On the River Kwai.
14, 1995 18:32
13:17 River Guest House; Kanchana Buri-Thailand :: 13 MAY 95
On the outside the bungalow is teak stilts and planks, walls
of bamboo mat. The original thatch roof has recently been replaced by
shiny tin. Inside it is apparent that squares, plumb lines, tape measures
and levels were probably not used during construction. On the rumpled
bed we sleep perched a meter above the River Kwai. A long time ago about
2 kilometers upriver, British POWs built for their captors the best damn
railway trestle the Japanese ever saw. It was with the aid of the same
POWs that an allied attempt to blow up the bridge was nearly thwarted.
If the film industry is to be trusted, the ranking officer of the POWs
eventually came to his senses and raced to the detonator only to be caught
in a rain of Japanese bullets. His dead body fell sprawling-onto the detonator's
plunger. The bridge fell into the River Kwai.
It's difficult for me to imagine war. I sit on the River Kwai
and try to imagine the organized murder that went on here. Sure I've seen
all the John Wayne films, visited memorials and battle scenes, watch the
'film at eleven' and read the editorials. In Germany, country of my birth,
bullet holes in statues and walls remain as stark reminders that picaresque
teutonic villages once harboured violent death.
But none of this fits my empirical experience. I have never been
thrust into the kill-or-be-killed condition. I have never fled my home
under artillery barrage. These things I can only try to imagine.
I ruminate on war because a host of reminders of it passes through
my life. Kanchana Buri is filled with memorials and museums establishing
its place in WWII history. On the table beside my computer are three news
magazines reflecting on or foreboding of conflict. Time (May
8, International Edition): 50 Years After V-E Day-The Evil That Will Not
Die. Far Eastern Economic Review (May 4): Vietnam 20 Years After
The War. Newsweek (May 15): Iran's Nuclear Buildup-How Big A
Threat? This morning I just finished Peter Arnett's autobiography, Live
From The Battlefield. Arnett won a Pulitzer prize for his front-line
journalism in Vietnam.
I ruminate because in some of these readings I find eerie reflections
of my own recent writings.
Vietnam is a country, not a war.
||The Vietnamese government,
on its aim to bury the past
and enter the international mainstream
Vietnam is a country, no longer a war. . .
I described the peace agreement as a mechanism to allow the
United States to leave honourably. Henry Kissinger had told his confidants
that the stratagem would provide a 'decent interval' between American
withdrawal and Vietnamese defeat.
The 1973 Paris Agreement was largely a face-saving gesture
for the US. . . The agreement made no requirement of the estimated 200,000
North Vietnamese troops then in the South to withdraw. How serious a
'peace treaty' is that?
Time magazine writes of the evil that will not die as if it began
with Hitler. But mayhem is in men's souls. Joseph Conrad exposed it in
Heart of Darkness, that we are each of us removed from the savage within
by a thin veneer. We wear the mask and parade about as if it is our only
self. Stripped of the mask, the trip to the other side can be brief but
chillingly permanent. Conrad's Darkness was in the heart of British colonial
Africa, well before Hitler. We are vilifying the wrong dark heart. The
evil will not die because it is a human characteristic that can surface
within any of us who fail to be vigilant against it.
The Time article lists off the evil genocide in Hitler's wake:
Cambodia's Khmer Rouge; Rwandan Hutus; Bosnian Serbs. For balance, and
in timely fashion, it adds the far-right militias of the American West
and labels Hitler's influence. Time is a right-wing rag. If we want to
understand this evil we'd best stop pointing fingers at the evil without
and take a long hard look at the evil within. Francis Ford Coppola took
Conrad's upriver trip into the Mekong, into the dark heart of American
woe. American aid has backed genocide and death squads in Indonesia, the
Philippines, Central and South America. It has destabilised nations of
no direct security threat, fomenting bloody civil war, installing military
If we praise ourselves as a people for standing together against
the evils of Hitler, Stalin et. al. then we best recognize our responsibility
as members of nations that often support the evils of others. We disavow
the Geoffrey Dahmers and the Timothy McVeigh's as exceptions, as rogue
madmen; the gun-crazy militias as off the edge. 'We are not responsible
for them. They are not us.' There is a problem here. They came from among
You will not find the proliferation of paranoid para-militaries
plaguing the United States just anywhere. Certain factors are required:
rampant individualism; a gun culture mentality positing justice as the
fruit of a rifled barrel; distrust of government officials and fear of
government military force, particularly where those officials have proven
themselves untrustworthy and all too willing to use their military to
solve state problems-if they'll subdue other peoples with tanks and mortars,
why not us? In how many places of the world has this set of conditions
surfaced? The USA and South Africa are two. Both have embarrassingly well
armed private militias and in both countries these militias have horribly
dispensed their brand of justice.
Under any other set of circumstances, such militias might be
called guerrilla units, insurgents. Recently, because they are attacking
the state directly rather than the tacitly approved enemies of the state,
they have begun to earn that moniker.
21:09 River Guest House; Kanchana Buri-Thailand :: 13
I can ramble on, can't I. See, I don't understand this paradox.
