Portions of the following are reprinted from Dither, which was a fanzine sometimes carefully crafted and hand-stitched especially for the discriminating eyes of the Vegrants by yours truly, Ross Chamberlain, but more often slapped haphazardly together at the last minute on those Saturdays when they gather. This is considerably expanded and revised from that original article. However, it should be noted that it remains substantially as written before the Sept. 11 events triggered our semi-elected President's War on Terrorism and its serious effects upon our democratic institutions and elements of the Constitution, cheered on by other members of his administration. The "can't" in It Can't Happen Here has moved to "cant" and it's happening, people. Scary? ... Yeah, I'd say so.
However, it should be noted that it remains substantially as written before the Sept. 11 events triggered our semi-elected President's War on Terrorism and its serious effects upon our democratic institutions and elements of the Constitution, cheered on by other members of his administration. The "can't" in It Can't Happen Here has moved to "cant" and it's happening, people. Scary? ... Yeah, I'd say so.
War is Hell.
All's Fair in Love and War.
War and Peace.
What if They Gave a War and Nobody Came?*
The Dogs of War.
Make Love, Not War.
Bathos is a War Puppy.
* "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come."
Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes (1936)
Hee hee- I just made that last one up. "Bathos is..."huh? What does it mean? Uh, it's a play on the Charles Shultz book Happiness is a Warm Puppy, and... Yeah, a book, about the Peanuts gang and Charlie Brown and-oh, never mind.
There's a lot of folks out there who still think of World War II as "The Big One," and I guess I'm among them. I must be I catch myself nodding sagely whenever I hear them say that. It's not that there's any particular satisfaction in that, but let's face it; I basically spent my earliest, formative childhood in the shadow of threats from Japan and Germany, and while from over 50 years' perspective that almost seems tame, at the time those threats had all the immediacy of the A-bomb in the '50s.
There were posters with Hitler or Hirohito (or Tojo) straddling the globe menacingly. Rationing was on and "for the duration" was a common phrase, as was "Loose lips sink ships." The opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth, which matched the Morse code for "V" as in "V for Victory" (another common phrase), commonly led radio news reports from overseas. We could listen to short wave radio through our main living room radio-phono console and our kitchen table-top radio as well, and listened to the news from overseas a lot. There was a song, There'll Always Be an England, sung with great patriotic martial verve, that was frequently heard, and we also had the record.
Looking back, I can see why many older folk cling to the period as a great one in our nation's history, because it was probably the last time we were in fact a united nation... Oh, there were the dissenters and the traitors, of course, whom we could despise. Conscientious objectors, too they didn't have the cachet they got during the Viet-Nam conflict, but as I remember it, they could be tolerated if they at least contributed to the effort, like driving Red Cross vehicles. But we may also justifiably look back and shudder at the attitudes and activities of many of the rest of us regarding our own citizens of German and Japanese heritage, some of which arose from ignorance and prejudice (as similar ones do today) and others from the fallout of the heavy anti-German and anti-Japanese propaganda that was an inevitable element of the war effort.
In order to convince non-psychopaths that it's justifiable to kill people it's necessary to de-humanize them. It's really as simple as that, and no, I left the antecedent for "them" ambiguous on purpose. That's the purpose of propaganda (a word I thought was a bit silly at that tender age; it sounded like "proper gander") to render everything simpler, in black and white, either-or ("You're either with us or agin' us.")... So that, of course, "kill or be killed" definitely becomes part of the equation. And, in war, that's not a false perception.
Years later, in the mid-'60s, while working for a book wholesaler in New York, something came up about making or proposing a sale to some Japanese firm or delegation, and our office manager a rotund lady of pleasant but businesslike disposition remarked, "What? Don't they remember Pearl Harbor?" I considered responding with something like, "Funny, I don't but I remember Hiroshima." But I was a lowly order clerk and refrained.
Someone else I worked with (in a very short-lived job at a freight forwarding company in 1970 or '71) had been in Viet-Nam and was a definite Hawk compared to my dove-ish leanings. We had desultory arguments from time to time, but my own thoughts were not particularly formulated on the topic (so what else is new?) and so all I could really do was wish he would not refer to the Vietnamese and Cambodians as Gooks, and protest mildly when he advocated a full military strike against the whole area, preferably atomic in nature.
