Sunday, May 09, 2004

Birgit (sans luggage) has returned from Germany. She was offered and has accepted a job at the school where she did her training. So, good news. In a few months we’ll be there. Now I’ll have to find a job.

If you happen to be anywhere near Wuppertal and would like to hire me to do anything that doesn’t have anything to do with the profit motive, do drop me a line!

Given that I will soon be moving again, I’ll take a moment from time to time to mention something I will miss about Mexico and something I won’t miss.

I WILL MISS the weather. I hadn’t expected to be comfortable in a climate where there are no hot/cold seasons (my area does have rainy/dry, but not hot/cold), but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Of course, I grew up in Alabama, and it doesn’t really get all that cold during most winters there, but winter is still pretty distinct from summer. That isn’t really the case in this part of Mexico (basically central). Guadalajara, in particular, has a very mild climate. We are far enough south that it doesn’t really get cold (we came within 10 degrees of freezing one or two nights) but high enough (roughly 1800 meters in my neighborhood, and I can’t be bothered to convert that to feet right now) for the summer heat to be less than oppressive. The coast, of course, can get unpleasant, but that’s what palm trees are for. I am looking forward to good ole winter (from 1996-98 I lived in Germany, and from 1998-2002 I lived in West Virginia, so I came to love proper winter), but there will likely be times where I’ll long for a quick trip to the beach in December.

I WILL NOT MISS the traffic. Gua (and Mexico City) have HORRIBLE traffic. This is partly a result of the fact that getting a license here is simply a matter of asking (in fact, at least one local car dealer includes a license with the purchase of a new car). The bigger problem is that Gua has around 8 million people (perhaps less, perhaps more: no one is really sure) and Mex City has over 20 million, so it is a simple matter of space. Other cities and the rural areas aren’t so bad. The roads are often bad, of course, but not usually a problem if you pay attention. But as a general rule, Mexican drivers are the most aggressive drivers I’ve experienced. Pass on a curve? No problem. On a curve on a hill? No problem. On a curve on a hill IN A BUS? No. Prob. Lem. And speed limits are not much of an issue. This part has rubbed off on me. For most of my driving life I’ve stuck fairly close to the speed limit, but my time in Mexico has helped me shed my fear of speed and I often find myself driving 80 mph on rural roads. This is stupid of me, and I need to get over it.

And in other news . . . I’ve got a few untyped thoughts on the prison torture scandal that I feel compelled to type.

As horrible as the news from Iraq is, it is hardly uprecedented. Anyone who has spent any time at all looking at the state of prisons in the US, whether in the here and now or in history, knows that prisoners are and have long been frequently and similarly abused. It is no coincidence, then, that at least two of the men involved in this current scandal were employed as civillian prison guards in the US.

Furthermore it is fairly common for militaries (or paramilitary groups) to do this sort of thing. US (and, it seems, UK) troops are/have been doing it in Iraq, and similar allegations have come out of Afghanistan. UK troops, of course, have done similar things over the course of the war with the IRA. Israeli troops openly use various sorts of torture as well, and the world was “shocked” to learn of the behavior of the various armies during the collapse of Yugoslavia. The Soviets in Afghanistan, the Vietnamese and US in Vietnam (as the kerfluffle over Kerry’s time there has reminded everyone), the French in Algeria and Vietnam, the Japanese and Germans and US (see “Wartime” by Paul Fussell) and Soviets in World War Two are also on the hook. And, sadly, there are plenty of other examples. The Confederate prison at Andersonville is justifiably notorious. Less well-known is the prison at Cahaba in Alabama. Torture was less a factor in those prisons than was overcrowding and generally poor conditions, but still.

As Sam Keen argues in his brilliant book “Faces of the Enemy”, the nature of modern war is such that states (and non-states, for that matter) feel compelled to dehumanize the enemy via propaganda and direct training of the troops. Generally we are pretty far from the romantic notion of a noble enemy. The modern idea is to convince “us” to have no compunctions whatsoever about killing or torturing “them”. There are two main problems with this strategy. One crops up in cases like the one we are now witnessing: the war is over, but the soldiers can’t turn off their hatred like a light switch. The other problem comes when “we” see “them” as human while “we” should be killing “them”. This is clearly bad for the war effort.

There are two key scenes in the classic novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque which illustrate the latter problem. In one scene, the character Paul is home on leave and spends some time at the POW camp in his home town. He notices the particularly awful conditions in which the Russian prisoners are held and has a minor moral crisis (see Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” for a similar scene from the perspective of a prisoner). Later, Paul is trapped in No Man’s Land during a battle and draws his bayonette knife so as to defend his shell-crater/hiding place from any intruders. A French soldier promptly jumps into the hole and Paul is on him in a flash. As the man dies in his arms, Paul comes to realize that they are not very different men, and that in happier times they might well have been friends. This realization causes him to damn the war, and war itself, and all those “leaders” who have turned him into a murderer. Once he has returned to his own lines, however, Paul is admonished to forget about it and remember that “war is war”. Paul had briefly stepped out of his conditioning, but found it to be a cold comfort. It is safer by far (at least temporarily: Remarque himself never got over his experiences) to embrace and be embraced by the dehumanization of the enemy.

What it comes down to, according to Keen, is the following basic philosophical construct (which I am forced to paraphrase, as my copy of the book is in the office and not at home):

WE are right. THEY are wrong.
WE operate from good intentions. THEY have sinister intentions.
WE make mistakes. THEY are intentionally cruel.
WE defend ourselves. THEY are aggressors.
WE are moral. THEY are immoral or amoral.
WE are have religion/ideology. THEY are fanatics/zealots/radicals.
WE are agents of freedom/goodness. THEY are agents of tyranny/evil.
WE are trying to make things better. THEY are trying to make things worse.

This can be applied to pretty much any military situation (or indeed, almost any power struggle) and it is pretty clear where this line of reasoning can lead. If you’ve been following the US response to the recent scandal, you will have noticed that this is exactly the play book the administration (and its supporters) are following. It is, of course, also exactly what Osama bin Laden (or his supporters) are thinking.

It is difficult, but clearly not impossible or we would all be dead, to escape this trap. Critical thinking is the key, I reckon.


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