»  New English Review

August 2006

  They, The People


You cannot be objective about an aerial torpedo. And the horror we feel of these things has led to this conclusion: if someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother. The only apparent alternatives are to smash dwelling houses to powder, blow out human entrails and burn holes in children with thermite, or to be enslaved by people who are more ready to do these things than you are yourself; as yet no one has suggested a practicable way out.
              — George Orwell, reviewing Arthur Koestler's Spanish Testament
                        for the magazine Time and Tide, Feb. 5, 1938.

I've been thinking about North Korea. Not the leaders — not that chubby freak with the Little Richard coiffure, nor his stone-faced generals, but the actual people of North Korea. They are, of course, in a sorry state. I have read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and you should, too; and things have gotten far worse since the experiences that author describes. You can't help but feel sorry for the poor devils. And yet … Well, perhaps it is unjust, perhaps it is blaming the victim, but peeking out from behind my sympathy is the subversive little thought: What kind of people are these?

It is not as though North Korea is under foreign occupation. Nobody is oppressing the North Koreans but … other North Koreans. China and — to their everlasting shame, it seems to me — the South Koreans are enablers of the Kim Jong-il regime; but nobody would mobilize to rescue Kim if his people rose against him.

This has been certainly true since the end of the Cold War; arguably, it has been true since the Sino-Soviet split around 1960, in which Kim Il-sung declined to take sides. For nearly half a century, on the latter argument, the North Koreans have been putting up with those appalling levels of oppression at the hands of other North Koreans, with no third party being much involved.

Why? Montesquieu — and, I think, all the other 18th-century gents who thought about these issues — believed that "if the insult be great enough, the people will rise." That, of course, was a lot easier to say in the age of swords and muskets and horse-borne news, than it is in the modern age, when civil discontent can be nipped in the bud very easily and quickly by a regime that is unscrupulous in methods of observing and intimidating its people. Still, you can't help asking yourself whether we Americans would put up with a regime like the Kims' for forty years. Are the people of North Korea entirely victims? Thirty years ago, Igor Shafarevich, speaking from the depths of Brezhnev's Russia, told us that as tyranny descends on the people, there is something in the human soul that rises to greet it. Is that true everywhere? Would it be true of us?

What, come to think of it, are we to make of the South Koreans? For decades they have watched their kin — for some, literally their kin — in the North being starved, tortured, and brutalized by the Kim despotisms. Yet the Southrons are a capable people, productive and resourceful, with a large and well-equipped military — easily a match for the North, with its underfed peasant soldiers and its antiquated, rusting tanks. Would we Americans go about our business so smugly if, say, the old Confederacy were taken over by a Kim-ist tyranny, whose leaders fattened and indulged themselves while their people starved in rags? Would we make no effort to liberate our fellow Americans? Even at the cost of some sacrifice to ourselves?

We are told that the first act by North Korea, if attacked, would be to start firing artillery shells into Seoul. Now, I am sure it must be a very distracting thing to have an artillery shell come in through your office window. Cities have endured worse, though. Over 1,300 V-2 ballistic missiles hit London during the closing months of WWII, yet Londoners regarded this as a passing incident in the larger war, and have largely forgotten about it. A V-2 delivered a far bigger explosive punch than a mere artillery shell. How long would it take South Korea to neutralize those Northern artillery batteries? Yet apparently South Koreans have no interest in liberating their fellow-countrymen. They prefer to enjoy the good life, driving their new cars, chattering into their cell phones, settling back before their 72-inch plasma TV screens. Perhaps it is impertinent of me to judge them. I am only recording passing thoughts.


Unhappy, uncomfortable thoughts. They lead more or less directly to the doctrine of collective responsibility. If the people of a nation submit to a tyranny, and if that tyranny makes war on us, as the North Korean regime may be deranged enough to do, we shall likely end by killing harmless citizens of that nation, citizens who hate the regime as much as we do. We would then assuage our guilt for this necessary injustice by telling ourselves that, well, it is their government, for which, as citizens, they must bear some collective responsibility, whatever their individual opinions.

