Unbinding the Gag: The Lessons of J.M. Coetzee’s Magistrate

The problem we now face is a brutal yet simple one: we cannot imagine not being at war. From Yemen to Afghanistan, the Russian Border to the South China Seas, enemies are seemingly all around us, “strategic interests” must be defended, and bombs fly on a daily basis. We live in a world in which continuing interventionism- in the forms of air strikes, if not outright ground occupation- is no longer seen as a temporary solution to a problem but rather a constant operational reality. Rather than a state of exception, war has now become the normalized rule.

In this sense the early 21st century looks very much like the late 19th, with its lacerating imperialist rivalries over land, resources, and trade routes. The Cold War at least saw two centers of global power produce the veneer of stability over vast swaths of the world’s lands, though as the brutal wars in Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1946-1975), and Afghanistan (1979-1989) revealed, anti-imperialist resistance was a constant presence throughout the period.

The truth of the matter is that little in 19th and 20th century history provides us with the intellectual resources to imagine a world without war. And that is really what this is about: the possibility of envisioning (and then actualizing) a world in which war is not only absent, but in fact impossible.

Is it possible to be a pacifist today, when we are pushed day and night into believing that more bombs, more drones, more occupations will once and for all solve the problem of global stability? Can we say no to the massive ideological machine, mutually built by the government, the media, and the military-industrial complex, that pushes war upon us day after day?

Early on in my university career I met a political science student who claimed he studied “comparative conflict resolution.” I always thought the phrase was more than a little ironic because, instead of the resolution of conflict, all he could talk about was conflict itself: the gloriously tragic history of the British Empire, its replacement by American global hegemony, NATO as a stabilizing force in European affairs, and of course the small but notable role Canada has always played in “standing with its allies.” He liked to use the words democracy, stability, development; he loved to discuss tactics, battles, strategic decisions under fire; he peppered his discourse with military-speak the same way a third year lit student would drop concepts like parole or aporia over drinks.

We would talk at parties, in darklit dorm hallways as our student brethren danced to tinny pop music in rooms behind us. War was parlor talk for us, bloodless and neat, regrettable, certainly, but a problem for great minds to think through with ease.

My friend returned triumphantly to campus a number of years later, having used his freshly minted degree to find a spot for himself in the Ottawa military bureaucracy. On the night of his return we sat watching Hockey Night in Canada and- still drinking beers-he talked of his recent trip to Afghanistan. His eyes glowed mischievously when he described his ride alongs with Canadian soldiers, a bullet proof vest strapped to his chest, the thrill of death in the air as he looked out across barren hills dotted with potential enemies.

His experience  “In Theater,” as he called it, only confirmed for him that war was both a noble project and a searing adrenaline rush. It made the Canadian people safer while also separating the true citizens (those who served) from those who stayed meekly behind.

I have no doubt my friend is now a policy leader with even more responsibility in the government establishment, glad-handing in oak-paneled social clubs, wrapping himself in crown and country: an imperialist for the millennial generation.

The point is: there is still a profound imagination amongst our policy elite, both old and young, that war is a necessary tool for imposing a world-order that can (and should be) defined by us. This is not the fanciful musings of a marginalized minority of the political establishment. Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are all in basic agreement when it comes to the use of military force to maintain strategic interests. Sadly enough, even the great Bernie Sanders, who makes so much sense in discussing the need for social justice in domestic society, cannot buck the war machine, being forced on the campaign trail to declare his unreserved support for the anti-ISIS mission.

For those who sit in air-conditioned rooms in Ottawa or Washington, for those with a not un-modest respect for the old British stories their grandparents told of regional administration and good government, for those who dream of extending universal concepts across distant lands while retiring to the cloistered confines of ivy-lined colleges…war is the logic that gives them meaning.

For everyone else- the civilians who see their houses and families destroyed, the soldiers who live with the terror and guilt and emasculation of what they’ve done, for the taxpayers who see their hard earned money siphoned off to military contractors and weapons manufacturers- war is an intolerable waste of humanity’s promise as a species.

It is also an incredibly ineffective way to build consensus across cultures and nations. Those whip-smart college graduates, those administrators-to-be dreaming of intervention in far off lands, can only sustain their civilizational dreams by forgetting one crucial reality: violence begets resistance, not stability. The colonized other- the one whose houses you have bombed with computers from above, whose lands you have settled with concrete-walled bases, whose resources you have parsed out to multi-national conglomerates- will not be filled with gratitude for your actions, but hatred for your continued presence.

