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On a comment thread of a map of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, one poster was adamant that it was completely inappropriate to refer to the Holocaust experienced by those peoples at European colonists’ hands as “genocide,” making very unconvincing legalistic and semantic arguments. After a bit of back and forth, he finally got very angry, and let loose with a rejection of the very notion that there was anything about that conquest that anyone should feel in anyway ashamed of. This was my response:

After all the meaningless noise, we get to the truth: It isn’t the word you object to after all, but rather the acknowledgement of the magnitude of the historical brutality and inhumanity that went into the formation of this nation! We can’t say “genocide,” not because its role as a legal term prohibits us in casual conversation from using the word in a way in which it is commonly used (oops), not because it is an insult to Jews (oops), but because, by god, how dare we insult your ancestors and nation by emphasizing the brutality of its formation!

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? You oppose the use of the word not in SERVICE to “truth,” but in OPPOSITION to it; not because it’s too imprecise, but because it cuts too close to the bone.

We are determined to emphasize, and you are determined to de-emphasize, the very real brutality of the conquest of this enormous nation and the clearing away of the indigenous population, a brutality whose magnitude is not adequately captured by ANY word. You resent the use of the strongest word available, because it gets us one step closer to a sense of the true magnitude of the inhumanity involved, rather than, as you prefer, keeping us one step further away, in the ideologically convenient haze of historical semi-amnesia.

You don’t want to own the past because you DO want to own the present and future. The more we acknowledge the brutality of the past, the less free we are to continue it. That’s what this is all about: A battle of narratives, whether to be the jingoist chauvinists we have too long been and too many want us to remain, continuing to blithely trample on humanity while surrounded by the arrogant and self-serving halos of “American exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny,” or to be a people aspiring to true greatness of spirit and consciousness, recognizing without diminution the errors of the past in service to doing better in the present and the future.

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Jonathan Zimmerman, in his Los Angeles Times column reprinted in the Denver Post “Letting Atrocities Define Afghan War a Mistake” (http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_16544999), almost got it right: Atrocities are not dispositive. But they are relevant. It is our ability to divorce the relevance of war’s very real and abundant brutality from our case-by-case decisions whether to go to war or not that enables the overly blithe willingness to commit mass murder and impose massive suffering in service to political ends.

I think Zimmerman is right, though, that if a war must be fought, because avoiding it will lead to more suffering than prosecuting it, then its brutality, including the war crimes that will be committed by some on our own side, should be a part of the calculation, rather than proof of some irrefutable conclusion (Zimmerman errs by not acknowledging that such brutality should always be a part of the calculation, weighing heavily against the choice to go to war). The illegal brutalities committed by some of our soldiers in Afghanistan, like the brutalities committed by some of our soldiers in World War II (and accepted more readily by the military and the public), should be treated as the  crimes that they are. So Zimmerman’s point that using those war crimes as proof that it was an unjust war is disingenuous is correct. However, his conclusion that those war crimes have no bearing on the judgment of whether it is a just war or not is strikingly incorrect.

Our bias should be against war, against dropping explosives on civilians’ homes that rip children and babies, as well as their parents and grandparents, to shreds. The horrors unleashed, sanitized by our deliberations, largely scrubbed of concern for those we are killing, oblivious to the full scope of the violence and brutality unleashed, should always be a primary consideration. Instead, we ask ourselves only if we are willing to sacrifice the lives of our own military personnel, along with the material costs to ourselves, of going to war. We rarely ask ourselves “Is it worth killing tens of thousands of innocent people?”

I am not a pacifist, though I dearly wish that it were possible to be one, that the world were a rational enough place that pacifism could be a viable position. But, as Henry Kissinger (who I rarely quote) once said, pacifism is simply the surrender of the world to the most ruthless. And he was right. The British policy of Appeasement in World War II ended up contributing to far more suffering, to a far more brutal war, than a stronger military stance earlier on probably would have. Sometimes, you do have to stand up to brutal dictators. Sometimes, you do have to resort to “defensive” violence to prevent the often more extreme, and, perhaps, more unjust “offensive” violence that would occur in the absence of such military diligence. But it is a decision that should always ask, almost before and above all other questions: Is the need great enough to justify slaughtering tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children? Because that will always be a part of the very real cost of going to war.

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