When Is Violence Justified? Big Question Gets Long Answer

Rising Up and Rising Down , by William T. Vollmann. McSweeney’s, 3,298 pages, $120.

If you’re so inclined, you can probably go ahead and tell people you’ve read William Vollmann’s latest, a spry, seven-volume, 3,298-page examination of the ethical justifications for violence. You’ll probably get away with it-unless, that is, you end up talking to someone who was willing to shell out $120 for this unbelievably ambitious work, the aim of which is to “create a simple and practical moral calculus which would make it clear when it was acceptable to kill, how many could be killed and so forth”-an aim Mr. Vollmann admits is “coldblooded enough … but life cannot evade death.”

Indeed it can’t, and Mr. Vollmann has often, during his impressive career, come within spitting distance of the grim reaper. Having run off to Afghanistan as a 23-year-old in 1982-armed with a degree in comparative literature from Cornell-to chronicle the Soviet occupation and live with the Mujahideen , he has spent the ensuing 20 years traversing the globe to squat in war-torn shitholes from Cambodia to Colombia to the slums of late-1980′s San Francisco, along the way watching two old friends die in Bosnia when their car was attacked (Mr. Vollmann, who was in the back seat, emerged unscathed), and on another occasion nearly freezing to death in the Arctic while researching his “Seven Dreams” series, a fictionalized chronicle of encounters between Native Americans and Europeans.

The seven volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down are part intellectual history, part factual reportage and part philosophical treatise-often all rolled together in one idealistic stab at cosmic explication. But bucking a recent publishing trend, there’s one thing that Rising Up and Rising Down is not: It’s not an ideological rant. Although he admits early on that he doesn’t see the world becoming a less violent place anytime soon, Mr. Vollmann refuses to allow his analysis to drift into either monochromatic agitprop or bitter lament over mankind’s bloody track-record.

In the first four volumes, Categories and Justifications , he studies the history of violence by presenting the actions of a cross section of its most famous players, from John Brown to Mao to Napoleon. Shot through with heady samplings from the philosophical and literary canons, this account is an attempt to shed light on “shining or tarnished ends and on their violent means.” In each case, Mr. Vollmann tries to determine whether or not the use of force was justified.

Rising Up and Rising Down is, in its own way, a supreme achievement in moral scorekeeping: It weighs competing claims of justifiability against the historical record and never flinches from applying universal moral principles (Western, Enlightenment-era principles, to be sure, but nonetheless enshrined in the U.N.’s oft-ignored Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Just as important as the content of these theoretical volumes is a basic aesthetic choice the author has made: He turns history and theory into a Bildungsroman , thereby rescuing both from academic detachment and dragging theory into the realm of literature, wild-eyed as it may sometimes be. His social analysis is layered, sometimes rambling, novelistic; his prose, at once flowery and precise, is unmistakably writerly.

While considering the various, often-competing moral calculations of Ghandi, Cortez and Montezuma, Joan of Arc, Clausewitz, Julius Caesar, the Nazi generals Ohlendorff and Keitel and countless others, Mr. Vollmann permits himself lengthy asides, false starts, citations from Greek histories, grisly personal anecdotes, extensive footnotes-in short, he writes as though he were paid by the word. And at times the reader gets bogged down.

But through it all, a thickening dialectic emerges. Beginning with the eternal “ought” that guides all moral philosophy, he advances the Golden Rule (“Do as you would be done by”), then goes on to add maxims and corollaries both to draw this out and expose its flaws. “The Golden Rule is the one creed I can think of which … is cast in the form of a verb,” he says, “which tells us to do something, but which gives us as the object of its doing the granting of sunlight to all other creeds and selves on this earth. It neither hinders nor interferes; it blesses, assists, gives what is wanted.”

Those who would argue that because there’s no accepted cross-cultural concept of “the good,” studies like Mr. Vollmann’s fall short of the universal and surely missed the point of constructing a moral calculus in the first place. Mr. Vollmann wisely hedges his bets-and also complicates matters-when he claims that the Golden Rule only applies if all parties involved acknowledge it as a valid premise. It’s unlikely that a universal morality will ever be agreed upon by all parties, but this loophole doesn’t stop him from establishing a moral bedrock on which to construct the “oughts” of his moral universe.

