A poem by Abbie Farwell Brown
The fisherman goes out at dawn
When every one's abed,
And from the bottom of the sea
Draws up his daily bread.
A poem by Abbie Farwell Brown
The fisherman goes out at dawn
When every one's abed,
And from the bottom of the sea
Draws up his daily bread.
This is for a half hour swim class twice a week, and it is not free:
Thank you for your time.
Can you please enter in another course that is in the right time frame for a 3rd choice?
This is like completing a college schedule for your advisor or something, what happened to the good old days of swim lessons at the neighborhood pool?
I guess I will cross my fingers and do a voodoo dance that there is space for my son.
From: Fujii, Tyler
Sent: Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:13 PM
Cc: Bobbett, Jesse
Subject: RE: Spring Swim Lesson 2014 Lottery Registration Form
Your group swim form has been processed and you have been entered into the lottery (see attached). If selected, you should be receiving a call or email sometime next week.
The only issue I saw with the request was your 3rd choice. Course #13448 (Dolphins) is a second session class. Lottery forms for all second session classes will only be accepted from April 21 - May 5.
Please let me know if you have any questions,
From: Bobbett, Jesse
Sent: Thursday, March 27, 2014 5:46 AM
To: Fujii, Tyler
Subject: Fwd: Spring Swim Lesson 2014 Lottery Registration Form
Will you please process this?
Recreation Supervisor - Sports
City of El Segundo
Phone: (310) 524-2702
Begin forwarded message:
From: "Kay 2"
To: "Bobbett, Jesse"
Subject: RE: Spring Swim Lesson 2014 Lottery Registration Form
I attached the filled out form, if you need me to drop it off in person let me know.
"For what it’s worth … it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”
1/2 Eric Roth 1/2 FS Fitzgerald
Violence and Human Nature
Introduction (from The Zinn Reader):
A discussion on "human nature" seems inevitable in any discussion of war and its causes. And the belief in some innate human drive for war is very widespread. As someone involved constantly in arguments about the reasons for war, I could not simply dismiss, without examination, that belief. I
turned to my own experience in World War II for clues, and also to survey what scientific evidence I could find on whether, indeed, there exists a "war instinct." This essay appeared in my book Declarations of Independence
I remember three different incidents of violence in three different parts of my life. In two of them I was an observer, in one a perpetrator.
In the fall of 1963 I was in Selma, Alabama, and
saw two young black civil rights workers clubbed to the ground by state troopers
and then attacked with electric prods, because they tried to bring food and
water to black people standing in line waiting to register to vote.
As a twenty-two-year-old Air Force bombardier, I flew a bombing mission in the last
weeks of World War II, which can only be considered an atrocity. It was the
napalm bombing of a small French village, for purposes that had nothing to do
with winning the war, leaving a wasteland of death and destruction five miles
below our planes.
Years before that, while a teenager on the streets of Brooklyn, I watched a black man in an argument with an old Jewish man, a pushcart peddler who seemed to be his employer. It was an argument over money the black man claimed he was owed, and he seemed desperate, by turns pleading and threatening, but the older man remained adamant. Suddenly the black man
picked up a board and hit the other over the head. The older man, blood
trickling down his face, just kept pushing his cart down the street.
I have never been persuaded that such violence, whether of an angry black man or a
hate-filled trooper or of a dutiful Air Force officer, was the result of some
natural instinct. All of those incidents, as I thought about them later, were
explainable by social circumstances. I am in total agreement with the statement
of the nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill: "Of all the
vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and
moral influences upon the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the
diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural
Yet, at an early point in any discussion of human violence,
especially a discussion of the causes of war, someone will say, "It's human
nature." There is ancient, weighty intellectual support for that common
argument. Machiavelli, in The Prince, expresses confidently his own view of
human nature, that human beings tend to be bad. This gives him a good reason,
being "realistic," to urge laying aside moral scruples in dealing with people:
"A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must
necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore it is
necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be
The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, put forth
a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for power
after power, that ceaseth only in death." This view of human nature led Hobbes
to favor any kind of government, however authoritarian, that would keep the
peace by blocking what he thought was the natural inclination of people to do
violence to one another. He talked about "the dissolute condition of masterless
men" that required "a coercive power to tie their hands from rapine and
Beliefs about human nature thus become self-fulfilling
prophecies. If you believe human beings are naturally violent and bad, you may
be persuaded to think (although not required to think) that it is "realistic" to
be that way yourself. But is it indeed realistic (meaning, "I regret this, but
it's a fact . . .") to blame war on human nature?
