The Corner

Ramesh On Hiroshima

Nice piece by Ramesh, but I can’t shake off the feeling that moralizing

about total war is pointless.

I have met rather a lot of people who were complicit in the wartime mass

killing of civilians. (I recorded one such encounter here, first

item.) Some of those people, in fact, were relatives of mine. All were

very nice people: kind, good family men, thoughtful and law-abiding. I

could never get any of them to admit to, or betray in tone or gesture, the

slightest unease about what they had done.

War is coded deep in human nature. Not restrained war, either — tribal

war, in which the object is to exterminate the other tribe, or inflict such

damage on them that the few who are left will yield abjectly. Human beings

have been conducting themselves like this for hundreds of millennia.

We are of course much better, morally, now than we used to be.

Anthropologists — see, for example, Geoff Blainey’s history of the

Australian aborigines — tell us that rates of death by violence in

hunter-gatherer tribes far exceed those for Europeans in WW2. Plains

Indians cheerfully conducted campaigns of tribal extermination against each

other until a technologically far superior tribe — us — showed up and put

an end to it all.

Nature, of course, is, as the old quip has it, what we are put on earth to

rise above. Given the least excuse, though, human societies revert to type.

Then, when the emergency is over, they re-moralize themselves. Judging from

my own encounters with WW2 veterans, this is pretty easy to do, and wellnigh

everyone does it.

I know from my email — and so I suppose Ramesh and my other colleagues know it, too — that the USA is full of people who believe that some really major

atrocity will be committed against us at some point in the next few years,

and that we will respond by shucking off all civilized restraints, as we did

in the later stages of WW2, until we have dealt with the issue. Then we

shall calmly re-moralize.

This isn’t a very nice picture. I sure don’t feel happy about it. It seems

to be how human societies work, though. It’s nice that we have lifted

ourselves so far above brute nature (I’m not being facetious; it **is**

nice). We do, though — collectively, if not in every individual

case — seem to have the ability to shuck off our sheep’s clothing for a

while, then don it again and get on with our lives without much introspection.

If — which God forbid — we again face total war, we will massacre our

enemy’s civilians and erase his cities, and he will do the same to us, until

one of us cries Uncle, or ceases to exist. It’s fine to argue the morality

of this as a theological exercise; but if you believe — I do — that that’s

how things will inevitably go, then the arguments are all just about angels

on the heads of pins.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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