When the good turn evil
Since a naive child played ‘Bombs over Tokyo’ with a toy pressed-tin Stratocruiser, I have endured – yet am in no way inured to – decades of war imagery; stories, and filmed atrocities that festered a torrid and truly guilt-ridden empathy. It forced me to ingest, to inhabit, the surviving soldier’s mind.
We have seen them, or know them. Ordinary men snatched from streets of hope, precipitated into hell on Earth with orders to destroy others – an act fatal to their own souls. Emerging incredulous for surviving against all odds, and guilty for surviving at all. And for those met combat, lifelong shame for deeds done.
Enduring unforgettable horrors in the twilight of ruined lives, they virtuously dampen the graves of fallen comrades with solitary tears.
Once again on these pages we turn a bewildered gaze from the front line warriors to question the cold-hearted strategists safely ensconced at HQ – an all too common place for them to accumulate. Though all levels of conflict find sadistic psychopaths enjoying their schizoid dance at Death’s behest, the cool-distant decision makers seem to garner larger prizes in the emotional ice and dice throwing awards.
With no idea from where my sense of morality derives, I have yet spent over five decades placating its outrage at atrocities committed by righteous good on my side of every conflict since … Genghis Kahn?
I no longer believe in western civilization’s morality and am starting to think we run the planet because we are simply nastier bastards.
A mainstay of my intellectual journeys, one of those distant misty blue literary peaks that compass the adolescent mind, was our beloved Kurt Vonnegut.
Only recently have I come to understand the man.
His life was a roller-coaster of prestigious conquest over personal tragedy. Though not one anyone would choose, certainly a journey to be proud of.
I gingerly brushed on the bravery of terrorists in the Soldiers of Conscience article. Not the first person to do so, but a prickly subject that enrages armchair warriors and, understandably, offends relatives of victims.
Naturally Kurt was there already and his son Mark Vonnegut defends Dad stoutly against, of course, nothing more than pig ignorance.
Vonnegut made the comment that suicide bombers are “very brave people.”
Contrary to the common assertion that suicide bombers act simply because they fanatically hate freedom, Vonnegut described their motivation: “They are dying for their own self-respect. It’s a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It’s [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you’re nothing.”
He concluded by saying that “It is sweet and noble – sweet and honorable I guess it is – to die for what you believe in.”
Vonnegut was not talking from an elitist’s bubble of comfort.
Kurt has elsewhere uttered blunt words.
Speaking on Australian public (ABC) broadcaster’s Late Night Live in October 2005 he rendered personal coloring to the Dresden incident, further enhancing these timeless, if not perennial, reflections on how we, the righteous good, can be so evil.
“It was burned to the ground” (100,000 people died) “at least, but that’s Guinness book of records stuff. The number of casualties isn’t all that interesting .. plenty of people died that night.
“This beautiful work of art (the City of Dresden) which was undefended, incidentally, because the Germans figured if they left it undefended it wouldn’t be attacked – there were no war industries there to speak of.
“It was a Brit who burned it down, at night time. It was new incendiary bombs .. about the size of shotgun shell. Anyway they scattered these like salt and pepper over a city .. and the whole thing burned down.
“What I’ve said is, the war was almost over, too, when they did that, you realize. February, March, April, May – the Germans were in full retreat on all fronts at that time. Not one person benefited. Not one person got out of a death camp one second earlier. Not one German deserted his defensive position a second earlier.
Field Marshal Harris of the RAF, when it was proposed to erect a statue of him (somewhere) a lot of RAF guys protested. They felt disgraced at having bombed civilians.
My internment as a prisoner didn’t last very long, actually – about five and a half months – and when we were home, on the ship into port in Virginia, and (to) my partner in infantry (who went on to become a District Attorney, then a defence lawyer, incidentally) I said “What did you learn?”
He thought for a minute and said “I’ll never believe my government again.”
We felt disgraced.
We did not know we had that kind of a country that would bomb civilians, men, women and children. And we were going to find out soon that we were indeed that kind of a country – big time.”
Your life would be just that little bit richer were you to know a little of this man.
Kurt Vonnegut is a combat infantry veteran (advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge) and holds a Purple Heart. Witnessing the bombing of Dresden, Germany, while a prisoner of war, secured him the essence to create his signature work, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Children’s Crusade.
Vonnegut described bombed Dresden like the surface of the moon. The total amount of high explosive dropped was several times greater than the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.
Photographs show the destruction of 90% of the city, and Vonnegut’s account of the destruction of Dresden – can I say one more time – he witnessed as a prisoner of war. A more poignant and saddening story of Dresden bombing survivor Lothar Metzger resides here.
Winston Churchill, who approved specifically Dresden’s bombing, later faltered:
The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.”
History favors as an excess – rather than war crime – the destruction of this beautiful city, laden with 300,000 refugees but hundreds of unfettered war factories.
One hopes it was an idle boast, and not prescient cold war strategy, that the attack was to “show the Russians .. what bomber command can do.”
Let’s strike forever the urge to denigrate as “bleeding hearts” those who oppose homicidal politics – or military enthusiam blind to the consequences.
SheepOverboard’s mission bemoans the folly of war and unforgivable excesses by so-called forces of righteous good: we, the great “Christian empires of Western Civilization.”
A mission brought to life by being lied to by my own history texts, leaders, and media, whose blind personal dishonesties admits no wrong committed in our name.
A mission supported by innumerable brave soldiers, highly-intelligent, eloquent, and literate, people who have been to hell and returned to call our leaders filthy liars.
You know they are.
[Update: Kurt died April 18, 2007, aged 84]