David Brooks explores today the transition of a good, decent civilian who now stands accused of appalling atrocity in Afghanistan, going to the notion of original sin and to research demonstrating human capacity for violence. It's an important, interesting column, too short a piece on too deep a topic. I think it's a good start, and would go further as below.
We learn nothing from the Nazis worth learning unless we acknowledge that they were human, as human as we are, and that which can make a human a Nazi exists in all of us. It is something not to be denied but to be watched for, and fought, not least within ourselves. And yes, heroes, too, are human, as human as Nazis, which is precisely why one must reject despair, which aids and abets Naziism far more than it enables heroism.
It should be old, old, very old news indeed that war produces atrocity, on all sides, in people who would not so behave otherwise. There has never in human history been a war devoid of it. The notions of 'just war' and 'war crimes' are willful denial of the fact. There is no such thing as just war. There is no war without crime. One can say that it was necessary to defeat Hitler's evil, even if it required acts such as massive civilian bombing and alliance with one of history's most monstrous regimes, but one cannot pretend that victory, even in a war as necessary as any, can come without its price to the soul of the victor, or that 'necessary' and 'just' are synonymous.
One of the curious, profoundly unsettling things about nuclear weapons is that they are so powerful that they have forced upon many of us a moral consensus that their only just, moral and ethical use is the deterrence of their use by others. A world otherwise full of horror has not seen a nuclear weapon used in war since 1945. We have, of course, not entirely embraced that yet. A single ballistic missile submarine has 240 or so warheads which can be individually targeted to destroy the infrastructure and population of even the largest country on earth within 30 minutes of the order. We now have around 10,000 warheads, and that is celebrated by some as an improvement, and railed against by others as unilateral disarmament. Meanwhile, even such as Kissinger, Scowcroft and Shultz have joined in calling for an end to nuclear weapons. Some of us might add that one might call for an end to war in general under similar grounds: easy to begin, difficult to limit or control or end, inevitably producing atrocity not just from an enemy but from ourselves, and far more often than not preparing the ground for the next war.
We now live in times when one of the two major parties' rhetoric constantly calls for more personal responsibility, but, in general, only finds it lacking in others. That is absurd on its face, offers no way forward at all, and opposes the teachings throughout history of the greatest teachers humanity has produced. We also constantly hear saber rattling over the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, as if war is the default position, to be proceeded with absent guarantees of total success were it not embarked upon. It isn't hard to hear a dismissal of the inevitable 'collateral damage' of such a war, as if Iran's government and its people are one and the same, as if a war could not possibly have negative consequences as large as those of not going to war. Not so.
If any of us can be Nazis, if any of us might under some circumstances commit or abet atrocity, then it seems to me amongst the very highest of our obligations to prevent that. It's obvious that it can be prevented: most people do not so behave. That requires us to understand both what exists within ourselves, and what circumstances encourage evil behavior from us. And there are no more confirmed data about humanity than that war brings terror, atrocity and death, that politics and religion which dehumanize others result in man's inhumanity to man, that weapons designed to kill facilitate killing.
Cite to Brooks: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/brooks-when-the-good-do-bad.html?_r=1