The Banality of Evil
There's a scene from the series Band of Brothers where the 101st Airborne stumbles on a concentration camp at the edge of whispering pine woods. The scene is especially effective because the audience never expects to find what it finds in a quiet forest. Michael Yon tells a story from a Baqubah, a town from which the al-Qaeda has recetnly been driven:
Speaking through an American interpreter, Lieutenant David Wallach who is a native Arabic speaker, the Iraqi official related how al Qaeda united these gangs who then became absorbed into “al Qaeda.” They recruited boys born during the years 1991, 92 and 93 who were each given weapons, including pistols, a bicycle and a phone (with phone cards paid) and a salary of $100 per month, all courtesy of al Qaeda. These boys were used for kidnapping, torturing and murdering people.
At first, he said, they would only target Shia, but over time the new al Qaeda directed attacks against Sunni, and then anyone who thought differently. The official reported that on a couple of occasions in Baqubah, al Qaeda invited to lunch families they wanted to convert to their way of thinking. In each instance, the family had a boy, he said, who was about 11 years old. As LT David Wallach interpreted the man’s words, I saw Wallach go blank and silent. He stopped interpreting for a moment. I asked Wallach, “What did he say?” Wallach said that at these luncheons, the families were sat down to eat. And then their boy was brought in with his mouth stuffed. The boy had been baked. Al Qaeda served the boy to his family.
One of the reasons Armies were invented, with their uniforms, insignia and badges; with their elaborate rituals and insistence on discipline is not, as some have ignorantly argued, to gratify some fantasy to play out a boy's adventure story. This machinery was created from the necessity to keep armed young men, recruited from all walks of life, often far from direct supervision, inured to violence and frequently stressed beyond normal endurance from going off the deep end. Yon's story reminds me of one I have frequently told. I met a veteran of the Second World War who told me that he entered the Bayview Hotel on TM Kalaw Street in Manila just after the US Army had driven the Japanese from it. This hotel was about three hundred yards from the location of the current US Embassy. And in it, the Filipino veteran found the walls smeared with the jelly of hundreds of human eyeballs. As a child my uncles had told me about how the Japanese, in the last extremity of despair had kidnapped thousands of young women and gang-raped them before killing them horribly. What the veteran described was one of the places it had happened, at the Bayview Hotel. I had no reason to doubt it. Three of my uncles fought in the Second War. Two in the Death March. One in the ETO. My aunts had fled the bayonets of the Japanese. One had seen her husband bayonetted. My grandfather, a guerilla, had been taken to a dungeon in Fort Santiago and tortured. Not hooded like those suspects in Abu Ghraib. I mean hung upside down and burned with cigarettes and beaten with canoe paddles. He was saved only because one of the Japanese officers turned out to have been a pre-war acquaintance, working as a mining engineer in a company he dealt with. My mother recalls how she slept with my grandfathers old shirts, so that she could convince himself he was alive. And about the knock that came on the door some days after he was arrested, and my grandfather standing at the door, burned, beaten but not broken. Other family acquaintances who served as USAFFE guerillas related how they were lined up, questioned. How men next to them were sliced to pieces with swords and never talked. I had no doubts whatsoever about the Bayview Hotel story. And even though I don't know for a fact whether the al-Qaeda baked an 11 year old boy and served the carcass to his family, I have no doubt that it could happen. If the Japanese can do it, the Arab can. There but for discipline, culture and force of habit can go anyone at all. Yon adds:
Like many things in Iraq, the question of whether or not the murderers were al Qaeda is flawed from beginning. Al Qaeda is not a union, it doesn’t issue passports. What is al Qaeda but the collection of people who claim to be al Qaeda? Those responsible for murdering and burying those bodies in al Ahamir (or al Hamira) had the markers of al Qaeda, the same al Qaeda that had boastfully installed itself as the shadow government of Baqubah. The al Qaeda who committed atrocities in Afghanistan, New York . . . the list is long. As for al Ahamir, the massacre “walks like a duck.” It happened in duck headquarters. The people here say the duck did it. The duck laughs.
It fashionable today no longer to restrict the protections of the Geneva Conventions to men under discipline but to any thug or maniac with a gun who claims he is fighting for a cause. Even if that cause is to destroy the very civilization which drafted the Conventions. But in degrading the advantages of wearing uniform, observing discipline and adhering to standards, those "modern advocates" have returned not humanity, but restored barbarism to the battlefield.
I should add, perhaps unnecessarily, that while 100,000 civilians died in the Battle for Manila in 1945 there were nearly no Japanese survivors from its garrison.