I finished Antony Beevor's majestic The Second World War last night. I immediately poured myself a drink. Beevor's book is great look at how we think about "good" and "evil." I found it very easy to name "evil," and a lot harder to name "good."
This is evil:
Many prisoners of the Japanese had suffered a particularly gruesome and cruel fate. General MacArthur had given Australian forces the dispiriting task of clearing New Guinea and Borneo of the remaining pockets of Japanese. It became clear from all the reports collected later by U.S. authorities and the Australian War Crimes Section that the 'widespread practice of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers in the Asia-Pacific war was something more than merely random incidents perpetrated by individuals or small groups subject to extreme conditions. The testimonies indicate that cannibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy.
The practice of treating prisoners as 'human cattle' had not come about from a collapse of discipline. It was usually directed by officers. Apart from local people, victims of cannibalism included Papuan soldiers, Australians, Americans, and Indian prisoners of war who had refused to join the Indian National Army. At the end of the war, their Japanese captors had kept the Indians alive so that they could butcher them to eat one at a time. Even the inhumanity of the Nazis' Hunger Plan in the east never descended to such levels.
Because the subject was so upsetting to families of soldiers who had died in the Pacific War, the Allies suppressed all information on the subject, and cannibalism never featured as a crime at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946.
It's not just the practice of cannibalism, but that the cannibalism proceeded from notions of racial superiority, militarism, and empire. The Nazis, who attempted to turn human body parts into consumer goods, were not much different.
But is this good?
The mass of incendiaries raining down in a tighter pattern than usual on the eastern side of the city accelerated the conglomeration of individual fires into one gigantic furnace. This created a chimney or volcano of heat which shot into the sky and sucked in hurricane force winds at ground level. This fanned the roaring flames still further. At 17,000 feet, the air-crew could smell roasting flesh.
On the ground, the blast of hot air tore off clothes, stripping people naked and setting their hair ablaze. Flesh was desiccated, leaving it like pemmican. As in Wuppertal, tarmac boiled and people became glued to it like insects on a flypaper. Houses would explode into a blaze in a moment. The fire service was rapidly overwhelmed. Those civilians who stayed in cellars suffocated or died from smoke inhalation or carbon-monoxide poisoning.
They, according to the Hamburg authorities later, represented between 70 and 80 per cent of the 40,000 people who died. Many of the other bodies were so carbonized that they were never recovered...
Harris's attempt to break German morale had failed. Yet he still refused to admit defeat and he certainly refused to recant. He despised government attempts to whitewash the bombing campaign by claiming that the RAF was going only for military targets and that civilian deaths were unavoidable. He simply regarded industrial workers and their housing as legitimate targets in a modern militarized state. He rejected any idea that they should be 'ashamed of area bombing.'
This is very clearly terrorism. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately acknowledged as much, noting that RAF Bomber Command was often bombing "simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts." Arthur Harris (Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command) rejected the idea that you could separate German civilians from the German military.
When the entire state is mobilized to conquest, what is a civilian? In the Pacific theater, Curtis Lemay used similar logic in ordering the firebombing of Tokyo. (100,00 dead.)
I don't suggest an equivalence here. The big difference between the Nazi embrace of terrorism and the British/American embrace is that there was an actual debate. In Nazi Germany, those who debated were seen as weak, insufficiently loyal, and often executed.
But that isn't enough. Do we get to call ourselves "democratic" and then judge ourselves by a Nazi standard? And there is something more -- what you see is the Americans and British forces throughout the War enacting harsher and harsher measures. Faced with the evil of the Nazis, or the evils of Japanese imperialism, we find the tools of evil more alluring. By the time American forces get to the Ardennes, they are not taking prisoners. And looking at Nazi tactics -- "surrendering" and then shooting -- can we say we'd do anything different?
This is what is ultimately most troubling for me about Beevor's work. He -- all at once --catalogues all the flaws of the Allies, but robs you of your moral superiority. How should we think about the Soviet Union, which, among "The Big Three," bore the brunt of the Nazi assault? On one page Beevor will profile their heroic stand against an Army thought sought to starve them out of existence. On another he will profile that same Army raping its way to Berlin. How do you think about the subjugators of Poland and the liberators of Auschwitz, when it's the same Army?
Perhaps in the same way you think about a Union Army enforcing emancipation, only to turn around and enforce the pilfering of Native American land. Perhaps in the same way you think about Britain holding out against the Nazis, while ruthlessly warring against Kenyans fighting for independence. During the Bush years there was a lot of debate about the usefulness of the concept of "evil." I don't have much trouble naming "forces for evil." What I have trouble with is naming "forces for good," to say nothing of "good wars." Indeed, it's very easy to name "an Axis of Evil." It's significantly harder to name a "Alliance for Good." Perhaps I can go with "forces for betterment" or "necessary wars." Certainly the Allied victory presented a "better" world then what Hitler promised.
I find that it's common for people who fight "good wars" to gild the cause in humanitarianism. And sometimes there are real, actual humanitarian outcomes -- ending the Holocaust, the destruction of the American slave society. But we didn't join the the Second World War to end the Holocaust. And the North only joined the war against slavery when it became clear that it was the only way to reunification.
I am sorry for the confusion of all this. I am still thinking a lot of this through. Je ne sais pas.
Three families of fallen servicemembers received next-day UPS letters from President Trump after a turbulent week in which Trump falsely claimed he had called “virtually all” of the families.
