The continuing armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon has produced a few media novelties. (The other day I spotted a #VanillaISIS hashtag.) But more than anything it has reinforced the traditional narrative about what’s wrong with kids today. This is a mistake.
The standard description of today’s failing youth begins by dividing them into two groups — contrasting, yet mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, there’s the immature, weak, and peaceful; on the other, the immature, weak, and violent. We tell the same story at home and abroad, comparing those who fail to launch and infantilize themselves against those, from our mass shooters to the Islamic State’s alienated Western recruits, whose abortive maturity leads them to last out against those around them.
Losers and Lost Boys Theories Explain Somewhat
Indeed, what goes for “us” goes for “them.” To this day, terroristic bad guys from foreign lands are cognitively lumped into the category of “radical losers” — people who had so little going for them that they became nihilistic killers. “The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round,” as Hans Magnus Enzensberger put it in a long and influential 2006 essay. “But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come.”
Although it is a stretch to view Ammon Bundy and his compatriots as just kids, most Americans paying attention have happily made the leap in depicting them as radical losers positively reeking with the adolescent and juvenile conviction that their performative, threatening spectacle matters — so, therefore, they matter.
In a similar key, author and professor Tom Nichols recently characterized our radical losers as Lost Boys. “Stuck in perpetual adolescence, they see only their own imagined virtue amidst irredeemable corruption,” he wrote. “In a typical sentiment, [mass shooter Dylan] Roof wrote before his rampage that ‘someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.’”
Western societies, Nichols worried, are producing ever more narcissist losers, sometimes creative but often drearily predictable in the way they unburden themselves of the grudges they carry against neighbors, schoolmates, strangers, and society.
Check Out of The Office and Become a Warlord
Although the narratives of the radical loser and the Lost Boy carry more than a kernel of self-evident truth, we do ourselves a disservice in failing to think beyond those narratives. Despite the shooters’ and terrorists’ stranglehold over our imagination, another binary set of character types has dramatically arisen to challenge our fundamental faith that those who break violently with the social system reserved for ordinary law-abiding citizens are losers — losing at life and destined to lose.
Rather than thinking solely in terms of shooters and terrorists, we must now also think in terms of mercenaries and warlords — the new character types whose violent breaks with the system are predicated on the simple idea that resigning yourself to a most ordinary life is now the ultimate losing proposition. They see themselves not as radical losers but as radical winners — not as lost children, but as adults who have found a way, despite our stultifying social order, to recover their personal agency and fully mature.
It is important to contrast this thinking to the other syndrome or delusion associated with the more adventuresome radical loser: crackpot religious fanaticism. To be sure, some mercenaries and warlords are motivated at root by a messianic or otherworldly mission. But the logic of the life of a mercenary or a warlord is quite unlike that of a martyr-murderer. Above all, the goal is to independently sustain one’s life, not to flame out as a vengeful parasite or fleeting scourge.
Rather than spiritual purity or existential nihilism, the moral appeal of that life is the much more pre-monotheistic objective of physical self-actualization and the pathos of glory. Plus, at its best, the mercenary or warlord life promises just a lot of fun. In that life, even an “ordinary” day likely revolves around freely killing your enemies with your friends, and bedding those drawn to your power. Not bad for a day’s work.
Reach Beyond this Feeble Existence for Glory
Not by the prevailing standards within today’s feeble, enfeebling social confines, at least. For the cost of a security deposit, you can train, travel, and become a mercenary. For the cost of what people put in their 401(k)s, you can hire an army in a foreign land and become a warlord.
By no means do we need to celebrate the mercenary’s and warlord’s ethos in order to recognize that their life offers a sharp alternative to the contemporary dominance of anonymous struggle in interchangeable insignificance — one that doesn’t require throwing your own life away in a tide of innocent blood.
Drinking last night with a friendly mercenary, talk turned to Aristotle’s famous heuristic that he who doesn’t live as a citizen is either a beast or a god. Why, I asked, did mercenaries think they ought to break violently with basic political order as a framework for life? How could today’s most radical vision of winning depart so dramatically from the mainstream of modern and ancient philosophy alike — harkening more to the battlefield of Troy than to Plato’s academy? The response was as circular and lyrical as the vision of life expressed by Homer himself, and not entirely on account of the booze.
Above all, I was struck by how grown-up were the mercenary’s reflections. This was a considered adoption of potent, life-narrowing burdens, carried over time. It occurred to me that I was being allowed a very slight glimpse into the future. It seems outlandish that lots of today’s mopey and hopeless millennials would make the choice to become a warlord or a mercenary — or even to try. Yet many of them, in a barely-suppressed panic, increasingly share the same vision of failure as the mercenaries and warlords — the corporate cubicle, the dead-end life, the tamed and imprisoned habits, the long, wearying going through of the economic and cultural motions.
As diligently as we “other” the world’s growing ranks of mercenaries and warlords, somewhere within, as Joseph Conrad seemed to suggest in “Heart of Darkness,” we ought to find — and to seek — a shock of recognition.