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David Rieff has a good reflection on the limits of humanitarian interventionism. This passage from it caught my eye:
In 1940, as the Wehrmacht marched into Paris, Simone Weil wrote in her journal, “[T]his is a great day for the people of Indochina.” The remark is generally greeted with horror, by respectable opinion in Western Europe and North America, anyway, and mocked as an emblematic instance of the European (and by extension, American) self-hatred that the French writer Pascal Bruckner had in mind in his book, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. At first glance, even allowing for the fact that Weil’s observation did not impede her from trying to volunteer to fight for the Free French against the Nazis, the scorn heaped upon her by writers like Bruckner seems warranted. Weil was indeed filled with self-hatred, and like the medieval Christian mystics fetishized suffering, writing in Gravity and Grace that it “saves existence.”But there is a problem with such dismissals: As a matter of historical fact, Weil was also incontrovertibly right. The collapse of the French empire in Indochina made independence possible. … The questions raised by Weil’s almost obscene historical dispassion–and surely it is the most extreme argument against interest any philosopher has ever advanced, with the possible exception of Nietzsche’s atheism of the abyss–are anything but matters of historical curiosity. The world does not just look different depending on where you are from, what nation, people or tribe (or in many cases, gender) you belong to, your social class, or your faith or the lack of it, it is different. I have chosen to begin with Weil’s example because of its ferocity and the discomfort and unhappiness it must necessarily evoke (I certainly feel it). But the same could be said of practically every great historical conflict with global implications. If you are a Navajo, you would have to be insane not to feel differently about the establishment of the United States than, say, an Italian-American.
Rieff goes on to write about how the simplistic moral calculus of the humanitarian interventionist, with his false assumptions about the universality of moral vision, draws well-meaning nations into morasses from which they cannot easily extricate themselves. But the passage above put me in mind of the nearly opposite lesson that’s been on my mind since I began reading “Empire of the Summer Moon”, S.C. Gwynne’s riveting history of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and the fight between the Comanches and Texas settlers for the West. (Here’s an excerpt that ran in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review). To read this book is to have romantic illusions about the settlers and/or the Indians shredded. I keep trying to impose a Good vs. Evil narrative on the story — this, as an emotional response — and the facts simply don’t fit.
If you come to this book thinking of the Comanches merely as poor, pitiful victims, it will set you straight. But if you come to this book thinking of the Texan settlers merely as brave, noble souls facing down the bloodthirsty savage, this book will also set you straight. In fact, Gwynne argues that the reason the Texans prevailed over the Comanches while the Spanish did not was because they were prepared to be as tough with the Comanches as the Comanches were with them.
I’m not yet done with the book, but so far, it seems to me that what both “tribes” (it is more helpful, I find, to think of the white settlers as one tribe among others) had going for them was an absolute belief in themselves as a people, and their mission to subdue the land and alien peoples within it. More darkly, they believed that the other was less than human. That whites saw Indians as subhuman is well known. I did not know that Comanches saw anyone outside the Comanche tribe — whites, and other Indians — as subhuman. If your enemy is not fully human to your mind, you can easily justify treating him with remorseless cruelty.
And both whites and Comanches did that to each other. The whites prevailed, of course, because they had greater resources, technological and otherwise. But that wasn’t always the case. Comanche horsemanship was so spectacular — Gwynne says they were at one point likely the best light cavalry on the planet — and their skills at tracking and evading capture in the Plains environment so superior, that they dominated their territory. The Old West story, then, is a narrative of the clash of empires, in which one tribe was overcome by another tribe as tough as they, and eventually more powerful. This is a story you see over and over again in world history, throughout the globe: tribal cultures and civilizations believing unquestionably in their own righteousness, and in the subhumanization of their enemies, conquering others ruthlessly.
What does it mean for our political culture if people assume this cutthroat logic is permissible during peacetime? I mean, if people assume that things they value greatly are a threat, so anything they do to the Enemy for the sake of preserving their tribe is justified? Because guess what, we’re living in those times now.
Regarding being in actual war, instead of fake war (“Politics is warfare by other means.” — Clausewitz) how does one retain one’s humanity under such conditions? How do you not collaborate with what you believe to be wrong? Are ironic distance, self-doubt and pondering complicated truths over simple, utilitarian lies luxuries no one can afford when he’s fighting for his personal survival, and the survival of all that is dear to him? There’s a moment in Paul Fussell’s WW2 memoir “Doing Battle” in which Fussell expresses his disgust at what war does to one’s humanity. Here, for further consideration, it goes below the jump:
At dawn, I awoke, and what I now saw all all around me were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These were dozens of dead German boys in greenish gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing. If darkness had mercifully hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with staring open eyes and greenish white faces and hands like marble, still clutching their rilfes and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands. One body was only a foot or so away from me, and I found myself fascinated by the stubble of his beard, which would have earned him a rebuke on a parade groudn but not here, not anymore. Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of thse forms, in the tradition of the Dying Gaul, and I was astonished to find that in a way I couldn’t understand, at first they struck me as awful but beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but horror. My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.At this sight, I couldn’t do what I wanted, go off by myself and cry. I had to pretend to be, if not actually gratified, at least undisturbed by this spectacle of our side victorious. …It wasn’t long before I could articulate for myself the message the war was sending the infantry soldier: “You are expendable. … You are just another body to be used. Since all can’t be damaged or destroyed as they are fed into the machinery, some may survive, but that’s not my fault. Most must be chewed up, and you’ll rpobably be one of them. This is regrettable, but nothing can be done about it.”
…The captain called for me, and as I ran down a forest path, I met a sight even more devastating. The dead I’d seen were boys. Now I saw dead children, rigged out as soldiers. On the path lay two youngsters not older than fourteen. Each had taken a bullet in the head. The brains of one extruded from a one-inch hole in his forehead, pushing aside his woolen visor cap so like a schoolboy’s. The brains of the other were coming out of his nostrils.
These boys were German soldiers wearing the uniform of an unambiguously evil regime. They had to be killed, from the point of view of a U.S. infantryman. Had he doubted that, he would have been killed by one of them.