Individual rights are paramount in his scheme, along with the right of the individual to use violence to protect himself or herself from harm. But individuals form collectives, and collectives have a stake in a great many institutions and endeavors that complicate what it means to protect oneself from harm. Therefore, Mr. Vollmann devotes separate chapters to the historical uses of violence to defend “Homeland,” “Ground,” “Gender,” “Class,” “Authority,” “Earth,” “War Aims,” “Animals,” “Honor” and “Creed.” In most cases of justified violence, imminence must be shown (in other words, violence may be used to thwart an imminent threat); a sense of proportionality must be observed (the violence used should be of equal or lesser force than the injury); and discrimination must be shown (a legitimate target for violence should be chosen). Though none of these ideas is new, his use of history and literature puts flesh on the old theoretical skeleton, and gives his arguments new life and force.

Volumes 5 and 6, Studies in Consequences , bring Mr. Vollmann’s particular powers as a reporter to bear. He chronicles the friendships and narrow escapes he has experienced in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Central America. He also casts an eye on war zones and warriors closer to home: Columbine, the Guardian Angels, Ted Nugent, California gangbangers. For better or worse, it’s likely that these two volumes (a total of about 1,200 pages) will be the most widely read, if only because they provide exhilarating and emphatic firsthand accounts of violence. Anyone who’s read Mr. Vollmann’s The Atlas (1996) or Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (1991) knows that he throws himself emotionally into the narrative, inhabiting the lives of people in situations beyond their control, and makes no attempt to mask his sympathies. For example, two episodes from the 90′s, “Where Are All the Pretty Girls?” and “The War Never Came Here,” deal with the kind of personal tragedy and hatred which fed the killing machine of the Yugoslav civil war-each from a different side of the conflict. In “Where Are All the Pretty Girls?”, from 1992, he’s holed up with a group of Muslim soldiers and multi-ethnic students stuck in a smashed schoolhouse in Sarajevo, under constant sniper fire and with no way out until the fighting stops. “We heard the sharp crashing barks of a machine-gun, and then an anti-aircraft gun started. The students were as still as the weeds behind the smashed red Volkswagen beside the yellow station wagon whose roof had been patched with a sheet of plastic, whose side was spattered as if with mud; actually the spatterings were bullet holes. Flashes of light from a Chetnik-held building pinkened the sky, glowing until they dominated the stars, sullenly booming. A howitzer made a tremendous crashing noise. The sky lit up in an arc around the explosion. We have to hold this building, a soldier said. If this building falls, they’ll get us. We all live in Sarajevo. They’ll get us all.”

Volume 6, in which he reports from Yemen on Sept. 11, 2002, from Iraq in 1998 and from Afghanistan in 2000 (a return visit), has a sad, newfound timeliness. Mr. Vollmann walks a tightrope between sympathy for the plight of his subjects and an understanding of the impersonal forces of geopolitics.

In the seventh volume, The Moral Calculus , Mr. Vollmann does away with narrative, fancy prose and all the window-dressing of literature. In what amounts to a 282-page postscript, he reduces his findings to a series of succinct points and sums up his arguments in Nietzschean aphorisms. This concluding volume is like crib notes to what’s come before, though reading it on its own won’t give you a true feel for the intensely personal-intensely human-nature of the book in its mammoth entirety.

Does Rising Up and Rising Down need to be so long? “Experience alone, and theoretical grounding alone, falter,” Mr. Vollmann writes. “Hence the two parts of this book. Context must inform the act that we judge, but it cannot predetermine the judgment.” Maybe the question we need to ask is this: How could a serious inquiry into human violence be any shorter?

Freud argued that everything boils down to a battle between Eros, or love, and Thanatos, or the death instinct. At any given time, one of those forces is in play, subjugating the other. Since the publication of The Rainbow Stories in 1989, William Vollmann has been churning out books chronicling the tension between love and death, performing a balancing act between his passion for his twinned subject and his disgust at the viciousness it gives birth to. He’s a pessimist who has yet to give up on the eternal “ought” of human morality; and he’s wise enough to realize that we need both Eros and Thanatos in order to achieve some sort of fragile stasis in our world. He writes, “Means and end-aren’t they nearly always irrelevant to those who must suffer the agony of their infliction?”

Paul McLeary has written for Social Policy magazine and In These Times. He lives in Brooklyn and reviews books regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle.