The Nation just released a strangely relevant excerpt from the recently published in ebook format Vonnegut by the Dozen, a collection of 12 essays by Kurt Vonnegut. The excerpt is from the essay “The worst addiction of them all.”
Vonnegut starts by praising Alcoholics Anonymous as America’s “most nurturing contribution” to the world we see today. This support group encourages people to begin recovery by identifying their vice. This is undoubtedly a powerful statement to make, it is the steepest step of all twelve. A number of authors writing about their experiences in AA have made the 12 steps the crucial plot element, and have seen accolades by Oprah’s book club and on other more reputable platforms. By requiring a confession of just what you are, the AA scheme is attributed “measurable success in dealing with the tendency of some human beings, to become addicted to substances that give them brief spasms of pleasure but in the long term transmute their lives and the lives of those around them into ultimate ghastliness.”
This is Vonnegut’s statement on what addiction is. While more may be said by those in the know, we can stick with that definition for our present purposes.
For example alcohol, or narcotics or gambling. Vonngeut is gonna focus on gambling to make his point, since gamblers do not ingest any particular substance. The actions they take, through their own biochemical processes, create for them a high unmatched by any of the substances we classify as drugs. Thus far gambling is unscheduled, probably because the chemicals and/or substances causing the high can be produced by every human brain. As it turns out, humans have the capacity to create their own toxic high through a variety of activities. We can get that brief spasm of pleasure through video games, through pornography, or even through shopping, not just placing bets and risking money, and not just through illicit activities.
Kurt Vonnegut identifies a new class of addiction in Vonnegut by the Dozen:
It is more like gambling than drinking, since the people afflicted are ravenous for situations that will cause their bodies to release exciting chemicals into their bloodstreams. I am persuaded that there are among us people who are tragically hooked on preparations for war.
Of course he’s correct. They’ve been around just as long as alcoholics and sex-addicts and probably even longer. Compulsive war-preparers are “more tragically addicted” than the stockbroker, the alcoholic or the gambler, who just wants a dollar bet on who can spit farther than whom. But what might it take to get the war-preparer his high?
For us to give a compulsive war-preparer a fleeting moment of happiness, we may have to buy him three Trident submarines and a hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles.
…aaaahhh. For a fleeting moment of happiness, “we” have to get him what?
A couple of these:
Vonnegut goes on to identify the sick few who have fallen between the cracks: “If Western Civilization were a person, we would be directing it to War-Preparers Anonymous.” Thereafter, Vonnegut fails to clarify the sick entity that he dubs “Western Civilization,” except in an unacceptably overbroad fashion. His further characterization/personification of Western Civilization is completely erroneous. It takes his substantive addendum to the character of the West from a tautology to a simple buzz in the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) and maybe not even the buzz that you might pass on.
By dubbing this new category of addict Western Civilization, he makes all of us geographically located in the Western Hemisphere feel guilt, without assigning responsibility to those who are actively seeking their fix. He doesn’t stop there. He says, “Western Civilizations, which surely now includes the Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan and so on…” What a claim to make! So we all are sick? The whole globe is afflicted? We have a collective addiction to preparing for War? I cannot submit that this is what Kurt intends to mean because he goes on to say:
Let us recognize how sick such people are. 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.”
That is, I couldn’t be sorrier for you (national leader, or just a neighbor) than if you were drowning in alcohol, with a liver the size of your ribcage, and you were whining for more booze. I couldn’t be more sorry for you. At this point. we should speak up. We should say to such a person, craving for the urgent, weighty sting of preparing for combat, you need help. You seek a brief spasm of pleasure from a substance that will transmute your life into ultimate ghastliness. The first step is a confession. This will be the first of many steps on the long journey back to sobriety that those people will have to take.
Finally, Vonnegut’s solution: Let us not mock them. All we have to do is separate them from the levers of power.
Here, Vonnegut admits that Western Civilization itself it not sick with this kind of addiction. Rather, Western Civilization, in failing to recognize this condition as an illness, has venerated these persons by rewarding them with complete control over the levers of power. Western Civilization, in the act of insinuating war on others, seeks to appease, not antagonistic nations, but its own addicts to war preparation. Moreover, nations will lose most of their freedom and wealth in seeking to appease such addicts.
After describing how war-prep addicts come into being (“it starts innocently enough in childhood, under agreeable, respectable auspices”), Vonnegut clarifies the contours of the addiction and how to recognize it. But until now, Vonnegut is just bringing the reader to the precipice. He lets the reader glance over when he asks:
Should addicts of any sort hold high office in this or any other country?
Absolutely not, for their first priority will always be to satisfy their addiction, no matter how terrible the consequences may be–even to themselves.