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Death at Random

Twentieth Century Book of the Dead

by Gil Elliot
Ballantine Books, 235 pp., $1.65 (paper)

I must begin by saying that I found this book maddeningly repetitious, and its style far too fancy for my liking. Nevertheless, I think it a book everybody should read. It does not tell us anything new, but it rubs our noses in facts which we would prefer to forget.

Mr. Elliot’s general thesis may be summed up thus. Until quite recently, the majority of human deaths were caused by what he calls the “microviolence” of nature, famines, floods, diseases, etc. This is no longer the case. Modern medicine has greatly increased the average natural life expectancy. (It has been reckoned that in the Bronze Age this was only seventeen years.) But in this century, thanks to the development of war machinery, far more deaths have been caused by the “macro-violence” of man.

Mr. Elliot devotes separate chapters to violence in Russia, China, the other countries involved in World War I and World War II. In passing, he refers to other conflicts, such as the Mexican Civil War and the Armenian massacres. Not being a professional statistician, I am in no position to check his figures, but they seem to me credible. His conclusion:

Of the 110 million man-made deaths in this century, sixty-two million died in conditions of privation, forty-six million from guns and bombs, or hardware, and two million from chemicals.

Under deaths from privation, Mr. Elliot included deaths in labor and concentration camps, even if their inmates were shoved into gas chambers.

The First World War caused a profound change in the conventional attitude toward warfare. Hitherto, the ruling classes in all countries had subscribed to a warrior ethos, derived from Homer and the Knights of the Round Table. However at variance with the actual facts this may have been, they sincerely thought of those they were fighting as persons, like Achilles and Hector, whom they could name and respect, so that the military professions were considered noble. When I was a small boy, when we had cherry or plum pie, we used to count the stones in order to predict our future careers. Our list ran as follows: Army, Navy, Law, Church.

Before 1914, the politicians in all states would have agreed with Kant:

No state at war with another state should engage in hostilities of such a kind as to render mutual confidence impossible when peace will have been made.

The replacement of the horse by mechanical means of transport, and the invention of heavy artillery and bombs, destroyed this ethos. Hitherto, at the end of a war, monuments had been erected to the memory of famous generals and admirals. In 1918, in all countries, monuments were raised to the Unknown Soldier, about whom nothing is known except that he lost his life. For all anybody knows, he may, personally, have been a coward. Honor, that is to say, is paid to the warrior not as a hero but as a martyr.

One would have thought that the obvious conclusion to draw would have been to say: “Henceforth, war is no longer a permissible form of political activity.” Alas, as we know, it was not. Technological warfare has alienated soldiers not only from the enemy but also from what they themselves do, but this alienation is not without its attraction, because it removes any sense of personal responsibility. A sniper who shoots an enemy soldier, even though he does not know his name, knows just what he has done. He can say: “I have shot this man.” But for someone who lets off a big gun or drops a bomb, there can be no relation between his personal act of pressing a lever and its results. He will never know whom he has killed. So why should he care?

This raises the problem of aggression. Aggression in human beings cannot be an inborn instinct as it is in the predator carnivores. Before he had learned to fashion weapons, man must have been one of the most helpless of the mammals, having neither fangs nor talons nor hoofs nor venom, and unable to move fast. His instinct, in the presence of danger, must have been to flee or to hide. Human aggression, that is to say, is a secondary modification of fear. Man is the only animal who lets the sun go down, not upon his wrath, but upon his funk. When he did manage to invent weapons, this created a special problem for, as Konrad Lorenz says:

There is only one being in possession of weapons which do not grow on his body and of whose working plan, therefore, the instincts of his species know nothing and in the usage of which he has no corresponding inhibitions.

Aggressive feelings which are derived from fear are very difficult to deal with. A carnivore, if conscious, could give a rational answer to justify his actions: “I must kill in order to live.” But when human beings fear each other, this is a subjective feeling which it is often impossible objectively to disprove. Furthermore, in any “advanced” society, most of its citizens feel they are impotent to affect the decisions of their rulers, and are afraid of the consequences should they refuse to obey their orders. As Mr. Elliot |says:

…it is just as likely, if we are being causal, that the large wars of the century were “because of” passivity, not aggression in individual human beings.

It is, unfortunately, also true that it is, scientifically, easier and quicker to devise means of producing death than of saving life. An antibiotic, for example, has to be tested over time, for germs may develop strains that resist it. But with bacteria, nerve gases, etc., intended to kill, it is immediately clear if one has succeeded.

