Shepherding Us Into History's Charnel House

by Stephen Gowans

April 8, 2002


There are few acts more chilling than intellectuals justifying mass murder.

Martin Van Creveld, a military historian, urges Israel "to strike so hard that there won't be a need for a second strike. Perhaps 5,000, or 10,000 killed won't be enough and then we will have to kill more." (1)

Creveld concedes that "what is involved is a massive crime, but whoever isn't willing to commit crimes in order to save his country shouldn't engage in statesmanship."

Of course, Creveld doesn't have to urge the Israel leadership to commit crimes. They're perfectly willing to mete out collective punishment, order extrajudicial assassinations, and thumb their noses at UN resolutions without importunities from intellectuals. (2) But the justification is helpful.

Perhaps justifying harm to others is a cultural universal -- everyone does it, right, centre, left, Israeli, Palestinian, American, al-Qaeda. And perhaps that's the intellectual's true value -- to put a moral gloss on the immoral, to portray harm to others as necessary and good (though always "regrettable.")

Repression of civil liberties, electoral fraud, imprisonment and execution of undesirables, attacks on civilians, suicide bombing, torture, racism, mass murder, carpet bombing, defiance of international law; all of these things, you can be assured, are justified: to save one's country, to smash terrorism, to protect the innocent, to safeguard democracy, for the King, for civilization, for the party, for the revolution, for a world free of unjust globalization, for future generations, for God.

Ask an intellectual. And if you impolitely point out that the means they endorse are no different than the means employed by their enemies, they will counter that the difference is that the end for which they're urging others to murder, torture, bully, silence, is just. Therefore, the means must be too. And if they're not, so what? It's the ends that matter.

Besides, comparing our actions to those of our enemies is unspeakable. There's no moral equivalence.

The great debate stopper. There's no moral equivalence. End of discussion.

Washington says there's no moral equivalence between its bombing of Afghan (and Serb and Iraqi) civilians and al-Qaeda attacks on civilians. Al-Qaeda says there's no moral equivalence between its attacks and the greater terror and injustices Washington has visited upon the poor of the Middle East and Central Asia. They're both, in their own minds, perfectly justified to kill, maim, and terrorize.

Supporters of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who says Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans (i.e., those of black skin), say Mugabe's racism (when his racism isn't swept under the rug) is justified to rectify the racism white settlers practised against blacks. (3) Zionists say racism practised against Arabs (when Zionist racism isn't swept under the rug) is justified, to keep Israel a Jewish state, and to rectify the racism Gentiles practice against Jews.

Which brings to mind the old joke: What's the difference between capitalism and communism? Capitalism involves the exploitation of man by man. With communism, the reverse is true.

The same can be said of anti-Semitism and Zionism. Anti-Semitism involves the ill-treatment of one ethnic group by another. With Zionism, it's the reverse.

Pro-communist intellectuals, it should be noted, concede the point that Communist party apparatchik enjoyed privileges not extended to workers, but say the exploitation under communism wasn't as severe, making it somehow, all right. At least it's the better of two evils, they say, an argument that sounds suspiciously like the claim that the Democrats are the lesser of two evils and therefore anyone wanting the best of "really-existing" alternatives should quell their Quixotic urge to vote for a third party and choose the more realistic alternative by casting their lot with the Democrats.

Of course, pro-capitalists and pro-communists will thunder, "But there's no moral equivalence." Of course not. Why would anyone suppose that?

And so on left or right, among religious and secular fanatics alike, if you have no stomach for torture, for murder, for war, for exploitation, you have no right to engage in statesmanship, for only "our" just causes may be obtained by those with the stomach to harm others, be he Stalin or Roosevelt, Robert Mugabe or George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir. So it is to sociopaths that we build statues and monuments, that we embalm and place in glass-topped coffins to file past, that we sing paeans to, and write history books about. They have secured the just ends, and are bloody minded, cold and cunning enough to have done so, all for national honor, for democracy, for our way of life, to be masters in our own house, for the revolution.

