My father never killed anyone.
He never, for example, burned the skin off a child. He never shot anyone in the stomach. He never shot anyone in the head. He never crippled anyone, put a bullet in anyone’s back. He never bayoneted anyone, he never used chemicals to choke the breath out of anyone, he never did anything like that.
Yet he was part of the twentieth century. He was part of the generation in the U.S. that was drafted to go to Korea. He avoided that draft. He was too young to have been in WWII.
The state sends millions of men overseas. Or the state sends millions of men to the front. The state supplies them with weapons, and kills them if they don’t kill. They come home, having killed, and everything takes on the air of normality again. A man sits at a table with his family, jokes with his buddies, retires in this air of normality. It is normal to sit at a table, it is normal to have a family, it is normal to joke with friends, it is normal to retire, and it is normal, it was normal, to kill. Nobody says, you are a killer. Why would anybody say that? Everybody says, you are the greatest generation. Or they say, you are a patriot. Or they say, you do what you have to do. And they are right.
Is the big difference in people between those who have killed and those who haven’t?
No. Yes. Inside, inside it might be the big difference, but the state that sends men off to kill will, when war stops, try just as hard to make men forget. Many of the features of the modern world – for instance, our housing pattern in the U.S., the housing that, deregulated, brought down the world economy and will probably do it again in my lifetime – came about as part of the post-killing moment. The post-killing society. Some societies, it turns out, due to money, power politics, go from killing to killing – there’s no post-killing interval. Iraq. Afghanistan. The Congo. Here, one can assume that my father’s status, as a non-killer, is much more unusual. You have to flee to achieve it.
Myself, I have never killed anyone. Division of labor in the states, the development of distancing techniques – the end of selective service, the birth of the robot drone – are about the state’s impersonal memory of the killers in its midst. The killers in its midst sometimes can’t fall asleep, once the killing is over. They can’t forget that they are killers. These are the sensitive souls, as if their souls, for some reason, are coated with a chemical that burns a picture in them. For who doesn’t forget? Even the relatives of the victims forget. Those killed in 1944-1945 in Japan, for instance – in a series of firebombing raids that netted 600,000, it is estimated, plus the 200,000 A bomb casualties – they forgot. Those Germans killed in the great bombings forgot. Their sons forgot that they killed and killed, unparalleled slaughters, on the East Front, or in the Balkans, or in Greece, or in France. Their sons forgot that they loaded children onto trains and sent them to die in the camps. The Americans forgot even quicker. Everybody shook hands and was friends after the killing, briefly, stopped, and then it started again in the colonies, then in the third world. Meanwhile, the directors of the killing were replaced, gradually, in the capitals, by men who hadn’t killed at all, but were eager to “intervene” and to surgically strike and in general to make sure killing went on.
So killing and forgetting are two highly important social functions, our duties. And we have done our duty so well that we have diminished the time between killing and forgetting until it almost seems like the latter precedes the former.
And this is how we make our heroes.