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Excerpt from Endgame

Richard Slotkin (p. 421)

From chapter "Empathy and Its Other"

Richard Slotkin wrote an excellent book called Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. It’s part of a trilogy, the other two components of which are Regeneration Through Violence and The Fatal Environment. Slotkin examines, among other things, the portrayal in popular fiction of conflicts between those at the center of the American empire and their enemies—for the most part those whose land they want to steal. Because writers of popular fiction are, like other writers, propagandists, he’s interested in their role as boosters of empire and articulators of the means by which acts of aggression are rationalized. A pattern Slotkin makes clear is that in book after book (and in real life) the agents of empire always want to fight fair—to fight “by civilized rules”—but every time they’re prevented from doing so because the other side fights dirty. Whites want to deal with Indians fairly, but because Indians are savages (or as the Declaration of Independence puts it: “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”), if we are to combat them, well, we have to fight like they do (or rather like we pretend they do) and slaughter them all (or as Jefferson put it, “destroy them all”) as we take their land (of course taking their land only in defensive warfare: as Jan Van Riebeeck commented on the similar conquest of South Africa by the Dutch, that the land had been “justly won by the sword in defensive warfare, and that it was now our intention to retain it”). It was the same story in the Philippines, where the United States wouldn’t have had to exterminate the natives (one American military officer stated: “We exterminated the American Indians, and I guess most of us are proud of it, or, at least, believe the end justified the means; and we must have no scruples about exterminating this other race standing in the way of progress and enlightenment, if it is necessary”), that is, we wouldn’t have had to destroy them all (General Jacob H. Smith: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better you will please me”), if the nasty Filipinos hadn’t fought unfair first (which, as in Premise Four of this book, means fighting back at all). It was the same in the Korean War, where the Americans would have fought fairly if only the damn commies would have played by the rules. And in Vietnam, where we wouldn’t have had to napalm the country and massacre literally millions of noncombatants if only they, too, would not have fought dirty. The same is true today where we have to break the rules to fight the terrorists, an enemy who, according to the President of the United States, “hides in shadows and has no regard for human life. This is an enemy that [sic] preys on innocent and unsuspecting people and then runs for cover.” If only terrorists would play by the rules, then we would too. But they don’t, so, regrettably, we must just this once fight dirty.

If you’ve ever seen a cop movie, I’m sure you’ve seen this same plot. Dirty Harry would and could be clean if only the bad guys were not so terribly dirty. And it’s not just Harry who is dirty: the same is true for cop after cop in movie after movie. It’s a genre convention.

It wasn’t really possible for me to see cop or war movies the same after reading Slotkin’s work. Nor was it possible for me to see civilized wars the same.

I received confirmation of this pattern yet again just today, as I read the justification by a U.S. soldier for the torture of Iraqi noncombatant prisoners, which includes rape, sodomy, taking pictures of them while forcing them to masturbate, taking pictures of them while forcing them to simulate sex, sensory deprivation, water deprivation, forcing them to kneel or stand for hours, attaching electrical wires to their genitals, forcing them to stand on boxes holding electrical wires and telling them that if they step off the box they will die, putting a saddle on at least one woman in her seventies and riding her around while telling her that she is a donkey, and of course good old-fashioned smackyface leading to their deaths. His justification? “You got to understand, although it seems harsh, the Iraqis they only understand force. If you try to talk to them one on one as a normal person, they won’t respect you, they won’t do what you want, prisoner or just normal person on the street. So you’ve got to be forceful with them in some ways.” If you don’t beat them, they won’t do what you want: the key to understanding our culture’s relationship ethos in one phrase.

Slotkin could have predicted his justification. By now we should be able to as well.

But that’s not really why I bring it up now. I bring it up now because I don’t want to fall into the same trap Slotkin describes. In some ways this is similar to my concern over claims to virtue: a daily round of self-examination. I don’t want to say, “Just this once I need to deviate from my peaceful ways to enter into defensive warfare” unless I’m sure that a) my ways really are peaceful; b) the warfare really is defensive, and c) this deviation really is a need. At the same time I don’t want to be narcissistic and short-sighted enough to presume that my own sense of self-righteousness—After all, says the pacifistTM, I choose the moral high ground—is more important than the survival of salmon, murrelets, migratory songbirds, my nonhuman neighbors whose land this was long before I was born. Nor do I want to choose my own self-righteousness over the survival, ultimately, of human beings. Because if we continue on this same path, it is not only murrelets who will be exterminated. Human beings will not survive.