|Peace Matters index
matters of life and death
|For Remembrance 1999, our focus is on some of the centurys people whose lives were changed by bloodshed and suffering. If we want a future without war, we need to acknowledge and understand them: persecutors and persecuted alike.
If the government told us it was all right, we had the law on our side.
the patients had nothing to take pride in but their appalang injuries
We particularly want the hunting breed of man, because he goes into danger for the love of it. Thus a military textbook, 1912. In 1914, six months before shrapnel got him, officer and gentleman Captain Julian Grenfell (26) wrote home that war was the best fun. I have never felt so well, or so happy, or enjoyed anything so much. It just suits my stolid health, and stolid nerves, and barbaric disposition. The fighting-excitement vitalises everything.
Playwright Ernst Toller, 21 when he eagerly volunteered, felt the same. I was trembling with excitement, surrendered to the passion of the moment like a gambler, like a hunter. But a year later: The sharpest perceptions had become dulled, the greatest words mean. The war had became an everyday affair; life in the line a matter of routine; instead of heroes there were only victims; conscripts instead of volunteers; life had become hell, death a bagatelle; we were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why. We had lost our enthusiasm, our courage, the very sense of our identity.
Poet Georges Duhamel served as a surgeon at Verdun, where his patients had nothing to take pride in but their appalling injuries. Civilisation was absent; and if it is not in the heart of man, then it exists nowhere.
Philosophers, those civilised people, will convincingly argue that a meaningful life is a creative life. To look for personal dignity and identity in war is to give those things to meaninglessness (in some of its manifestations called evil) instead.
Violence is always a local experience, and its in the details of destruction that one grasps how easy the first steps are. Violence has a dynamic that can be terrifyingly rational and banal.
Hans P. was head of a German Security Force unit posted in a small town in Serbia. In March 1943 he ordered a raid on a pub suspected of housing Communist meetings, but found nothing. Irritated with his failure, he shot the landlady, claiming she was attempting to escape. Soon after, he arbitrarily tortured and raped a young woman. The Belgrade SS thought this unnecessary and sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment. Hans wrote to his wife Charlotte: Because of that Serbian tart, who would have been shot anyway within the week, our German family is punished. Charlotte passed her husbands grievance to Himmler; she also told him about her youngest son Rudi, who had an incurable cerebral handicap, from which, wrote Charlotte, I hope I can give him relief some day. Himmler acted promptly. Hans P.s sentence was made less severe; Charlottes financial problems were eased; and 4-year old Rudi became a victim of the Childrens Euthanasia programme.
The story is repellent, but its character isnt unique. In wartime, sanctions on violence fall away; other peoples deaths became bagatelles; the needs of the family call for desperate measures; consequences arent considered why should they be, in a dangerous situation thats changing all the time?
The writer Johann Mayer was born in Vienna (where Hitler said he learned his anti-semitism) in 1912. His Jewish father, a Tyrolean Imperial Rifleman killed in the 1914-18 war, he scarcely knew; his Catholic mother accustomed him to Christian culture. He knew he was a Jew, but only as his fathers son. It was the 1935 Nuremberg Laws which made me formally and beyond any question a Jew....from that moment on, a dead man on leave, someone to be murdered. All of Germany but what am I saying! the whole world nodded in approval, even if here and there with superficial regret.
He emigrated to Belgium, was deported to France, escaped and worked in the Belgian Resistance, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, became an inmate at Auschwitz and Belsen. After the war, having transformed his name to Jean Améry, he began a lifetimes exile in Brussels. It was years before he felt able to travel in Germany, and his first writing for German readership (in 1966) was his account of what Germans had done to him.
Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained. That ones fellow man was experienced as the anti-man remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror.
