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“There is something sinister about the past.”

—Artist Kahinde Wiley

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

— Character Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses

The study of history is endlessly fascinating. It is the biggest segment of non-fiction book publishing, a favorite of Civil War re-enactors, the grist for endless op-ed writers, a healthy chunk of the lecture series offered by the Great Courses, and a third of C-Span’s weekend programming. We are all at least amateur historians. 

Everyone knows the major narratives: George Washington as father to the country, Abe Lincoln as martyred Great Emancipator, Hitler as madman, Napoleon with his hand in his shirt, D-Day as the greatest victory of World War II. 

But almost all such interest in history is falsely benign, even when not entirely false. It is history as familiar story, and history with beginning, middle and satisfying end. Rather too neat compared with the messy, chaotic reality. 

It isn’t just that I wish to point out that it is largely a white male history, justifying the status quo, but that the overwhelming lesson of history is human misery. History is not a pageant on a grade-school stage, it is the eternal recurrence of peoples massacring, conquering, colonizing and enslaving each other. 

What we are taught in schools as history is overwhelmingly a list of the dates of the great battles and world-changing wars. There is a reason for this. The bulk of history is one of improved ways of bashing the skulls of opponents into bloody splinters. 

Yes, you can read about how Lincoln used and corralled his team of rivals, or how LBJ managed to pass the Civil Rights bills, but a better gauge of the norm is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about the millions of human beings starved, shot, bombed, buried alive or tortured.

Einsatzgruppe shooting naked women

One writer summarized the theme of the book as the “deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.”

And that is separate from the wartime military deaths, which is more millions of abruptly ended lives. 

Wikipedia lists more than 125 mass killings, genocides, pogroms and massacres before 1945, counting only those that have deserved names: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; Mountain Meadows Massacre; Wounded Knee Massacre; Rape of Nanking; Babi Yar; Holodomor; Shoah. 

Since World War II, massacres notable enough to have acquired names have occurred on the average of more than two per year. 

Skulls of Spanish, Djerba, Tunisia, 1558

I could make a list, but it would go on for pages, from the pyramid of skulls left by Tamerlane to the Cathar genocide of the 13th century to the death of 90 percent of the Carthaginians during the Third Punic War in 149 BCE. 

We can think of all these genocides and massacres as something that took place in distant years and distant lands. But there is ethnic cleansing going on right now, and as for the distance, the U.S. has to answer for both the decimation of Native American populations and the enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans. 

As written about in American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present, by Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt, It is also apparent that the shared history of the hemisphere is one framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery, both of which are part of the legacy of the European invasions of the past 500 years. Indigenous people north and south were displaced, died of disease, and were killed by Christian Europeans through slavery, rape, and war. In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people.”

But let’s not make this into a game of blame the nasty Europeans. Everyone has his share of guilt. We cannot forget the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century Zunghar Genocide, which wiped out 80 percent of the Oirat Mongols of the Altai region; or 19th century genocide of the Moriori, on the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, when 95 percent of them were eradicated by Maoris; or the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and ’66, when up to 3 million people were murdered; or another 3 million by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who eliminated a third of the country’s population, including 100 percent of the Cambodian Viets, 50 percent of the Cambodian Chinese, 40 percent of their Lao and Thai, and a quarter of all city dwellers. 

The Hopi — called the “Peaceful People” in their own language — murdered the entire male population of their village of Awotovi in 1700 for being ka-Hopi: “un-Hopi.” This is the universal truth of humanity. 

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All this — and a hundred times more I am not writing about — is just prologue and context for what I want to say. Not just that the past is a slaughterhouse, but that history continues either to make us do stupid and bloody things or to justify our doing them. The past is not only always with us, it too often governs the present.

History oppresses us; it’s what we mean when we say the generals are always fighting the previous war. Or how so-called “originalists” use a 230-year-old Constitution to attempt to halt the flow of time and bind us to outdated strictures. The past is a ruler-wielding schoomarm. It is the punitive fantasy of MAGA. It is the excuse used by every murderous regime.  

The present is simply the sharp point of a blood-smeared sword whose shaft extends at least 3,000 years back into the past. While it is not the cause of every war, history fuels much of conflict. Even when there is more proximate cause, history is soon recruited to justify the fight. History is animated by grievance and payback. It is the Greeks and Turks, the Arabs and Israelis, the Tamils and Sinhalese, the Croats and Serbs, each side revenging the slights of centuries past, even millennia ago. 

The justification made for flying airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was that it was payback for Western interference in the Middle East, which includes the partition of the Levant after World War I, and before that, going back to the Crusades. In turn, we invade Iraq, in turn ISIS slaughters women and children. Hamas (which means “violence” in Hebrew and “Zeal” in Arabic) shoots rockets into Israel; Israel fires artillery into the Gaza Strip. 

It’s like the back seat on a road trip: “Peter hit me.” “Johnny hit me first.” 

You can carry it back, no doubt to Deuteronomy 20, when Jehovah demands genocide toward the Canaanites: “…you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you…”

Massacre at Drogheda

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as during the Irish Revolt of the early 20th century, retribution was taken for the deprivations of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century (estimates of Irish death during that campaign range up to 80 percent of the Catholic population.) 

The power of grievance to sustain is appalling. There is a great line in Auden’s poem, September. 1, 1939: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

When I first went to college in North Carolina in 1966, the first day on campus I was puzzled by a banner hanging from the second story of my dorm. It read: “Forget? Hell!” Being a naive Northerner, I did not fathom the historic resonance of the Civil War in the South. There is still a sectional animosity that plays out. 

This mechanism of grievance and retribution is the mythic substance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy of Greek tragedies. The short and oversimplified version is this: Tantalus butchered his son, Pelops, and cooked and served him to an assembly of the gods. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes; Atreus killed his brother’s sons and cooked and fed them to Thyestes. For revenge, Thyestes then fathered another son on his own daughter, Pelopia, in order that the son would grow up and kill Atreus, which he did. Then, Atreus’ son, Aegisthus, took up with the wife of another of Atreus’ sons, Agamemnon, while Agamemnon was away at the Trojan War. I know this gets complicated, but stay with me. When Agamemnon returned from war, Clytemnestra murdered him, upon which, their son, Orestes was tasked with revenging his father’s death by killing his own mother and her lover. This tit for tat might have continued forever, revenge upon revenge, but for the intercession of Athena, who put an end to the vengeance by putting Orestes on trial in Athens, where he is acquitted. Hence, justice was to be meted out by a jury rather than by blood feud. 

Or that’s the story, anyway. Please let no Classical scholar take umbrage at the violence I have done by streamlining the plot and vow vengeance upon me. 

One can take this myth and open it into the macro world and see the attempt to do as Athena did by setting up first, the League of Nations, and then the United Nations as means of circumventing the natural antipathies that lead to war in the modern world. Alas, we have seen how well that works. 

The world and history is one big Hatfield and McCoy back-and-forth.  A lex talionis writ large and over millennia. 

So as W.B. Yeats had it: “… when they know what old books tell/ And that no better can be had,/ Know why an old man should be mad.”