A Bad-Taste Business
Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.
—w. h. auden, herman melville
on monday, september 20, 2004, Islamic militants in Iraq executed an American construction worker named Eugene Armstrong. Four men, masked and clothed in black, tensely clutched their automatic weapons while the bound and blindfolded Armstrong knelt in front of them. “God’s soldiers from Tawhid and Jihad were able to abduct three infidels of God’s enemies in Baghdad,” the leader intoned, “. . . by the name of God, these three hostages will get nothing from us except their throats slit and necks chopped, so they will serve as an example.” The long knife sliced through Armstrong’s flesh. He screamed. Blood gushed from his neck. His body shuddered and became limp. The executioner placed the dripping, severed head on the back of Armstrong’s lifeless body. Do you think that this is a shocking image? When the video was broadcast on national television, it was interrupted before any blood was spilled. Perhaps this discretion was a good thing; the image was, after all, very disturbing. But perhaps it would have been better to show it. Armstrong’s execution was an act of war, and war is terrible. Like many terrible things, it is something that we do not want to think about too much if we can help it.
Many people conceive of war in terms of manly, granite-chinned heroes duking it out with the forces of evil. The reality is very different from this comic-book picture. It is something from which we collectively avert our gaze. The news and entertainment media obligingly maintain our illusions, protecting our sensibilities from too potent a dose of reality. This is why, during the dark days of the Cambodian genocide, the Associated Press rejected photographs of a smiling soldier eating the liver of a Khmer Rouge fighter whom he had just gutted and a soldier lowering a human head by the hair into a pot of boiling water. And it is why U.S. newspapers avoided British photographer Kenneth Jarecke’s photograph of the charred head of an Iraqi soldier who was among those burned alive on Mutla Ridge during the closing chapter of the First Gulf War.1 When the British journalist Martin Bell reported on the war in Bosnia, he quickly realized that he was expected to sacrifice reality to “good taste.” The version of the war presented to television audiences was, he remarked, “about as close to reality as a Hollywood action movie,” later remarking that “in our desire not to offend and upset people, we were not only sanitizing war but even prettifying it. . . . But war is real and war is terrible. War is a bad taste business.”2
The cosmetic transformation of war is nothing new. Painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries denuded war of its horror, portraying soldiers with “neatly-bandaged head-wounds” and “manly and heroic expressions.” Much the same is true of popular literature. The literary misrepresentation of war is exemplified by the writings of Rudyard Kipling, who, despite having no combat experience himself, confidently portrayed war in ludicrously glowing terms. Kipling’s romantic fantasies lured a generation of young men to their deaths in the trenches of World War I. With the advent of photography in the early nineteenth century, representations of war took on a new dimension of realism. But even the early photographers of the American Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I were not above manipulating things to suit their expectations. They dragged bodies into position before snapping them and passed off cleaned-up reenactments of military engagements as the genuine article.3
The advent of moving pictures opened new vistas for dishonestly representing battle. Most filmmakers steer safely clear of the horror and degradation of war, and most film viewers have no direct experience to act as a corrective to the Hollywood version. Consequently, many of us have an extremely distorted picture of combat. A real battlefield is not much like the typical movie version. “On the screen,” writes General Sir John Hackett, “there are particular conventions to be observed.”
