“I would not deny that the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be, is an exceptionally unpleasant thing, because, unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think. What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won’t stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance …”
–George Orwell in 1944 describing the terror of V-2 rockets
It has become almost passé to make comparisons to the old Nazi regime anymore because the analogy has become so overused and abused. It had, for a time, become fashionable to call a politician or a media personality a Hitler if one didn’t so much as even like a person’s shoe size. Nonetheless, being the third generation American of German descent that I am and therefore not so very far removed from “Der Vaterland” myself, I often find comparisons that exist in our modern world to that of the Nazi regime intriguing and seductive. What if my great grandparents had stayed in Germany? Would my father have joined the Hitler Youth? Would my mother have spit on the Jews as they were herded onto trains headed for Auschwitz? I’d certainly like to think not. But there’s no way to ever know for sure and in any case, my great-grandparents didn’t choose to stay there and so here I am, an American in Texas, three generations after the journey.
So what’s different about things here in America than what might have been the case for me in Germany and/or in some alternate universe? You know, I think it’s possible, and to be perfectly honest — even likely — that I, myself, might have been seduced into the SS if they had got to me at the right age or under the right circumstances and lured me at a time of economic struggle with promises of prestige, power, money, women, a sleek uniform, but most of all an appeal to vanity… a sense of exceptionalism, superiority and power over others when the alternative might have appeared to be ordinariness, powerlessness, destitution, and scorn.
As the devil once said in a famous American movie — vanity is definitely his favorite vice.
So has my DNA changed in some way by virtue of having lived my life on a different continent? Have my would-be totalitarian instincts been mollified because I was born on this side of the Atlantic? Or if not, then what warning would there be that totalitarianism of some sort or another might be infecting me or my country in some similar way? How might I guard myself against it?
I wonder about these things. I wonder…well… would things have to get to the point where we have soldiers goose stepping in the streets with jackboots and swastikas or that we have smokestacks belching with the stench of human remains before it might begin to really dawn on us that we might just be beyond the precipice of such a regime or such a mentality? I sure hope not.
I also wonder how many hundreds of thousands or millions of humans might have to be exterminated before a society can be said to have reached a threshold of holocaust proportions through its acts of violence. What level of violence is sufficiently low enough to keep such accusations at bay? Is bombing a foreign people in their own lands rather than gassing them here at home more acceptable? Is dropping napalm and cluster bombs and poisoning their lands with Agent Orange and depleted uranium morally distinguishable from what the Nazis did? If you drag the same amount of killing out for ten or twenty years or longer is that better? Why or why not would these sorts of things qualify as a holocaust? Is one or the other of these sorts of practices somehow more civilized? More noble? More justifiable?
So, what I’m wondering these days is when would we reach that place where we say that the level of killing and suffering inflicted on other countries has crossed that Rubicon into that place that we call evil, as the Nazi regime clearly was. Where would we draw that line?
A place to look, of course, is history.
No one likes to remember this, let alone discuss it much in the political arena, but the beginnings of this country we now call America were founded on practices of apartheid and the ethnic cleansing of the native population, as well as the enslavement of Africans brought here forcibly over a period of several hundred years to work the land for the benefit of a leisure class made up of European white males. It seems to be sort of assumed today that those were America’s original sins and that we can pretty dismiss much more discussion about it because after all, that was so long ago and didn’t the Civil War and the ensuing bloody massacre of hundreds of thousands of mostly white working class males take care of all that. Of course it didn’t, but let’s go ahead and set that aside for now, as is usually customary with such matters.
So let’s look at more recent history.
One of America’s greatest moral and spiritual leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
Now, I have to ask: what would any of us suppose possessed him to say that? Did he say it because he wanted to offend people? Did he say it because he was a traitor to his country or because he was a self-hating American? Did he say it because he was a commie pinko? Was it some sort of spontaneous polemic outburst of hyperbole that he spouted out because he had too much coffee that morning? Or is it possible…just possible… that that was a fair statement of fact?
Well, let’s think a minute — what was going on at that time? The Cold War, civil rights, and Vietnam. And how many Americans died in that war in Vietnam? I think most Americans, at least of my generation, are pretty well aware that about 60,000 American soldier’s lives were lost during the war in Vietnam and many, many more were profoundly effected, both physically and mentally, both during the war and long afterwards.
But how many Americans give much thought to the toll on the Vietnamese people and their land? Somehow I have developed the distinct impression that the idea that the war affected anyone other than Americans barely crosses anyone’s mind in our country with the possible exception of our veterans who witnessed atrocities first hand. It is estimated that somewhere between 2 to 4 million Vietnamese died violent deaths during the course of that unnecessary war (and do I need to mention that Vietnam is a much smaller country than the United States?). It seems to me that any fair-minded person would realize that those are clearly numbers of holocaust proportions. And we could also go on and talk about how the war poisoned the land with landmines and chemicals whose effects linger on to this day and continue to take their toll in lives and birth defects and the fact that far more bomb tonnage was dropped on tiny Vietnam than in all of World War II by all sides combined.
So how is it that in the minds of most Americans, we came out of that war with the absurd sense that America was somehow the primary victim? Because we lost? Because we acquired something called “Vietnam syndrome”? The fact that we lost that war and are no worse off than if we had won it should tell us something. One would think our nation might have gotten a clue at a time when we actually had a fairly well-educated middle class and the idea of radical change was conspicuously in the air.
