If You Love Martyrs So Much, Then You Be One
God save us all from people who do the morally right thing. It's always the rest of us who get broken in half. -- Paddy Chayefsky, The Americanization of Emily
Most of you know the incident in the central character's past that lies behind the title, Sophie's Choice. On the night she arrives in Auschwitz, Sophie is told that she must choose which of her two young children will be allowed to stay with her, and which will be killed. At first, she refuses, insisting that she cannot make such a choice. She is then told that, if she will not choose, both her children will be killed. She still will not choose, but then, as both children are about to be taken away, she says that they should take her daughter. Her daughter is carried away, screaming, while the young boy stays with his mother. (Here's the scene from the film.)
Did Sophie make the right choice? Should she have continued to refuse, even if both her children were then murdered? Was that the morally correct choice? Are you prepared to judge what Sophie did?
I would hope that most people understand that no judgment of any kind can be made about what a person does in such a situation. Monsters created the conditions under which a mother would be forced to make such a "choice." Whatever Sophie did, the result would be a horror beyond imagining -- and beyond surviving. Although she survives the war physically, she does not survive psychologically, and the profound, ineradicable damage caused by the "choice" forced on her ultimately leads to her own death. The fact that unbearable horror would be the result of whatever she did has a necessary corollary: whatever she did would be completely understandable. Whatever she did would be all right -- "all right" in the sense that it is what happened, it is terrible in every respect, and none of it is Sophie's responsibility. If Sophie had managed to grab a gun, shoot both her children and then herself -- in a desperate attempt to spare all of them from further untold suffering -- that, too, would be perfectly understandable, and a tragedy beyond words.
When a human being is subjected to a living nightmare in this manner, when a person is forced to endure barbaric, monstrous cruelty, when the only choice is between death and death, the concept of "choice" has been destroyed. The Nazis understood very well that the destruction of this capacity to choose in any meaningful manner, the destruction of the capacity to judge, the destruction of any measurable difference between life and death themselves, is critical to the destruction of the human being, of even the possibility of being human; the concentration camps were a laboratory in which they perfected the means of achieving this end, as Hannah Arendt has powerfully described.
The recent horrifying history of the United States has witnessed a lengthy public debate about a closely related issue: the reliability of statements obtained through torture. Anyone who is knowledgeable about torture will tell you without qualification that statements obtained by means of torture are entirely unreliable. We need not be "experts" to see why this must be so. We need only be human beings who honestly endeavor to understand. When a person is subjected to unendurable, excruciating pain, especially when he is repeatedly told that the pain will go on and on and on unless he talks, he is very likely to talk eventually. The obvious problem is that he will say anything to make the pain stop. Statements that are the result of torture are filled with false leads, and information that is of no value whatsoever. In brief: statements obtained through torture are not to be credited in any manner at all.
We can be confident in observing that those people who identify themselves as supporters of Bradley Manning, that is, people who praise his remarkable efforts to bring the horrifying crimes of the United States to light and into public view and who oppose his show trial which will likely lead to decades in prison, are opposed to torture. Yet many of these same people -- many of these "supporters" of Manning -- have forgotten whatever they knew about the operations of torture (if we assume they ever understood these issues at all), just as they appear to have no appreciation of the lessons of Sophie's "choice." As a result, we read of people who are "disappointed" in Manning's apology last week, and who find it difficult to "process" what that apology means. Writers refer to his "short, sad apology," and then proceed to engage in speculative, deeply offensive analyses to "explain" why Manning said what he did.
I repeat that all this is from people who support Bradley Manning. I refuse to try to "explain" Manning's statement, just as I refuse to judge it. Anything and everything Manning says, anything and everything he has said or will ever say as long as he remains in custody and in prison, constitute statements obtained through torture. As such, they are not to be credited in any manner, and they are beyond judgment. His torturers have placed Manning's actions and statements beyond judgment.
I do not want to be misunderstood on this point. Thus far, Manning has said nothing to implicate even one other person; he has certainly not cooperated with the government in the sense of turning "State's witness," to build a case against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, for example. But even if he did that, I would still refuse to judge Manning in terms of his personal character. I would view it as a terrible tragedy, especially terrible if it led to serious danger for anyone else. But I would not blame Manning himself for such an outcome. I would blame his torturers. My view would be as simple as this: Manning is being tortured, and he is trying to survive. Whatever he does is understandable, and there is nothing further to be said about it. Just as we cannot judge Sophie, we cannot judge Manning or anyone else in a similar situation.
