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Essays on Social Justice

by Donald Gutierrez

Chapter 15: Review: Jonathan Glover
Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century might also have been entitled Humanity: A History of the Immoral Twentieth Century. Early in the book he cites the estimate that 86 million people were killed by war in the period from 1900 to 1989. Despite speculative complications about the proportions of populations to war deaths in past centuries compared to the 20th century, 86 million war deaths is a stunning figure. Glover's book attempts to look at the psychology of how wars occur and the atrocities they cause. He demonstrates cogently that this psychology is present as much in civilians as in military leaders. Over half the book is devoted to societies like Nazi Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China and Pol Pot's Cambodia that have committed mass atrocities.

Glover's aim in part is to consider "the psychology which has contributed to this set of man-made disasters" (43). Indeed, he scarcely misses a disaster. They may not all be here but the reader will likely feel that there's more than enough--World Wars I and II (including a sizable chapter on Hiroshima), Vietnam (mainly My Lai), the Nixon-Kissinger bombing of Cambodia (which, Glover argues convincingly, helped the Khmer Rouge take power), Rwanda, Bosnia and the hell created for their societies by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

Glover frames his usually detailed discussions of these disasters by discussing Friedrich Nietzsche's contribution to the erosion of an external moral law and of humane responsiveness. "To see others suffer," says Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, "does one good; to make others suffer even more; this is a hard saying but....without cruelty there is no festival" (17). Glover does not hold Nietzsche responsible for all the mass brutalities of the 20th century, but he does connect the presence of elements of cruelty in his work to a unique feature in the Nazi perspective on subject peoples: "There was an intensity of positive hatred in those who planned the genocide, which was not matched in the Stalinist exterminations" (396). That is a chilling statement, considering that one estimate puts the number of political deaths under Stalin at over 20 million. Glover, in a long, brilliant section titled "The Moral Psychology of Waging War," presents a crucial concept that he calls the "moral slide." The moral slide involves moving downward from one immoral or evil act to the next, the second step or slide made possible and easier by having begun the first:

"The blockade [of Germany near the end of World War I, which led to the starvation of anywhere from 462,000 to 762,000 German civilians] slid by degrees from having a slight effect to having a devastating impact. The blockade made area bombing seem acceptable. Area bombing was reached by a gentle slide from military bombing. The bombing of German cities made acceptable the bombing of Japanese ones, which in turn allowed the slide to the atomic bomb. The slide went on from the Hiroshima bomb to Nagasaki"(115).

Glover suggests another form of the moral slide that seems particularly relevant to 20th century modes of technology, industrialization, bureaucratism: "There is another form of disconnection between what people do and their sense of moral identity. The division of labor can make the contribution of any single person seem unimportant" (403). On the other hand, Glover cites the atomic bomb as a project so divided up among scientists, politicians, military brass and others that no one could feel exclusively or even personally responsible for it. General Leslie Groves was jubilant on hearing about the explosion. According to President Truman, "This [dropping the Bomb] is the greatest thing in history" (101).

What strikes this reviewer as extraordinary in Humanity is less Glover's ideas about the need for a sense of moral identity to be connected with human responses than the dozens of scenes and events of incredible cruelty and terror imposed by governments on their own citizens and on other peoples: Mao's Great Leap Forward, causing a famine killing 20 to 30 million; a seventeen-year-old Red Guard male beating up a kneeling, bleeding woman; Kulak peasants forced by the Stalin regime into barren, icy regions near the arctic, "left, with no food or tools, on bits of land in the middle of marshes. The paths back were guarded with machine guns. Everyone died" (238); Nazi officers trampling on the heads of Polish Jewish children; the Khmer Rouge murdering one fourth of Cambodia's entire population.

There were redeeming acts: Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson saved villagers at My Lai from Captain Medina's crazed soldiers; German-allied Italian officers protected Jews from the Nazis; nuns, despite the Pope's passivity to the Nazi regime, hid Jewish children in their convents throughout Europe. Thrilling and wonderful as these acts were, they fail to balance the appallingly huge quantity of social brutality and murder committed mostly by the state during the 20th century. Glover feels there is hope for humanity in the future in the acceptance of international legal authority by the superpowers like the United States and China. Optimism on this score is at best moderate. (See Ch. 19, "Universal Jurisdiction and the Bush Administration," for more discussion of this issue.)

One shortcoming in Glover's otherwise deeply moving, magnanimous and courageous book is his ignoring the role of commercial forces in shaping 20th century social violence. It is not, as he claims, only ideology, belief and the erosion of a universal moral law that has led to the 20th century wars, but the rapacious, unrelenting drive to control markets by dominating rival imperialist nations and subjugating vulnerable or smaller societies by military force or overwhelming economic pressures. Commercial greed has played its part in the brutalization and deaths of millions.

1. The latest egregious step towards a fascist police-state America has emerged in the form of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act). Signed by President Obama (with reservations that don't seem to amount to much and that can be discounted by future presidents), the Senators Levin and McCain sponsored law denies all Americans of due process and habeus corpus and thus of the right to defend themselves in a civil court. Instead, it imposes indefinite rendition on anyone that the President deems either a terrorist or a person supporting terrorism. Considering the enormous flexibility of the terms "terrorism" and "supporting terrorism," virtually anyone openly critical of the government can be charged as a terrorist or terrorist supporter and swept off any time to Guantanamo, Bagram or those terrifying black sites in unknown parts of the world run by U.S. Special-Forces types.

"Review: Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century" by Donald Gutierrez--Bloomsbury Review, May 2001; Common Sense, November 2001; Justice Xpress, Summer 2002.

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© 2012, Donald Gutierrez   Table of Contents

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