(Part 4) Killing with Reverence: Keeping one’s humanity while protecting one’s people
Nuremberg Redux? Not likely…
The two failures of the Nuremberg trials were, first, that they made examples of only a handful of Nazi insiders by charging them with war crimes — by focusing on the “leaders,” they largely overlooked pre-war Germany’s pervasive culture of genocide. Second, the trials dealt primarily with legal and moral issues, and failed to address the psychological roots of authoritarianism and the genocidal attitudes they often foster in the individual and collective psyche.
These Nuremberg precedents are relevant to our current dilemma of our proper response to Russia’s ongoing genocide in Ukraine. My contention in Part 3 of this series, The Culture of Genocide, is that contemporary Russia’s entire society is steeped in state sponsored propaganda that cultivates genocidal attitudes toward neighboring societies, and the vast majority of Russians have bought into these memes. Specifically, they have been imbued with the ludicrous notion that most Ukrainians are Nazis, and should be treated as such — either killed outright or relegated to second-class citizenship within their own country so they can be enslaved and/or re-educated to comply with Russian dominance.
The Nuremberg “errors” listed above can be excused, in a sense, because of the context of the trials. At the end of the war, the Allies occupied Germany, and had complete control over its political and cultural development. The trials could focus on making examples a handful of the Nazi higher-ups without targeting the general population for punishment. This had several potential advantages: (1) reducing the resentment of the masses against the Allies, somewhat negating the sort of smoldering lust for revenge that pervaded large elements of German society after WWI; (2) creating psychological distance between the Nazi leadership and the people (especially with Der Führer gone), simultaneously “denazifying” the populace and allowing them to regain their self-respect through plausible denial of their own participation in the Reich’s war crimes. This, in turn, allowed them to see themselves as free thinking citizens of a free state (not so, obviously, in Russian-occupied East Germany, but that’s a long digression); (3) setting international legal precedence for civilizational response to war criminals, and, (4) showing the world that something, at least, was being done, to punish the German bad guys who had wreaked such havoc.
Concerning the failure of the trials to deal with underlying causes of authoritarianism in Germany’s culture, it was probably believed there was no sense in bringing Freud and Jung into a hearing about, say, whether the Reich’s air force commander Hermann Göring ordered his pilots to bomb innocent civilians, and what should be done if he did. The socio-psychological factors that spawned Göring could be dealt with over time as his country’s political, economic and educational systems were re-democratized to prevent the rise of future Görings and Führers.
Unfortunately, we have no such options with Russia. When this war is over — and it is my personal belief that Ukraine will maintain its independence and push the Russians out of at least some of the territories they have stolen, particularly in the south — there will be no NATO or Ukrainian occupation of Russia, no “sweet revenge” on the populace or the Russian regime, no imposed remaking of Russia’s politics, economics or culture. There could be a coup within Russia, or Putin could die of natural causes. But how will that change Russia’s overall culture of genocide?
The disturbing truth is that this culture is unlikely to change, at least for a generation. In the best case scenario, Ukraine will beat back the Russian invaders and Putin will be dethroned — though this might take a couple of years. But it seems the most likely consequence of such developments is that, after an internal power struggle, some other Putin-like thug will seize power in Russia, and play on the people’s old myths, paranoia and inferiority complexes, which engender an attitude of false superiority, to rev up the aggression machine once again. What better way to control the a chaotic situation left by Putin’s demise?
There is hope, of course, that Putin and his regime will fall together, and that some form of democratic government will be established in Russia. But even in that case, the awakening of the people to their true situation, their reeducation to adhere to democratic norms and so on will likely take a full generation of liberal democratic governance — during which the nascent democracy will be quite fragile because of the remnants of the Old Guard in various positions of power in society.
So, what to do?
While it is clear that Ukrainians can and should repel the grunts who have come to their country to commit genocide — usually by killing them — what, if anything, can be done to protect the eastern European neighborhood — the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, Moldava — from ongoing Russian aggression? Or, make the Russian people “pay” for their crimes against humanity? How can Russian “zombies,” as liberals fleeing Russia to escape the Regime have called the majority of their citizens who buy the Putin party line, be deprogrammed? Is such a deep socio-psychological change even possible in a country such as Russia, with its dark history of following strongmen from the Czars to Stalin to Putin.
