Thoughts on Mass Killing

I’ve just finished re-reading Anthony Beevor’s book, The Battle for Spain and one of the aspects that struck me most strongly was the addiction of the times to the idea of killing and in particular, mass killing.
The Nationalists systematically slaughtered real, potential and imagined opponents, while the Communists in the course of their bid to seize control of the Spanish Republic and simultaneously prosecute the civil war showed no compunction in either hunting down political dissidents or wastefully squandering lives in vain military offensives launched for propagandistic reasons.
I was thinking back to Omer Bartov’s comments in Murder In Our Midst (on the origins of industrial killing) about the post-1918 reaction to the experience of industrial warfare (or killing) in the First World War. I am informed that the idea of the Holocaust (symbolically represented by Auschwitz) representing the perfection of industrial warfare, which is encountered in Bartov’s introduction is originally Foucault’s, but it remains a superb method of understanding the cultural history behind the journey from Flanders to the killing fields of Eastern Europe.
It seems to me that after 1918 European politics and culture experienced a war between two aspects, equally fascinated by the idea of industrial killing (militarism and pacifism), the one exalting and the other horrified. Today we seem to have in the West a near-universal defensive and mean-spirited pacifism in the intelligentsia, which bears a striking resemblance to the most corrupt forms of pre-war pacifism. But I would still agree with Bartov when he argues that the West has not succeeded in abandoning the desire for industrial killing (or warfare) but that we have instead simultaneously adopted two incompatible positions on this matter: the public language on war as object is evasive and dishonest but the language on war as subject is aggressive yet devoid of consequence as the rhetoric both invokes the anti-war spirit and fulfils the desire on the part of the speaker: – once the words are spoken, there is no requirement to translate the speaker’s words into actions. Perhaps today we have a narcissistic and self-regarding relationship with death.

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