The Trump administration is scrambling to defend the president’s characterization of his communications with grieving military families, including rush-delivering letters from the president to the families of servicemembers killed months ago. Donald Trump falsely claimed this week that he had called “virtually” all fallen servicemembers’ families since his time in office.
Timothy Eckels Sr. hadn’t heard anything from President Trump since his son Timothy Eckels Jr. was killed after a collision involving the USS John S. McCain on August 21. But then, on October 20, two days into the controversy over the president’s handling of a condolence call with an American soldier’s widow, Eckels Sr. received a United Parcel Service package dated October 18 with a letter from the White House.
Emma Perrier was deceived by an older man on the internet—a hoax that turned into an unbelievable love story.
Emma Perrier spent the summer of 2015 mending a broken heart, after a recent breakup. By September, the restaurant manager had grown tired of watching The Notebook alone in her apartment in Twickenham, a leafy suburb southwest of London, and decided it was time to get back out there. Despite the horror stories she’d heard about online dating, Emma, 33, downloaded a matchmaking app called Zoosk. The second “o” in the Zoosk logo looks like a diamond engagement ring, which suggested that its 38 million members were seeking more than the one-night stands offered by apps like Tinder.
She snapped the three selfies the app required to “verify her identity.” Emma, who is from a volcanic city near the French Alps, not far from the source of Perrier mineral water, is petite, and brunette. She found it difficult to meet men, especially as she avoided pubs and nightclubs, and worked such long hours at a coffee shop in the city’s financial district that she met only stockbrokers, who were mostly looking for cappuccinos, not love.
Monday afternoon, President Trump delivered a press conference from an alternative reality, or perhaps a slightly-less-dark timeline. His relationship with Mitch McConnell is great! They have the votes for Obamacare repeal! The hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico is a smashing success! Democrats are to blame for GOP divisions on Capitol Hill! These claims range from the highly dubious to the patently false.
A stunning new speculative-fiction book by Naomi Alderman couldn’t be more timely.
One of the most succinct definitions of sexual harassment I’ve read over the past few weeks goes like this: For men, it’s anything they might say to a woman that would make them uncomfortable if it were said to them, but in prison. It’s glib, sure. But it gets at the fundamental imbalance of power that characterizes relationships between men and women. To understand what it’s like for a woman to be catcalled, or harassed, or propositioned, it isn’t enough for men to simply put themselves in that woman’s place. They also have to imagine what it’s like to sense the imminent danger in those interactions—to be weaker than their aggressor in every way, and to have that weakness woven into the fabric of society itself. As the adage often attributed to Margaret Atwood goes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves.
Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?
The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Honoring the sacrifice of servicemembers requires understanding why they were put at risk, and demanding that those who did so hold themselves to account.
On Thursday morning, I planned to write a pointed screed decrying President Trump’s propensity to view the military community as a problem he can buy off with a check. Then, on Thursday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, decried the noxious politicization of the deaths of servicemembers and how we treat their families in the aftermath. His remarks gave me pause, as they were meant to.
“Let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman, going out and giving his or her life for our country, let’s … keep that sacred” he implored, lamenting the ugly and voyeuristic events of the past week.
Who better to set the protocol and define the limits of this sacred space than a father who lost his son in Afghanistan? Unless you’ve walked in his shoes, don’t ask questions.
DeepMind’s new self-taught Go-playing program is making moves that other players describe as “alien” and “from an alternate dimension.”
It was a tense summer day in 1835 Japan. The country’s reigning Go player, Honinbo Jowa, took his seat across a board from a 25-year-old prodigy by the name of Akaboshi Intetsu. Both men had spent their lives mastering the two-player strategy game that’s long been popular in East Asia. Their face-off, that day, was high-stakes: Honinbo and Akaboshi represented two Go houses fighting for power, and the rivalry between the two camps had lately exploded into accusations of foul play.
Little did they know that the match—now remembered by Go historians as the “blood-vomiting game”—would last for several grueling days. Or that it would lead to a grisly end.
Early on, the young Akaboshi took a lead. But then, according to lore, “ghosts” appeared and showed Honinbo three crucial moves. His comeback was so overwhelming that, as the story goes, his junior opponent keeled over and began coughing up blood. Weeks later, Akaboshi was found dead. Historians have speculated that he might have had an undiagnosed respiratory disease.
A new bookfollows Joseph Lister as he ushers surgery into the modern age.
Joseph Lister came of age as surgery was being transformed. With the invention of anesthesia, operations could move beyond two-minute leg amputations that occasionally lopped off a testicle in haste. (True story.) But as surgeons poked and prodded deeper into the body, surgery only became more deadly.
It was the infections that killed people.
And it was Lister who first realized that germ theory has profound implications for medicine. In a new biography of Lister, Lindsey Fitzharris argues that the invention of antisepsis marks the true beginning of modern surgery. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine takes its title from Lister’s own notes, where he writes of his love for “this bloody and butcherly department of the healing art.”
In Season 2, the terrific NBC sitcom continues to explore ethics without sacrificing complexity or humor.
Last month, the NBC sitcom The Good Place returned for its second year after a first season that was widely praised as “surreal and high-concept” and “ambitious and uniquely satisfying.” In the two-part pilot, the show introduced a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell) who dies and finds herself in a non-denominational heaven by mistake—and who decides to learn how to become a better person in order to earnher spot in the afterlife. With that premise, The Good Place revealed what would eventually become the show’s most important theme: ethics. To avoid being sent to The Bad Place, Eleanor enlists her assigned “soul mate,” a former professor of moral philosophy named Chidi (William Jackson Harper), to teach her how to change her selfish ways.