Wednesday, February 28, 2024

It's Politics, Not Nature


It’s Politics, Not Nature

Peter Schultz


            Read the following carefully: “Out there, lacking restraint, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country, and a relentless enemy, we sank into a brutish state.” [115] This is a quote from Phil Caputo’s book A Rumor of War, cited in American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, by John Hellman.


            Here are two other quotes, the first about Caputo and the second from Caputo, which occur, as does the one above, in the context of Caputo ruminating about his war crimes, that is, when he murdered two civilians. Although he was tried and acquitted, he still refers in his memoir to his actions as war crimes. Despite his crimes, Caputo is an admirable human being.  


            “Caputo shows … wilderness calling forth the universal savage nature within man.”


            “I would never again … fall under the charms and spells of political witch doctors like John F. Kennedy.”


            Caputo writes as if he had entered, in Vietnam, the state of nature, the “wilderness,” which revealed the savagery that is thought to be the natural condition of human beings. But if you consider Caputo’s language, this isn’t what happened. Read the first quote with added emphasis: “Out there, lacking restraint, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country, and a relentless enemy, we sank into a brutish state.” Sanctioned, country, and enemy are all political phenomena. So, in an important sense, Caputo’s “out there” was actually a political space, not a natural space, something that the lingo of the grunts in Nam recognized as well by calling Vietnam “Indian country.” And special note should be taken that Caputo attributes the creation of that space, that wilderness, to “political witch doctors like John F. Kennedy.”


            So, it is fair to say that it isn’t nature that calls forth the savagery engaged in by Caputo or by human beings generally, it is politics. And isn’t it obvious that the savagery displayed in Vietnam, the killing, the torture, the deceit, the maiming, on both sides, was politically motivated? More generally, isn’t obvious that the worst examples of savagery are always sanctioned, that is, legitimized via “political witch doctors like John F. Kennedy?” Savagery may well be natural, but it is activated, as it were, politically. As Hellman puts it: “Rather than a unique American capacity for evil, Caputo sees instead the lesson of American atrocities to be the utter lack of American uniqueness.” [114] That is, the American atrocities in Vietnam were no different than the British atrocities in Kenya, or the German atrocities against the Jews and others. Or, to put this another way, the Holocaust wasn’t unique; it was just another atrocity, an amazingly brutal atrocity, attributable to politics and the political generally. Most generally, it wasn’t “the wilderness” that led Caputo to do what he did, what led the United States to do what it did in Vietnam, it was politics because it was politics that created that “wilderness.”


            Thomas Hobbes famously labeled “the state of nature” a state of war of all against all. But, as Rousseau pointed out, Hobbes’ state of nature didn’t describe the original condition of human beings. In their original condition, humans weren’t warlike, Rousseau argued, they were peaceful or benign. Or, as Rousseau also put it, humans were born free but ended up in chains. And this was the result of political witch doctors who are so often celebrated as visionaries or benefactors of humankind, “charismatic” human beings that attract human beings like Caputo and even get them, sanction them to kill, maim, or torture other humans deemed to be enemies. But despite war, killing, maiming and torture being common occurrences, don’t blame them on nature. It’s all politics.

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