Ernest Hemingway's spare, lean, concrete style was largely a reaction against the abstractions that marched 10 million young men off to their deaths on grim, muddy battlefields in WWI, while 20 million died of hunger and disease related to the war, a war called just, by both sides, but which now is remembered as a monstrous obscenity that involved not a smidgen of justice. If the abstractions of king and country could produce mass murder, Hemingway reasoned, he would avoid them. Search the pages of Hemingway for some reference to the revolution, democracy, national honor, "the people" and you won't find it. But you'll find plenty about death and dying and hunger and fear.

Wilfred Owen, who was killed at the Sambre Canal on 4th November, 1918, at the age of 25, wrote the poem Dulce et Decorum Est, little known but a welcome rejoinder to the warmongering of John McCrae's more famous, In Flander's Fields, with its orgy of abstractions about pursuing the fight lest the dead not have died in vain. Replace the fight to justify the deaths of those who have fallen, with a fight to smash fascism, or communism, or imperialism, or terrorism, and find the difference, if you can.

Owen's poem mocked the very idea that it is noble and sweet to die for one's country (or for a cause), and for that he will be forever reviled for those who rely on abstractions to justify harm to others and to press others into service as executors of that harm.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (4)

Harry Fischer, an American, returned from war in Spain where he had served as a member of the International Brigades -- communists who rushed to the aid of a young republic under attack by General Franco -- and found himself filled with disgust at the naive romanticism of communists at home who thrilled to the idea of killing fascists, for the cause.

"How many fascists did you kill? How did it feel to kill them?...These people seemed to be thrilled by the possibility that I had killed fascists, and the more the better.

"It wasn't only the women, but also many of the men -- those who had not been in war -- who had this attitude. To them, war was a game. The important thing about war was how many bad guys you killed -- and what a thrill it must have been to kill them!

"And then there were stories in the communist Daily Worker about the war and about the courage exhibited by the Lincolns (one of the International Brigades.) Often reporters who should have known better wrote about how happy the Lincolns were to die for such a good cause, and that many died with smiles on their faces. These stories were preposterous. I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of dead bodies in Spain, and there wasn't a smiling face among them. Most of the faces revealed final moments filled with pain, horror, and fear. But no happy faces." (5)

Fisher recalled his first taste of combat, and how he walked past hundreds of bodies, strewn across a road.

"As we walked past these bodies, I felt a pang of tremendous sadness to see so many young lives ended. They all looked alike...Those of the fascist side were just youngsters. They hadn't been brought up to believe in hatred, bigotry, violence, or brutality, the trademarks of the fascists -- they were just kids who happened to live in territory controlled by the fascists, kids who would surely have preferred soccer games to war. I picked up one photo sticking out of the pocket of a dead fascist soldier. I still have that photo of him and his family, posing with their pet dog, and to this day, every time I look at it, that same despondent feeling I had sixty years ago overwhelms me." (6)

But to many communists, Fisher notes, "this had been a 'glorious' war."

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, similarly affected by the sham of intellectuals and statesmen who justify the carnage of war by invoking national honor, democracy, justice, the desiderata of history -- the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin called them the "vampires of history," forever feeding on the blood of the innocent -- wrote the antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun.

Johnny is an American GI, a casualty of WWI, who can't talk or hear or speak or walk or touch. Confined to a glass case, lost in mute isolation, all he can do is breathe and eat and shit and piss...and think.

