“Never Such Innocence Again”: A Review of Humanity
Metanexus:Views 2001.09.26 1550 words
“What draws humans repeatedly to war?” asks Jill Neimark today in her reviewof Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by English ethicistJonathan Glover (September 2000, Yale University Press, ISBN:0-300-08700-4). Pleasure, she writes, is one reason; transcendence isanother. But there are other reasons, justifications, and means.
As a New Yorker, in the wake of the WTC attacks, she observes that such anevent”could not have happened without the help of both science and religion.Technology gave us the wide-bodied jets, and religion appears to have giventhe mandate to attack, and now to avenge. Bin Laden speaks of a jihad inthe service of Allah; President Bush, according to the New York Times,believes that he “has come face to face with his life’s mission,” thatfighting terrorism is what God has asked him to do.”
Science and religion; religion and science. Just like pleasure andtranscendence, they are part and parcel of what make us so spectacularly andso deplorably human.
Read on, and behold our humanity.
–Stacey E. Ake
Subject: “Never Such Innocence Again”: A Review of Jonathan Glover’sHumanityFrom: Jill NeimarkEmail: <[email protected]>
Never such innocence,Never before or since,As changed itself to pastWithout a word – the menLeaving the gardens tidy,The thousands of marriagesLasting a little while longer:Never such innocence again.–Philip Larkin
My city was bombed. As I write this we are still reporting the dead asmissing. But outside hospitals, families who are never going to have a bodyto bury-not even a piece of a body-have created a pictorial graveyard, atableau of the incinerated. It’s a wall of missing persons, but that’s notthe truth: it’s the only graveyard we have, a crescendo of faces akin to theslow-building litany of names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial.
This is the first time war has come to my shore. And it could not havehappened without the help of both science and religion. Technology gave usthe wide-bodied jets, and religion appears to have given the mandate toattack, and now to avenge. Bin Laden speaks of a jihad in the service ofAllah; President Bush, according to the New York Times, believes that he”has come face to face with his life’s mission,” that fighting terrorism iswhat God has asked him to do. “Holy warriors” hijacked airplanes andtransformed them into bombs. But throughout history human beings have beenhijacking science and religion, and transforming them into far deeper andmore disastrous weapons.
War is as ancient as we are. Why?
One of the bravest books of last year addressed this question: Humanity: AMoral History of the Twentieth Century, by Jonathan Glover (Yale UniversityPress). Ten years in the making, it’s a searing, intimate biography of ourrecent history, told from the perspective of massacre, torture, atrocity-abook of unflinching honesty intended to make us face and tame the “monstersinside us.” One of the reasons the world trade center bombing was soshattering to Americans-and why the prospect of a Third World War seems bothpossible and unthinkable-is that we deny the inhumanity woven into ourhumanity. We live in perpetual innocence; or we did until now.
“For those of us whose everyday life is in relatively calm and shelteredplaces,” says Glover, “the horrors of Rwanda or Bosnia or Kosovo seemunreal…we bystanders look away. Repressing each atrocity maintains theillusion that the world is fundamentally a tolerable place. Yet it is almostcertain that, as you read this sentence, in some places people are beingkilled and in others people are being tortured.” Glover quotes amind-numbing fact: war has killed an average of over a hundred people anhour throughout the twentieth century.
What draws humans repeatedly to war? Pleasure, for one. “Battle can have asublime beauty for those who experience it,” says Glover. He cites WilliamBroyles, a lieutenant in Vietnam, who speaks of the passion for intenseexperience, camaraderie, a love of games-even the deadly game of war. But,Broyles says, there are other, more troubling attractions: “War is for menat some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women:the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off acorner of the universe and looking at what’s underneath.” Broyles describesthe “look of beatific contentment on the colonel’s face that I had not seenexcept in charismatic churches…I smiled back, as filled with bliss as hewas…I stood on the edge of my humanity, looked into the pit, and lovedwhat I saw there.” War gives yet another pleasure: transcendence. It speaksto the soul. One Nazi officer says: “I knew very well what I was going todo in the SS. We all knew. It was something in the soul, not the mind.”
Every war offers up the same shattering stories. It’s hard to face thatunspeakable cruelty is a universal trait. Iraqi officers hold anine-year-old prisoner and then tell his overjoyed parents the boy is aboutto be released. As they shepherd him from the car, his parents see that hisears, nose and genitalia have been cut off, and that he’s holding his eyesin his hands. Then he is shot to death. Nazis sell the hair of women fromAuschwitz for making mattresses, and take human ash, with pieces of teeth orbones, as gravel for the paths of nearby villages. In Rwanda, a baby iskilled with a machete and thrown down a toilet: “In desperation and in thehope of avoiding an even worse death under the machete, very many peoplejumped [into the river] and drowned, including many women with babiesstrapped to their backs.” (Although the situation is far different, thatdesperation reminds me of the awful choreography of free-fall when peopleleapt to their deaths from the upper floors of the burning World TradeCenter.)
How do “sane” people commit these kind of acts? Amazingly, as Glover pointsout, an “ethical” human being can accommodate and even commit horrific actsof cruelty if they deceive themselves: “When mass murder is sufficientlyre-interpreted, people can support it with an unimpaired sense of moralidentity…The growth of such a delusional system is a personal moraldisaster. It can also be a political disaster.” This is, unfortunately,where religion makes its entrance and the concept of God is hijacked andturned into a lethal weapon.
Mass murder is not seen as murder if the perpetrator is being guided by God,and the enemy is demonized. In World War II, the Japanese saw themselves asa superior race. “A year before the war,” reports Glover, “the politicianNakajima Chikuhei said that…the Japanese were racially pure descendants ofthe gods, they were ‘the sole superior race in the world.'” Americans andBritish were described as bestial, insensitive, demons, devils, fiends,monsters, hairy, twisted-nose savages. At the same time, Americans calledJapanese yellowbellies, yellow bastards, yellow monkeys. “AustralianGeneral Sir Thomas Blamey said of the Japanese soldier that ‘he is asub-human beast.'”
Stalin was seen as a religious leader: “It seems that his penetrating lookpierces my little room and goes out to embrace the entire globe,” Gloverquotes one writer as saying. “With my every fiber, every nerve, every dropof blood I feel that, at this moment, nothing exists in this entire worldbut this dear and beloved face.”
“If my presence on earth is providential,” said Hitler, “I owe it to asuperior will…I believe that it was the will of God to send a boy fromhere into the Reich, to make him great, to raise him up to be the Fuhrer ofthe nation.”
Now history repeats itself, and yet it seems new to many of us. Americamourns, and much of the world mourns with America. But what is different?We each claim that God is on our side, and we need to purge the world ofdarkness: satanic America; evil terrorists. The real horror for us now ishow science has raised the stakes. As Glover notes. “The decisions of a fewpeople can mean horror and death for hundreds of thousands, even millions,of other people.” In the last few weeks, I’ve had many discussions aboutthe possibility of biowarfare, or suicide bombers jumping into the exposedcontainment pools outside nuclear reactors around our country. The tollcould go into the millions in a matter of days.
War is a suicide pilot at the helm of a plane whose two wings are scienceand religion. As Glover says near the close of Humanity: “We haveexperienced the results of technology in the service of the destructive sideof human psychology. Something needs to be done about this fatalcombination. The means for expressing cruelty and carrying out mass killinghave been fully developed. It is too late to stop the technology. It is tothe psychology that we should now turn.”
Whether we can change ourselves is endlessly debatable, but we can’t makethe effort if we don’t first know ourselves, if we don’t understand thedarkness humanity encompasses, along with its greatness and beauty.Glover’s book is the first step.
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