Well, he wasn't alone in that perception in those days. The Hawks and the Doves were definitely the Love Generation's version of Hatfields and McCoys, or the Jets and the Sharks...or the Blue and Grey. There were associations that made for the Strange Bedfellows book in my uh, estimation. Politically, the conservatives were Hawks and the liberals were Doves. Just because I thought that a balanced budget was a good idea and thought taxation could be eased off, and once made the mistake of sending off for some literature on those concepts, I found myself inundated with junk mail from generals urging me to contribute to Hawkish Causes. Gahhh!
When I was 18, back in the mid 50s, I tried to join the Navy, not to see the world, particularly, but because I had the impression that I might have a choice of career-oriented education, and I thought the least-worst and most-likely opportunities might be in journalism, only available, as I understood it, in the Navy. I went through the physical, that humiliating checking-out process, as everyone who approaches entry into the military professions does. My vision, however, at 20/800 in one eye and 20/900 in the other, kept me out. I nevertheless had to go through the draft's version of the same bit a few months later, and got the same results (this was well before Alice's Restaurant, but that movie did give me a little sense of deja vu). At that one, however, somebody actually had the nerve to suggest that there were eye-drops I could take that would temporarily fix my vision sufficiently to pass the physical and get me in. I gathered he was quite sincere in offering the suggestion, and he didn't even appear to appreciate the undertones of my polite refusal to consider the option.
We were not at war at that time, unless you count the Cold War. Korea had fled its course a while by then. A buddy of mine from high school had been there and returned full of exotic but not battle-related experiences, at least that he talked about, but we didn't hang out much after that. Another school buddy and I saw some newsreels that were pretty difficult to deal with one was of recaptured films from Auschwitz or Belsen or Dachau, I suppose, of skeletal bodies being bulldozed into a trench. (I remember that it was a rather sobering lesson to me that, despite what I thought was a preternatural interest in sex I was barely through puberty these nude figures held no erotic appeal).
Another newsreel showed summary executions of some prisoners of war (down on their knees, gun to the head by someone just doing an efficient job a sharp report, and they fall) in what may have been Korea, may have been Southeast Asia (which was, I suppose, brewing its own brands of conflict by then), or it may have been some other strife-torn area. Memories of those images hurt something inside me, and representations of similar events seen later still carry something of that visceral twinge. Other kinds of executions hanging, firing squads, gas chambers even crucifixions, if I may say so have no patch on it. All the others appear to have at least some investment of heart, of emotion.
We speak, sometimes, of the desensitization of youth by depictions of violence. A few years ago my sister remarked to me, with a definite sense of revelation, that she had recently seen some movie of the past in which someone's death, a murder, had carried considerable freight of remorse and anguish, and that that sense was carried over to the audience. And she pointed out that you hardly ever get that any more.
I guess that's true, though from early on I watched and enjoyed my share of cowboy movies, war movies and crime movies, where people are shot, stabbed, blown up, and otherwise disposed of singly and en masse. We of the audience were pretty blase about all that, munching our popcorn as bit-part players and stunt men who weren't the "real" heroes and villains clutched their breasts and fell over, reserving our cheers and boos for the primary characters. We might be pretty annoyed if one of the hero's pals gets it, and we'd have a real, inner sense of fulfillment and satisfaction when the villain (be he black-hat, mob boss or nazi) died in a particularly nasty way.
Then there were the science fiction films, especially of the 50s, where more of the same occurred only with a wider variety of imaginative techniques for killing. Horror films went more for the singular jugular at a time, at least. All had a certain level of discretion until Hammer Films came along and added blood and guts to the equation (plus sex in the form of numerous heaving bosoms). Going back to those today, despite heroic efforts by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I find a rather tedious experience...
While I've avoided most unfortunately not all of the slasher flicks and series like Prom Night and Halloweens 2 and up, and Friday the 13th (the movies, not the TV series, which was pretty good) I have seen Carrie, and the RoboCop series, and a couple of the Freddie Kruger flicks, and, Lord help me, I've sat through the cable versions of some of the Troma efforts. I've been tromatized er, desensitized (enh, same thing) to some extent, I guess. Later, when Cushing, as Grand Mof Tarkin, in the first Star Wars (Part IV), ordered the destruction of the planet Aldaran, precipitating a "great disturbance in the Force" as its millions of inhabitants died, I was mainly disappointed in the uncharacteristic insipidity of the explosion on screen. (Having a circle of flame expand from it in the upgraded version of Star Wars was also a disappointment; not only had it already been done, and better, in one of the Star Trek films The Undiscovered Country, I think but the reason I'd been disappointed in the first place had not been assuaged. It was an explosion like any other explosion, with no scale! I've seen better in cheaper films since and in earlier films, like Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth. And check out any planetary explosion in an anime film...)