In 1932, Albert Einstein, already world famous for his work in physics and mathematics, wrote a
letter to another distinguished thinker, Sigmund Freud. Einstein was deeply
troubled by the memory of World War I, which had ended only fourteen years
before. Ten million men had died on the battlefields of Europe, for reasons that
no one could logically explain. Like many others who had lived through that war,
Einstein was horrified by the thought that human life could be destroyed on such
a massive scale and worried that there might be another war. He considered that
Freud, the world's leading psychologist, might throw light on the question Why
do men make war?
"Dear Professor Freud," he wrote. "Is there any way of
delivering mankind from the menace of war?" Einstein spoke of "that small but
determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who . . .
regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to
advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority." And then
he asked, "How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the
majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of
Einstein volunteered an answer, "Because man has within
him a lust for hatred and destruction." And then he put his final question to
Freud, "Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof
against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?"
Freud responded, "You
surmise that man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction,
amenable to such stimulations. I entirely agree with you . . . The most casual
glance at world-history will show an unending series of conflicts between one
community and another." Freud pointed to two fundamental instincts in human
beings: the erotic, or love, instinct and its opposite, the destructive
instinct. But the only hope he could hold for the erotic triumphing over the
destructive was in the cultural development of the human race, including "a
strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive
Einstein had a different view of the value of intelligence in
mastering the instincts. After pointing to "the psychoses of hate and
destructiveness," Einstein concluded, "Experience proves that it is rather the
so-called 'Intelligentsia that is most apt to yield to these disastrous
Here are two of the greatest minds of the century, helpless and frustrated before the persistence of war. Einstein, venturing that aggressive instincts are at the root of war, asks Freud, the
expert on instincts, for help in coming to a solution. Note, however, that
Einstein has jumped from "man has within him a lust" to "disastrous collective
suggestions." Freud ignores this leap from instinct to culture and affirms that
the "destructive instinct" is the crucial cause of war.
But what is
Freud's evidence for the existence of such an instinct? There is something
curious in his argument. He offers no proof from the field of his expertise,
psychology. His evidence is in "the most casual glance at
Let's move the discussion forward, fifty years later, to a school of thought that did not exist in Freud's time, sociobiology. The leading spokesperson in this group is E.O. Wilson, a Harvard University professor and distinguished scientist. His book Sociobiology is an impressive
treatise on the behavior of various species in the biological world that have
social inclinations, like ants and bees.
In the last chapter of Sociobiology, Wilson turned to human beings, and this drew so much attention that he decided to write a whole book dealing with this subject: On Human
Nature. In it there is a chapter on aggression. It starts off with the question:
"Are human beings innately aggressive?" Two sentences later: "The answer to it
is yes." (No hesitation here.) And the next sentence explains why: "Throughout
history, warfare, representing only the most organized technique of aggression,
has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to
Here is a peculiar situation. The psychologist (Freud) finds his evidence for the aggressive instinct not in psychology but in history. The biologist (Wilson) finds his evidence not in biology but in
This suggests that the evidence from neither psychology nor
biology is sufficient to back up the claim for an aggressive instinct, and so
these important thinkers turn to history. In this respect, they are no different
from the ordinary person, whose thinking follows the same logic: history is full
of warfare; one cannot find an era free of it; this must mean that it comes out
of something deep in human nature, something biological, a drive, an instinct
for violent aggression.
This logic is widespread in modern thought, in all classes of people, whether highly educated or uneducated. And yet, it is almost certainly wrong. And furthermore, it's dangerous.
