Friday, January 2, 2015


January 2, 2015:

          I was at a New Year's Day brunch yesterday and the talk in my corner of the room moved to some recent atrocity, I think the beheadings underway in Syria, which seem particularly gruesome, but I couldn't let it rest there. Since I've been writing so much military history in the last three years, for Military History magazine, as it happens, I've become fairly familiar with atrocities, and a few beheadings no longer strike me as unusual, or even significant, in the larger scheme of things. A story of mine about to go into print in  MHQ, which is Military History Quarterly for short, about the rebellion in the Vendee, an area of France, in 1793, ends with atrocities on a massive scale. The rebellion was an armed protest against the French Revolution, which had disenfranchised this very Catholic, very traditional area's priests, among other things, and when it was crushed it wasn't just crushed. The French army suppressing the rebellion proceeded to do everything it could, under orders from Paris, to wipe out the entire area, killing everyone in it.

          The most conservative estimate is that they killed 250,000 people; other estimates are higher. They trampled children under the hooves of horses; they put priests and other people on rafts in the Loire, stripped them of their clothes, tied them to the rafts, and then sank them. In one town 2,000 people were guillotined. Crops were burned, livestock killed, farms destroyed. They turned the place into a wasteland. In France it is known as the first modern genocide. In the world at large it is not known at all.

          I did a story on Yugoslavia in World War II, where astonishing atrocities were enacted, not just by the Nazis but by Croats against Serbs, Serbs against Muslims, Albanians against just about everybody. People were half buried in pits, from the waist down, and then skinned alive and left to scream; the area would be booby trapped so that anybody coming to their rescue would be blown up. During Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812 the Cossacks would seize stray French soldiers, strip them of their clothes, and then leave them to freeze to death in the empty, shelterless steppes in the middle of December. Holes in the walls of a military hospital on the retreat route were stopped up with frozen body parts. There was no shortage of them. Puritan colonists in King Philip's War in the 1680s committed unspeakable acts against the Indians, burning entire villages with the villagers in them; the Indians did the same back. Range the world, it is everywhere the same. Cruelty, savagery, horror are common, and no one is innocent.

          So we should not expect Americans to be any better. They weren't. They aren't. Much has been made about the exposure of torture by the CIA in its interrogation of suspected terrorists, or of people who might have information about terrorist activity. The editorial pages profess to be shocked. Which only shows what short memories we have. I read a piece recently about lynching in the South during the '20s and '30s. These events were not always, or even often, spontaneous acts of rage and intolerance. Many of them were planned weeks in advance. Black men would be taken from prisons, tortured, and then hanged in front of large crowds, with people serving food on the fringes. A carnival atmosphere. We currently have one of the largest prison populations in the world. Rape and all manner of other horrors are common in this population. Does anyone think American soldiers did not commit atrocities during World War II? Think again. American soldiers waterboarded people in the Philippines in the early 20th century. Myths about American "innocence" or "moral superiority" dissipate in this context.

          I've told people that I always wanted to live in the real world, which turns out to be very difficult to do. Not only is it hard to tell what's "real" in any given situation, it is also the case that most people would rather not know. It's so much more comfortable to cling to the myths. This is what lets the Dick Cheneys of this world thrive, and commit war crimes with impunity. As newspapers fade away, as investigative journalism dies, people like Cheney in positions of power develop a contempt for the public and its unwillingness not only to accept the way things really are, in their view at any rate, but the kind of behavior the way things really are requires in response. In their view, terrorism requires torture. In their view, to quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, "you"--that would be us--"can't handle the truth."

          And we can't, apparently. Americans are not morally superior to the citizens of other countries, and America is not some sort of great good place where everything is the best and for the best and the people are kind and thoughtful. And the fairy godmother leaves quarters for children's baby teeth. To quote Hemingway this time--"isn't it pretty to think so."