For an intelligent, intellectual person, Auschwitz had other particular horrors. Such people lacked the bodily agility and physical courage that necessarily bordered on brutality required by inmates in a camp where professional criminals set the tone; their intelligence was crucified on the sadistic illogicality which the camps were run. Not only failed by their inner intellectual resources, which trickled away in a feeling of complete indifference, they were also dehumanised. They might physically survive hungry, beaten, sick, just not dead; but the ground on which the human spirit stands well, it always stood on weak legs, and it stood the test badly, that is the whole sad truth.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? An SS man whom Améry never forgot a repeated murderer and an especially adroit torturer was later executed. But what could that achieve for his victims? Its not a matter of revenge, nor one of atonement....I would like to believe that at the instant of his execution he wanted exactly as much as I to turn back time, to undo what had been done. When they led him to the place of execution, the anti-man had once again become fellow man. But there are regions of indifference, blankness, amorality, nihilism, from which brutal people, or people who have been successfully brutalised, may not all return.
From a novel (1945) by the Serbian writer and Nobel prize-winner Ivo Andric: People were divided up into the persecuted and those who persecuted them. That wild beast which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free. The signal was given, the impediments eliminated. As so often happens in human history, violence and plunder were tacitly permitted, even killing, on condition that they could be perpetrated in the name of high interests, under set slogans, and on a limited number of people, of a definite name and persuasion.
On March 18 1968 Lieutenant William Calley and Charlie Company spent four hours in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, murdering over two hundred old men, women and children. It was not an isolated case: the Americans had authorised the razing of villages throughout the province. In 1968 they were killing civilians at the rate of 50,000 a year.
What the hell else is war than killing people? said Calley. I pictured the people of My Lai: the bodies, and they didnt bother me. I had closed with, I had destroyed the Vietcong, the mission that day. I thought, It couldnt be wrong or Id have remorse about it.... Personally, I didnt kill any Vietnamese that day: I mean personally. I represented the United States of America. My country.
Dehumanisation: the soldier achieves it the moment he perceives his opponent as less than human. In the European wars, atrocity stories aimed to convince fighters that they were cleansing the world of people who were bestial, inferior, alien, different. Disdain was easy in the East: Japanese and Vietnamese looked different as well. Maybe the first time I saw a dead North Vietnamese I flinched a bit, said an Australian trooper, but after that they just became dead animals.
Why did we want to kill dinks? ruminated a US soldier. After all, we had been mostly law-abiding citizens back in the world back in the world! and we were taught that to take another mans life was wrong. Somehow the perspective got twisted in a war. If the government told us it was all right, we had the law on our side. It turned out that most of us liked to kill.
This was the war that journalist Michael Herr characterised as subhumanly unreal: like being stoned on drugs, like being crazy, like a film of war.
Motive and opportunity
Atrocities: the murder of prisoners, for example. In 1914-18, writer Robert Graves recalled, the commonest motives were revenge for the death of friends or relatives, jealousy of the prisoners trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being overpowered by the prisoners, or simply impatience with the escorting job. One step, and then its easy. The British soldier at first regarded as atrocious the use of bowie-knives by German patrols. After a time he learned to use them himself. Quicker, cleaner, easier, quieter and more secret than guns or bombs.
The chance to stave off boredom, settle personal grievances, or just shoot a gun can be a powerful motivation for violence, especially among the teenage boys and twenty-something men looking for something, anything, to do with their time who are its most frequent perpetrators, remarks a commentator on the 1992-5 Bosnian war. A certain kind of war, says a journalist, depends upon young men like these, and you find them all over the world, and throughout history, in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, in every civil and ethnic war. Young men proud of their daughters and sisters, who hunt other humans for pleasure. And who disregard the consequences. In 1995, the Muslim enclave at Srebrenica in Bosnia fell to Serb forces, who killed over 7000 civilian men. The refugee wives (and daughters and sisters) of the dead lost more than their men. In Srebrenica I had a house, an orchard, and a life.
In Borneo in 1997, a group of Dayaks, whose warrior history includes decapitation and the eating of hearts, erupted in a spate of these traditional killings. Their lands were being seized to accommodate people forcibly deported from another part of Indonesia. You have to try to understand their position, said a priest. Theyre ignored by the government. They have no political role. Theyre under pressure and theyve no economic power.... Theres one thing that inspired it all: powerlessness. A researcher explained: The Dayaks are normal human beings. They will protect themselves if any of their lands or rights are violated.... What honey bees would not defend themselves when their honey, nests and community members are threatened?
