A week ago, or so, I saw a post on Ta-Nehisi’s blog that I keep thinking about. He is reading Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder and the book prompted him to make a series of posts, one of them – I think – is about accepting Evil. The post, Grappling With History’s Greatest Gangsters , is well worth reading (uh…if you are into thinking about good and evil):
How can men commit such acts? The question is not answered by empty invocations of “evil” or vague invocations of “sociopathy.” The question is not answered by memorializing victims (though this has its place) or the construction of national oaths (though that too might have its place.) On the contrary the question might best be answered, not by identifying with history greatest victims, but by identifying with its killers. This is in fact, as Snyder argues, the moral position: It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.
I remember walking with Michele late in the afternoon, we were somewhere in the Colorado Plateau – probably in Escalante, but I am not sure – and we were walking up canyon, wandering is more accurate, soaking in the afternoon. Just below the rim of the canyon – about where you might put a picture rail if this was a hall rather than a 200 feet deep canyon – there was a line of mini caves, sort of like the mini-caves in the picture above.1 We watched a Raven flying along the edge of the rim and every once in a while the Raven would circle back to a mini-cave to check it out. It was warm with a slight breeze and the Raven was effortlessly, silently, gliding up canyon.
Ravens don’t get the credit they should, they lack the style of hawks, but they are graceful flyers when they want. This guy was beautiful and then we realized it he was checking out the Cliff Swallow nests in the mini-caves and eating their eggs when he found them. Both Michele and I instantly started feeling sorry for the Cliff Swallows. The eggs were their babies, their future and the Raven was just cruising along, like walking a buffet, eating their eggs.
Walking up canyon, we started talking about how easy it is to identify with the victims rather than the Raven. I think our country, and I suspect alot more countries, are like that. We remember the Alamo – well, the Texans do anyway – we celebrate Pearl Harbor not our victory at Midway. I know I feel that way when I read about pre-civil war slavery or the holocaust. Reading about what the Germans did, I retreat into How could those people do something so inhuman? it is incomprehensible, they are monsters.
It is hard to get past that – often very hard – but they are not monsters, they are people like us. I don’t say that lightly.
Our national narrative is that we are the good guys and we would never do anything like kill people wholesale, especially innocent people. But, we would and we have. During World war II, on 9–10 March 1945, we killed an estimated 88,000 to 100,000 civilians – and wounded another 40,000-125,000, depending on who is counting. We did this on purpose during a raid by 334 B-29s on Tokyo.The purpose of this raid was not to bomb airfields or munitions factories, it was to kill people. Because we were not doing enough damage to the Japanese homeland with conventional bombing, we had changed tactics to create more damage. First, we bombed Tokyo with high explosive bombs and then came back with incendiary bombs to create a firestorm. According to Robert McNamara, in The Fog of War, after the raid, General Curtis LaMay said It’s a good thing we are winning this war or we would be tried as war criminals.
In his book, War Time: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Paul Fussell writes about an American platoon killing a group of unarmed Germans who were trying to surrender. But that wasn’t the part that shocked him later, what shocked him how much everybody enjoyed it and how it became a platoon joke to be used when they need cheering up.
Yes, these are wartime stories and war brutalizes everybody and it is easy to tell ourselves that our acts of inhumanity are different from, say, Amon Goeth the commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That is the point, it is easy to make Goeth the other, incomprehensible, like Goeth made the Jewish people he killed the other. It is not a direction that makes us more human. I want to end with a poem – I remember it from a LP record of poetry my mother often played – that we have probably all heard and forgotten, it is by John Dunn: No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s Or of thine own were: Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.