Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cannibalism And The Struggle Against Inhumanity

I have been reading "What It is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes and am struck by how much in common we have with violent warriors. The book is not just about war, it's about humanity. Obviously, warriors kill and fight physical battles, which is foreign to most of society. But the emotions, regrets and knowledge Marlantes recites applies universally to humanity.

In the book Marlantes talks about a friend of his, who, during the end of his tour in Vietnam committed an actionable atrocity. The man beats a prisoner and hangs him upside down from a flagpole. This soldier is, in all other respects, a normal, decent human being. What could make an otherwise normal person torture another human being? Marlantes explains how this one man's actions, while horrible and reprehensible are also understandable. He does not excuse the conduct, but explains it.

I have often wondered about the atrocities perpetrated in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazi Germany, and the like. Who were these perpetrators, and more importantly, what made them carry put these atrocities? Were those "monster" who killed, hacked and mutilated other human beings so different from you and me. I have read books on genocide in Africa, about the rise of the Nazis and I am convinced under the wrong circumstances, a "perfect storm" if you will, any of us could become murderers. we could all become part of marauding cannibals similar to those depicted in "The Road", Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel.

What intrigues me about Marlantes' book is his lifelong struggle to understand his own behavior in Vietnam and to learn from it. He proposes methods to prevent soldiers from reverting to inhumanity. At first blush, it is easy to rationalize that soldiers act bad because war makes them bad. And, that is partly true. However, we all have darker, baser sides against which we must guard ourselves. Genocide is extreme bullying. That sounds trite, but it is true. When human dehumanize others, when humans put others down to enhance their own esteem, when cruelty is rewarded by a group, we risk inhumanity.

One part of the book really intrigues me as a trial lawyer and that is the satisfaction that soldiers may, and oftentimes do, feel when killing the enemy. Marlantes describes it in ways that remind me of a winning home run, the deciding touchdown, and the win at trial. One year, my husband and i went to a University of Missouri football game against Nebraska and I sat by a little girl in a Nebraska cheerleading outfit. She was 4 or 5 years old and instead of thinking, oh, how cute, she became the epitome of the enemy. When my rational self returned, I was scared. How could I, a grandmotherly mother of two reflect such I'll feelings on a cute little girl? At that moment, she was not just a little girl, but the enemy.

At trial, I have wanted decimate my "enemy". It's a real high to battle in the courtroom and win. It's physiological. Every night while I am in trial, I have an adrenaline crash. I live
on adrenalin in the courtroom and oftentimes in depositions. I hate to admit it, but those
highs are some of the real draws to this job. It scares me sometimes. I can imagine that instead of being a 58 year old female trial lawyer, I am a 22 year old soldier and how feeling
that rush could lead to disaster.

In our family, my kids and I all have odd little phobias, things that scare us enough we will not go to movies or read books about them. To my daughter, it is vampires; to my son it is worms; and to me it is cannibals. I never understood why cannibals have scared me so much ever since I was a little girl watching cannibal movies. Today, I think I understand why I am so afraid of cannibals. In actual fact, it is not that I am afraid of being eaten by cannibals, but that I am afraid of becoming one.

What it takes

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