Bring Me the Head of Silvino Herrera - "Us vs. Them" and other "modern" myths of war and civilization
by Daniel Patrick Welch
They behead--we do it with smart bombs. There is, of course, an ugly truth to this recently minted axiom: the horror of state terrorism is that the overwhelming machinery of death in the hands of all-powerful governments far outweighs individual atrocities by madmen, groupuscles and non-state entities. While the heathen thugs and killers may indeed be barbarians, such an axiom tacitly concedes, with their beheadings and murders of innocents, it is almost impossible to accomplish the slaughter of half a million children, as did the anglo-american/UN sanctions in Iraq, with such amateur methods.
This is the same reasoning which, fairly convincingly, puts the lie to sanitized concept of war and destruction which makes the self-satisfied "West" so smug and confident of its moral superiority. There is an underlying, and often overt, racism which allows so-called "modern" warmakers and their electorates to tolerate the huge disparities in casualties that have come to define modern conflict. In virtually every case, the brutal repression of movements toward greater human freedom, workers' rights, and a life worth living is ignored, while the "atrocities" of those trying to resist are seen as backward and evidence of cultural and moral inferiority.
However, one problem is not just that the disparity in terror torpedoes the moral superiority argument. It is true that the 20th century was indeed the most horrific, unbeknownst to most lay observers: at its dawn, 90% of war dead were combatants and 10% non-combatants. By its end, the ratio was reversed, making it the most deadly and arguably least "advanced" century in human history. True also, the machinery of war, with its amoral measurements in "kilomorts," the chemistry of napalm to stick to human skin and burn, phosphorous and gas, cluster munitions--not to mention the almost surreal evil of neutron bomb technology, meant to kill people while leaving buildings intact-all this shows that the actual brutality of burning flesh and exploding body parts is in no way less barbaric than other methods. The United States gets no props from the rest of the "civilized" world for instituting the pain-free technology of lethal injection to a practice most governments consider a barbarous anachronism.
USMC Lt. Remmington with head of Silvino Herrera, ca. 1930
When we peel away all the layers of burning flesh, all the carefully constructed fiction of human progress and benefits of science and technology, we must face a reality perhaps even more grim. It is not merely us standing cynically by, wringing our hands while they hack each other to death with machetes, as when almost a million Tutsis died in Rwanda. There simply is no us vs. them. The side claiming to represent progress, the March of History and the fulfillment of the human desire for freedom and self-rule, has done more and done worse, using as low-tech and brutal methods on both sides of the technological and cultural divide. There is a famous photo, not of Nick Berg, not of John the Baptist, but of Silvino Herrera, one of the lieutenants in Augusto Sandino's resistance army. Rather, it is a photo of a US Marine--he only part of Sr. Herrera showing is his head, held triumphantly aloft by the conquering hero of the few and the proud. Turns out we behead, too.
When I was in Nicaragua, I heard testimony of the victims of Somoza's National Guard, women with their breasts cut off, left alive and maimed on purpose to terrorize their families. Resistance fighters and supporters, union organizers--whatever--killed with their genitals cut off and stuffed in their mouths. Victims forced at gunpoint to swallow a button on a string while laughing guardsmen kept trying to pull it up. Like all the henchmen throughout Latin America, these murderers, nun-rapists, "deplaners" (who simply pushed terror victims out of a moving plane to their unacknowledged deaths), clown-killers and assorted scum received training and backing from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the dreaded School of the Americas. As FDR, hero of the US mainstream left, once bragged: "Somoza may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch." Turns out we do all that other stuff, too.
Likewise, I had mostly considered the shot of triumphant soldiers standing atop a pile of bones of the conquered dead to be mainly a cartoon representation. Wrong again--the only true such photo I have ever seen was of US soldiers in the Phillipines at the turn of the 20th century, when over a half million Filipinos were slaughtered in the successful attempt to secure the islands for American Empire. The scene is repeated ad nauseum in US history, in murderous rampages across our own continent from Sea to Shining Sea, through Central America, the Carribbean, and the Pacific. Despite George Bush's audacity and isolation, there is absolutely nothing new about Iraq. Conquest, pacification, occupation and the transfer of "sovereignty" to a puppet government is the textbook M.O. The only phase yet to be completed is the few decades in which the world is supposed to forget the origins of the dictatorship, after which US forces return to suppress rebellion or resistance movements and install democracy, as if the cycle had no beginning.
In this context, it is almost unbearable to hear the shallow, mind-deadening "debate" between Democrats and Republicans about "how to handle" Iraq, not to mention the infrastructure of organized theft that transfers trillions of dollars from South to North, from Labor to Capital, from poor to rich, from brown to white. To my mind, there are three crises--allowing for some consolidation and overlap--which surpass all else in their urgency today. They can be summarized as Empire (by which we include Iraq/Israel-Palestine, Venezuela/Colombia and the rest), WalMart and the crushing of labor, with its attendant rape of the national treasury and the health care system, and the Prison State, whereby incarceration is abetting and supplanting vote suppression, the Klan and slavery as the New Racist Ideology.
These are, of course, big problems. They are, however, exploding problems, and ones which threaten the very existence of humankind (combined with the rapacious consumerism which holds the lot together). Just the kind of all-encompassing issues one might foolishly expect a national election campaign to address. This huge history, soaked with blood and death for the benefit of profit and oligarchy, is completely unconcerned with the party hacks nibbling at its corners, unthreatened by the sorry excuse for "ideology" and "values" espoused by the political and economic system it nurtured and generated. Self-delusional, feel-good bromides about the "greatness of America" and a willful suppression and misrepresentation of our history will seal the deal, and we will plummet headlong into the looming environmental catastrophe that is waiting to engulf us all.
As a young pupil celebrating America's Bicentennial, I remember being paraded in a choral production called "Our Country 'tis of Thee." One lyric that still sticks in my mind and in my craw, sung by our chorus of mind-controlled, ignorant, chirpy 6th graders:
There's a peaceful sky in my backyard
Far away from fear and doubt
But the whole wide world is my hometown
And I've gotta help my neighbor out
There's a peacefull sky in my backyard
Far away from a far off land
But the whole wide world is my hometown
When freedom needs a helping hand
Thinking about it today still makes my skin crawl with embarrassment and self-loathing, even though I was only eleven. Sort of like a post traumatic lapse for a former cult member. Lack of self-doubt combined with ignorance of one's history is perhaps the most dangerous combination known to humankind. Torture at Abu Graib is not the tip of the iceberg; it is simply the latest link in the chain. Facing that history head on, with the disillusionment, fear and doubt that rationality and honesty implies, is the sobering task of those who would resist the current onslaught. It is the first step in a long, long road to sanity, and it is not a comfortable one. As Rosa Luxemburg famously remarked, "it will always be the most revolutionary act to say the truth out loud."
© 2004 Daniel Patrick Welch
Editor's note: Welch also authored the article "American Taliban" found here.