists who spoke out against the death squads started turning up at the side of the road, Basra’s secular society was consigned to history. Gray points to the re-introduction of torture by the world’s premier liberal democracy during the war on terror as an example of the reversibility of progress. The irreversibility idea emerged directly from a utopian style of thinking that’s based on the notion that the end justifies the means. Such thinking is often accompanied by one of the defining characteristics of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns: hubris.

The myth of progress was a key theme of Gray’s bestseller Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002). There he attacks what he believes is the illusory faith that our species is apart and above the rest of nature, uniquely privileged in the Universe with the gifts of self-consciousness and reason. He attacks the idea of ‘humanity’, saying that ‘there are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions’. Due to the plurality of human needs and illusions, it’s utopian to imagine that any one political system or social order could be universally good for all. For Gray, human nature is an inherent obstacle to advancing ethical or political progress. There’s no end of history as was once proclaimed when the Cold War finished and US hegemony was assured. Instead, our ceaseless attempts to try to find some meaning to life invariably drive us into the embrace of religious belief systems and their secular imitations – and, consequently, to continual conflict. Writing in 2020, Gray highlights that, throughout history ‘killing and dying for nonsensical ideas is how many human beings have made sense of their lives’, and notes the irony of attempting immortality through death.

Gray acknowledges the theories of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, outlined in his book The Denial of Death (1973). Becker believed that human activity is largely driven by unconscious efforts to deny the inevitability of our demise. We invest in activities, institutions and belief systems that we think will allow us to transcend our brief time in the world. Becker wrote: ‘We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of underlying helplessness and terror of our inevitable death.’ The stories we create give us a sense that we’re part of something greater than ourselves, which will continue after we die. In Collins’s speech, he placed the invasion of Iraq in an epic context, linking our presence on the ground there to the great stories of our shared past, saying: ‘Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.’ These stories are the result of what the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal says is our ‘inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. Literature is awash with stories that examine this inability. For me, Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851) is the exemplar. Melville not only captures the desire of young men to search for meaning and purpose in adventure, but also the role of charismatic individuals in developing a sense of belonging and a shared worldview. Motivated by hate, Ahab causes harm to real entities, his crew, in the name of a fictional creation: the vengeful whale, given an agency it didn’t possess.

For Gray, ‘liberal humanism’ – the belief system that led us to Iraq – is a quasi-religious faith in progress, the subjective power of reason, free markets, and the unbounded potential of technology. He identifies the Enlightenment as the point at which the Christian doctrine of salvation was taken over by a secular idealism that has developed into modern-day liberal humanism. (Gray argues that global capitalism has its origins in positivism, the secular cult influenced by the late-18th-century French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon, who believed that science would end all human ills.) Interestingly, Gray identifies the Enlightenment as the point where our utopias became located in the future, rather than in the past or in some fantasy realm, where it was clear they were exactly that: fantasies. With the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, the climate crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic, faith in the future utopia that liberal humanism once promised is waning. It’s being replaced by beliefs that again look backwards in history, through the distorting lens of nostalgia, to imagined better times to which we hope to return.

Believing the stories we tell ourselves leads us to suppose that we’re far superior to our fellow creatures, but Gray likens our fate to that of the straw dogs of ancient Chinese rituals that were used as offerings to the gods. During such a ritual, these dogs were treated with the utmost reverence. But when it was over, and they were no longer needed, they were tossed aside. Gray quotes Lao Tzu, the 6th-century BCE Chinese philosopher and founder of the Chinese philosophical tradition of Taoism: ‘Heaven and earth are ruthless and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.’ To many, this vision is too bleak. One review of Straw Dogs described Gray as possessing ‘extravagant pessimism’ and the book as so ‘remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope’. A further criticism is that Gray preaches a politics of inaction. He has been asked more than once: if he believes what he claims, how can he get out of bed in the morning? Gray has never bought into the idea that his work outlines a philosophy of pessimism and despair. He has proposed antidotes to the ills he identifies at both the political level and at the level of the individual.

At the political level, in the face of our history of violence, Gray counsels that we have to abandon the belief in utopias and instead adopt a form of political realism that accepts that there are moral and political dilemmas for which there are simply no solutions. Building on the work of one of his key influences, the Latvian-born British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Gray proposes that we should aspire to an approach of modus vivendi. This recognises that there is a plurality of human values that determines many ways of living, and these values – and those that hold them – will inevitably clash. Modus vivendi is the search for a way of living together despite this, embracing the multiple forms of human life as a good thing in itself. While that’s the aim, we must accept that, as many pre-Enlightenment societies did and many non-Western societies still do, the current reality is that war is followed by periods of peace, which are followed by war again. Conflict will always play a part in maintaining the uneasy equilibrium in which our competing societies and ideologies find themselves. History makes more sense as a cycle than as a straight line of progress, and there is no right or wrong side of history to be on. This is something that the Afghans I met in Helmand intuitively grasped better than we, the forgetful invaders, did. They saw our arrival as another phase in the ebb and flow of our presence in the region, picking up from the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919. The shifting alliances of tribal and political leaders to meet their own changing needs frustrated our diplomats and military leaders who couldn’t work out whose ‘side’ they were on.

