Vollmann spent twenty years writing this, and it shows. The research is meticulous and his depth of understanding for so many topics is probably unmatched. At the same time, and in an attempt at making his analyses as comprehensive as possible, it can be difficult to follow the convoluted path of his thinking: he justifies carefully thought-out positions, then destroys them, then rebuilds them with new caveats and conditions that are sometimes surprisingly logical and elegant, but at other times totally useless. And he's the first one to tell you when he fails to come up with a practical section in his "moral calculus."
Rather than try to do this book justice, here are a few pointers to anybody considering tackling it (I understand the complete set is long out of print, but there's a "condensed" version available now).
The first volume is difficult to get into. It begins with "Three Meditations on Death" which don't have much to do with the book itself; this is typical of Vollmann, he seems to have trouble beginning his books, so the first chunk tends to be "warming up to the topic," a sort of mental purge so he can get to business. The following two sections show another annoying Vollmann trait: they're essential, but he's given them esoteric titles that only serve to throw the reader off the trail. "The Days of the Niblungs" is an advanced apology about how difficult the book will be to read and how subjective much of it needs to be.
The next ridiculously-titled-but-hugely-important section is "Definitions for Lonely Atoms." Since much of the book is about complex issues generally tackled by groups of people acting against other groups of people, this section is simply an analysis of the rights of the INDIVIDUAL; what are a person's basic offensive and defensive rights? He gets somewhat sidetracked on the issue of weaponry but I think Vollmann scores with his conclusions, which he reaches by analyzing countless historical precedents and by imagining the beginning of the human social contract:
- To violently defend yourself, or not.
- To violently defend another, or not.
- To destroy yourself or preserve yourself.
- To violently destroy another who would be better off dead
- To violently defend your property, or not.
All of these points (and all other points I might reference here) are usually qualified with caveats -- for instance, point 3 specifies that suicide is permissible whenever uncoerced, but most noble as an act of assertion in defense of a right.
The next 3 volumes explore various types of self-defense, and try to codify when self-defense is justified. This is done by carefully defining the terms involved (for example, "inner honor" versus "outer honor"), giving huge amounts of historical detail as case studies, giving continuums of opinion on the subject from the writings of others, and -- most importantly -- defining a set of rules and conditions which make a particularly type of self-defense justified or unjustified.
I've worked my way through his analyses of violent defense of honor (the first, longest, and most complex topic), class, authority, race & culture, creed, war aims, homeland, ground, the earth, and animals. Each section is slightly different in its approach; some are more anectodal (Vollmann's experiences in Bosnia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Nunuvut), others are careful retellings of historical events (the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, Napoleon, Caesar vs. Pompey, Joan of Arc, World War One and Two), and others rely a lot on personal interviews with today's activists.
I find the chapters on defense of Earth and defense of animals to be most interesting, because it's there where Vollmann really struggles. In most cases (so far) he's tackled issues that have been explored for centuries and experimented upon by other grand civilizations, but when it comes to Eco-terrorism or the Animal Liberation Front, not only are they relatively NEW (and as yet relatively undefined) issues, but the violent actions tend to be perpetrated by people who seem to be acting on compassionate grounds (never mind that they don't necessarily have compassion for their opponents, but the PETA folks certainly seem to care more for animals than -- for example -- Trotsky seemed to care for the proles).
In his chapter on defense of Earth -- involving the spiking of trees to prevent logging, and any sort of violent uprising to prevent pollution or global warming -- he constructs an elaborate and clever concept: a private army called "Same Day Liberations." It sounds great until you begin to realize that Vollmann is REALLY wallowing in despair; he knows the idea won't work. People are too easily bought off, disinformation is too easily spread by rich and powerful authorities, human beings are too short-sighted. All he can really suggest is that we become our own experts and be critical of where our information comes from.
The most interesting point he raises, though, is Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the commons," which is so depressing that I'll just quote Vollmann's paraphrase:
Problem: What is my utility in adding one more animal to my herd on a common pasture?On a related note he mentions what he calls "The Crocodile's Maxim," which boils down to a general way of thinking that things MUST get better/bigger/easier, and if they don't then we're doing something wrong. But it's unlikely that things can increase in this way indefinitely; how many people can the earth support? How big can a company get? I think this is a very important and awful part of human nature and I wish I could express it better. Every time I see a report that a company is achieving record stock prices, I think jeez, how can anybody believe that will continue forever, and what's wrong with a stock staying at the same price (I know what a stockholder would say, at least).
Solution: Buy another animal, let it overgrazed, and be damned to everybody else
When it comes to defense of animals, Vollmann is even more uncertain, mainly because nobody can settle on a threshold at which violence against animals must stop (monkeys, dogs, rabbits, mice, flies, flatworms, bacteria?), and how useful violence against animals actually is (medical research, hunter/gathering societies, animal attacks, community rituals).
Vollmann is never more interesting than when he's writing about the Inuit, as far as I'm concern. He's the first to say that he is perhaps unreasonably romantic about their lifestyle, but his descriptions of seal hunts -- and subsequent family dinners of raw frozen meat -- are eye-opening. When an animal-rights activists tells him that the Inuit would stop hunting for meat if they were provided with enough other types of food (disregarding the cost of getting the food to them, since agriculture just isn't feasible up there), he delivers a stunning comparison: this is exactly what Cortes said about the Aztecs, it's the placement of one group's ethos over another's, and the disgusting assumption that the other group will gleefully embrace your own values because they're naturally "better."
My favourite moment, though, is when Vollmann spends several pages writing about how wonderful his sealskin kamiks (moccasins) are, how important they've been to him in his travels up north, and how synthetic boots can't match his kamiks in certain situations. After waxing romantic about his kamiks for four pages gives an animal activist named Lizzy her own chapter to respond. She says simply:
"I just wonder how that seal felt when he was killed so some guy could take his skin and go up to the Magnetic Pole to think."