Ask yourself this question
Anwar Iqbal was an apprentice reporter when General Zia ul-Haq seized power in Pakistan, back in 1977. Among other things, the general introduced public floggings. They attracted large crowds. On one occasion a blind woman was to be flogged for sexual misbehaviour. Hundreds of men attended, displaying neither sorrow nor passion; but the woman won a last-minute reprieve. The square rang with voices of disapproval. The men were there to watch the womans helplessness and to enjoy it.... And the truth was that I shared their disappointment. Although I had been writing against public flogging ever since it began, I wanted to watch it. I might go back to my typewriter and condemn it, but I did not want to miss the spectacle.
This was an unpleasant discovery to make about myself. A sorrowful, angry disgust with myself and the country I lived in thus became a feature of my life.
In Auschwitz, you had to be clean-shaven, but were forbidden to have a razor; you had to be strong, but were systematically weakened. Writer/activist Augusto Boals torturer in Brazil explained his crime to him: namely, openly informing other countries that there was torture in Brazil. (Boal writes: He became indignant, and turned the crank to increase the electric charge and asked why I was laughing....He thought very hard and ended up agreeing: Youre right. Im torturing you. But since you are well-known and appear on television, I am torturing you with respect.) Larger scale absurdities: making war to achieve a humanitarian aim. The largest of all: supporting with all the weight of law, human rights, custom, and instinct the principle that it is wrong to kill and being ready to kill (and to organise killing, and to manufacture its instruments in great quantities) to protect the principle.
It would, indeed, seem to be death that is the problem. The torturer and murderer has control of the others scream of pain and death, he is master over flesh and spirit, life and death. It was a case of kill or be killed. He whoever he had been was dead and I special, unique me was alive. I felt like a god, this power flowing through me I was untouchable. Death, thou shalt die.
So, death is inescapable? Fall back on power while youre still alive. Centuries of expressing power with armies have made it hard for people to consider alternatives. Governments, politically pinned to often doubtful agendas, continue to spend vast sums on complex weapons and military systems, although most post-modern power wars leave technobattle alone. These wars are local, messy, crude, cruel, genocidal, conducted by impulsive militias and mobs and mafias, competitively led by factional warlords and charismatics, and extremely difficult to halt and heal. It is the causes of wars like these the individual histories, resentments, miseries that ought to be addressed.
A good idea, then, to dedicate Remembrance 1999 to the centurys individual victims of war, the persecutors and the persecuted, their power and their pain. War begins in the hearts and minds of individuals; but so does the other thing. The charismatic young violinist Maxim Vengerov, an exemplar of what is positive, joyful, vital in human beings, gives not only money but his time to UNICEF, whose Envoy for Music he is. His current project is helping to rehabilitate some of the traumatised child soldiers of Uganda, some 4000 of whom have been rescued into UN care. He talked recently of a boy there who, after an exciting session of group music-making, told him: I thought I had no life. Now I think I can see me make a family, a future.
First, the rehabilitation of painful memory: acceptance, understanding, transcendence, and release. Then a future without war? It really is possible, if people just enough people recognise the first steps that lead to violence, and then refuse to take them.
READING FOR 20TH CENTURY REMEMBRANCE
All these books are in print. If you order them through amazon.com they will be cheaper than in bookshops; if you order from amazon through the PPU web site, the PPU will receive some of the money.
Jean Améry: At the Minds Limits. Granta Books (pbk) WW2
Joanna Bourke: An Intimate History of Killing. Granta Books (hbk) C20th war
Niall Ferguson: The Pity of War. Penguin (hbk; pbk in October) WW1
Michael Herr: Dispatches. Picador (pbk) Vietnam
Samuel Hynes: The Soldiers Tale. Pimlico (pbk) C20th war
Chuck Sudetic: Blood & Vengeance: One Familys Story. Penguin (pbk) Bosnia
P E A C E P L E D G E U N I O N 1 Peace Passage London N7 0BT, Britain.