Friday, September 28, 2007

War and Morality

I find it fascinating and sad, when reading accounts of war, to see how the moral standards of people change when the arm of civil law is withdrawn. The aptly named book: True War Stories presents an amazing amount of contrast when it came to this. On the one hand there are many stories of selfless acts of heroism and courage, where men give their lives to help their fellows. Sadly, however, the majority show that the context of war brings out the very worst of human nature. As to the former, the book includes an eyewitness account of Christmas in the trenches, 1914, where both sides met in a truly remarkable display of benevolence. In stark contrast, however, is this description of the chaos at the fall of Berlin:
The cellars, which were completely blacked out, now became the scene of an incredible spectacle. The starving people flung themselves like beasts over one another, shouting, pushing and struggling to lay their hands on whatever they could....In order not to be trampled down themselves the Russians fired at random into the crowds with machine-pistols, killing several.

I cannot remember how I extricated myself from this screaming, shouting chaos; all I remember is that even here in this utter confusion, Russian soldiers were raping women in one of the corners.
I found the testimony of Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, to be particularly moving:
I had to appear cold and indifferent to events that must have wrung the heart of anyone possessed of human feelings. I might not even look away when afraid lest my natural emotion got the upper hand. I had to watch coldly, while the mothers with laughing or crying children went into the gas-chambers.

...I had to go on with this process of exterminations. I had to continue this mass murder and coldly to watch it, without regard for the doubts that were seething deep inside me.

I had to observe every happening with a cold indifference. Even those petty incidents that others might not notice I found hard to forget. In Auschwitz I truly had no reason to complain that I was bored.

If I was deeply affected by some incident, I found it impossible to go back to my home and my family. I would mount my horse and ride, until I had chased the terrible picture away. Often at night, I would walk through the stables and seek relief among my beloved animals.
I often wonder what I would do if I were put in situations like those mentioned, and others like them. It is easy to say I would never commit such atrocities, but the scary thing is that the people doing them would probably say the same if they were in my shoes. That is, soldiers in peace-time are generally still respectable citizens, and most would never consider themselves capable of such evil.

A recent and relevant case study is the prison at Guantanamo Bay. I don’t know much about what’s going on there (who does?) but what I have seen is overwhelmingly sad. Are we to say that the guards have always been sadistic, malignant people? No. I think a more realistic explanation is that they are otherwise upright citizens who have been removed from the bounds of law, and have abused that freedom.

It seems to me that the general trend is that whenever we humans are put in situations where there is no system to direct our actions, we turn all evil. Because of this I am forced to conclude that our natural inclinations are towards sin. This seems strangely similar to what I read in the Bible:
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other (from Galatians 5)
You would be forgiven for thinking this is a somewhat morbid post, and on one level it is. But on another level, our utter depravity serves to make God’s grace infinitely more amazing. I’ll leave you to think about that.

As a disclaimer I will mention that I know I haven't done justice to the weighty issues I've brought up here. This post is simply to give an indication of where my thoughts on the book led me, without going into depth about the theology of it all.

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