Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: the ‘great men’ of history were really vicious criminals whose rule was, indeed, ‘the banality of evil’.
The opening to the award-winning book:
Prologue: Fantasy & Horror
The only thing that I can remember about Alexander the Great
was that at age twenty-six he wept because there were
no more people to murder and rob.
That is the epitome of Western Civilization.”
–Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael)
Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods,
Where’s the street-wise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss, and I turn, and I dream of what I need:
I need a hero!”
–Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford
In libraries and bookstores, works of unrestrained imagination are often grouped together under ‘fantasy and horror.’ To begin to understand the thesis of this book, we will need to use imagination in a different but more restrained way so that we might separate fantasy from horror. By doing this, I hope to present a vicious but inescapable conclusion. So I ask the reader to use her imagination for a moment to consider an extreme but very real horror. It will be unpleasant, but it is essential for what follows.
The Meat Cleaver
Imagine picking up a meat cleaver and hacking another person to death. At first, you try to do it quickly, cleave his head open if you can, split his face in two, or open his chest or his belly. But if you can’t do that, chop off anything you can reach: fingers, hands, feet, limbs. Keep chopping until he can no longer defend himself, or no longer chooses to, and then kill him.
Move on, and murder more people in the same way. At first, focus on men who are armed but who may be at a disadvantage in their weapons and their training. Once there are no more armed men to kill, move on to unarmed men. And then, start on the women and the elderly. Don’t omit the children: chop up the toddlers and the babies. Spare no one.
If there is time, however, and you are so motivated, rape the women, young and old, even the little girls—or if you have the preference and your fellows tolerate such things, rape the handsome young men and small boys.
Then kill them. Feel free to kill them slowly, torturing them and watching them scream in pain and beg for mercy. When your sadism is sated, chop them to death, too.
Next, imagine enjoying it. Imagine enjoying it so much that it becomes your main goal in life, so that you spend your career working, planning, and victimizing as many people as you can in this manner. Then imagine that it becomes so important to you that you sit down and cry when you realize that there is no one left to slaughter.
Then consider the man who takes the wealth he has stolen from these victims and invests it to create an industry of systematic mass human butchery and theft. He expends his fortune in much the same way that billionaires today assemble sports franchises, recruiting team members, supporting them financially, outfitting them with impressive team uniforms and expensive equipment, and then constantly training them to be as efficiently brutal and lethal as possible. When his team is large enough and the members are well-trained enough, he leads them out to pursue human slaughter as a great, exciting, and highly profitable sport.
What sort of people would admire these butchers? What society would revere these men as celebrities, even gods? Who would bow down to people like this?
We would. We have just imagined virtually all of world civilization and our shared origins. With those imaginings, we have considered the source for many modern obstacles to cooperation, collaboration, and progress.
• • •
Viet Nam, 1968
On March 16, 1968, a group of U.S. soldiers carrying out orders under Task Force Barker entered two hamlets of Son My Lai in Vietnam and proceeded to carry out exactly this sort of slaughter. In a small improvement from the foregoing, however, the soldiers used guns rather than cleavers. They slaughtered perhaps five hundred babies, children, women, and elders, gang raping some of the young women, even girls as young as ten, before killing them. Not one male of fighting age was discovered in the massacre. The absence of fighting men magnified the horror. But it was also, perhaps, an insight into the horror: Why would a peaceful farming community contain no young men?
It was no matter. The international outcry was red-hot.
The Banality of Evil
But there was nothing new in it. In a now-hackneyed phrase, Hannah Arendt once brooded about “the banality of evil.” She was referring to one particular Nazi bureaucrat, but I will argue that, unknowingly, she also indicted civilization, humanity, and life itself. Because the fact is, the savagery may change, the body counts may change, and the historical contexts may change, but war and conquest do not: the horror does not change, nor do the outcomes. Fortunately, and precisely because of the awareness of the Holocaust and of My Lai, we have begun to change. Those changes are something we will attempt to understand so that we can build on them and avoid relapse.
This book is based on things that were always in front of us, obvious things which we have overlooked. I will argue that subconsciously, but for powerful historical reasons, we overlook the horrible realities of civilization.
My thesis defending that comprises five essential insights: Conquest is murder and theft; Conquerors are vicious criminals; Vicious criminals become kings; Kings designed civilization; And we are the products of that civilization.
For ten thousand years, kings and conquerors forced us to suffer as their victims or to serve as their enforcers and victimizers. Survival under the king required that we submit and obey on pain of death. That insight is of pressing importance today. Kings and their replacements are gradually disappearing, but our training and breeding are still with us. We still blindly follow authoritarian demagogues. And new demagogues are appearing.
The King’s Inhumanity
It is only in the past half-millennium that we have begun a dialogue that allows us to question our dysfunctions under the king. One of those inherited dysfunctions is a broad inhumanity. Until recently, there was little concern for the suffering of anyone outside of the nobles and one’s own small circle of family and friends. Street children dying of hunger and exposure, citizens in distant lands slaughtered for the king’s ambition, petty criminals and independent thinkers undergoing torture and dismemberment—these were of no concern. Justice was whatever the king and the nobles dictated justice to be.
It was unheard of that commoners were considered important. They could be dispensed with, quickly or slowly, whenever it suited the monarch’s ambitions or his personal desires.
We will return to that lack of concern repeatedly and see that, however the particulars may change, what happened in the Holocaust and in My Lai was very old. Those two events, however, changed everything. Between them, naïve civilians were roughly awakened with a sample of the realities of conquest and life throughout civilization. In that wake-up call, the romance of the hero’s war tectonically crashed with the splatter-film of the butcher’s war.
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My Lai Massacre photo by Ronald L. Haeberle for the U.S. Federal Government.