The politics of brutality. 'Them' & 'Us'?

14 December 2004 |

TJS George

The cruellest personification of brutality in recent history is no doubt Pol Pot. Assuming power in Cambodia in 1975, he pronounced it as Year Zero and issued an 8-point edict which abolished all towns, abolished all markets and abolished money. People in towns and cities were force-marched into the countryside. Along the way, those who talked too much or were slow in walking, or cried or protested were executed as they walked. Old people and children who stumbled were shot too. Babies were killed by flinging them against rocks. Marauding soldiers would lynch people and eat their livers in the raw. Some 1.5 million people were butchered in a matter of months.

Okay, so Pol Pot was brutality in human form. Does that make Cambodians a brutal race? That's the kind of generalisation that can make dubious psycho-historians out of otherwise respectable writers. Philip Short is indeed a highly respected researcher/writer. His book Mao: A Life is a classic. He has now written a new biography, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare . It is a definitive treatise on the Cambodian tyrant. But it is marred by the author's derivative theory that brutality is built into the cultural character of the Cambodian people.

Actually that is something that can be said about any people. There is a mass of literature, from the book Rape of Nanking to the film Bridge on the River Kwai , that records the unbelievable brutalities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Does that make the Japanese people a brutal race of humans _ the Japanese with their kabuki theatre, with their Shinto traditions, their exquisite tea ceremony and the unrivalled grace of their aesthetics.

As coincidence would have it, much of the folklore of brutality is built around kings and conquerors of the East _ from Genghiz Khan to Idi Amin. One reason could be that the chroniclers, whether writers or film-makers, are overwhelmingly from the West; Easterners lag behind in the disciplines of research, study and recording.

In reality the West can teach the East quite a few lessons in despotism and brutality. Is there anything more savage in history than the wholesale decimation of the native population of North America? Poisons and epidemic-spreading germs were used to exterminate entire communities, an early employment of weapons of mass destruction. If there is anything more demonic than this, it can only be the wholesale brutalisation of the black slaves shipped from Africa to the New World.

And where in the scale of human brutality shall we place the more recent cases _ the agonising death of 115,000 Japanese when nuclear bombs were dropped on them; the chemical destruction of a country's soil and water, and the genetic deformation of its populace, when the deadly chemical, dioxin, was sprayed over Vietnam.

For argument's sake, we can say that these extreme measures were resorted to in the heat of war. But what about the savaging of helpless prisoners in Abu Ghraib? A young woman smilingly putting up the `V' sign over a heaped mass of naked prisoners, another woman soldier dragging another naked prisoner with a dog belt attached to his neck _ these are barbarities that compete with Pol Pot's for attention. So do we pronounce that Americans as a race are barbarous?

French statesman Clemencean famously described America as the only nation in history which miraculously went direct from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation. Another generalisation, but the point is made, and Amen to that.