It might turn out that the Ukrainians, their neighbors and the horrified and outraged citizens of the West can only find a way to heal themselves while continuing to keep Russia at bay.
Orcs, Zombies and their Masters
“The only good German is a dead German,” my stepfather said well into his old age. An American GI from a Jewish family, he fought the Germans on three fronts — Italy, France and Germany — during WWII. After the war, he occupied Germany for several months, then returned home to the U.S.
Depending on his mood, he would wish the German people more or less ill will. Sometimes, righteously angry and indignant about Hitler’s aggression and the Holocaust, he meant what he said — the world would be better off if, after instigating two world wars, the German nation was exterminated. Usually, he uttered his execration half jokingly, knowing that said slaughter was neither a practical nor an ethical approach to what he called “the German problem.” But whether in jest or anger, he often said it, and didn’t come to terms with his animosity, or the fact that the German people were not intrinsically authoritarian and prone to some form of Nazism, and indeed were possessed of human feelings and values not that different than ours, until his old age.
For convenience and brevity, let’s divide the Russians into three groups: The Regime — Putin and his henchmen, including the military, reaching down several levels into the chain of command; the Zombies — the ordinary Russian people supporting Glorious Leader and his Regime; and the Orcs, the name given by many Ukrainians to the soldiers who have been sent Ukraine to do the actual dirty work of committing genocide. (Orcs are the mindless but cold and cruel foot soldiers of the ruling Dark Lord in Tolkien’s fictional masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings.)
It’s clear that the Ukrainians must kill as many “orcs” as necessary to keep from being killed themselves. Such self-defense is justifiable, and has in fact been justified throughout history, non-violent moments like Gandhi’s notwithstanding.
(Non-violent resistance can work in situations where genocide as such is not in the interest of the invaders or the oppressing class because it has a vested interest in enslaving or otherwise exploiting the oppressed populace. It is far less viable in situations where the oppressors have no compunction about wiping out all, or most of the oppressed because they intend to replace their population with their own people after stealing their land or resources. The white genocide against Native Americans is an example of the latter. So, it seems, is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where a reportedly 700,000 people have been removed from the country and sent to slave encampments in Siberia, and youth groups loyal to Putin are to be sent in to lead the repopulation of their land. The only reasonable option open to the Ukrainians is to fight or die, or at best be enslaved in their own country.)
Also, in the heat of battle, the emotional cost of killing the enemy, however necessary that killing is, must be temporarily suppressed if Ukraine and its people are to survive. In their own minds the Ukrainian combatants must, to a greater or lesser extent, dehumanize the invaders — hence the name “orcs” — so they can go about killing them. (The Russians, with their battle tactics of leveling cities, raping women and children and torturing captives have made customary, universal wartime dehumanization of “the enemy” easier.) The ultimate psychological costs to killers of “orcs” will have to be dealt with later. But it should not be forgotten that by forcing the Ukrainians to kill them (or to die themselves), the “orcs” are also causing them deep trauma which will likely result in PTSD for many of them. (In fact, we should question the psychological makeup of anyone who doesn’t experience PTSD after killing an enemy soldier, no matter how heinous the latter’s behavior.)
This dehumanization process is mutual. While the Ukrainians are being forced to dehumanize the invaders in order to kill them with efficiency, impunity and as little risk to themselves as possible, the “orcs” are eager to kill Ukrainians, whom they have been taught are all “Nazis,” and are thus dehumanized in their minds. This is the reality of soldiering; the reality of war.
However, while they can kill “orcs,” the Ukrainians cannot kills the Zombies beyond the Russian border. They can only learn to hate them, with all the attendant dehumanization required of a hater. This is a hatred that is likely to last for at least a generation after the war ends, since the conflict’s scars will remain visible in Ukraine and the Zombies who supported the carnage will probably get away scot-free.