Some will object to my statement that Manning is being tortured today. They will acknowledge that he was held in solitary confinement and forced to sleep naked for months on end (among other inhumane practices), and that unquestionably was torture. But all that is over, and now he is "only" being imprisoned because of his actions. And he may still be sentenced to decades in prison, but he will not be subjected to inhumane conditions again (they hope). And he was provided a trial, but of course, it was a show trial from beginning to end, so perhaps we'd best not dwell on that. But at least he had a trial, and he was able to put on a defense, although a defense hideously constricted in its scope by the court's rulings, where every issue of significance was forbidden to be spoken of, so perhaps we'd better not dwell on that, either.
We must always remember the broader context. Bradley Manning is clearly a man of unusual intelligence, and you may be sure he remembers the broader context. Here is a very brief statement of that context, which I wrote three years ago:
At the age of 22, Bradley Manning has attained a moral stature most people never reach in an entire lifetime. He came to understand the unforgivable brutality and horror of what the U.S. government is doing, and he sought to stop it in any way he could. He wanted to do the right thing, he "wanted people held accountable," and he wanted to make sure "this didn't happen again."Manning appreciated the sacred, irreplaceable value of a single human life in a way most people never do. He saw his government -- and the military which he had joined -- systematically committing heinous crimes against defenseless victims, victims who never threatened the U.S. and never could have threatened the U.S. in a serious way. He desperately wanted to bring those crimes to light, and to start a public debate which, he desperately hoped, would stop those crimes and help to make certain they would never be committed in the future.
Bradley Manning acted and continues to act on behalf of the sacred value of life, in the name of decency, honor and anything that is good in the world. And it is precisely for this that the United States government has imprisoned him, subjected him to horrifying, brutal conditions, displayed him in the manner of a caged animal to the world in a mock trial, and now threatens to keep him in prison for decades. Are you seriously going to tell me that this is not torture? At a minimum, this is psychological torture of astonishing, sickening refinement: every value has been inverted and turned into its opposite, compassion and a reverence for life have been turned into vicious crimes, while sadistic monsters enjoy ever greater power and public acclaim. I am certain that Manning is aware of this, although I am also certain he exerts tremendous efforts to keep this awareness at bay, and even to suppress it as much as possible. If he did not, it would drive him -- it would drive anyone -- insane. It is nothing less than a miracle that he has not already become a gibbering, drooling idiot. That particular miracle is a testament to the remarkable strength of this altogether remarkable man. In our time, a time which sneers ironically at the merest suggestion of heroism or greatness of character, I do not expect most people to understand Bradley Manning and what he represents. But if you genuinely wish to see nobility of soul in action, you need look no further than Bradley Manning. And I would suggest that the only proper response is quietly to murmur a fervent, "Thank you."
On the subject of the torture which Manning continues to endure, and the torture which awaits him in the future, I direct you to one passage in particular from a magnificent article by Chris Floyd. In all the reading I've done in the last several days, Floyd is the only writer I've come across who appreciates these issues from what I view as the proper perspective. The entire post is extraordinary and deserves your very careful attention. Note this especially:
I invite any critic of Bradley Manning's mitigation plea to stand in his shoes for two seconds and show us how 'tough' they would be. Manning is facing a lifetime of penal servitude in a system that has already tortured him, battered him, humiliated him, abused him. He is facing the prospect of spending decades -- decades -- in a system run by people who demonstrably despise him. He will be housed with people -- and more importantly, guarded by people -- who hate 'traitors' and 'queers' and 'weirdos' and 'sissies' with a violent, virulent hatred. This is what he faces: years and years and years of it. What are you facing? If I were Bradley Manning and facing a life like that, I'm sure I’d proclaim my 'repentance' too. I'd apologize, I'd weep, I'd throw myself on the mercy of the court, if it meant I had the chance to cut some time from my sentence in hell. Does anyone really believe, even for a moment, that a blazing statement of political principle would have somehow moved the judge – the same judge who has made a relentless series of rulings cramping Manning’s defense at every turn, and ensuring that the trial was a ludicrous, sinister sham which never addressed – and was designed not to address – the substance of Manning’s action and the crimes that he revealed? What good, then, would be an empty effusion whose only purpose would be to make all of us sitting safely behind our keyboards feel all wiggly for a moment or two?Manning has already been forced to endure three years in the nightmare world created by the U.S. government, and he will likely be forced to endure at least another decade or two (if not more) of continued submersion in a universe of torture. In addition to the fact that forcing a person to exist in conditions of this kind makes judgments of the victim's actions and statements utterly irrelevant and meaningless, there is another principle that must be remembered. It is this: You do not have the right to prescribe what another human being "should" be able to take. It is true that there are a few people -- a very few people -- who will stare torture and even imminent death in the face and proclaim, "I will not recant and I will not apologize. I stand by everything I did, and I would do it again! So kill me, you bastards!" However, in a critical sense, imminence of death makes it somewhat easier to spit in the monsters' faces: at least you know the nightmare and the pain are about to end. But Manning is facing endless years of torment -- for acting on behalf of life, compassion, and basic human decency.