Wrong, because there is no real evidence for it. Not in genetics, not in zoology, not in
psychology, not in anthropology, not in history, not even in the ordinary
experience of soldiers in war. Dangerous because it deflects attention from the
nonbiological causes of violence and war.
It turns out, however, that Wilson's firm assent to the idea that human beings are "innately aggressive" depends on his redefinitions of innately and aggressive. In On Human Nature he
says, "Innateness refers to the measurable probability that a trait will develop
in a specified set of environments . . . By this criterion human beings have a
marked hereditary predisposition to aggressive behavior." And the word
aggression takes in a variety of human actions, only some of which are
In other words, when Wilson speaks of people being "innately
aggressive" he does not mean that we are all born with an irresistible drive to
become violent - it depends on our environment. And even if we become
aggressive, that need not take the form of violence. Indeed, Wilson says that
"the more violent forms of human aggression are not the manifestations of inborn
drives." We now have, he says, "a more subtle explanation based on the
interaction of genetic potential and learning."
The phrase genetic
potential gets us closer to a common ground between Wilson and his radical
critics, who have attributed to him sometimes more extreme views about innate
aggression that he really holds. That is, human beings certainly have, from the
start (genetically) a potential for violence, but also a potential for
peacefulness. That leaves us open to all sorts of possibilities, depending on
the circumstances we find ourselves in and the circumstances we create for
There is no known gene for aggression. Indeed, there is no
known gene for any of the common forms of human behavior (I am allowing the
possibility that a genetic defect of the brain might make a person violent, but
the very fact that it is a defect means it is not a normal trait). The science
of genetics, the study of that hereditary material carried in the forty-odd
chromosomes in every human cell and transmitted from one generation to the next,
knows a good deal about genes for physical characteristics, very little about
genes for mental ability, and virtually nothing about genes for personality
traits (violence, competitiveness, kindness, surliness, a sense of humor,
Wilson's colleague at Harvard, scientist Stephen Jay Gould, a
specialist in evolution, says very flatly (in Natural History Magazine, 1976):
"What is the direct evidence for genetic control of specific human social
behavior? At the moment, the answer is none whatever."
The distinguished biologist P.W. Medawar puts it this way, "By far the most important
characteristic of human beings is that we have and exercise moral judgment and
are not at the mercy of our hormones and genes."
In the spring of 1986, an international conference of scientists in Seville, Spain, issued a statement
on the question of human nature and violent aggression, concluding, "It is
scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by 'instinct' or any single
motivation . . . Modern war involves institutional use of personal
characteristics such as obedience, suggestibility, and idealism . . . We
conclude that biology does not condemn humanity to war."
What about the evidence of psychology? This is not as "hard" a science as genetics. Geneticists
can examine genes, even "splice" them into new forms. What psychologists do is
look at the way people behave and think, test them, psychoanalyze them, conduct
experiments to see how people react to different experiences, and try to come to
reasonable conclusions about why people behave the way they do. There is nothing
in the findings of psychologists to make any convincing argument for an instinct
for the violent aggressiveness of war. That's why Freud, the founder of modern
psychology, had to look for evidence of the destructive instinct in
There was a famous "Milgram experiment" at Yale in the 1960s,
named after the psychologist who supervised it. A group of paid volunteers were
told that they were helping with an experiment dealing with the effects of
punishment on learning. Each volunteer was seated in a position to observe
someone taking a test, wearing electrodes connected to a control panel operated
by the volunteer. The volunteer was told to monitor the test and, whenever a
wrong answer was given, to pull a switch that would give a painful electrical
jolt to the person taking the test, each wrong answer leading to a greater and
greater electrical charge. There were thirty switches, with labels ranging from
"Slight Shock" to "Danger - Severe Shock."
The volunteer was not told, however, that the person taking the test was an actor and that no real jolt was given. The actor would pretend to be in pain when the volunteer pulled the
switch. When a volunteer became reluctant to continue causing pain, the
experimenter in charge would say something like "The experiment requires that
you continue." Under these conditions, two-thirds of the volunteers continued to
pull the electrical switches on wrong answers, even when the subjects showed
agonizing pain. One-third refused.
