The Silence of the Wolves
What gets my cranial juices flowing is when two ideas expressed in two different places (usually in books) come together like a couple pieces of wood tongue-in-groove.
I’d like to share the most recent of these experiences with you.
The ancient Greeks used to conduct warfare among themselves in a very gentlemanly, Marquis of Queensbury kind of way. They settled a dispute between city states by sending out a phalanx of heavily armed soldiers (drawn from the higher classes because they had to provide the armor themselves) and have a pitched battle in an open field at an appointed time. Whoever won the battle won the dispute. Casualties only occurred during actual fighting. No gratuitous killing. A surrender meant the violence was over.
Then came the war between Athens and Sparta, the so-called Peloponnesian War that went on for decades and ended with the defeat of Athens. In the second year of that war a plague broke out in Athens, already overcrowded with rural people who were sheltering there from invading Spartans. The illness killed off possibly a third of the population, military and civilian alike.
Athens was not the same afterward. The one man who could hold the city together, Pericles, eventually died himself. Law and order broke down. Citizens began to behave in barbarous fashions. Thucydides, a general who survived the plague and wrote a history of the war, says it was the experience of this lawlessness, the breakdown of civilization, that set the stage for the atrocious way Greeks behaved from then on: ethnic cleansings (a euphemism for the slaughter of entire populations) and other acts of violence that would have been unthinkable in the pre-plague period.
Now, here’s the bit of information that links up neatly with what I’ve already written. European powers from the early years of the nineteenth generally avoided the killing of civilians until the second world war. What happened in between that earlier period and the carnage of the second world war? Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism makes a good argument that what changed was a result of the colonial polices of some of those powers at the end of the 19th century.
During that period, roughly 1880 to 1914, imperialism became a major political and economic force, as did nationalism (nation-states as is France) as well as ethnically homogeneous if not geographically contained nationalisms (Germans, Slavs.) The victims of this imperialism were the peoples of Africa and Southeast Asia. It was there that nations like Britain, France and Belgium began to practice genocide on a large scale. The Belgians are purported to have killed anywhere between three and fifteen million Congolese. The probable number is about ten million. They and other Europeans did so under the banner of racial superiority, a claim first put forth in an intellectually respectable way by the Frenchman Comte de Gobineau in the early half of the nineteenth century that remained a text for racist ideologies right up through the 1940s.
This kind of slaughter of on a mass scale, Arendt maintains, broke down the veneer of European civilization and paved the way for Nazism, which claimed to be acting as an agent of Evolution by speeding up the survival of the fittest, and for the mass killings of Stalinism, which claimed to be acting on behalf of historical necessity.
Of course, the killing of innocent non-combatants continues right up to the present day. We have euphemisms for it: ethnic cleansing, of course; collateral damage. We carpet-bombed Afghanistan out of pique because that government would not turn over Osama Bin Laden without following due process of law. We destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq in the first Gulf War, and then invaded in 2003 on the false pretext of that nation possessing weapons of mass destruction with intent to use them against us and our allies. The destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, along with conventional bombing, cost the lives of close to a million people, most of them children who died in the 1990s from diseases caused by our destruction of the sanitary systems during the First Gulf War and for the decade afterward — sewage, water purification plants, etc. And, of course, in addition to terror campaigns we supported and funded in the 1980s in Central America, there was the genocide of millions of Southeast Asians during the Vietnam War. Plus other deadly foreign adventures we have undertaken or sponsored.
Our leaders never speak of any of this with any sense of shame or even regret. We certainly don’t hear or read about this behavior as being the result of the breakdown of the “thin veneer of civilization,” as Thucydides spoke of it. We have become inured to these horrors by their horrible precedents in the twentieth century. The bombing of civilian populations during WWII started as a modest tit-for-tat but within a few years had turned into a massive project to incinerate entire cities, culminating with the use of atomic bombs.
That has become for us what war is, a fact of life like carnivorousness. The idea of gentlemen-soldiers settling their disputes by pre-arranged battles that were over in a few hours seems preposterous to us, a laughable dream. Meanwhile, we deplore individual acts of terrorism as if they were the most egregious acts of violence anyone can experience — because it is We who experience them, not They. What an F-15 or a B-52 does does not qualify as terrorism. But what was unthinkable less than two hundred years ago for nation-states is now conventional.
Can we really call ourselves civilized when we behave in this manner? Has not what occurred in ancient Athens due to plague happened to us, that “thin veneer” that made human beings recognize their mutual humanity, been stripped away without our even realizing it?
The moral of my story: Don’t read serious books. You’ll only get depressed.