OBL’s Argument (4): Retributions

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah — from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land.

If the view that we may justly be held accountable as civilians conflicts with an ideal liberal-individualist perspective, the contradiction is simply the illiberalism, though not an anti-democratism, of war itself. War is, in short, supremely collective, as its logic is totalizing. Civil society, the realm of individual freedom, and of what we call peace, is for Hobbes a construct against and therefore defined by war, as for Schmitt “the political” is that realm of life uniquely determined by the possibility of war. In testing and reinforcing, perhaps first and alone forging, the integrity of the social group; in reaching into the past and into the future, from the mausoleum to the crib; by gathering all within spatio-temporal borders at their discovered fullest extent, for the sake of the maximum effort, expressed in myriad ways but primarily in the demand like no other, to take and give up lives, war actively constitutes the nation. War may also achieve or express social integration in unexpected ways, since at the limits and in all of its processes it tends not only to re-unite the “innocent” civilian and the, presumably, guilty soldier, but to de-construct those parallel separations of private and public, or of religion and state, characteristic of the liberal-democratic dispensation.

Discussing the devastation of German cities in The Third Reich at War, historian Richard Evans describes a peculiar set of reactions by the German populace. Rather than increasing anger with the Allies and strengthening support for the war effort, as the Reich might have preferred, or measurably sapping the effort, as the Allies might have hoped, many Germans were reported to have absorbed “strategic bombing” as just punishment for German sins – especially the sins against the Jews whose dispossession and deportation German civilians had directly witnessed, and whose horrendous treatment outside of Germany was known especially from reports of soldiers on leave. Evans quotes a letter from Bishop Theophil Wurm, an unusually open regime critic, sent to a Reich official, in late 1943:

[The German people regard] the sufferings that they have had to endure from enemy air attacks as retribution for what has been done to the Jews. The burning of houses and churches, the crashing and splintering on bombing nights, the flight with a few meagre possessions from houses that have been destroyed, the perplexity in searching for somewhere to take refuge, all this reminds the population in the most painful way of what the Jews had to suffer on earlier occasions. ((The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945 (Kindle Locations 10592-10596; US Edition 2009-02-07).))

The Japanese may have been less inclined to such views than Christianate Germany, but it may be that in both places a putative lack of sufficient postwar contrition for wartime sins is explained by a feeling of having already paid in some major part for them, and particularly under so-called strategic bombing. Evans suggests further that fear of a deserved punishment from the Allies had led Germans, from the point after Stalingrad when it became widely understood the war was lost, to prepare to deflect a sense of guilt defensively. On the other side, the policy of the United States toward Japan, like that of the British or at least some British toward the Germans, seems to have been tinged throughout the war with a determination to exact justice on behalf of an “all of us” against an “all of them” – thus the title of Max Hastings’ book on the end of the Pacific War, using the same word Wurm or his translator used: “Retribution.”

Hastings took “Armageddon” for the title of his book on the end of the war in Europe: Such Biblicisms seem reflexive, and at least as natural to the subject of world war as the pagan alternatives that might have been preferred by the losers. The authors of the incineration of Hamburg were, as we have seen, far from hesitant about returning to the prophetic sources, and a parallel or perhaps the same reflex seems to have been at work on the day some American high committee approved “Operation Infinite Justice” for America’s initial retaliation following the 9/11 attacks. That Americans were never, in fact, “all in,” was made infinitely clear when the name was changed under pressure to the meeker “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Modern Israel seems to require fewer Biblical allusions, on the other hand, possibly because Israel already is one.

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