Rules of engagement

To most of us, nothing can possibly be more exhausting than to defend ourselves day after day against those who have chosen us to be their enemies.  But some people are like Nietzsche’s warrior:  they seek resistance and they need resistance to sustain their strength. There are 2 members of President Ramos’s official family who could, if they wish, aspire to this ideal – Vice President Joseph Estrada and Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan III.

While most Cabinet members tend to go for the passive style of defense, preferring to roll with the punches than to engage their tormentors in a duel, Estrada and Alunan have distinguished themselves by their readiness to fight back and, when necessary, to return insult with insult.  Both certified brawlers, they refuse to be intimidated; in fact, they seem to thrive in word wars.  In a country which has cultivated the perverse expectation that public servants must quietly ignore insults heaped upon them in the course of their work, treating these as an integral part of their role, Estrada and Alunan are, by their capacity for arrogant retort, a class by themselves.

They are rare birds in the public service.  Yet, I am certain that every so often, they also find themselves wondering whether every call to a duel is worth honoring.

Perhaps it is to them that Nietzsche wrote these words: “Equality in face of the enemy – first presupposition of an honest duel.  Where one despises, one cannot wage war;  where one commands, where one sees something as beneath one, one has not to wage war.”

To Nietzsche, only fights that engage all of one’s strength, and therefore provide the occasion for truly testing one’s mettle are worth picking.  Alunan’s and Estrada’s worthy opponents, in this respect, are crime and corruption, not the senior senator nor the lotto lord, respectively.  It is this larger battle against crime, rather than the diversionary personal one, that alone warrants the deployment  of “strength, suppleness and mastery of weapons.”

We are talking here of course of the noble warrior —  the one who fights only under very strict conditions.  Nietzsche reduces these to 4 basic propositions intended as a guide for the discerning warrior.

The first rule is to attack only the victorious, even to wait until “they are victorious.”  There is no glory in attacking something or someone who is not or does not seem a winner.  As we have said, the real enemies are crime and corruption: they both seem indomitable.

The second rule is to engage only in fights where one can stand alone without allies, where one compromises only oneself.  The noble fight, the one worth picking, is that which manifestly defines the warrior, and offers him the widest latitude for launching risky and unequivocal actions.

The third rule is never to attack persons, but only to use the person “as a strong magnifying glass with which one can make visible a general but furtive state of distress….”  In short, the ultimate object of the attack should never be the person himself but only the problem or situation he personifies.

The fourth rule is related to the third: “personal difference” must be excluded as a ground for enmity.  One must attack only where “no background of bad experience” can possibly intrude into the adversarial relationship.  In short, personal grudges have no place in noble fights.  Your opponent must feel honored that you have chosen to do battle with him.  And conversely – the weight and worthiness of your opponent must confer some distinction upon you.  Under such circumstances, an attack by your opponent may even be welcomed as “proof of goodwill.”

One wonders whether Philippine politics has any room at all for such noble warriors – the ones who deploy “aggressive pathos” as an aspect of their strength, those who never indulge in simple vengefulness because this only mirrors weakness.  Yet, from the way we conduct and report our politics, it always seems as if we are ready to applaud all kinds of duels no matter how pointless they may be. Good people are prompted to risk their reputations or lose their poise in mindless personal exchanges.

Government service is a minefield for such unworthy battles.  In the absence of serious policy debates, so much passion is expended and so much media time and space wasted on witless name-calling and senseless blame-tossing.  There is no honor in these duels; the noble gladiator loses more when he indiscriminately takes on every enemy that presents itself, instead of waiting for the worthy one that will do justice to his strength.

Vice President Estrada and Secretary Alunan can both do themselves a great favor by refusing to be distracted from the great battle in which they have truly found their match:  the war against crime and corrupt policemen.  It is not to say they should not defend themselves against their attackers.  It is only to say that, bearing in mind that they are ultimately measured by the quality of their enemies, they should choose their opponents well.

Of course, we cannot always choose our enemies.  But we are obliged by our self-respect precisely to fight only those we think have earned the right to engage us in a duel.

The warrior, said Nietzsche, must have not only strength but also “suppleness” – which Chambers’s 20th Century Dictionary defines as the capacity “to yield to the humor of others.”  Suppleness – what a marvelous word for a weapon that we can use in dealing with enemies we have not chosen!


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