My thoughts on violence have been prompted by recent news items and books I’ve been reading, plus some longstanding thoughts on the nature of human violence and/or non-violence. To begin with, the ‘great’ Dominique Straus-Kahn was just last week revealed to have been an active participant, while he was head of the IMF, in orgies that would have pleased Caligula. Not only were prostitutes routinely involved, not only were no condoms used, but Straus-Kahn himself, as his encounter with a chambermaid in New York made plain, was distinguished mainly by his sadism. It apparently isn’t only wild or frequent sex that tickles Straus-Kahn, but “rough trade” as it is called. He gets off forcing women, violating women, humiliating women.
Then of course, there are the recurrent stories of ISIS and their apparent addiction to violence above and beyond the call of duty, especially their by-now notorious public beheadings. It is not enough that the leaders of ISIS indulge in public killings of prisoners and all those caught in the net of their successful invasions; they have apparently decided that videotaped beheadings with a sword both add to the fear with which they are perceived, and to the reputation that attracts supporters and fighters. And what this, in turn, indicates is that while most of us assume that such viciousness would turn people off, the opposite may be the case. Indicating how violent you are seems to stimulate the affiliative gland.
And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this. The United States, after all, has the reputation throughout the world of being the most violent nation of all. Our citizens are armed to the teeth, possessing some 300 million firearms according to most counts. Our foreign policy has been one of almost continuous violence, not just in the big wars like WWI and WWII and Vietnam and Iraq, but also in smaller wars like those in Iran, and Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and Panama, and Chile and Cuba and Korea and just about every area of the planet. And our weapons have also been state of the art, featuring the biggest bombs (we’re the only nation ever to use atomic weapons), the fastest planes and ships and vehicles, the most lethal and destructive weapons. The result of all this “policing” has been almost universal admiration. Everyone wants to come to America (or so we are told), everyone wants to be American, everyone wants to be on the business end of the killing (not to mention being in the corporate business of killing), especially now that we have weapons like drones that virtually insulate our young killers from any danger on the battlefield.
So while some of us may imagine that we humans have turned the corner on violence (cf. Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature), it appears that the aggressive impulses of humans are quite alive and quite well, thank you. Nature seems to thrive on violence, and humans, like all other animals, have evolved to depend on violent impulses that flare quickly and lethally whenever there is a perceived threat. And this is something that most of us can understand: threats to one’s well-being, to one’s life come often in daily affairs, and the rapid, violent response often seems the only way to fend them off. To survive. These responses may be tamped down in civilized settings where violence becomes the sole prerogative of the state, but they are never fully lost. Evolution takes much longer to change than the few years that violence and killing have ceased to be everyday occurrences (and Jared Diamond assures us, in The World Until Yesterday, that in New Guinea and other primary societies, this truly has been only a very few years).
What is really at issue here, though, is the kind of gratuitous violence mentioned above, and highlighted in Richard Flanagan’s brilliant novel about WWII POWs, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The novel’s hero is a Tasmanian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who is part of a crew of Australian POWs forced by their Japanese captors to help build the notorious 285-mile Bangkok-to-Rangoon railroad. The Aussies’ section of the rail line—which would come to be praised as one of the greatest engineering projects of all time, one the Japanese finished well ahead of schedule due to their ruthless use of more than 180,000 Asian laborers (i.e. slaves, half of whom died) and 60,000 Allied POWs (one-fifth died)—was tasked with cutting through sheer rock with the most primitive tools. Flanagan spares no details in describing the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers in forcing the POWs to work, no matter how ill (from malaria, beri beri, cholera, horrible sores and injuries), no matter how enervated from starvation. The suffering he describes, the horrible conditions in which his men have to live amid jungles steaming from typhoon rains, seems beyond human endurance. And for many it is. Death is constant, a daily ritual that Flanagan describes with an almost macabre eye. In one episode he dramatizes one of the cremations that the POWs are forced to carry out daily to ‘bury’ their dead: they ignite a huge pile of bamboo into a roaring pyre that is then fed with the emaciated bodies of ten or twenty of the most recent dead. On this particular day, the usual pastor is missing, so Colonel Evans is pressed into service to say a few words about God, even though his true sentiments rebel:
