Sunday, April 15, 2007

Farewell, Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007

Cold Turkey

"But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas."

"The beliefs I have to defend are so soft and complicated, actually, and, when vivisected, turn into bowls of undifferentiated mush. I am a pacifist, I am an anarchist, I am a planetary citizen, and so on."

Since I first read one of Kurt Vonnegut's novels (I never felt he wrote science fiction), I have felt an empathic and moral kinship with him. And the above quote could easily have been one of mine. So I was not surprised to discover that this voice whose works I enjoyed was from the mind of someone who had also seen, perhaps even had also over imagined (is that possible?) the horrors of war, and was afterwards drawn to study Anthropology, I believe in a very similar weaving of quest as I.

To honor his memory, I want to publish here a clip of the reading he did for Howard Zinn's 2003 Voices of a People's History of the United States. Vonnegut read Mark Twain’s response to Theodre Roosevelt’s congratulating the commanding general in the 1906 massacre in the Philippines. Symbolically this reading draws the three of us together in what I feel is a mutually shared moral universe.

KURT VONNEGUT: This incident burst upon the world last Friday in an official cablegram from the commander of our forces in the Philippines to our Government at Washington. The substance of it was as follows: A tribe of Moros, dark-skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater not many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostiles, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them, their presence in that position was a menace. Our commander, Gen. Leonard Wood, ordered a reconnaissance. It was found that the Moros numbered six hundred, counting women and children; that their crater bowl was in the summit of a peak or mountain twenty-two hundred feet above sea level, and very difficult of access for Christian troops and artillery. Then General Wood ordered a surprise, and went along himself to see the order carried out. […]

Gen. Wood's order was, "Kill or capture the six hundred." […]

There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded-counting that nose and that elbow. The enemy numbered six hundred -- including women and children -- and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.[…]

So far as I can find out, there was only one person among our eighty millions who allowed himself the privilege of a public remark on this great occasion -- that was the President of the United States. All day Friday he was as studiously silent as the rest. But on Saturday he recognized that his duty required him to say something, and he took his pen and performed that duty. […] This is what he said:

Washington, March 10. Wood, Manila:- I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag. (Signed) Theodore Roosevelt. […]

I have read carefully the Treaty of Paris. I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make these people free and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way; and so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

"The Chinese also gave us, via Marco Polo, pasta and the formula for gunpowder. The Chinese were so dumb they only used gunpowder for fireworks."


Ren said...

Well, I'm told through email people like this post, but can't post comments, so... here's trying...

Antifascist said...

That was a beautiful tribute to Kurt Vonnegut.