This is precisely what Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out when he famously asked his fellow frenchmen:

What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that had muted those black mouths? That they would chant your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes? (Quoted in Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Richard Philcox trans., 2008, p.12-13)

Writing over thirty years later, J.M. Coetzee would further elaborate this point in Waiting For The Barbarians, his masterful work on the breakdown of the white colonial project. In the novel a British colonial magistrate keeps an orderly outpost on the desert edges of a vast empire. He is proud of his benevolent treatment of the native people, his provisions of water, gardens, and commercial opportunities for them.  He reads Greek mythology at night and sponsors local archeological digs. He samples the local pleasures of the flesh, though no more than any man would given the remote conditions. He is, all in all, a decent man, neither especially great nor especially vicious, a servant of empire who has lived a professional, sober life.

The magistrate’s world is thrown into chaos when a rebellion breaks out amongst the native tribes beyond the encampment. Intelligence agents are sent from the imperial metropole- the 19th century version of our CSIS agents today. Prisoners are rounded up from the surrounding hills and brought into the camp in chains. Though the magistrate need not concern himself with such violence- the agents give him the option of simply maintaining his post and leaving the hard work of suppression up to them- a peculiar kind of curiosity drives him onward. After hearing muffled cries from the shed where the prisoners are kept, he cannot resist looking upon the scene of torture:

If I had only handed over these two absurd prisoners to the Colonel…if I had gone on a hunting trip for a few days, as I should have done, a visit up-river perhaps, and come back, and without reading it, or after skimming over it with an incurious eye, put my seal on his report, with no question about what the word investigations meant, what lay beneath it like a banshee beneath a stone- if I had done the wise thing, then perhaps I might now be able to return to my hunting and hawking and placid concupiscence while waiting for the provocations to cease and the tremors along the frontier to subside. But alas, I did not ride away: for a while I stopped my ears to the noises coming from the hut by the granary where the tools are kept, then in the night I took a lantern and went to see for myself. (Coetzee, 1980, 9)

I always felt that my friend in Ottawa, my quaint little believer in Canadian benevolence, had never on all his trips to Afghanistan really gone out to see what the occupation of that country consisted of. Did he go with the Canadian soldiers home to home in search of enemy combatants, smashing property, hoisting bodies up against walls, shooting anything that resisted? Did he watch the interrogations that ensued, the pressure that could be placed on Afghan bodies in order for them to spill their knowledge regarding Taliban movements? Or did he simply stop up his ears, skim over with an incurious eye the reports of Canadian engagement, the firefights and demolitions and bribery and imprisonments that were needed to secure Canadian “stability” in the region?

If he had seen what our men really did out there, would he have taken such delicious pleasure in recalling life “In Theater”?

The vanity and condescension that sustains perpetual war can only be destroyed when all sons and daughters of empire- that is, all of us– come to realize the critical truth that is embodied in Coetzee’s magistrate. We will lose all of our wars of foreign intervention, in the end, because we are not fighting for our homes. They are: the Afghans and the Syrians and the Iraqis. And because of that, they will fight us forever, on and on and on. As the magistrate puts it:

I find it as hard as ever to believe that the end is near. If the barbarians were to burst in now, I know, I would die in my bed as stupid and ignorant as a baby…To each his own most fitting end. Some will be caught in the dugouts beneath their cellars clutching their valuables to their breasts, pinching their eyes shut. Some will die on the road overwhelmed by the first snows of winter. Some few may even die fighting with pitchforks. After which the barbarians will wipe their backsides on the town archives. To the last we will have learned nothing. In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable. No one truly believes, despite the hysteria in the streets, that the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished. No one can accept that an imperial army has been annihilated by men with bows and arrows and rusty old guns who live in tents and never wash and cannot read or write. And who am I to jeer at life-giving illusions? (143)

We must resist that granite part of us that succumbs to the dream that only one more war, one more drone strike, one more intervention will once and for all provide “peace and stability” in the world. The Other will never stop resisting us, nor should they: for are we not occupying and bombing and terrorizing them in their own lands?

If we are not prepared to smash the illusions that the West’s own mythology has created for itself, then we must be prepared for financial and moral impoverishment, driven on by unending morasses overseas. The occupied and bombed and droned will have their say, and they will meet our ferocity with their own.

Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes?

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.


Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. London: Secker & Warburg, 1980.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008.

Featured Image From a Stage Adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians directed by Alexandre Marine, performed in February of 2013 at The Segal Centre in Montreal. For more, see https://bloodyunderrated.net/2013/01/31/waiting-for-the-barbarians-the-segal-centre/


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