Monday, April 14, 2008

The Fog of War Memory

From "What Have We Learned, If Anything?" by Tony Judt, New York Review of Books, May 1, 2008:

We are slipping down a slope. The sophistic distinctions we draw today in our war on terror -- between the rule of law and “exceptional” circumstances, between citizens (who have rights and legal protections) and noncitizens to whom anything can be done, between normal people and “terrorists,” between “us” and “them” -- are not new. The twentieth century saw them all invoked. They are the selfsame distinctions that licensed the worst horrors of the recent past: internment camps, deportation, torture, and murder -- those very crimes that prompt us to murmur “never again.” So what exactly is it that we think we have learned from the past? Of what possible use is our self-righteous cult of memory and memorials if the United States can build its very own internment camp and torture people there?

Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again -- or perhaps for the first time -- how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war’s indefinite continuance. And perhaps, in this protracted electoral season, we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?