Are we consoling ourselves with sophistry there? Are we just inventing a high-sounding rationalization for atavistic tribal war, in which the object is to utterly break the will of the Other by slaughtering their people, guilty and innocent alike?

These troubling thoughts came up while I was watching TV coverage of the fighting in Lebanon. It would be a wonderful thing if the Israeli Defense Force could kill only Hezbollah operatives, leaving the civilian population alone. They can't, of course, and civilians are dying. It would be a much less wonderful thing — though still, so far as I am concerned, an acceptable one — if the Israelis could reduce their enemies to the condition of abject, unconditional surrender we reduced Germany to in 1945. But they can't do that, either.

For Israel this is a "crisis war", at least as much as WWII was for us. Hezbollah has been firing missiles into Israeli cities, killing Israeli civilians. Eighty percent of the population of South Lebanon voted for "Resistance Party" candidates in last year's election — that's mainly Hezbollah, joined with a few like-minded groups.

Now, that peasant who just got killed in an Israeli airstrike might very well have belonged to the twenty percent who did not vote "Resistance"; and the seven-year-old girl whose legs were blown off by another Israeli bomb while playing with her favorite doll, wasn't even in the electorate. How can their killing be justified? By the doctrine of collective responsibility, which, if you allow its validity, applies even more strongly to Lebanon, where there have at least been elections, than to North Korea. This is your government. You have permitted this to be done to us. You — all of you, any of you, and your children too — are to some degree liable.

As a solvent of guilt, the doctrine of collective responsibility is hard to beat. When push truly comes to shove, when we find ourselves in the nightmare landscape Orwell describes, where the correct response to the bombing of one's mother is a double bombing of his mother — when human beings are in that dark place, I think history shows that there is no nation too civilized to do what is necessary; nor any so un-civilized as to feel no need to cook up a doctrine of self-exculpation. A conservative commentator recently wrote the following thing, in respect of mass killing of civilians: "I think it's fair to say that we would rather our civilization die than that we commit such acts." Speak for yourself, Sir. If our grandfathers had felt that way, I'd be writing this in Japanese.


The population of a nation that has lost a war, to the point where all significant fighting has ceased, is in one of several possible collective attitudes. The following list is not necessarily exhaustive.

  1. Total denial.  We did not lose the war.
  2. Regroup.  OK, we lost a round. We'll pull back and regroup, and be fighting again shortly.
  3. Stabbed in the back.  We didn't really lose militarily, and would be fighting still if traitors at home, or fickle allies, hadn't stabbed us in the back. When we've dealt with them, we'll reassess the situation.
  4. It's a fair cop.  All right, you beat us. We'll fight no more, and do whatever you say. We will not, however, admit that we were completely wrong to make war on you. We will honor our soldiers who fell, as patriots who fought in a cause that was not, or not altogether, unjust.
  5. Full repentance.  All right, you beat us. We'll fight no more, and do whatever you say. You were right, we were wrong. In defeating us, you proved the justice of your cause. We totally and without qualification repudiate our previous regime, that took us to war, and all their arguments and methods. We shall have no public ceremonies honoring our dead soldiers, though we reserve the right to honor them privately.

In cases (1), (2), and (3), whatever grievance the losing side had as a casus belli still stands. It may even be strengthened by the bitter experience of a defeat perceived to be temporary and/or brought about unfairly, by treasonous back-stabbers. In cases (4) and (5) the grievance is dropped, though in case (4) it is dropped from expedience, because everyone understands there is no hope of redressing it, while in case (5) it is dropped from conviction. Examples from the last century and a half:

  1. Iraq after Gulf War I. Saddam told his people the war had not been lost, that he had fought the Americans to a standstill, so that they went away. How many Iraqis actually believed this, I do not know, but the number surely increased as time went on. Iraqis who were schoolchildren at the time of GWI probably grew up believing the tale.
  2. The first two Arab-Israeli wars.
  3. Germany 1918.
  4. The Confederate States, 1865. Japan, 1945.
  5. Germany 1945. (I think Italy may have been more of a (4).)