But apparently not.
Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg admonished those who sat in judgment of the Nazi defendants that “we must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”
So where is justice in the modern world? Where are reparations? And where is Nuremberg when it should apply to us?
And how will history judge our nation?
Frankly, it leaves me wondering — more than a little — how much most Americans even care about anything after next week let alone when crimes of this magnitude are perpetrated by our so-called leaders in our name. Rarely are such crimes considered important enough to be investigated, let alone prosecuted. Aside from Vietnam and although there were significant hearings, Iran-Contra received mostly a collective yawn from the American public and should have been President Reagan’s Watergate for his administration’s outrageous and lawless behavior but, unfortunately, it is barely remembered today in the minds of the American public. And in a case that received no hearings at all, we remember not a peep about the horrible suffering deaths of — according to UNICEF– over a half of a million children in Iraq due to economic sanctions levied under President Clinton, which of course received very little attention in the American press at the time….or since.
Another thing in our history that ought to give us pause should probably include an examination of the life and career of one of our most decorated, distinguished, and esteemed military generals, Smedley Butler, whose name has been largely erased from the pages of history and who, in 1935 wrote:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
We might also take a closer look at the disinformation campaign that followed when the only nation to aggressively use nuclear weapons on a population, used two:
So where does that leave us today?
Well, as our current President has made clear, we will be looking forwards and never backwards — which means never to acknowledge our own crimes or even the very idea that criminal standards could or should even apply to ourselves or to our government. But what happens when criminal behavior by government goes unacknowledged, and thereby unpunished and unaddressed? Answer: it becomes institutionalized, legitimized, and normalized….and each citizen of such an outlaw country becomes a mere banality and just another one of many millions of little Eichmanns.
I started writing this piece at the invitation of a friend to write something to memorialize the Afghans who have died after I had commented on a piece she wrote memorializing the deaths of American soldiers killed in a recent helicopter incident in Afghanistan. I said in response to her piece, “what about all the Afghans — kids, women, innocents — aren’t they worthy? Aren’t they just as human?” Well, turned out that I ate some crow over that because at the same website location there are other articles that did, in fact, pay homage to the deaths and suffering of the native inhabitants of Afghanistan.
Still, I can’t help but react that way. It just seems to me that an appropriate and moral way to memorialize the tragedies of war would be to thread Afghani deaths and casualties together with the deaths and suffering of Americans without regard or bias for one side or the other — and not to segregate our soldiers into separate spaces. I think they belong together. They are all victims of war. Its not them or us that is evil — it’s whole enterprise of war that is evil because it makes evil everything it touches and is no respecter of sides. As an illustration, here is an interview that I found deeply moving between an Afghani-American woman who lost 19 family members in Afghanistan due to bombing and an American woman who lost family on 9/11:
If everything I have said up to this point hasn’t been upsetting enough, I think its worth at least a mention that the British medical journal Lancet published a study back in 2006 that concluded that at least 2/3 of a million people died as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq (“excess deaths” they are called). That’s not counting the displaced, the maimed, the poisoned, the starving, and all the rest who suffer.
That’s just in case you hadn’t heard.
War is not only tragedy — it’s the ultimate failure by any who give its initiation license. It’s also criminal, and it’s definitely evil.
But I can hardly begin to know how to write a memorial for the people that have suffered in Afghanistan without turning this into a major research project and taking trips over there myself. Anything I write to try to memorialize those tragedies is going to be grossly inadequate. So this little ditty is what I came up with.
I have another friend who did a tour in Afghanistan and wants to go back, but he can’t or won’t tell me why he wants to go back. Maybe because he knows I am against the wars.
I don’t know. I don’t know if he knows.
Again, George Orwell from his book, 1984 — Emmanuel Goldstein writes:
“…war hysteria is continuous and universal… and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious… .
To understand the nature of the present war — for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war — one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive… . The primary aim of modern warfare… is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living… .
War prisoners apart, the average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia, and he is forbidden the knowledge of foreign languages. If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate… .
“The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. …But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair… .
“In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”
And so it goes… .
38 Protesters Face Charges For Disrupting US Military Base Used in Overseas Drone Attacks
democracynow on Nov 4, 2011
The Wall Street Journal is reporting the CIA has made a series of secret concessions in its drone campaign after military and diplomatic officials complained large strikes were damaging the fragile U.S. relationship with Pakistan. Meanwhile, a trial is underway in Syracuse, New York, of 38 protesters arrested in April at the New York Air National Guard base at Hancock Field. The defendants were protesting the MQ-9 Reaper drones, which the 174th Fighter Wing of the guard has remotely flown over Afghanistan from Syracuse since late 2009. “Citizens have a responsibility to take action when they see crimes being committed,” said retired Col. Ann Wright, one of the 38 on trial, to Democracy Now! Nov. 4. “And this goes back to WWII, when German government officials knew what other parts of the German government were doing in executing 6 million Jews in Germany and other places. That they took no action, and yet they were held responsible later through the Nuremberg trials. And that is the theory on which we are acting: That we see that our government is committing crimes by the use of these drones and that we, as citizens, have the responsibility to act.”