Fuck God, he had actually wanted to say. Fuck God for having made this world, fucked be his name, now and for fucking ever, fuck God for our lives, fuck God for not saving us, fuck God for not fucking being here and for not fucking saving the men burning on the fucking bamboo. (187)
Flanagan’s achievement lies not only in portraying the suffering of the POWs, though. It also lies in making plain how the Japanese soldiers and officers are themselves pressed to perform their duty for the Emperor who has decreed that the railroad be built—this to prevent the Allied navies from decimating Japanese convoys delivering supplies to Rangoon by sea. And so he gives us their interior monologues, mainly their parroted pride in the Japanese spirit, “that Japanese spirit that was soon to daily travel along their railway all the way to Burma, the Japanese spirit that from Burma would find its way to India, the Japanese spirit that would from there conquer the world” (95). He gives us the gruesome reflections of Colonel Kota, about his pride and joy in having learned, again with this Zen-type spirit, how to behead prisoners with one expertly-placed swing of his sword. And he gives us the Japanese military’s tried-and-true method of implementing this inexorable spirit to get the POWs to work no matter how ill, or weak, or half dead: violence. They beat and batter and bludgeon at the slightest slacking from work, deviation from protocol, or respect for their masters (all POWs, according to the Japanese military code, are contemptible for having surrendered rather than fighting to the death). In one episode, they beat, in front of the whole company of POWs, the sergeant Darky Gardiner, who had actually been excused to the hospital, so debilitated and half-dead was he. No matter. He is publicly beaten for hours, and then is so nearly dead that he falls into the open latrine where he can no longer keep his balance, and drowns. It is at this point that Flanagan gives us his hero’s grim vision of reality as he is now forced to see it:
For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (221)
And though this vision is only fleeting and does not last, it nonetheless prompts the reader to dwell upon it, and wonder about its truth. For there can be little question that many, if not most, of the great projects undertaken and implemented by men, by their leaders, by their governments, have been borne on the awful shoulders of violence. From the pyramids to the celebrated victories of generals like Caesar or Napoleon or Eisenhower, the use and misuse of, the contempt for common men’s bodies have been ubiquitous. For what else could get soldiers to race into battle facing certain death; or slaves to drive their bodies to exhaustion; or farm laborers to work amid poison pesticides; other than the threat of violence? And the question Flanagan’s meditations inspire in us is the old one: how many deaths is a pyramid worth? Was the building of the Siam to Burma railroad worth the deaths of more than a hundred thousand human beings? Not to mention the unimaginable suffering endured even by those who survived? And at the end, was the American exultation in victory, in ‘justice’ that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki worth the deaths and horrible suffering of those who were vaporized by it?
What is, after all, worth such a price? The truth is, we are faced even now with this very question. The leaders we vote into office keep making these same justifications that essentially come down to mass violence: we cannot stop global warming, we cannot put a cap on the use of fossil fuels because our economy depends on their use. The jobs of coal miners in Kentucky depends on their use. Free trade depends on their use. The very engine of civilization depends on their use. But is it worth risking the lives of thousands, millions, the entire human race if it means that the planet heats up to the point where not just civilization but humans as a species (not to mention god knows how many other species) can no longer survive? What could possibly we worth that sacrifice? How many humans must die to get our leaders, to get all of us to wake up and see that there really is a crisis at hand?
But of course, nature never asked that question as life evolved. Violence was simply an integral part of the design. And as part of the design, it has remained integral to the evolution of humans even as their ingenuity has steadily made it more and more lethal, more and more cruel and destructive, until we are at the point where whole species are vanishing due to its application, where whole worlds may vanish as a consequence of its insane logic and its peripheral effects.
So where do we go from here? It’s anybody’s guess. One thing should be clear, though. Devising ever more destructive, ever more violent ways to bludgeon our way through a tottering world doesn’t seem like such a good option anymore, at least not for humans. At least not if we want to continue.