If you can deaden the nerves to lessen surgical pain, you can also paralyze the nerves for hostile purposes…the attempt to connect the subtle detail and variety of human behavior with physiological processes is delicate—difficult—hypothetical—frustrating—open-ended. But if you approach it from the angle of the death-application, you can most certainly by drugs and surgery ensure the deadening of great areas of human behavior, and thus become a magician freed from irritating difficulties.

Today, since the invention of nuclear weapons, we have to live with the possibility of “total death.” This makes war an absurdity for, as Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has written:

The warrior provides for his grandfather and his grandson at the cost, if necessary, of his life. But his sacrifice only makes sense within a time span of at least three generations. There can be no genuine soldier or army unless there is a past to hand on to the future after the war is over.

What, then, are we to do? The only logical conclusion would be disarmament, but this, of course, would have to be total. In the “developed” countries we may well need more police than we have, but there is no logical reason why any state should maintain an army; yet so long as governments, for ideological or economic or racial reasons, are afraid of each other, they will continue to arm. Mr. Elliot tells us that, today, there are more persons bearing arms in the world than ever before.

I myself have two proposals to make, though I know perfectly well they will not be adopted. I should like to see the members of all governments elected, like jurors, by lot. This would destroy the party machines, those elected could vote according to their consciences, since there would be no question of re-election, and the computers could work out the proper representation of minority groups. Then, in all countries, I would like to see all matters of foreign policy taken out of the hands of men altogether and entrusted to women, preferably wives and mothers. Furthermore, while men would still be permitted to make machines, it should be for women to decide what machines should be made. There is in all males, I believe, a strong Manichaean streak, an unacknowledged secret contempt for matter, both animate and inanimate. Whitehead wrote:

Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the pre-supposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature.

This may not hold for all scientists, but it certainly holds for the majority, especially for those whose researches are involved with technology. The consequence of this Manichaean kind of Cartesianism has been that instead of concluding that since, so far as we know, man is the only rational and self-conscious creature in the universe, he is responsible for helping it to realize what it cannot do without him, just as a gardener is responsible to the plants he grows, scientists have assumed that they have absolute power to do with nature whatever they like without any responsibility.

Mr. Elliot writes:

We seem to be moving towards a condition in which, despite the sentimental writhings about “nature” over the past two hundred years, we shall actually achieve a more intimate relationship with nature than human beings have known since pre-historical times. The difference is that this will be an intimacy based on consciousness, not blindness. For the human individual this implies the ultimate recognition of himself as a conscious being who is part of nature.

I wish I could feel as optimistic as he seems to be. So far the effect of Darwinism on the popular consciousness seems to have been to use our kinship with the higher mammals as an excuse for bad behavior. As Karl Kraus has written:

When a man is treated like a beast, he says: “After all I’m human.” When he behaves like a beast, he says: “After all I’m only human.”

As Mr. Elliot says, we have now to acquire a new consciousness of death. This is very difficult in situations of random or total death because, while those who die in this way were persons with names of their own, who could say I and generally wished to live, to the rest of us they are nameless and faceless numbers. We can all mourn the deaths of those whom we have known and loved, but to care in the same way about the dead we did not and could not have known is almost impossible. We can at least, however, bear in mind Goethe’s dictum: “Only all men taken together make up mankind, only all forces in their co-operation the world.”

Mr. Elliot seems to have curious notions about the Christian conception of death. He is, of course, at liberty to say, “I do not believe in the dogma of the resurrection of the body” (the Creed, incidentally, says nothing about the immortality of the soul). But to say, as he does,

The Christian notion of immortality is a false resolution of life and death, an assertion that they are the same…

is simply not true. Christianity has always taken the reality of death extremely seriously. After all, it believes that Christ died to save sinners.

I agree with him fully, however, when he says:

Fact is not superior to myth. Technology is not more efficient than religion. However much factual and technical knowledge we acquire, we shall always have to live with the unpredictable.

As a footnote to which, let me quote once more from Rosenstock-Huessy.

The scientific method cannot lead mankind because it is based upon experiment, and every experiment postpones the present moment until one knows the result. We always come to each other and even to ourselves too late as soon as we wish to know in advance what to do.

(This review was written shortly before W. H. Auden died.)

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