Sunday, November 30, 2008

I was born, like all humans, without the capacity for remorse. But I was never taught that such a concept was necessary, useful or in any way desirable. Why would anyone want to feel remorse, guilt, shame, or any of the myriad of other useless human emotions.

Fear is important, as are rage, happiness, greed, envy, lust and a host of others. But remorse? If I believed in God I would consider it a blessing that I was born without the capacity for such tripe. As it is, I simply consider myself lucky.

I was born into a martial culture, my father was dropping bombs on Vietnamese civilians when I was born. I took pride in this destruction for many years. Then I was angry for many years. But I never felt any shame. I wanted to challenge him, to confront him about the deaths he had to have known he was causing, I wanted him to feel pain, but I always said with noticeable pride in my voice: “My father was a B-52 pilot in Vietnam”. Maybe killing is in our blood, it makes me happy even now to think this, my heart races a little to think of the murderous impulses that course through my veins.

I am the product of an unbroken line of military men and women on both sides of my family. My great aunt was one of the first female Marine Corp officers, she served as a mathematician in WWII, no doubt calculating more precise and efficient means of slaughtering Nazis and incinerating Nips.

My paternal grandfather was a Marine, my maternal grandfather was a fighter pilot in Korea. He did a two year program at West Point at the end of WWII and came out an officer and a pilot just in time to wait around for the Korean conflict a few years after his graduation.

My paternal great-great grandfather was in the Prussian Imperial cavalry, beyond that I don’t know who served under whom but whenever I watch movies about the Romans fighting the Germanic tribes I am pretty sure that my ancestors were the “barbarians.”

Killing is underappreciated in modern culture. It is done crassly with guided missiles, and food blockades, jumbo jets full of fuel and passengers and trucks packed with explosives. Everyone is appalled when some poor schmuck gets his head sawed of with a dull sword on the internet but no one bats an eye when a stray bomb hits a school in Afghanistan. The Janjaweed in Darfur gets lots of bad press for raping and pillaging on horseback but at least their not farming out the dirty work to a subcontractor…or a machine.

The last modern culture to appreciate hand to hand combat was the Japanese Empire which ended with a fireball in WWII. The kamikaze performed a ceremony reminiscent of their samurai ancestors before departing for battle. The glorification of this concept of killing and dying as an intimate human experience is gone. Ironically, now that we are “civilized”, more people die, and in ways that are far more gruesome. One need only imagine a child in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, or any number of African nations, picking up an anti-personnel mine and then slowly bleeding to death after a major limb is blown off. Compare this to the honorable hand to hand combat death of two warriors who have knowingly chosen a martial existence and it is clear that modernity has not led to civility.

There is nothing wrong with killing, it is a part of the natural order of every species, the humanitarians who pretend otherwise are fooling themselves. Perhaps only a martial culture can teach this. The Cold War may have never revved up, but it spawned a martial culture. Our games were hand to hand combat, full contact sports (including street basketball) and plain old street fighting. As children we learned the art of intimidation, brute force, finesse and technique, psychologically undermining an opponent, and when all else failed: negotiation.

One may find that negotiation is the most important skill for survival. All the ju-jitsu in the world won’t help you if you are flat on your back in a hospital bed at the mercy of a nurse who speaks only Russian and had been given specific instructions not to give you any water. If you are sure that you will die of dehydration without that water than negotiation is your only hope.

Soviet doctors on the whole are better at what they do then western doctors. Faced with outdated equipment and lack of basic supplies they must out think the problems they face, which vary greatly depending on what the hospital or clinic is out of that day (or hour). I rarely got the sense of arrogance from a Soviet doctor that I invariably get from most American doctors I interact with. There is obviously less stratification in Soviet/Russian culture, you may very well see your doctor on the subway or in the market. Perhaps this prevents the aloof attitude that American doctors can’t seem to shake.

Without the proper supplies my doctors managed to bring me back from what should have been death from blood loss. They stitched me up and sent a shrink down to see if I was planning to try the deed again. The shrink was very compassionate (as he was my first I didn’t know that this trait is unusual in American psychiatrists). He asked me why I had attempted suicide and I answered that I didn’t want to go to prison. His response is with me to this day. Instead of discounting the possibility that I would go to prison he stated in a very gentle way “I have many friends who have been to prison who now lead very normal lives, they have wives, children, and meaningful work”.

Although I dismissed this response mentally and immediately thought of Soviet era dissidents who were considered heroes for standing up to the totalitarian state and that they were nothing like me I realize now how profound that doctor’s words were.

The idea of prison is terrifying because it is unknown but there is a greater fear than that of prison itself and that is the social stigma attached to it. Here was a doctor, representing, in his very person, the essence of what society considers respectable, telling me “I have friends who were in prison……” This opening phrase, in many ways, was more important than anything that followed. It was a vindication in advance, like saying “if you go to prison you will have nothing to be ashamed of when you come out.” This was a very insightful thing to say on his part, he had to decide what to say with a very small amount of information about me, and he knew that what he said would have some effect on whether I would repeat the suicide attempt. I wonder if an American psychiatrist would have said anything quite so effective.

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