Men blown up by high explosives in real war . . . are often torn apart quite hideously; in films there is a big bang and bodies, intact, fly through the air with the greatest of ease. If they are shot . . . they fall down like children in a game, to lie motionless. The most harrowing thing in real battle is that they usually don’t lie still; only the lucky ones are killed outright.4
Life imitates art, and the glorification of war in modern cinema has had serious consequences for the lives of its consumers. Amazingly, many young men chose to join the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War under the influence of John Wayne films. In their minds, going to war was like being a character in a movie: good guys killing bad guys, cowboys killing Indians. In fact, during the first four months of 1968, sixty U.S. soldiers in Vietnam died trying to outdraw one another just as they had seen actors do in cowboy films.5
Because of these and other compelling illusions about war, it is easy—in fact, all too easy—to regard the perpetrators of mass violence as depraved monsters or madmen. For example, George W. Bush proclaimed that he ordered the invasion of Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime because he “was not about to leave the security of the American people in the hands of a madman.” French president Jacques Chirac described Osama bin Laden as “a raving madman,” while British foreign secretary Jack Straw described Bin Laden as “psychotic and paranoid.”6
What evidence was there that these people were insane? There is usually none at all. The psychologists who painstakingly sifted through data on the senior Nazi officers brought to justice in the Nuremberg trials found that “high-ranking Nazi war criminals . . . participated in atrocities without having diagnosable impairments that would account for their actions.”7 They were “as diverse a group as one might find in our government today, or in the leadership of the PTA.”8 If the Nazi leaders were not deranged, what about the rank and file who did Hitler’s dirty work? What about the members of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that committed atrocities like the mass killing at Babi Yar, where 33,000 Jews, as well as many gypsies and mental patients, were machine-gunned to death during two crisp autumn days in 1941? Do you think that these men must have been psychopaths or Nazi zealots? If so, you are wrong. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that they were anything other than ordinary German citizens. “The system and rhythm of mass extermination,” observes journalist Heinz Hohne, “were directed by . . . worthy family men.” The men of the German Reserve Police Battalion 101, a killing squad in Poland who were involved in the shooting of at least 38,000 Jews and the deportation of a further 83,000 to the Treblinka death camp, were ordinary middle-aged family men without either military training or ideological indoctrination. “The truth seems to be,” writes social psychologist James Waller, “that the most outstanding characteristic of perpetrators of extraordinary evil lies in their normality, not their abnormality.”9 Purveyors of violence, terrorists, and merchants of genocidal destruction are, more often than not, people who fit the profile that Primo Levi painted of his Nazi jailers at Auschwitz: “average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked . . . they had our faces.” To Hannah Arendt they were “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”10 They could be your neighbors, parents, or children. They could be you.
This book is about where war lives in human nature. It is not only, or even primarily, about people like Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam: It is about people like you and me, our ancestors, our children, and our children’s children. It tells the story of why human beings, all human beings, have the potential to be hideously cruel and destructive to one another. Other animals attack and sometimes kill members of their own kind, but they do not organize themselves into groups to destroy neighboring communities. Mark Twain made this point over a century ago.
Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out . . . and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel. . . . And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for “the universal brotherhood of man”—with his mouth.11
In fact, Twain’s portrait of human nature is far too charitable. Men not only march out to slaughter their own kind on a scale so huge that it beggars the imagination, they often do so in ways that are diabolically cruel. A small taste of this side of human nature is conveyed in the following passage from Thomas Alfred Walker’s classic History of the Law of Nations.
When Basil II (1014) could blind fifteen thousand Bulgarians, leaving an eye to the leader of every hundred, it ceases to be a matter of surprise that Saracen marauders should thirty years later be impaled by Byzantine officials, that the Greeks of Adramyttium in the time of Malek Shah (1106–16) should drown Turkish children in boiling water, and that the Emperor Necephorus (961) should cast from catapults into a Cretan city the heads of Saracens slain in the attempt to raise the siege, or that a crusading Prince of Antioch (1097) should cook human bodies on spits to earn for his men the terrifying reputation of cannibalism.12
Walker was writing about events that unfolded long ago and far away and that are safely confined to the pages of history books. But others that occurred before and after them equal these horrors. The screams of Basil’s victims mingle with the screams of the men, women, and children whose mute remains lie in prehistoric burial sites. They mingle with the cries of the residents of Babylon when King Sennacherib’s Assyrian warriors put them to the sword, and the cries of Native Americans cut down by Spanish steel and American lead. Victims of the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, and a million other brutalities join them in a tortured chorus that echoes through history, but to which we turn a deaf ear. These facts are an embarrassment. They deflate our pretensions to moral superiority, our conception of ourselves as standing at the pinnacle of creation. Consequently, we prefer fairy tales, turning reality on its head to keep the truth at a reassuringly safe distance.