The experiment was tried with the volunteers at different distances from the subjects. When they were not physically close to the subject, about 35 percent of the volunteers defied
authority even when they could not see or talk with the subject. But when they
were right next to the subject, 70 percent refused the order.
The behavior of the people who were willing to inflict maximum pain can certainly be
explained without recourse to "human nature." Their behavior was learned, not
inborn. What they learned is what most people learn in modern culture, to follow
orders, to do the job you are hired to do, to obey the experts in charge. In the
experiment the supervisors, who had a certain standing and a certain legitimacy
as directors of a "scientific" experiment, kept assuring the volunteers that
they should go ahead, even if the subjects showed pain. When they were distant
from the subjects, it was easier to obey the experimenters. But seeing or
hearing the pain close up brought out some strong natural feeling of empathy,
enough to disobey even the legitimate, confident, scientific supervisors of the
Some people interpreted the results of the experiment as showing an innate cruelty in human beings, but this was not the conclusion of Stanley Milgram, who directed the study. Milgram sums up his own views: "It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study . . . This is,
perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing
their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become
agents in a terrible destructive process."
So it is a learned response - "always obey," "do your job" - and not a natural drive, that caused so many of the people to keep pulling the pain switches. What is remarkable in the Milgram
experiment, given the power of "duty . . . obedience" taught to us from
childhood, is not that so many obeyed, but that so many refused.
C.P. Snow, a British novelist and scientist, wrote in 1961,
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of
rebellion. The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of
obedience . . . in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in,
the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world.
What about the evidence from anthropology - that is, from the behavior of "primitive"
people, who are supposed to be closest to the "natural" state and, therefore,
give strong clues about "human nature"? There have been many studies of the
personality traits of such people: African Bushmen, North American Indians,
Malay tribes, the Stone Age Tasaday from the Philippines, etc.
The findings can be summed up easily: There is no single pattern of warlike or
peaceable behavior; the variations are very great. In North America, the Plains
Indians were warlike, the Cherokee of Georgia were
Anthropologist Colin Turnbull conducted two different studies
in which he lived for a while with native tribes. In The Forest People, he
describes the Pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in central Africa, wonderfully
gentle and peaceful people whose idea of punishing a wrongdoer was to send him
out into the forest to sulk. When he observed the Mbuti tribe of Zaire, he found
them cooperative and pacific. However, when Turnbull spent time with the Ik
people of East Africa, whom he describes in The Mountain People, he found them
ferocious and selfish.
The differences in behavior Turnbull found were explainable, not by genetics, not by the "nature" of these people, but by their environment, or their living conditions. The relatively easy life of the forest people fostered goodwill and generosity. The Ik, on the other hand, had been
driven from their natural hunting grounds by the creation of a national game
reserve into an isolated life of starvation in barren mountains. Their desperate
attempt to survive brought out the aggressive destructiveness that Turnbull
There have been many attempts to use the evidence of ethology (the
study of the behavior of animals) to "prove" innate aggressiveness in human
beings. We find Robert Ardrey using animal protection of their territory to
argue for a "territorial imperative," which drives human beings to war against
one another, or Desmond Morris, who uses the evidence of primates (The Naked
Ape) to see human beings as deeply influenced by their evolutionary origins as
But the study of animal behavior turns up all kinds of contradictory evidence. Baboons observed in a London zoo were found to be violent, but when studied on the plains of South Africa their behavior was peaceful. The difference was easily explainable by the fact that in the zoo
baboons were strangers to one another, brought together by man. Even when
baboons were aggressive, this consisted mostly of yelling and squabbling, not
doing serious damage to one another.
We might note the work of Konrad Lorez, an important zoologist and a specialist in the study of birds who could not resist the temptation to turn to human behavior in his book, On Aggression.
Lorenz is often cited to support the idea that aggressive instincts in human
beings derive from evolutionary origins in animal behavior. But Lorenz was not
that certain. Indeed, he said at one point that none of our so-called instincts
are as dangerous as our "emotional allegiance to cultural values."
