Thursday, October 29, 2009

War crimes and other atrocities.


‘I have seen the enemy and he is us.’ Andy Capp.

In the following piece I am drawing on my own experience of rowing among the Gulf Islands and having time to think about things as I go along. I was intrigued by the idea of waves that spread out behind a boat being like an event in the past that has reverberations that drag behind it to arrive some time in the future to disturb the surface of the mind. In the story, the real event of the waves in the calm sea opens a window into a hidden and repressed time from the past. The ripping sound of the breaking waves is the final tug at the blind which zips up to expose a wartime atrocity.

What I found interesting was the idea of continuity. A personality which has a past in wartime atrocities, I imagined an incident in the ethnic cleansing conflicts of the former Yugoslavia, but there are plenty of other possibilities, must always hide parts of itself within ‘normal’ society, but certain basic structures continue, in this case a preoccupation with efficiency. I think this person is a monster like those that ran the death camps for Germany during WWII, but the horror is even greater if we realize that much of this death and destruction was carried out by ‘regular folks’ who could fit right in with the rest of us when conditions changed once again. As Little Abner said in the Andy Capp cartoon, “ I have seen the enemy and he is us.”

             Continuity of personality.

A motor yacht plows a deep furrow as it travels south among the islands. It`s wave pattern spreads out behind, forming several rows of steep, sometimes breaking waves in the calm sea. They sweep toward a lone man in a rowboat headed north.

Facing south, at the oars, he can see the yacht receding far down the channel. He can hear the waves when they finally arrive and turns his skiff to face into them. Up and down pitches the skiff while he balances it with his oars held steady in the water. The waves are smooth except when the crests tear open with a ripping sound and foam escapes to race down the wave fronts. The waves pass, the calm returns and he resumes his course, his mind, once again, free to wander.

“That beamy boat plowing along - all that energy being used to make waves.


“Those waves that came up behind me: they sounded like torn cloth when they broke. Riiiip! Or a machine gun.”

The sound of gunfire echoing behind the mountain ridge from the village in the next valley. A fusillade of rife shots, the ripping sound of a machine gun.

“Such a small village. The men had been told to conserve ammunition. Amateurs, anxious to get it over with. They will learn.


On the radio this morning there was discussion about the conviction in Canadian court of Desiree Munyaneza for atrocities in Ruanda and of the war crimes trial in The Hague of the former Serb leader Radovan Karodzic who lived incognito for many years, just like the character in this meditation, before being caught. What I found difficult to deal with while writing this was that I was describing myself and the train of my own thoughts up until the final deeper memory of the massacre and even that was an easy and logical imaginative leap to make. While it is important to point the finger at those who cross the line into barbarism, it is also useful to recognize how adaptable human beings are, for better or for worse, and that all of us are part of this bloody species and share emotions like anger and the need to ‘defend’ ourselves, our families, or our ethnic and national identity. It is important that we do not bury these ugly attributes so they will grow in hidden and twisted ways, but admit them into our understanding of what it means to be human so that we can balance them up with the more socially positive aspects of humanity of which there are many. It is that struggle for the unity of our real selves that makes us fully human.

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