"Take me wherever there are parliaments," he thinks, "and diets and chambers of statesmen. I want to hear when they talk about honor and justice and making the world safe...Let them debate...why should we take all this crap off Germany or whoever the next Germany is. Let them talk more munitions and airplanes and battleships and tanks and gases, why of course we've got to have them, we can't get along without them, how in the world could we protect the peace if we didn't have them? Let them form blocs and alliances and mutual assistance pacts...But before they vote on them, before they give the order for all the little guys to start killing each other, let the main guy rap his gavel on my case and point down at me and say, here gentlemen is the only issue before this house, and that is, are you for this thing here or are you against it?" (7)

Of which he might ask those who spring automatically to the defense of Robert Mugabe and his "heroic struggle" against imperialism and neo-colonialism: Look down upon the farmer murdered in cold blood by war veterans who've invaded his farm, war veterans Mugabe refuses to stop. Are you for this thing or against it?

And those who hide behind abstractions, lionizing the "heroic struggle" of the Palestinian people: Look down upon the Israeli citizens blown apart by bits of metal and nails from a suicide bomb. Are you for this thing or against it?

And to those who say Israel must defend itself by any means: Look down upon the bodies of the 13 year-old Palestinian who had been walking along the sidewalk, and the three year-old who had been sitting in his father's car, waiting at a stoplight, when an Israeli missile fired from a helicopter slammed into the car Mohammed Sidr, a suspected Islamic Jihad activist, was driving. Sidr was sitting at an intersection. The three-year old was in the next car. The 13-year old was walking by. After the missile struck, all three -- or the bits of them that remained -- lay oozing blood, mangled, unrecognizable. Are you for this thing or against it?

But the intellectuals, and the newspaper column brigadistas, beating out war tattoos on their keyboards, and the romantics rhapsodizing about glorious wars and heroic "people's" struggles and the necessity of building a homeland for people without a home, will desperately descend into abstractions. Every bit of it, while regrettable, is justified, they'll say. The racism, the repression, the killing, the fraud. All of it. Tell me no more of pain and suffering, they cry, nor of grief and dying, or snipers' bullets and suicide bombs and fuel air bombs and cluster bombs and the lives they destroy. Tell me of heroes and justice and the imperatives of history. Tell me of the word of God, of the evil empire, of black and white, of us versus them.

History is a charnel house, someone remarked long ago. And so it is.

Shepherd us into the charnel house, and let history unfold as one long orgy of hate and terror, conquest and repression. And speak of history and God, and the smiles on the faces of those who died. And how it is good and necessary and just.



1.  Palestine Information Centre 10 March 2002, cited in "Israeli military historian calls for genocide against Palestinians," Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG), 31 March 2002.  (back)

2.  UN Security Resolution 1402, which calls for withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, has been ignored by Tel Aviv. Significantly, the Security Council Resolution, adopted March 30, has the backing of Washington, which often vetoes Resolutions critical of Israel.  (back)

3.  An almost hysterical campaign was mounted against Mugabe in the Western press in the lead up to the presidential elections last month, which Mugabe won, though not without questions being raised about the fairness of the election. Clearly, Western governments would like to see Mugabe gone, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the major opposition party, installed as president. The reasons for favouring Tsvangirai over Mugabe appear to have less to do with concern over Mugabe's dictatorial ways (there are plenty of other African leaders as bad, or worse, than Mugabe, who the West seems perfectly willing to live with) and more to do with Mugabe's unwillingness to facilitate private investment flows, as financier George Soros puts it, and his readiness to nationalize private property, worst, without compensation. Still, Mugabe's refusal to ingratiate himself with Western investors, while elevating him to hero status among some elements of the anti-globalization left, does not wash clean the man's more unadmirable, and authoritarian, traits, nor justify the harm to others he has done.  (back)

4.  Wilfred Own, Dulce et Decorum Est, The Wordsworth Book of First World War Poetry, 1995.  (back)

5.  Harry Fisher, Comrades: Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War, University of Nebraska Press, 1997. pp. 165-166.  (back)

6.  Ibid.  (back)

7.  Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun, Bantam Books, 1989, pp 230-231.  (back)


Read an excerpt of Johnny Got His Gun, You're Dead Mister. Dead.


       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2002. All rights reserved.


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You're Dead Mister. Dead. - by Dalton Trumbo (Book Excerpt)


Published April 8, 2002
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