So, how insensitive can one be?
But then again... We're just talking movies, here. Thrilling adventure stuff. All that blood and guts and death ain't real! There's makeup and prosthetics and special effects and things to make it look realistic, but...I'm sorry. It's my opinion that at no time, ever, should the death of anyone feel good. Anyone. No matter how much they may or may not deserve it. But when there's no question that the victims deserve no part of their death or grief or terror... Then the effects on us should be right down there at the gut level with them. And if they're not, then we are not doing our job as members of the human race.
Have I been doing my job? No...
So I forced myself to stay in front of the television and watch Schindler's List last year whenever it was that it was shown, uncut and uncensored, on one of the national, commercial networks.
Quite frankly I didn't want to see it.
When I watch a movie, I get involved in it, and I didn't want to have anything to do with that level of real horror. Yes, I knew these were actors portraying events that happened when I was young and even more naive than I am now. But this was not Hogan's Heroes, this was not Lynda Carter playing Wonder Woman vs. cartoon Nazis. And the arguments for seeing Schindler's List did not include most of the ones that apply to descendants and relatives of the Juden who died in that ghastly effort at genocide.
I say most... As I note a couple of paragraphs above, I normally avoid a great many elements of social responsibility that thrust themselves at my otherwise comfortable and uncontroversial life. For instance, I truly believe that to vote on an issue I know nothing about is worse than not to vote at all, and that includes most political elections. I wish more people felt that way. The solution, of course, is education on the topics up for vote. That means all sides of the topic. It's the responsibility of the voter to be aware of the options and issues involved. An irresponsible voter is a detriment to the system of democracy.
But this, I thought, was a responsibility I should not avoid. By the same token as the above, it's only proper to try to know something about an issue before forming an opinion, let alone making a decision about it. Since in this case I already had an opinion nebulous and relatively uninformed (relatively I did remember those newsreels, and I have friends who lost relatives in German concentration camps), but nevertheless an opinion that the Holocaust was one of the worst, most horrible events or series of events in a long history of terrible ordeals in this world's history and because John Donne was right: "any man's death diminishes me" then I must improve the level of my information. And I knew that Schindler's List would do that. And I told myself, okay, I'll watch it. And I can always leave or shut it off if it becomes too much to take.
It did. But I stayed.
It's only a movie...
That became my mantra as the film continued. And the counterpoint to that was always, yes, but these things happened.
The conclusion, as the real survivors and the actors who portrayed them laid their stones on the memorial to those who had not survived, was a spirit-lifting time, a sequence that helped me return to this world, half a century and more later. True, this world is filled with its own horrors Ethnic Cleansing! Have we learned nothing? Nonetheless I found myself stunned and bewildered as I pulled myself from my comfortable chair in front of the TV and wondered if I wanted to eat anything or just go lie down a while...
I haven't seen Saving Private Ryan yet. Maybe someday.
I suppose, technically, the Holocaust was not war. Atrocities may or may not occur in wartime; Mei Lai, too, was an atrocity of war, but I suppose that the recent events in Eastern Europe began with atrocities in what was technically peacetime. Still, while Hitler's and Milosevic's attempts at genocide were not in themselves war, they nevertheless belong in this rather rambling essay because they encompass the concept that some people are disposable, which is the very essence of war. Not glory, not valor, and not territorial imperative, even, save the implications of the latter that the current occupants of territory we covet must be removed.
It's my opinion that there are no disposable people. Especially the youngest, strongest and bravest of the population, those who would embody the future of the nation, and the bright-eyed hope that they both contain and comprise.