Like it or not, war is distinctively human. Apart from the raiding behavior of chimpanzees, which I will describe in chapter 4, and the so-called wars prosecuted by certain species of ant, there is nothing in nature that comes anywhere near approximating it. Despite this, we often describe warfare as “brutal” (literally “animal-like”) or “inhuman”—conceiving of it as something remote from our true humanity. Another distancing tactic is to treat war as a social illness, a deviation from the naturally peaceable state of humankind, a strange cyclic malady like a fever that causes us to periodically shed the garments of civilization and fall prey to the wild beast within (Leonardo da Vinci called it “bestialissima pazzia,” “the most bestial madness”). Even the extraordinary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, a brave and insightful woman who reported on most of the major military conflagrations of the twentieth century, fell into this trap when she characterized war as “a malignant disease, an idiocy, a prison.”13 However much one might like it to be true, the first member of Gellhorn’s trilogy of metaphors is false. War is not a pathological condition; it is normal and expectable. It is, as she went on to remark, “our condition and our history” and has been so for tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions, of years. War is not antithetical to civilization, the brotherhood of man, or the great spiritual and cultural traditions of East and West. It is deeply and perhaps inextricably bound up with them.
What about Gellhorn’s second metaphor? Is war an idiocy? Yes, in the sense of being a hideously costly way to settle conflict. Forget about the sanitized images of combat churned out for public consumption. War is grotesque. “You tripped over strings of viscera fifteen feet long,” wrote William Manchester in Goodbye, Darkness, his memoir of World War II, “over bodies which had been cut in half at the waist. Legs and arms, and heads bearing only necks, lay fifty feet from the closest torso.”14 Guy Sajer, who fought for the Wehrmacht on the Russian front during World War II, makes no concessions to delicacy. Unlike many, he did not feel the need to put a noble gloss on unspeakable horror when he describes in his memoir The Forgotten Soldier how tanks grind human flesh into the dirt to make a bloody paste, their massive treads plastered with pieces of human bodies. His accounts read like descriptions of scenes from hell.
There is nothing but the rhythm of explosions, more or less distant, more or less violent, and the cries of madmen, to be classified later, according to the outcome of the battle, as the cries of heroes or of murderers. And there are the cries of the wounded, of the agonizingly dying, shrieking as they stare at a part of their body reduced to pulp, the cries of men touched by the shock of battle before everybody else, who run in any and every direction, howling like banshees. There are the tragic, unbelievable visions, which carry from one moment of nausea to another: guts splattered across the rubble and sprayed from one dying man onto another; tightly riveted machines ripped like the belly of a cow which has just been sliced open, flaming and groaning.15
War is mangled bodies and shattered minds. It is the stomach-churning reek of decaying corpses, of burning flesh and feces. It is rape, disease, and displacement. It is terrible beyond comprehension, but it is not senseless. Wars are purposeful. They are fought for resources, lebensraum, oil, gold, food, and water or peculiarly abstract and imaginary goods like God, honor, race, democracy, and destiny. Later on, I will argue that self-deception is an indispensable element of war, and that despite the fact that wars are calculated and planned, there is a sense in which human beings do not know what they are doing when they cut one another down on the battlefield. A smokescreen of self-deception is required to make most human beings capable of such acts of slaughter.
Gellhorn’s third and final metaphor is both apt and powerful. War is like a prison. We seem to be in bondage to war. No matter how vehemently we condemn it, how forcefully we repudiate it, we are unable to free ourselves from its morbid attraction. Prisons constrain us from the outside, but there is something about human nature, something inside of us, that binds us to war. And so, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, the tragedy drags on.
Like all living things, Homo sapiens possess an ancient heritage; over the course of many millions of years, the forces of evolution have honed and sculpted our minds and bodies, and this patrimony has an enormous impact on how we live our lives today. The genetic programming bequeathed to us by our ancestors has many constructive, life-affirming aspects. It incites us to seek attractive mates, to savor the flavor of nourishing food, to nurture our children, to understand and control the world around us, and even to compose exquisite music and create wonderful works of art.16 But our evolutionary legacy also has a much more disturbing face: it moves us to kill our fellow human beings. Violence has followed our species every step of the way in its long journey through time. From the scalped bodies of ancient warriors to the suicide bombers in today’s newspaper headlines, history is drenched in human blood.
Copyright © 2007 by David Livingstone Smith. All rights reserved.