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Monsters inside us

“… although this book contains much that is exceptionally dark, the message is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.” – Jonathan Glover.

Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover is an ethical look at inhumanity in war (“a bad taste business”) and tyranny in “peace.” Ten-years in the making, it’s a selective look at 20th century history in terms of morality. It’s a tough read in many ways and there were many occasions when I had to simply put down the book and would often find myself pacing back and forth thinking about what I had just read.

Perhaps, like me, you would be hard-pressed to distinguish moral resources from moral identity but Glover goes through his ethicist’s vocabulary mindful of the fact Joe Q Public would be picking up this book.

(He’s one of those rare academics capable of communicating their ideas effectively to the general public. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Heidegger whose impenetrable prose about Being is comically highlighted in this book.)

The author walks us through some of the more horrific moments of the last century. The Great War, the Big One, My Lai, Nazi Germany, the Bosnian War, Rwanda, Stalin’s regime, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s social engineering in Cambodia … it’s a greatest hits roundup of man’s cruelty to his fellow man.

After reading the stomach-churning descriptions of atrocities in the book, you’d be forgiven for wondering why the book isn’t titled Inhumanity.

But even in the midst of the horrific inhumane acts described here, there are striking moments of humanity from people. Consider the heroic actions of Hugh Thompson who stood up to the murderous troops of Charlie Company at My Lai. Consider Anton Schmidt, an Austrian soldier in the Wermarcht who rescued 300 Jews in Poland before he was arrested and executed by the Gestapo.

Readers will no doubt wonder what kind of person they would be in similar situations. Would you be heroic and do the right thing? Would you close your eyes, cover your ears and turn away? Would you go along with it?

Sadly, it appears that most people can be manipulated into either doing these horrific acts or sufficiently cowed into accepting them. The Milgram experiment shows us that the majority defer to authority even when they have misgivings about what they’re doing.

The genocides in Rwanda and in the Balkans did not begin as spontaneous eruptions of age-old enmities. As Glover points out, people of different races and creeds lived together peacefully until they were manipulated into hating and killing each other.

The process is chillingly simple. It begins with dehumanising the prospective victim. Step by step, incident by incident, a person can be made to believe a person of a different race or creed is less than human and not worthy of respect or sympathy.

It is scarcely any more difficult to condition a human being to commit the most heinous acts. Euphemisms are used for terrible acts. Slaughter and genocide become less distasteful to the architects when they are termed “ethnic cleansing.” Gas chambers are known as “bath houses.” A torture chamber is called the “House of Fun.”

Actions are justified by considering oneself to be a mere cog in the machine. The scientists building the atomic bomb told themselves they were merely doing their job and left the question of its use to others. The airmen who dropped the bombs felt they were merely following orders. The buck is easily passed and thus no one needs to feel personally responsible.

We’d like to think these things would never happen again. We’d like to think that we live in enlightened times. But despite those determined cries of “never again” these things happen again and again. The same patterns occur. The same psychology is present.

It’s oft repeated those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it but those who were responsible for the atrocities described in the book looked to history for antecedents as well. Stalin noted nobody remembered the names of Ivan the Terrible’s victims before he signed the death warrants of people he dismissed as riff-raff. The blockade of Germany in the First World War made it easier to justify the raids of Hamburg, Damstadt and Dresden in the Second World War. The bombings of the German cities made it easier to justify the firebombing of Tokyo. The firebombing of Tokyo made it easier to justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But there is hope too. Both Kennedy and Krushev looked to history and were reminded of the horrific consequences of the two world wars during the Cuban Missile Crisis and duly acted to prevent a nuclear war. Hugh Thompson recalled the Nazi atrocities as he witnessed the massacre at My Lai and was moved to save villagers.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Indeed, I’d like to see this book in every home and become required reading in every institute of higher learning along with textbooks on critical thinking and bullshit-recognition. Like Steven Pinker, I also harbour the hope that perhaps someday someone who has read this book and taken to heart the lessons therein will help avert some future catastrophe.

Posted in Books, Reviews.

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