Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections on the Darker Impulses of Humanity

The fatigue I've gathered year after year and stored inside now heaves a muted cry of helplessness. Nothing but fatigue, rounding my shoulders, heavier than ever on this late autumn day with a useless sun, a world of unforgiving disasters. So many struggles and tragedies, so much sorrow and egotism in this dark, in this rotting century of hate. ― Emil Dorian, Quality of Witness: A Romanian Diary, 1937-1944
In mid-July, Andrea and I spent a day at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It was my second visit to this deeply emotional and important collection of photographs, documents, films, and exhibits documenting, what remains for me, an incomprehensible horror of the 20th century. On this occasion, a German prosecutor on a research fellowship offered unique insights into the logistical dynamics of the death camps and the atrocities committed in them approximately seventy years ago. As with my first visit to the museum in 1995, this experience was a tragic reminder of the dark forces brooding in the soul of man. It is not just the sheer numbers of innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust that strikes at one’s heart; it is the individual humanity of each and every victim, which many of the exhibits try, however imperfectly, to convey and remember.

Upon entering the museum, I am provided with an identification card of Coenraad Rood, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Amsterdam in 1917. He graduated public school and, in 1937, became a tailor. He met his wife while working temporarily as a nurse at a Jewish home for the permanently disabled. They married and, in 1939, Coenraad opened a tailor shop in Amsterdam. In 1942, two years after Nazi forces invaded the Netherlands, Coenraad was deported to a German labor camp. He would be sent to eleven different camps over the next three years, during which he witnessed the deaths of all of his Dutch friends. Although Coenraad and his wife survived, reuniting after the war, 74 members of Coenraad’s  extended family perished in the Holocaust.

Coenraad’s story is one of hundreds of personal stories told on the identification cards printed and distributed by the museum staff. Among the exhibits and historical descriptions are entire rooms filled from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of Holocaust victims, when they were full of life and love, dressed in their finest clothes or gathered with family and friends. I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of faces covering the walls, displaying the eyes, lips, and smiles of people unaware of their tragic fates. I am struck by the familiarity of the faces in these photographs; the sheer ordinariness of the expressions and poses.

In one powerful display, I pause to study a large accumulation of shoes of actual Holocaust victims; four thousand shoes piled high and deep, a tiny fraction of those found at Majdanek in 1944. It is among the most powerful and deeply disturbing of exhibits at the museum, for it demands that you pay tribute; forces you to imagine the human beings whose feet filled each and every one of those shoes. These are the shoes of children, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, young and old. I breathe in the smell of the aging leather and fabric, examine the markings, and imagine the faces of the people whose feet occupied them. What were they like? What did they feel and experience in their final days? It is a sensory experience that compels one to consider the Holocaust on a personal and empathetic level.

With the passage of time it becomes more difficult to imagine the horrors of the death camps. What was it like to be packed like cattle into railroad cars for days at a time, not knowing the fate that awaited you, unprotected from the brutal harshness of winter or sweltering heat of summer, with no chance to bathe, no place to relieve yourself, no chance to sleep? What was it like, upon arriving at the camps, to be immediately separated from your children and loved ones, some selected to die grotesquely in the gas chambers, the others to work in the camps until death or sickness finished them off? What if that had been me and my loved ones? How would I have coped, survived, resisted?

What makes the Holocaust so utterly and indescribably tragic – words simply cannot do justice to what I feel – was not simply that six million Jews (a quarter of them children) were systematically murdered as part of a Final Solution enforced by the technological, scientific, and military apparatus of a modern, civilized state; or that millions of others – Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and other "undesirables" – were included in the Nazi death chambers. It is that all of the victims were innocent civilians, non-combatants, with children and women and the elderly constituting large numbers of them. How could this have happened? How can human beings treat other humans with such callous disregard for their humanity? It may have taken only a handful of German officials to formulate and put into place the Final Solution, but it required thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens, soldiers, SS officers, and concentration camp guards to implement it. And it took an entire nation of people, centuries of anti-Semitism and prejudice, for the forces of darkness and deeply-ingrained hatred to allow the Holocaust to happen.

In the spring of 1997, I took a course on Judaism with a young female Rabbi in Spring House, Pennsylvania. In one session, the class examined why evil things happen to good people, and why things as incomprehensible as the Holocaust can occur in the world in which we live. In a journal entry I submitted to the Rabbi, I asked, “How can it be that so many people – many presumably decent people in other circumstances – could have knowingly acquiesced and become accomplices to such extreme cruelty?” In response, the Rabbi suggested another question, which haunts me to this day: “What is often most difficult to accept is that there is a dark part in each of us which has the power to act. If we had been there, in that time, would we have been able to say no?”

