by Martin de Bourmont
William was about my age when he died for the first time. “I think it was the first time I saw a bombing raid in Vietnam,” he tells me over a glass of tea in a Korean karaoke bar. “We were pinned down by sniper fire from the top of this hill,” he begins, brushing a wisp of steam away with the fingers of his left hand.
“We couldn’t move. It was like we were trying to sink into the ground. Someone called for air support and eventually the planes came. I’d never seen anything like it. Suddenly there are these black arrows flying over your head, and you look up at them and it’s like they’re dropping eggs. The belly opens up and you see this black egg begin to fall towards the ground. When it hits it’s the loudest noise you’ll ever hear. The ground shakes. You find yourself suspended in the air. It’s terrifying. The ground is reassuring. It’s real, you know, concrete, something you can really hold onto.”
“Anyway, the explosions stop and we’re just lying there. But at some point we have to start moving. So I lifted my head and started looking around. I don’t think I’ve ever been more terrified in my life. Despite my terror, I get up and start walking up the hill. And that’s when I left my body.”
William pauses to take a sip of his tea. I don’t say anything. “I actually left my body,” he continues. “All of a sudden I’m watching myself walk up this hill. And it’s like I’ve got the whole universe at my back and I’m just watching over this figure, this man — me — walk up a hill in Vietnam. I really felt completely at peace. Like nothing could touch me, because I was somewhere else, removed from all this.”
“As I’m watching myself go up this hill, I begin asking myself how I got there. You know, how did this guy — who was probably more interested in getting to know the North Vietnamese at the top of this hill — end up here, trying to kill these people? When I was growing up, all the kids in my town had military paraphernalia. Their fathers came home from World War II with army belts, helmets, fatigue jackets, all that kind of army surplus stuff. So we used to go play war outside like this, running and pretending to fight the Japanese and the Germans or whoever it was. I’m watching myself from above, and this image comes to me of myself as a kid, running through the woods with all my friends in their army helmets and belts, pretending to shoot at some enemy. It’s like I was watching myself on two screens, or at least it seems that way now. Anyway, as I’m watching these two scenes I start to think to myself: ‘What a perfect system!’ You know! Like doesn’t it work so well, that you take this kid playing war in army surplus, not really knowing what he’s doing, and get him to volunteer for a war he doesn’t really even believe in?”
William stops to clear his throat. “That’s about when I woke up or came to or whatever you call it. I just went from this fantastic moment of peace and clarity to being back in my body, stumbling over bushes and branches. After that I wasn’t as afraid of death anymore. It was so peaceful. It was such an amazing experience and I’m really glad I had it. Not glad for the war, just that I was able to experience that moment.”
“Why did you enlist if you didn’t believe in the war?” I ask William.
“Well, I was just afraid of being a coward. I thought it would make me a man and all that bullshit. I was also afraid of being wrong.”
“Wrong?” I asked.
“Yeah, wrong,” he repeated. “One day I ran into a guy I’d been in a fraternity with in college. We’d dropped out around the same time and he ended up in Vietnam. The next time I saw him was at the University of Oregon. He was all dressed up in uniform and looked pretty serious. One night we went for a drink and he started asking me what I thought about the war. So I told him, you know, I thought we had no business being there. And he just looked at me and said: ‘you’d see it differently if you were there.’ That really stuck with me. There was nothing I could say. I didn’t want to be wrong. I wanted to have an answer. I thought I had to do my duty, that I needed to go see for myself. In the end it turned out to be such a waste.”
It occurs to me that this statement, with its emphasis on individual moral choice, departs from the insight afforded to William by his first brush with death. In that moment of serenity, William had come to terms with the existence of a system that propelled him across the globe to murder other young men in the name of interests and convictions not his own.
In his epic World War II novel, The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell, speaking through the satanic mind of the former SS officer Max Aue, identifies the war’s forgotten human rights violation: the violation of one’s right not to kill. “No one asks you for your opinion,” he writes:
“…. genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses. It is also, in the case in question, a process segmented according to the demands of industrial method. Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labor, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions. This holds true even for the man who places a gun to the head of another man and pulls the trigger. For the victim was led there by other men, his death was decided on by yet others, and the shooter knows that he is only the last link in a very long chain, and that he doesn’t have to ask himself any more questions than does a member of a firing squad who in civilian life executes a man duly sentenced under the law.”
Genocides committed by industrial societies are not the only forms of barbarism alienated from their perpetrators. All societies are built on violence. We erect our temples and monuments on the ashes of civilizations swept away by war, disease, and corruption; we nurture our greatest endeavors and build our most fantastic technologies with treasure plundered from distant shores.
The bargain-priced clothes I wear as I write this are likely the product of Asian sweatshop labor. My phone contains minerals extracted from the heart of Africa with the aid of militias for whom rape and murder are competitive business strategies. In America, the country that is now my home, I have ever-more security by forces granted near-impunity to beat, murder and jail minority and working class populations in the name of a law and order that is surprisingly forgiving to the besuited thieves and war-criminals lecturing at our best universities and dining at our cities’ finest addresses. Meanwhile, the maintenance of the prosperity I cherish depends on the continuous, increasingly rapacious pillaging of the planet’s ecosystems.
I, like Officer Aue, did not choose any of this. We are each pushed into new crimes and massacres by history, through the context into which we are born. Yet I am still responsible. Alienation is no excuse. Civilizations are made up of individuals, and as individuals we are all implicated in the horrors carried out in our name. Responsibility is not voided by lack of choice or by an inability to enact change when the structures that regiment our lives are too complex to topple. William could have chosen not to go to war. But as he discovered in the moment he spent between life and death, he belonged to a system. His great failure, as he conceives it, was to find himself at the forefront of what is most despicable in all civilizations. Staying at home would not have absolved him of responsibility. He would have funded the war with his taxes. He would have contributed to the pollution of the environment, just as we all do, every single day.
There is no escape from the violence inherent in human civilization. Our desire for community is often just as much a source of violence as our greed and fear of the unknown. We learn to accept constant violence because to do otherwise would mean to threaten our bonds with society. Even in developed nations governed by the rule of law, to expose or denounce violence often leads to social ostracism, or — in the case of Chelsea Manning, for instance — subjecting oneself to the aggression of the state.
Nothing of what we build will survive. We will die and our civilizations will collapse. Our planet will also someday expire. Our violence, just like our moments of kindness and moral clarity, will do nothing to save us. Still, despite the collective horror in which we find ourselves and the certainty of our demise, almost all people harbor untapped reserves of sympathy and compassion.
If there is any goodness to be found in this life, it can only be in gratuitous acts of kindness, in moments in which we defy the intrinsic violence of the systems that nurture us. These acts are fleeting and ultimately useless. They may achieve very little in the present and will likely change nothing in the long-term. Nevertheless, they are nothing short of miraculous. Like enemy soldiers sharing cigarettes between trenches, we reveal our capacity for decency when there is nothing to gain and nothing to save.
But let’s not fool ourselves. The battle rages on at our backs.