Gray promises respite from our all-too-human world if, freed of the perpetual need for meaning and transcendence, we become more like other animals

At the individual level, Gray has frequently taken inspiration from our animal cousins, as well as from Taoism, and encouraged us to try to de-attach ourselves from the pressures of feeding our personal narratives and attaining to unreachable overarching purposes. We must renounce the delusion that one’s life is a narrative, that is – an episode in some universal story of progress. Instead, he advocates a more contemplative life, one lived moment to moment, that appreciates the immediate joys of existence in the skin we are in. The last line of Straw Dogs asks: ‘Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?’ In his later book The Silence of Animals (2013), Gray promises temporary respite from our all-too-human world if, freed of the perpetual need for meaning and transcendence, we become more like other animals. In Black Mass, Gray writes: ‘Taoists taught that freedom lies in freeing oneself from personal narratives by identifying with cosmic processes of death and renewal.’ The contemplation he advocates isn’t a turning away from the world like those of some Eastern philosophies but one that allows us to turn back to it and embrace its folly.

In his latest book Feline Philosophy (2020), Gray goes further than any of his previous work in offering practical advice on how to embrace this folly. As he ponders the essential nature, or soul, of the cat through an examination of the lives of both fictional and historical cats, he compares them to humans and identifies some key lessons we can learn from them. Gray notes that cats live for the sensation of life, not for something they might achieve or not achieve. They have the innocence that Gray believes we would have had before the Fall. They have no concept of striving to become the perfect specimen of their type or attain the good life by approaching the perfection of a divine being (or even a concept of what a divine being would be). The knowledge we received in the Garden of Eden is viewed as unequivocally good by Western liberalism, but it has a downside that religions have always recognised. Without the self-awareness that humankind was gifted by the tree of knowledge, the pressure to find meaning in our life, even in the most desperate circumstances, is removed. The search for meaning is now so hardwired into us that we struggle with the idea that there’s no deeper meaning to find. This explains our desire for conspiracy theories that reveal a hidden order in times of uncertainty, when the precarious and contingent nature of our world is exposed, such as during the current global pandemic.

It is the sensation of life that Gray observes in his feline companions that we lose when we focus on some overarching purpose or commit to ideologies and religions. Gray believes that an acceptance of human limits shouldn’t be seen as a defeat, but rather as a source of wonder and enrichment. He concludes that: ‘The meaning of life is a touch, a scent, which comes by chance and is gone before you know it.’ At the end of the book, Gray offers ‘10 feline hints on how to live well’ that condense the key elements of his thought into pithy maxims, such as ‘Do not look for meaning in your suffering’; ‘Life is not a story’; and ‘Never try to persuade human beings to be reasonable.’ The most clearly cat-influenced lesson is perhaps ‘Sleep for the joy of sleeping.’ Yet it’s the penultimate maxim that likely best encapsulates his political philosophy, and the maxim probably least obviously gained from watching cats: ‘Beware of anyone who offers to make you happy.’

The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’ Gray’s challenge is to bear the how without the why. He concedes that, for many, this task is too much to bear. Gray is sympathetic to those who can’t bear it, and cites the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne and his recognition that in grief he needed a distraction. The last of Gray’s 10 feline hints states: ‘If you cannot learn to live a little more like a cat, return without regret to the human world of diversion.’ But diversion in the consolations of the ‘mystics, poets and pleasure-lovers’ rather than the utopian thinkers who, as I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, break lives in the name of unobtainable goals.

My need for meaning and purpose, and my desire to be part of something bigger than myself, were likely motivators for joining the military. People assume that it’s the bad experiences soldiers have endured that make it difficult to adjust to life after the military. While this is sometimes true, very often it’s the absence of what soldiers valued that makes the transition difficult – the loss of meaning, sense of purpose and belonging. Those who sign up for service are likely more hard-wired than most to seek these things, making the loss all the keener. Under Gray’s influence, I recognise the difficulty of this loss and have found solace in his advice about how one can aspire to move past these innate human needs. I am not yet living in a way that Gray would approve of, hope for progress is more intoxicating than the dry lessons of history, but I am more selective in my choice of distractions today, and aspire one day to just be able to sit still in a room and live in that scented moment, before it’s gone.