It is a big jump, in any case, from bees or ducks or even baboons to human beings.
Such a jump does not take account of the critically different factor of the
human brain, which enables learning and culture and which creates a whole range
of possibilities - good and bad. Those wide possibilities are not available to
creatures with limited intelligence whose behavior is held close to their
genetic instincts (although even with them different environments bring
The psychologist Erik Erikson, moving away from Freud's emphasis on biological instinct and on impressions gained in infancy, has pointed to the fact that, unlike most animals, human beings have a long childhood, a period for learning and cultural influence. This creates the
possibility for a much wider range of behaviors. Erikson says that our cultures
have created "pseudospecies," that is, false categories of race and nation that
obliterate our sense of ourselves as one species and thus encourage the
hostility that turns violent.
Animals other than human beings do not make war. They do not engage in organized violence on behalf of some abstraction. That is a special gift of creatures with advanced brains and cultures. The animal commits violence for a specific, visible reason, the need for food and
Genetics, psychology, anthropology, and zoology - in none of these fields is there evidence of a human instinct for the kind of aggressive violence that characterizes war. But what about history, which Freud pointed to?
Who can deny the frequency of war in human history? But its
persistence does not prove that its origin is in human nature. Are there not
persistent facts about human society that can explain the constant eruption of
war without recourse to those mysterious instincts that science, however hard it
tries, cannot find in our genes? Is not one of those facts the existence of
ruling elites in every culture, who become enamored of their own power and seek
to extend it? Is not another of those facts the greed, not of the general
population, but of powerful minorities in society who seek more raw materials or
more markets or more land or more favorable places for investment? Is there not
a persistent ideology of nationalism, especially in the modern world, a set of
beliefs taught to each generation in which the Motherland or the Fatherland is
an object of veneration and becomes a burning cause for which one becomes
willing to kill the children of other Motherlands or Fatherlands?
Surely we do not need human nature to explain war; there are other explanations. But
human nature is simple and easy. It requires very little thought. To analyze the
social, economic, and cultural factors that throughout human history have led to
so many wars - that is hard work. One can hardly blame people for avoiding
But we should take another look at the proposition that the persistence of war in history proves that war comes from human nature. The claim requires that wars be not only frequent, but perpetual, that they not he limited to some nations but be true of all. Because if wars are only intermittent - if
there are periods of war and periods of peace and if there are nations that go
to war and other nations that don't - then it is unreasonable to attribute war
to something as universal as human nature.
Whenever someone says, "history proves . . ." and then cites a list of historical facts, we should
beware. We can always select facts from history (there are lots to choose from)
to prove almost anything about human behavior. Just as one can select from a
person's life just those instances of mean and aggressive behavior to prove the
person naturally mean and aggressive, one can also select from that same
person's life only those instances of kind and affectionate behavior to prove
him or her naturally nice.
Perhaps we should turn from these scholarly studies of history, genetics, anthropology, psychology, and zoology to the plain reality of war itself. We surely have a lot of experience with that in our time.
I remember reading John Hersey's novel, The War Lover. It interested me greatly, partly because I am an admirer of Hersey's writing, but even more because his subject was the crew of a Flying Fortress, the B17 heavy bomber in World War II. I had been a bombardier on such a crew in just that war. The novel's main character is a pilot who loves war. He also loves women. He is
a braggart and a bully in regard to both. It turns out that his boasted sex
exploits are a fraud and, in fact, he is impotent; it appears that his urge to
bomb and kill is connected to that impotence. When I finished reading the novel,
I thought, Well, that may explain this piss-poor (a phrase left over from that
war) fellow Hersey has picked as his subject and his lust for violence and
death. But it doesn't explain war.
