South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: On the River Kwai.
Date: May 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 The original thatch roof has recently been replaced by shiny tin.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.

  graphical element The Vietnamese government,
on its aim to bury the past
and enter the international mainstream

Vietnam is a country, no longer a war. . .

  graphical element Patrick Jennings
Hanoi -- Vietnam :: 5 MAY 95

 

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.

  graphical element Peter Arnett
Live From the Battlefield

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?

  graphical element Patrick Jennings
Hanoi -- Vietnam :: 5 MAY 95

 

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 dictatorships.

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 us.

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 MAY 95

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 MAY 95

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 be killed.

9:46 River Guest House; Kanchana Buri-Thailand :: 14 MAY 95

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 know.'

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.
  graphical element
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'.

  graphical element 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.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Dao De Jing
Chapter 31
trans. Stephen Mitchell

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