Thus the majority of the Ukrainian people are likely to be dehumanized, to a greater or lesser extent, long term — for much of the rest of their lives. That’s one thing they’ll share with the Russian people, though obviously for different reasons, unless they can find a way to heal. And, of course, those of us who sympathize deeply with the Ukrainians and are outraged by Russia’s aggression can also be dehumanized by our enmity. As Bob Dylan wrote decades ago, “I’ve learned to hate the Russians, throughout my whole life.” Where will that hatred get us?
Killing With Reverence: Keeping one’s humanity while protecting one’s people
So, what are the paths to healing? One path, I suggest is short term — acknowledging the humanity of your enemy while reluctantly (rather than enthusiastically) killing him. The other is long term: it is simple forgiveness.
A characteristic of Native American and other indigenous cultures is to see the entire world, including plants and inanimate “objects” such as rocks and stars, as alive and imbued with spirit — and to experience that which is alive as sacred. Thus when a hunter takes the life of, say, a deer, he is taking something sacred, and shows gratitude, often with a prayer thanking the animal’s spirit for the gift of its life that will feed his people. He is killing with reverence.
The extent to which this attitude extends to human enemies in warfare is unclear to us, confusing to our world view and normative sense of Western ethics. Pre-Columbian indigenous people were involved in a wide variety of practices, ranging from integrating captive enemies into their tribe to replace deceased relatives to, in the case of the Aztecs, ritually murdering and eating prisoners of war and subjected people as a form of sacrifice. The former practice could be viewed, from our perspective, as a form of humanitarianism — taking in refugees, as it were. Obviously the later, from our perspective, is totally barbaric.
However, the sacrifice of humans to propitiate gods, and the ritual consumption of human flesh as a gift from the gods, implies a connection between the living and the spiritual worlds which is the origin or our word sacred, which shares its root with the words sacrifice and sacrificial. Living beings, even in their butchery, represent embodied spirit, not mere objects or even sub-human incarnations of a Satan.
It is this recognition of the intrinsic spirituality of all beings that might serve the Ukrainian combatants (and all “combatants of necessity”) with a means of reconciling their sworn duty, which is to kill Russians, with the guilt that such actions inevitably implant in one’s subconscious, however deeply repressed. By simply recognizing the humanity of the adversary, the soldier can turn an act committed out of blind hatred or blind fear into one of regrettable necessity — an extreme version of the same necessity that requires all humans to kill something edible in order to live.
Here, of course, the emphasis must be on necessity. It can be dangerous to pause during combat and consider your enemy’s vulnerability and intrinsic worth. Integrate those convictions into your psychological makeup, but be prepared to do what you must without hesitation. The lives you are defending are as sacred — more sacred to you, in fact — than the lives you are prepared to take.
When the hour of reconciliation comes at the end of the conflict, the soldier can recognize that he or she made a conscious choice to value one life over another, thus courageously confronting the age old dilemma, the “cognitive dissonance,” that faces all humans — we must kill to eat — this is our lot — but we can choose to kill with or without a reverential attitude toward our victims. Choosing reverence can be a step toward the salvation of our own souls because it engages us, consciously, in the great circle of life.
Viewing oneself as courageous, not in the sense that one bucks up against flying bullets but in the sense that one chooses to experience and accept the pain inherent it the grand dilemma of our existence, can be the first step in liberating oneself from ongoing trauma of choosing to kill another human. Recognizing that situational courage can be a step toward true self-forgiveness, which is the ultimate liberation from the guilt of the act.
Complete healing also requires forgiving one’s enemy as well as oneself. Fortunately, the instruction for that form of absolution is familiar to the majority Ukrainians, steeped as they are in the Christian tradition. Christ gave them, and us, the needed guidepost when he said, “Forgive them, Father, for the know not what they do.”
But the “orc,” the “enemy,” the “Russian monster,” might never know that he’s has been forgiven, and is now viewed as “that poor bastard,” as my stepfather, late in his life, called a badly wounded German soldier he took prisoner. That’s the bitch of this situation where, at the war’s end, the combatants are unlikely to ever communicate with one another.
But everyone can take solace in the fact that, whether it’s done in person or anonymously, the act of forgiving is always as emancipating for for the forgiver as it is for the forgiven.