The men I knew in the air force - the pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners on the crews flying over Europe, dropping bombs, and killing lots of people - were not lusting to kill, were not
enthusiasts for violence, and were not war lovers. They - we - were engaged in
large-scale killing, mostly of noncombatants, the women, children, and elderly
people who happened to inhabit the neighborhoods of the cities that we bombed
(officially, these were all "military targets"). But this did not come out of
our natures, which were no different than when we were peacefully playing,
studying, and living the lives of American boys back in Brooklyn, New York, or
The bloody deeds we did came out of a set of experiences not hard to figure out: We had been brought up to believe that our political leaders had good motives and could be trusted to do right in the world; we had learned that the world had good guys and bad guys, good countries
and bad countries, and ours was good. We had been trained to fly planes, fire
guns, operate bombsights, and to take pride in doing the job well. And we had
been trained to follow orders, which there was no reason to question, because
everyone on our side was good, and on the other side, bad. Besides, we didn't
have to watch a little girl's legs get blown off by our bombs; we were 30,000
feet high and no human being on the ground was visible, no scream could be
heard. Surely that is enough to explain how men can participate in war. We don't
have to grope in the darkness of human nature.
Indeed, when you look at modern war, do you find men rushing into it with a ferocious desire to kill?
Hardly. You find men (and some women) joining the armed forces in search of
training, careers, companionship, glamour, and psychological and economic
security. You find others being conscripted by law, under penalty of prison if
they refuse. And all of them suddenly transported into a war, where the habit of
following orders and the dinning into their ears of the tightness of their cause
can overcome the fear of death or the moral scruples of murdering another human
Many observers of war, and former soldiers too, have spoken of the
lures of war for men, its attractions and enticements, as if something in men's
nature makes war desirable for them. J. Glenn Gray, who was in army intelligence
and close to combat situations in the European theater during World War II, has
a chapter in his book The Warriors called "The Enduring Appeals of Battle." He
writes of the "powerful fascination" of war. He says, "The emotional environment
of warfare has always been compelling . . . Many men both hate and love combat."
What are these "appeals" of war according to Gray? "The delight in seeing, the
delight in comradeship, the delight in destruction."
He recalls the biblical phrase "the lust of the eye" to describe the sheer overpowering
spectacle of war, the astounding scenes, the images, the vignettes - things
never before experienced by young men who lived ordinary lives on ordinary farms
or ordinary streets. That is certainly true. I had never seen the innards of a
fifty-caliber machine gun; had never flown in an airplane miles high, in the
night and close to the stars, overwhelmed by the beauty of that, and operated my
bombsight and watched specks of fire flare like tiny torches on the ground
below; and had never seen at close range the black puffs that were the
explosions of antiaircraft shells, threatening my life. But that is not a love
of war; it is an aesthetic need for visual and emotional excitement that comes,
unrequested, with war and that can also be produced by other
Gray is also certainly right about the extraordinary comradeship of men in combat. But they don't seek combat because of that, any more than men in prison seek imprisonment because in prison they often forge human ties with fellow prisoners far stronger than any they have on the
As for the "delight in destruction," I am skeptical about that.
Granted, there is something visually exciting about explosions and something
satisfying about hitting your target efficiently, as you were trained to do. But
the delight that comes in a job well done would accompany any kind of job, not
just destroying things.
All of the elements Gray and others have talked about as "the enduring appeals" of war are appeals not of violence or murder but of the concomitants of the war situation. It is sad that life is so drab, so unsatisfying for so many that combat gives them their first ecstatic pleasures,
whether in "seeing" or companionship or work done well. It challenges us to find
what the philosopher William James called "the moral equivalent of war," ways to
make life outside of war vivid, affectionate, even thrilling.
Gray himself, although he tries to understand and explain those "enduring appeals,"
is offended by war. The Warriors recalls an entry in his own wartime journal,
made December 8, 1944, which reflects not only his own feelings, but that of so
many other veterans of war, that war is an affront to our nature as human
beings. He wrote,
Last night I lay awake and thought of all the
inhumanity of it, the beastliness of the war . . . I remembered all the brutal
things I had seen since I came overseas, all the people rotting in jail, some of
whom I had helped to put there . . . I thought of Plato's phrase about the wise
man caught in an evil time who refuses to participate in the crimes of his
fellow citizens, but hides behind a wall until the storm is past. And this
morning, when I rose, tired and distraught from bed, I knew that in order to
survive this time I must love more. There is no other way.