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Many times the nations of the West have plunged into inexplicable cataclysm, mutual slaughter so terrible and so widespread that it amounted nearly to the suicide of a civilization . . . Twice within the memory of living men, the nations of Europe, the most advanced and cultured societies of the world, have torn themselves and each other apart for causes so slight, in relation to the cost of struggle, that it is impossible to regard them as other than excuses for the expression of some darker impulse. . . . The camps and the ovens, the murders and mutual inhumanities of the Eastern front, the unrestricted bombing of cities . . . the first use of atomic bombs – truly this was a war virtually without rules or limits. – Robert F. Kennedy, To Seek a Newer World (Doubleday and Company, 1967), pp.149-150.
The more I learn of the 20th century, and the more history repeats itself, the more I question my understanding of the human race. The barbarism of a war that killed 60 million people worldwide is beyond reckoning. What distinguished war in the 20th century was the total disregard of ethics and morality – in the Holocaust, in Nazi human experimentation, in the Nanking and Manila Massacres inflicted by the Japanese, and in the indiscriminate bombings of entire cities by Allied forces. No one had clean hands in the conduct of the two World Wars. These were conflicts in which civilized notions of combat were often disregarded. Even the United States, as justified and necessary as was American involvement in the Second World War, has lingering moral accountability in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, in the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the internment of 112,000 Japanese-American citizens at home.

It has been sixty-nine years since the United States unleashed the Atomic bomb on the people of Japan. It is a decision that continues to trouble me as an American, for I have for most of my life glorified World War II and America’s role in it. We were the victors, after all, who defended freedom and liberty for an entire continent of people. On a relative scale – as if massive death and destruction can be compared without entering the realm of absurdity – we were more “civilized” and less barbaric than the Germans and Japanese, both of which disregarded the laws of war and genocide. We were, along with the British and Allied forces, the heroes in all this. But we must account for our own moral failings, lest our values and ethical principles be rendered obsolete.

When on August 6, 1945, an American plane, without warning or precedent, dropped a single uranium-filled nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the nature of warfare changed forever. Four square miles of the city center were completely destroyed, as nearly 90,000 civilians – men, women, and children – vanished immediately. Another 40,000 Japanese citizens would eventually die in protracted agony from radiation sickness. Three days later, a second American plane dropped a plutonium-filled nuclear bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing 37,000 civilians instantly and injuring another 43,000. The eventual death toll from both bombs was approximately 200,000 people – mostly non-combatants, many of them women, children, and the elderly.

The conventional wisdom has always been that President Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan ended the war and saved potentially hundreds of thousands of American lives. The historical record is less clearly defined. But in studying the history of the decision, what surprises me most is that the use of atomic bombs on civilian populations did not at the time raise, to any significant degree, profound moral questions or debate. Anything that ended the war and did so quickly was considered justified. America and the West had little time for inner reflection. We were exhausted and understandably jubilant when the war was over.

But the lack of moral deliberation will forever trouble me. Some questions were raised beforehand, although quickly set aside. On May 28, 1945, physicist Arthur H. Compton, a Nobel laureate who served on a special scientific panel advising the President, raised profound moral questions about the use of an atomic bomb on the people of Japan. “It introduces the question of mass slaughter, really for the first time in history,” Compton wrote; and the added consequence of radiation sickness raises “much more serious implications than the introduction of poison gas.” General George C. Marshall, who believed the A-bomb should be used, if at all, only against military installations or large manufacturing areas after civilians received ample warnings to flee, seconded Compton’s concern.

In July 1945, when Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed General Dwight Eisenhower that the government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan, Eisenhower believed, according to his memoirs, that “there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act.” He told Secretary Stimson of his “grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”

Many historians have since come to the same conclusion as General Eisenhower, compiling substantial evidence that, moral considerations aside, the use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary as a means to end the war and prevent an eventual U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland. William Leahy, Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, wrote in his memoirs that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan . . .  My own feeling was that, in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”

Whatever the actual motivations for dropping the atomic bomb on two heavily-populated civilian cities with no warning and no opportunity to flee – whether Truman really believed he was saving American lives; or did not truly believe the Japanese were close to surrender; or wished to send a message to the Soviets at what was essentially the beginning of the Cold War – morality was not a relevant consideration. Had Germany or Japan at the time possessed a nuclear weapon, there is little question they, too, would have used it. It is thus not that America was morally unique, only that we were technologically capable; we were the only country with the bomb, and so we used it.

In 1946, the American Federal Council of Churches issued a Report on Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith, stating that “whatever be one’s judgment of the war in principle, the surprise bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are morally indefensible.” Others also questioned the decision to drop the A-bomb, but it was a quiet debate, one that failed to penetrate in any meaningful way the American civic conversation. “It has become appallingly obvious,” said Albert Einstein, “that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

As an American born fourteen years after the war ended, having never served in the military or fought in a war, I have lived a privileged and sheltered life, an existence of middle-class comfort that I often take for granted. I understand that moral reflection is often a non-existent luxury in the heat of war. But it is imperative that, as citizens and human beings with a moral conscience, we continue to ask questions of and debate our past actions. For we have, in the words of Robert Kennedy “unlocked the mystery of nature . . . [and] must live with the power of complete self-destruction. This is the power of choice, the tragedy and glory of man.” The real dangers come from us, from the egos, passions, prejudices and jealousies of humanity itself. It is these forces we must together overcome or, in the end, we will defeat ourselves.