The very rare person might stand toe to toe with the monsters until the last moment. You may draw inspiration from that, and that's fine. But you have no right to expect that. I repeat: you have no right to prescribe what another human being "should" be able to take. In the messy, chaotic business that is actual life, this is not an arguable point if one understands the issues involved. It is especially not arguable when a person is subjected in a variety of horrifying ways to psychological and physical torture. Yet many of Manning's "supporters" are "disappointed." They think we must try to "explain" why Manning seeks to mitigate the horrific fate that lies in wait for him, if that is even possible.
At this point, I must be rude, for I think the only proper response to such people is: This is real life, asshole. It isn't the goddamned shitty movie playing in your head. Chris Floyd is far more polite than I am. Here is how he makes the point:
Reality in such systems -- systems that have openly demonstrated their willingness to torture people, lock them up for years without trial or kill them outright at the arbitrary order of the leader and his minions -- is not a TV show, not a movie with well-marked 'character arcs' ending in triumph for the bruised but unbowed hero. It's a dirty, ugly, degrading business, an uneven fight, pitting unarmed truth against vast, implacable, dehumanizing forces of violent domination. It is a war with many bitter defeats, both outwardly and in the souls of those caught up in it. It involves loss, destruction, humiliation, torment, ruin and doubt. There are no "heroes" in it, only human beings: some of them fighting to hang on to their humanity as best they can -- and others who have surrendered their humanity to the forces of dominationReading all the comments from people who were "disappointed" by Manning's apology reminded me of another example of the same phenomenon. Over the years, I've often referred to the film, The Americanization of Emily. Paddy Chayefsky wrote the astonishing screenplay. I've called it an extraordinary film and, in comparing it to Chayefsky's much better-known Network, I remarked:
I think The Americanization of Emily is more deeply courageous in several important ways. ... Emily attacks myths that are more fundamental to our view of ourselves and of our nation. It is even more remarkable when you consider that the film debuted in 1964, barely one generation after the conclusion of the last "good war." And the events in Emily center around one of the "noblest" episodes of World War II: the D-Day invasion. The above excerpts from Chayefsky's screenplay capture the essence of his approach to this material: it is infinitely more than merely unsentimental, it is relentlessly and mercilessly anti-sentimental. As Charlie says: "I'm not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows."A number of people have written to me about my two articles on Emily and Chayefsky's remarkable achievement, at least 20 or 30 all told. (The above remarks are from the first one, but I confess that I am fonder of the second piece, which I count among my better efforts.)
Without exception, my correspondents heartily applauded Charlie Madison's view of war. This speech provides the flavor of Chayefsky's perspective, and his unrelenting attack on the glorification of war:
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of … it’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us – it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved. ...The people who wrote to me agreed with all of that, and they thought the writing was wonderful (which it is: it is great writing, using "great" with its genuine meaning). But most of them were also deeply disturbed by the ending of the film; some of the people who contacted me absolutely loathed the ending.
I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war. ... It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades … we shall never end wars ... by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.
I understood some of the reasons for that reaction, but I also thought there was an element I was missing. It was the reaction to Manning's apology that finally illuminated the issue for me -- because it's the same issue. And once I understood it, I also understood what has puzzled me for a long time: why Emily lags far behind Network in popularity and recognition. For I think, as I said years ago, that Emily is an even greater film: it delves more deeply, it challenges some of our most basic convictions, and it is far more threatening. I should mention that it is also stupendously funny.
