June 4, 1993

It Couldn't Happen Here, Could It?

Violence is as American as cherry pie.

H. Rap Brown

When the European part of World War II was over, my outfit, the 328th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Division of the Third Army, was stationed near Linz, Austria, where we were to stage for the war in the Pacific. The Pacific war was soon over thanks to two atomic bombs. We had little to do but wait to be sent home.

Sgt. Elwood Paaske, who spoke German, had made friends with some of the villagers. Elwood was an infantry squad leader, and he was good at it. With the war over, Elwood had reverted to his gentle civilian demeanor, as had most men who had learned to be killers, or be killed. He told me, in his usual quiet way, that those people were no different from the people he had known at home. I snickered in disbelief. After all, hadn't these people just finished exterminating most of Europe's Jews and Gypsies, a large number of Poles and other people that the Nazis didn't approve of; not to mention some buddies of his and mine? When we were billeted in an apartment house, we found lots of mementos of Nazism; there were swastikas all over the place. Yet, when we inquired, there wasn't a single Nazi in all of Germany. Where had they all disappeared to?

It is customary, when preparing to fight a war, to paint the people we are about to fight as being somehow different: cruel, vicious beasts, who must be destroyed in order to stop them.

I now think that Elwood was right and I was wrong. Those Germans were just like the people at home. There was no difference between them and us, other than the language.

Is there something about the people in the Balkans that has kept them killing one another for centuries? Are they different from people in the rest of the world? My answer to those questions is that there is nothing different about those people. They are just like we are, or like the inhabitants of any country. The majority simply wants to live, raise their families and have a bit of joy in their lives. That's how we are, and that's how people are all over the world.

As in every country, we too have people who are willing and able to kill anyone with whom they disagree. They are in the minority, but if given power, they can be expected to kill their enemies. We have our fair share of those barbarians.

I can testify from my own experience that the American soldier is no different from soldiers in any country. When trained to do so, all killers are basically similar. There are, of course, individual differences; some are better killers than others, and some are just better. Being a good person and being a good soldier are not only not similar, they may be antithetical.

What is there about a country or region that allows the minority of ruthless killers to gain the upper hand? The answer is simply that they are allowed to do so. Unless actively opposed by the majority, any country would be a battle ground between the savages of the Left and the savages of the Right, the Christian savages vs. Muslim savages, Jewish savages vs. Muslim savages, white savages vs. black savages. In our country the elite fighters would be the Skin Heads and their ilk. Before anyone became aware of what had happened, many of us would have been massacred.

We have a history that tells us how cruel and ruthless some of our forefathers were. They were that way to the Indians, The Irish, The Chinese, The Blacks. The incident with Americans of Japanese ancestry during WWII was relatively mild compared with what was done to others --there were no massacres or lynchings. Obviously all of that cruelty was perpetrated by a minority.

But the majority let it happen.

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