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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The bloody work of hairless monkeys

by David Atkins

Whenever I read about something like this...

In the deadliest day in Iraq since the withdrawal of the United States military in December, a series of explosions that mostly targeted Shiite Muslims amounted to an emphatic demonstration of the still potent capabilities of the Sunni insurgency and a reminder of the instability left behind by American forces.

Shortly after midnight Wednesday, a homemade bomb exploded here in the capital, a harbinger of what was to come. Around 5 a.m., a truck bomb exploded in Khadamiya, a Baghdad neighborhood where Shiite pilgrims had begun to gather to commemorate the life and death of a revered imam who was the Prophet Muhammad’s great-grandson. From then on, reports of other attacks flooded in from around the country — Samarra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Falluja, Ramadi, Hilla — and by midday officials said more than 70 people were dead and at least 260 people wounded. The only large cities spared were the southern port city of Basra and the holy city of Najaf.

It reminds me of this:

The Sack of Magdeburg (German: Magdeburgs Opfergang or German: Magdeburger Hochzeit) refers to the siege and subsequent plundering of the largely Protestant city of Magdeburg by the forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic League during the Thirty Years' War. The siege lasted from November 1630 until 20 May 1631.

On the latter date, Imperial Field Marshal Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim, and Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, attacked Magdeburg for its rich stores of goods. When the city was almost lost, the garrison mined various places and set others on fire. After the city fell, the Imperial soldiers went out of control and started to massacre the inhabitants and set fire to the city. Of the 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived. For fourteen days, charred bodies were carried to the Elbe River to be dumped to prevent disease.

In a letter, Pappenheim wrote of the Sack:

I believe that over twenty thousand souls were lost. It is certain that no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the Destruction of Jerusalem. All of our soldiers became rich. God with us.[2]

At the time of the Peace of Westphalia ending the war in 1648, the city's population had further dropped so that only 450 people were still living in the city.

The devastation was so great that Magdeburgisieren (or "magdeburgization") became an oft-used term signifying total destruction, rape and pillaging for decades. The terms "Magdeburg justice", "Magdeburg mercy" and "Magdeburg quarter" also arose as a result of the Sack, used originally by Protestants when executing Catholics who begged for quarter.
Obviously, religious wars and sectarian conflicts are often extensions of other more mundane struggles over territory and resources. But they also often take on a life of their own.

I think a lot of people on the Left believe that if we only eliminate imperialism and create sustainability of energy, food and other resources, we can achieve a world free of violence and war. These are admirable and desirable goals, of course. Sadly, a study of human nature from before civilization to the modern day tends to disprove the hypothesis that achieving these thins will lead to world peace.

Human beings everywhere love to form in-groups and out-groups, and those groups will fight each other for the stupidest possible reasons. It happens in indigenous tribal groups, constantly warring with one another and raiding their neighbors: I will never forget the story in a college anthropology class of the men of an Amazonian tribe who during a raid in which the women were kidnapped and the men killed as usual, had chased a 10-year-old boy up a tree and proceeded question him for 10 minutes on his lineage to find out if they were related by blood. After slowly and calmly determining that they were not, they shot the boy down with bow and arrows. And, of course, this same sort of morally blind insanity happens constantly among "civilized" peoples everywhere east and west. Rarely has there ever been a culture with a history as bloody and brutal as those of the native Hawaiian kingdoms.

People everywhere are essentially hairless monkeys whose basic dispositions haven't evolved that much despite our larger brains and capacity for more moral decision making.

If the reasons to fight don't exist, they will be invented. Fighting over which version of the same god to worship has to be one of the most nonsensical, yet it is also depressingly commonplace.

Minimization of war and human suffering will depend on tightly binding people and civilizations to one another, and on taking a dim view of the in-groups and out-groups that people use to separate themselves from one another. And that in turn will require a stronger multinational peacekeeping force, not a weaker one. Peace and the reduction of human misery depend heavily on it, particularly in the inevitable age of a panoply of nuclear-armed nation-states. Left to their own devices, it is inevitable that nation-states will eventually become embroiled in nuclear conflict or that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of belligerent non-state actors. At this point in our evolution we're still as overgrown toddlers playing foolishly with loaded guns in a grand, modern technology version of Lord of the Flies.

Turning an isolationist eye of indifference toward all of this will not prevent bloody conflict for stupid reasons from enveloping humanity. It will simply guarantee it.