Travelers from all kinds of western nations make it to Kanchana Buri and
here, they stop. It is a place of relaxation, a place to while away the
strains accumulated from weeks on the go. But, because of a bridge, it
is also a place men in khaki and gold-braid point to on a map. They draw
bold red arrows pointing to a railway trestle on the river Kwai. People,
some in steel helmets carrying rifles, others not, will kill or die to
keep the bridge standing. or to assure its destruction. In today's world
the people putting their lives on the line, the protectors and destroyers,
have never been to Kanchana Buri before. They know none of the people
living there. They know the point on the map as arrows and objectives.
They know it as a place people kill and people die. The river is an obstacle.
But today, the river is a cool dip. Today I stretched out on
the teak wood raft tied up to the bungalows. Throughout the afternoon,
light rain intermittently spattered to earth. River food. Now, under a
near-full moon the languid river rests after a day of water-skiing, river
taxis and barge parties.
It's hard to imagine any good reason that blood should also flow
here. Self-defense seems reasonable, I suppose, unless one considers the
necessary condition, an aggressor, unreasonable. That is, I cannot say
it is good that life has been stilled to preserve life, rather, it was
necessary. An act need not be either good or evil, virtuous or depraved.
The conditions are not binary.
Some points of view concede not even that. Jesus would turn the
other cheek. Buddha perceives the conditions as external fact, as inevitable
dukkha, suffering, not to be endured but to remain detached from. However,
Jesus has eternal heaven and Buddha has the cycle of rebirth leading,
eventually, to nirvana, to existence without death, birth or dukkha. For
myself there is this one precious life. I cling to it. I can't say with
certainty how I'd react if my life were seriously threatened by an attacker.
I hope it would be with any force necessary to live. If put in the dilemma
of dying or causing an innocent stranger's death, I would probably choose
life. I might not act so selfishly if the choice was my life or a loved
one's, but then too I might. The choice between my own discomfort and
another's? That depends.
00:18 River Guest House; Kanchana Buri-Thailand :: 14
So the magnifying lens of evil is built. It is not necessary
that I initiate evil, only that I respond to it. If when challenged with
a dilemma I regard my own safety as paramount then the initial evil that
presented the challenge is passed on through me, focused, pin-pointed.
Afterward, I can absolve myself of the evil, rationalise it. 'I was under
orders' or 'I was left with no other option.' Yet a choice was available
and a particular option chosen.
Only idealists are willing martyrs. Only those who would die
for a principle. Jesus, Socrates, kamikazes and other suicide bombers,
Patrick Henry who regretted he could die but once on principle. It is
not necessary that all agree the principle is ideal, just the idealist.
Also not required of an idealist: killing for a principle. Many of the
most beloved idealists council against it. Understandably, convincing
self-described idealists they must kill for a principle is easier than
the suggestion they must die for one, even when the killing principle
is shaky and the dying undeniably solid. As Patton once informed his troops,
'no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making
the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.' Better to kill than
9:46 River Guest House; Kanchana Buri-Thailand :: 14
The evil begins usually with one of the common varieties, greed,
aversion, delusion. Often it is simply a response to a perceived greater
evil: 'in order to save the town it was necessary to destroy it.' A shaky
principle that in the climate of evil seems so reasonable. Once the men
with the stars on their helmets have committed troops, then the lens takes
over, magnifying, amplifying, escalating. Within the focal range of the
lens, under the impetus of the group, human beings behave en masse in
ways no individual could bring themselves to act alone. Eyes cast down
on the path of least resistance, evil snowballs.
We talk of 'authors of history' as if they write the text, but
without his collaborators and a compliant population, participants willing
and unwilling, Hitler would be a minor figure in history. David Duke,
one time leader of the KKK, ran for Louisiana's governorship and lost
by an uncomfortably small margin. The lens barely unwilling to magnify
his particular aversions at that particular time of history.
So 50 years after his demise the obsession with Hitler is at
best misguided at worst evil itself. Hitler did not himself kill 6 million
Jews he simply initiated the order. The lens, a cast of compliant or willing
thousands carried them out. It is this phenomenon with which we should
be obsessed, not the madman but the willingness to mayhem. In dwelling
on Hitler's mad scheme we in effect console ourselves that we could never
be like that. It is an easy consolation; Hitler and his like are a rare
lot. But a fairer investigation is to ask the question, 'were I a 20 year-old
German male in 1939, might I have joined the madness, willingly or otherwise?'
An honest appraisal is a chilling one, even if the answer is 'I don't
Sitting here on the peaceful river Kwai that question seems remote.
But rarely is the mayhem predictable. What sane mind can predict atrocities
where now there is only peace? A Serbian friend of mine remarked that
Serbs and Croats had coexisted peacefully in Yugoslavia for decades. Before
the gruesome show began he would have told anyone, 'that could never happen
here.' The veneer is thin.
Patrick. -- Responses Sought --
Pain is not taking life. Pain comes and goes. Pain disappears.
You know, everyone experiences that. Unwillingly of course.
- Yigal Carmon
Former advisor to the Israeli government,
justifying the use of torture
to extract information from terrorist suspects
What can I tell you about war that you don't already know?
That it makes beasts of men, that is certain. Conquerors or conquered;
it's all the same. At Kanchanaburi, for us, it was a fight for survival.
There were no 'heroes'. Almost everyone fought for self; it has nothing
to do with nationality or kindness to others. What counted was 'survival'.
||Cornelis B. Evans
Dutch POW and survivor of 'The Death Railway'.
Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn't wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.