When the U.S. government decided to enter World War I, it did not find an eager army of males,
just waiting for an opportunity to vent their "natural" anger against the enemy,
to indulge their "natural" inclination to kill. Indeed, there was a large
protest movement against entrance into the war, leading Congress to pass
punitive legislation for antiwar statements (2,000 people were prosecuted for
criticizing the war). The government, besides conscripting men for service on
threat of prison and jailing antiwar protesters, had to organize a propaganda
campaign, sending 75,000 speakers to give 750,000 speeches in hundreds of towns
and cities to persuade people of the tightness of the war.
Even with all that, there was resistance by young men to the draft. In New York City, ninety
of the first hundred draftees claimed exemption. In Minnesota, the Minneapolis
Journal reported, "Draft Opposition Fast Spreading in State." In Florida, two
black farm workers went into the woods with a shotgun and mutilated themselves
to avoid the draft; one blew off four fingers of his hand, the other shot off
his arm below the elbow. A senator from Georgia reported "general and widespread
opposition . . . to the enactment of the draft . . . Mass meetings held in every
part of the State protested against it." Ultimately, over 330,000 men were
classified as draft evaders.
We have an enormous literature of war. Much of it was written by men who experienced combat: Erich Remarque and Ernest Hemingway on World War I; Norman Mailer, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Paul Fussell on World War II; Philip Caputo, Tim O'Brien, John
DelVecchio, Bill Ehrhart, and Ron Kovic on Vietnam. The men they write about are
not (with occasional exceptions) bloodthirsty killers, consumed by some
ferocious instinct to maim and destroy other human beings. They connect across a
whole century with the young scared kid in Red Badge of Courage, they experience
fear more than hate, fatigue more than rage, and boredom more than vengefulness.
If any of them turn into crazed killers for some moment or some hour, it is not
hard to find the cause in the crazed circumstances of war, coming on top of the
ordinary upbringing of a young man in a civilized country. A GI named John
Ketwig wrote a letter to his wife:
After all those years of preparation in the schools, you walked out the door, and they told you it was your duty to kill the commies in South Vietnam. If you wouldn't volunteer, they would draft
you, force you to do things against your will. Put you in jail. Cut your hair,
take away your mod clothes, train you to kill. How could they do that? It was
directly opposite to everything your parents had been saying, the teachers had
been saying, the clergymen had been saying. You questioned it, and your parents
said they didn't want you to go, but better that than jail. The teacher said it
was your duty. The clergy said you wouldn't want your mother to live in a
communist country, so you'd best go fight them in Asia before they landed in
California. You asked about 'Thou shalt not kill,' and they mumbled.
It was no instinct to kill that led John Ketwig into military duty, but the
pressure of people around him, the indoctrination of his growing up. So it is
not remarkable that he joined the military. What is remarkable is that a certain
point he rebelled against it.
While two million men served in Vietnam at one time or another, another half million evaded the draft in some way. And of those who served, there were perhaps 100,000 deserters. About 34,000 GIs were court-martialed and imprisoned. If an instinct really was at work, it was not
for war, but against it.
Once in the war, the tensions of combat on top of the training in obedience produced atrocities. In the My Lai Massacre we have an extreme example of the power of a culture in teaching obedience. In My Lai, a hamlet in South Vietnam, a company of U.S. soldiers landed by helicopter early
one morning in March 1968, with orders to kill everybody there. In about one
hour, although not a single shot was fired at them, they slaughtered about 400
Vietnamese, most of them old people, women, and children. Many of them were
herded into ditches and then mowed down with automatic rifles.
One of the American soldiers, Charles Hutto, said later, "The impression I got was that we
was to shoot everyone in the village . . . An order came down to destroy all of
the food, kill all the animals and kill all the people . . . then the village
was burned . . . I didn't agree with the killings but we were ordered to do
It is not at all surprising that men go to war, when they have been
cajoled, bribed, propagandized, conscripted, threatened, and also not surprising
that after rigorous training they obey orders, even to kill unarmed women and
children. What is surprising is that some refuse.
