Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Only Following Orders

There are two cliches about the Nazis: one is that there wasn't a single one to be found after WWII; the other is that those who were discovered were only following orders. Both are reasonably well-founded. But actually, as Enzo Traverso points out in The Origins of Nazi Violence, the alienation that this implies, the separation between conception and action, was already embedded in the capitalist social pattern. It is normal in the post-Enlightenment era for the execution to take place without an executioner, so to speak. From the factory to the abbatoir to the death camp, the person who pushes the button is not morally responsible, but a part of the machinery. All that occurred to me while reading this piece on the life of Paul Tibbetts Jr, the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (and never lost a night's sleep over it):

“I’ve got a standard answer on that. I felt nothing about it….I'm sorry for Takahashi and the others who got burned up down there, but I felt sorry for those who died at Pearl Harbor, too....People get mad when I say this but--it was as impersonal as could be. There wasn’t anything personal as far as I’m concerned, so I had no personal part in it…” "It wasn’t my decision to make morally, one way or another…I did what I was told--I didn't invent the bomb, I just dropped the damn thing. It was a success, and that’s where I’ve left it.…I can assure you that I sleep just as peacefully as anybody can sleep….”

...

Truman invited him to the Oval Office in 1948 and asked him, “What do you think?” Tibbets responded, “Mr. President, I think I did what I was told.” Truman replied, slapping the table, “You’re damn right you did, and I’m the guy who sent you. If anybody gives you a hard time about it, refer them to me.” In The Tibbets Story, however, he relates the conversation a little differently with Truman advising him, “Don’t you ever lose any sleep over the fact that you planned and carried out that mission. It was my decision. You had no choice.”