But I suppose that it could be argued that saying "especially" these evokes Orwell's great cynical observation from Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
Is it my imagination, though, that suggests that, because of the wars it has participated in, America and I do mean the United States of has lost its sense of optimism, become more cynical and depressed as a national character in the 20th Century? It's my impression that this has resulted in large part from the wholesale loss of loved ones, our "best and brightest," in the maelstroms of international conflict. After each war there has been a period of recovery during which we shake our heads like a boxer, stumble to the ringside ropes and try harder to grin: well, we got through that one. The Roaring Twenties after WWI were more of a frenetic reaction than a restoration, a kind of rebellious, unheeding outburst that swung us into the Great Depression. The recovery from WWII (yeah, the "Big One") was characterized by withdrawal, inflation, paranoia and, oh yes, the Baby Boom. This was the period of the Beats and McCarthy and the Berlin Wall and grey-flannel conformism. Korea put a double-spin on all that as well. Rock 'n' Roll, man! James Dean...Marlon Brando (as The Wild One)... Then came youthful hope and Camelot, and internal conflict as we sought to clean our own kennels, to enfranchise the disenfranchised, through Civil Rights and Flower Power, and to look amused at ourselves and our follies (Vaughan Meader; Laugh-In; the Smothers Brothers, not mention the British Invasion, which encompassed far more than a revolution in Rock'n Roll think That Was the Week That Was, think James Bond, and the Avengers)... to dig our heels in and say "hell, no, we won't go" into yet another growing conflict as the situation in far-off Southeast Asia developed... And then the devastating effects of the long war in Viet Nam and the internal conflicts that came with it: the assassinations, Nixon, the "Me Generation," Reaganomics and the rise of the Homeless population. I, among others, feel the latter resulted in large part from Ronald Reagan's policies (ignore them and they'll disappear), but the population explosion, so much discussed in the 60s and 70s (less since, have you noticed?), is with us now and its pressures are certainly a huge part of it.
Well, I kinda got off on a tangent there. I was talking about war, and killing people, and got into the deleterious effects these have. But back to the basics...
Let us glance for a moment at the Bible. For those who say, "Oh, God, here we go," just listen to yourself a moment and then be patient with me. (Or maybe you didn't evoke the deity, but an alternative "Oh, hell" In that case just remember that war is hell and we're not departing from the subject.) I'm referring to the Ten Commandments. When I grew up, and for a long long time before that, the expression of the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13) was "Thou shalt not kill." That's from the King James version, as it appears in one of my wife's collection of Bibles, this one subtitled "People's Parallel Edition," containing both the King James Version and The Living Bible (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1981), a paraphrased version that brings the Bible into the modern idiom. The alternate version of that commandment therein is "You must not murder." The NIV (New International Version) does likewise.
Without going into the background of those translations, it's fairly clear that it's a more comfortable version of that commandment for a world in which many who, though brought up with the Bible in a variety of translations and interpretations, nevertheless find it necessary to take the disposition of human life into their own hands, under the law of the land or without it. "Sometimes it's necessary!"
By the way, slightly less reliable as an argument against capital punishment is the familiar slight misquote, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord," which is from the New Testament ("Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." Romans 12:19-KJV), but it is referring to Deuteronomy 32:35-KJV: "To me belongeth vengeance..." (which The Living Bible reworks, cyclically enough, as, "Vengeance is mine..."). That quote just happens to be discussing the fate of those who have fallen away from the worship of Jehovah, actually. He was always a rather tough old patriarchal deity in those days. We may recollect that, under His direction, Israel was quite encouraged to dispose of its enemies... We ourselves, in the US of A, if only recently actually proclaiming it, assert that we are One Nation Under God, so perhaps we now feel more justified in wreaking lethal revenge on those who take others lives without the benefit of law. Elimination of the Death Penalty didn't last long in some states. Okay, fair enough Let's go back to Genesis. God's covenant with Noah includes, "Whoso sheddeth the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." (Gen. 9:6-KJV)
Even so I'm not sure this condones so treating nationals of other lands whose leaders hold a different philosophy of life than we do.
Nevertheless... (here's where I lay waste to almost everything I've argued up to this point)
From some points of view, even mine, occasionally, there are a few folks out there who "might none of them be missed," whom I'd gladly send off to war with a picnic basket and a warm handshake.
So how does that make me any better than a warmonger? Maybe it's because these are not the people I would enfranchise with voting citizenship a la Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers model... I would choose for the draft those to whom the concept of disposable people comes naturally: Anyone, for instance, who believes that national or racial origin or sexual orientation or age or mental capacity or political ideals qualify someone (else, of course) for elimination. Let those who believe that killing is right and just dispose of each other, while the rest of us, who believe that Mankind can and should be in itself the embodiment of brotherhood, a Greater Entity upon the face of Gaea, thus rid ourselves of their cancer.
Do I thus prove myself a candidate for the draft I just proposed? Hmmm...
I don't know. I'm just sort of worrying over the idea of putting all that firepower into those people's hands and retaining confidence that they'll only use it on each other...
Ross Chamberlain-June 1998 and June 1999