There are some borderline cases. Chiang Kai-shek's China was a (3) after losing the civil war of 1945-49, though when they had established themselves on Taiwan, their public rhetoric was all (2). North Korea is another rhetorical (2), though their (2)-ness likely goes beyond rhetoric, and perhaps they can't truly be considered a defeated nation, thanks to Mao Tse-tung and the People's Liberation Army (my own father-in-law among them). Taking this as a rough working schema, though, what does it tell us?

You win a war by killing lots of the enemy. Ideally those dead enemy will all be uniformed military people. That ideal is sometimes attained, or very nearly. Premodern wars were often entirely battlefield affairs, though no doubt peasants and townsfolk suffered from foraging and billeting. Gulf War I Iraqi deaths — not counting Saddam's postwar revenge massacres — were almost all military. The Arab-Israeli wars 1948-73 were only a little further from the ideal, with dead Arab soldiers far, far outnumbering dead Arab civilians. WWI was further yet, but still mostly a matter of military killings. Blockade, occupation, submarine warfare, shelling, and some primitive aerial bombing caused many deaths among German and Austrian civilians; yet still it was far safer to be a civilian citizen of one of the losing countries than to be in the uniformed services (among which I am including the Merchant Marine).

With the South of 1865 or the Japan of 1945, we are in the zone of massive national destruction, with that expression defined to mean "flattened cities, dead civilians." And not since the Mongols were on the march has any Western nation been as thoroughly wrecked, its civilian population so ruthlessly assaulted, as Germany in 1945.

You can see where this is going. As you work down my list from (1) to (5) you are meeting ever greater levels of national destruction and killings of noncombatants. The more thoroughly you lay waste a nation — level its cities, slaughter its people, its noncombatant people — the more conclusive your victory will be, the higher the level of "attitude adjustment" in the enemy population. If you want to turn a psychotic aggressor nation into a well-mannered commercial one — if you want to beat swords into plowshares, and infantry training manuals into business cards — your best bet is to go for high levels of national destruction.

That is not a conclusion that sits very easily on the civilized conscience. Outside the context of "crisis war," it is certainly not one we are currently willing to act on. Our will to act on it within that context, though, is surprisingly robust. I spent my childhood surrounded by men — Christian men, good family men — who had helped to level Germany's great cities and slaughter German civilians in the hundreds of thousands by area bombing. I never once heard any of those men express the slightest word of guilt or shame about their deeds. When they talked about the war, it was to tell personal anecdotes, or to complain about their military and political superiors.

Even just a few months ago, in fact, I found myself sitting at dinner next to an elderly man who had flown in the great fire-bombing raids of WWII. Did he or his comrades feel any shame or guilt? I asked. No, he said, the subject never came up.

It never came up. As he explained: "There was a war to win." Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who directed the bombing campaign over Germany for Winston Churchill, was nicknamed "Butch" by the men who served under him. That was short for "Butcher"; but it was Harris's cold attitude towards losses among his own air crews that got him the nickname, not his far colder attitude to the crushed, mangled, torn, suffocated and incinerated noncombatants of urban Germany. Nobody cared about that. There was a war to win.

Some Americans, to judge from my email bag, apparently believe we are in a crisis war today. I don't agree; but I do think it possible that, if we continue to permit the proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons — and all the evidence indicates we shall so continue — we could be in a crisis war in a decade or so. And Israel, a nation we regard as a friend, is in a crisis war right now, against an enemy that has sworn to annihilate her.

Perhaps it's time to take out the doctrine of collective responsibility and take a look at it, make up our collective mind about it. Or else, brace ourselves to lose that coming crisis war, or — what really amounts to the same thing — to end it inconclusively.