The second half of the film centers around the D-Day invasion and, more particularly, it concerns the efforts of Charlie Madison's boss to have a film made of "the first man to die on Omaha Beach." The boss, a Navy admiral, wants to make certain that the first dead man is a sailor; this, he believes, will help in his efforts to get future funding for the Navy (which he fears is being minimized in favor of the Army). (James Garner plays Charlie; Melvyn Douglas is the Admiral; and Julie Andrews is Emily. All of them, and the entire rest of the cast, give absolutely wonderful performances -- although I give a special nod to Joyce Grenfell as Emily's mother.) As the result of a complicated series of events, and despite all his efforts to avoid it, Charlie ends up on Omaha Beach. And everyone thinks he's dead. So the Admiral has his dead sailor, and a photograph of Charlie storming the beach appears on the front page of hundreds of U.S. newspapers, and even on the cover of Life magazine. Charlie is a great hero (a dead one, but a hero nonetheless), and the Navy's future funding is assured.
There's just one problem, or rather a series of problems: Charlie isn't dead; and he was shot, but by another American naval officer, who shot Charlie because he was trying to run away from the beach. What will Charlie do after his miraculous resurrection? Will he tell the truth, or play his part in a phony heroic charade? We learn the answer in the very final scene:
MADISON I'm going to tell them the truth, Bus. I'm going to tell anyone who wants to know the plain, unattractive and not very epic truth.So Charlie and Emily head into the crowd of reporters, and Charlie will happily tell a series of whopping lies, all of which are designed to reinforce the vicious myth of the "glory of war."
CUMMINGS Charlie, we don't have much time-
MADISON I'm going to tell them that a deranged Admiral had a demented idea for a lunatic movie whose only purpose was to juice up the Navy's bid for military appropriations; that my gallant wounds were inflicted on me by my brother officer, the fink...
CUMMINGS (beginning to suspect Madison is serious) Charlie, you've got a legitimate beef against me, okay...
MADISON ...and that my last inspirational words as I led the charge away from the beach were, "Let's get the hell out of here."
Cummings and Emily look quizzically at Madison.
MADISON I've had a bad week, Bus. I've been in battle and I've seen the howl and heard the horror of it again. I will not contribute to your wretched little hoax. I will not help you preserve the wonder of war. I want people to know I was a coward. I want people to know the whole shabby story about my heroism.
Emily doesn't quite trust her ears.
CUMMINGS Charlie, I don't understand you. Do you know what'll happen if...
MADISON Oh, I know what'll happen. I'll embarrass my country, dishonor my service, disgrace my admiral, humiliate my family, and probably get myself thrown in the brig for a couple of years.
EMILY Then why do it?
MADISON Because it's the right thing to do.
CLOSE-UP of Emily, stunned, open-mouthed with disbelief.
EMILY I can't believe it! Is this the Charlie Madison who once said: "God save us all from people who do the right thing! It's the rest of us who always get our backs broken!?" Are you seriously going to destroy everything that means anything to you, Charlie, in a futile gesture of virtue? And you're going to put yourself in jail, are you?
MADISON I don't care what happens to me.
EMILY How bloody brave of you. But you do care what happens to me. At least you said you did. What am I supposed to do while you sit about in your prison cell for five or six years, admiring the glisten of your own martyrdom?
MADISON Emily, I want the world to know what a fraud war is.
EMILY But war isn't a fraud, Charlie; it's very real. At least, that's what you've always tried to tell me, isn't it? That we shall never get rid of war by pretending it's unreal? It's the virtue of war that's the fraud, not war itself. It's the valor and the self-sacrifice and the goodness of war that needs the exposing. Here you are, being brave, self-sacrificing and positively clanking with moral fervor, perpetuating the very things you detest, merely to do the right thing. Honestly, your conversion to morality is actually funny, Charlie. All this while, I've been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody sentimental Englishman.
MADISON Emily, there's a matter of principle involved here.
EMILY A matter of what? ...
MADISON Emily, if a man knows the truth, he has to say it. Madison and Emily regard each other, shamelessly in love.
EMILY (meaning: "I love you") Is this the Charlie Madison who once said: "I'm not equipped to deal with the truth. I let God worry about the truth. I just want to know the momentary fact of things." Your idea of facts, you said...