At My Lai a number of soldiers would not kill when ordered to: Michael Bernhardt, Roy Wood, Robert Maples, a GI named Grzesik. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson commanded a helicopter
that flew over the scene and, when he saw what was happening, he landed the
helicopter and rescued some of the women and children, ordering his crewmen to
fire on GIs if they fired on the Vietnamese. Charles Hutto, who participated in
the My Lai Massacre, said afterward.
I was 19 years old, and I'd always been told to do what the grown-ups told me to do . . . But now I'll tell my sons, if the government calls, to go, to serve their country, but to use their
own judgment at times . . . to forget about authority . . . to use their own
conscience. I wish somebody had told me that before I went to Vietnam. I didn't
know. Now I don't think there should be even a thing called war . . . 'cause it
messes up a person's mind.
In British novelist George Orwell's essay, "Shooting an Elephant," he recalls his experience in Burma, when he was a minor official of the British Empire. An elephant ran loose, and he finally shot it to death, but notes he did this not out of any internal drive, not of malice, but
because people around him expected him to do that, as part of his job. It was
not in his "nature."
The American feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman,
writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, before so much of the
scientific discussion of the relationship between violence and human nature,
Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy
name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flathead parson to the
visionless dabbler in science, presume to speak authoritatively of human nature.
The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the
wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet how can any one speak of it
today, with every soul a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and
Her point about "the visionless dabbler in science" was affirmed
half a century later by Nobel Prize-winning biologist Salvadore E. Luria, who
points to the misuse of science in attributing violent behavior to our genes.
Moving away from genetic determinism and its mood of inevitability (as too often
interpreted, the inevitability of war and death), Luria says that biologists
have a nobler role for the future: to explore "the most intriguing feature - the
creativity of the human spirit."
That creativity is revealed in human history, but it is a history that Machiavelli and a succession of scholarly pessimists ignore as they concentrate on the worst aspects of human behavior.
There is another history, of the rejection of violence, the refusal to kill, and
the yearning for community. It has shown itself throughout the past in acts of
courage and sacrifice that defied all the immediate pressures of the
This was true even in the unspeakable conditions of the
German death camps in World War II, as Terence des Pres pointed out in his book
The Survivor. He wrote, "The depth and durability of man's social nature may be
gauged by the fact that conditions in the concentration camps were designed to
turn prisoners against each other, but that in a multitude of ways, men and
women persisted in social acts."
It is true that there is an infinite human capacity for violence. There is also an infinite potential for kindness. The unique ability of humans to imagine gives enormous power to idealism, an
imagining of a better state of things not yet in existence. That power has been
misused to send young men to war. But the power of idealism can also be used to
attain justice, to end the massive violence of war.
Anyone who has participated in a social movement has seen the power of idealism to move people
toward self-sacrifice and cooperation. I think of Sam Block, a young black
Mississippian, very thin and with very bad eyes, taking black people to register
to vote in the murderous atmosphere of Greenwood, Mississippi, in the early
1960s. Block was accosted by a sheriff (another civil rights worker, listening,
recorded their conversation):
SHERIFF: Nigger, where you from?
I'm a native of Mississippi.
SHERIFF: I know all the niggers here.
Do you know any colored people?
(The sheriff spat at him.)
give you till tomorrow to get out of here.
BLOCK: If you don't want to see me
here, you better pack up and leave, because I'll be here.
diligent at recording disasters, is largely silent on the enormous number of
courageous acts by individuals challenging authority and defying
People are afraid of themselves, of their own reality; their feelings most of all. People talk about how great love is, but that's bullshit. Love hurts. Feelings are disturbing. People are taught that pain is evil and dangerous. How can they deal with love if they're afraid to feel? Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they're wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio. You feel your strength in the experience of pain. It's all in how you carry it. That's what matters. Pain is a feeling. Your feelings are a part of you. Your own reality. If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you're letting society destroy your reality. You should stand up for your right to feel your pain.