  1. Mark,

    A bleak but thought-provoking post. A few quotes from my collection that came to mind after finishing:

    Military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult. -Francis Lieber

    When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in this world. -Fred Rogers

    At times we are able to humiliate our worst enemy. Inevitably, his weak moments come and we are able to thrust in his side the spear of defeat. But this we must not do. Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate. -Martin Luther King, Jr.


  2. Ken,

    Thank you for sharing these quotes - they are quite appropriate and, despite the bleakness of my essay, very uplifting. It is easy to forget the goodness in humanity when we dwell on the darkness. But I do think it important to reflect, consider, and reconsider the profound moral questions of our recent past in the hope that some good may come of it for future generations.

  3. Mark,

    Your reflections on the darker impulses of humanity reminded me of the limitless unspeakable horrors of the last century which have always filled me with fury, disgust and dread.

    The questions of what are we and how could this happen are painful. The systematic slaughter of “undesirables” serving no strategic military advantage conceived before the World Wars seems to be incomprehensible. It provokes the fear that it could happen to me and to those that I love. It demonstrates the catastrophe of “Pandora’s Box”, and the question of when it first opened. It seems to me that all thinking human beings would be touched and do agree with your sentiments and have repeatedly been pained by their ruminations.

    You state that the last century’s barbarism is beyond reckoning and that no one has clean hands. However, what is filth to one may be fertilizer to another. Introducing ethics and morality into the nature of war appears to me a disregard for reality. Wars do not come through single events but through processes, consciously and unconsciously engendered. Their sources may be quite different from their historical appearance. But War’s purposes are to protect, to gain, to punish but above all to win.

    Rules of war are instituted to limit carnage from the other and disregarded when it has a strategic and necessary advantage. War is a zero sum game. Man has developed methods consistently for millennia to impale, torture and kill other human beings with greater power and range. It is now easier to do so by placing anonymity to our prey and call victims who unhappily were in the wrong place ‘collateral damage”. Even the recreational Games of War we enthusiastically play are vicarious participation in the ones in reality.

    In my view methods and products of war are used when they appear to be cost beneficial. Gas is not used because it is militarily not effective, but it is stockpiled. Atomic bombs have not been used since a potential opponent may have the same ability to completely destroy us. Yet they are constantly being improved. War is not ethical, moral or cruel, it just doesn’t care. It just needs to win.

    About our nuclear adventure, every one I knew felt it had ended the war and saved hundreds of thousands of young Americans, who were now able to get on with their lives, families and friends. For decades I never experienced any debates as to the ethics and amorality of those acts. Discussions recently focused on the injustices leveled on Japanese Americans, mostly in academic and intellectual circles with sided validated arguments.

    Of course we’re guilty of the most horrific sins in anyone’s philosophy. Our minds are the most magnificently and complicated entity in the known universe. Nevertheless we are still flawed and unfinished. Freud postulated a death instinct (thanatos), the need to destroy which can be questioned, but should not be ignored entirely. We seem to have an internal mob directive eager to fire when opportunity allows.

    But, is there no hope? Must we helplessly wait for the final Armageddon? We have to keep trying. Perhaps our budding neuron cluster of redemption and actualization is on its way to fulfillment. In the meantime we must continue employing our fix-it methods which, while transient and temporary, keep holding and are palliative.

  4. Marty,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments and reflections. As someone who lived through the Second World War and heroically fought for our country, you speak with far greater authority than do I on this subject. You raise some profoundly challenging points.

    You are correct that, while philosophers and theologians may debate the morality of war, for those involved, it is the conditions on the ground that matter. During a war, it is reality and survival, not theory or ethics, which concern the leaders of nations.

    Nonetheless, I believe it necessary and important to reflect on the morality and ethics of war. Before resorting to acts of mass violence as a nation, we should consider if the cause is just, whether a military response is appropriate and proportional, whether alternatives to war exist, and what principles should govern our conduct of the war. Among other things, a military response should be proportional and avoid targeting non-combatants. Applying the principles of Just War theory, while American involvement in WWII clearly met Just War criteria, I cannot see how the dropping of atomic weapons on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki falls within a Just War framework.

    I agree that this is purely an academic debate at this point in history, but the philosophical and moral issues raised remain relevant to many of the troubles facing the world today. If we wish to distinguish ourselves from the barbarians, we must continue to struggle with issues of morality and ethics. As Albert Einstein said, “The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.”