MADISON (meaning "I love you too") ...were you, a home, a country, a world, and a universe in that order.
EMILY Well, I'm quite prepared to supply all that as my end of the deal.
MADISON What do you get out of it?
EMILY I'll settle for a Hershey bar. They embrace. The door of the Administration Office opens, and Chief Petty Officer Adams comes hurrying out. Behind, the Nurse Captain fills the rectangle of light made by the open doorway.
ADAMS (hurrying up) Hey, Bus! There must be a hundred of them! There's correspondents all over the place. (in passing) Hi, Charlie!
THE NURSE CAPTAIN (calling from the door) Commander, would you please come? We can't have all these people here! Madison, who has been locked in a mutually-obsessed trance with Emily during all this, now smiles and turns to Cummings, who hasn't understood a word that was said during the previous dialogue.
MADISON (wrapping one arm around Emily and the other around Cummings, he jovially says to Cummings) All right, fink, how do you want me to play it? Modest and self-effacing?
Chayefsky could be an exceptionally dangerous writer, and this scene is doubtless among the most dangerous passages he ever wrote. He takes every "heroic" trope celebrated by millions, and memorialized in countless crappy books and even crappier movies, and grinds them in the mud of real life -- real life, as lived by actual human beings. And, Chayefsky insists, the most important aspect of your life is that you live it -- that you live your life, and not throw it away in the name of some meaningless, entirely futile gesture of virtue. You have to speak the truth? Not always -- and not if the price of speaking the truth is that your life will be destroyed, and not when the forces arrayed against you will make certain that the truth you speak will never make a damned bit of difference. You certainly do not have to speak the truth when you are confronted by a system steeped in corruption and so powerful that it can -- and will -- destroy you in the blink of an eye.
But we are all raised on myths: the myth of "exceptional" America, the myth of the "good" American, the myth of "heroism." We want Charlie to tell the truth -- and we want to see the world changed as the direct result. It appears to be news to many people that life isn't actually like that. Chayefsky rejects all the myths, and he refuses to give his audience the "heroic" ending they want, because he knows it's a lie. Instead, he insists that your only "duty" and the only virtue you should seek to attain is to be happy in your own life. Many people will not forgive him for it. This was certainly the case for the people who wrote to tell me how much they hated the ending. And to the extent others indicated that they didn't understand the ending -- well, that means only that they missed the entire point of the movie. And it is these factors, I am now convinced, that explain why Emily has never won the recognition it assuredly deserves.
In the same way, Bradley Manning deprived many of his "supporters" of the "heroic" moment they craved. Manning is fighting for his life, or whatever shattered remnants of it the government will permit him to retain. What are you fighting for? And for the reasons I explain above, and which Floyd discusses so eloquently, there is no judgment to be made about Manning's statement, and we need not and should not seek to "explain" it. The vicious, murderous United States government holds him at its mercy, and it has conclusively demonstrated that mercy is one commodity it possesses in no detectable amount. Short of his immediate release, to which I would insist a lifetime of luxury be added, anything the government does to Manning from this point on will be a terrible, unforgivable tragedy.
And some people dare to be "disappointed" or "puzzled" or "upset." I cannot properly express the depth of my contempt for such people. Do they honestly believe that, against the background of Manning's remarkable, incredibly courageous actions and the fate he now faces, anyone gives a shit about their feelings? That any decent human being gives a shit that they're "disappointed"? Fuck your disappointment. Fuck you. To express "disappointment" and the like is to confess that you may have grown to adulthood physically, but that you have allowed yourself to become fossilized emotionally in a state one might expect from a pathetically narcissistic, very badly damaged adolescent, with no understanding of how human beings actually live their lives or how societies function. It is also to confess a close to complete ignorance of political matters. It would be sufficiently nauseating if they only wished Manning to become a martyr for whatever cause they think they're serving. But it is beyond obscene that they demand that he willingly climb onto the cross, and drive the nails through his body himself.
Let us not end with the contemplation of such stunted people with shriveled souls. Instead, let us never forget Bradley Manning, and fervently hope for his early deliverance from the system of evil which now clasps him in a death grip. Always remember his great achievement, which is far, far greater than the achievements of most people in an entire lifetime, and pay tribute to him in every way you can. And, as I suggested above, think of him every now and then, and gently murmur, "Thank you."