Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Small Thing"

While listening to internet radio (Pandora), I heard the following song by Barton Carroll (listen to it before you read on):

http://bartoncarroll.com/pages/listen.php?f=SmallThing.mp3&title=Small%20Thing

The first thing that struck me about the song was that it's from the viewpoint of a German during WWII. Yes, she was a civilian, and yes, she was young, but I was already thinking about her role in one of the most vile societies ever created. She admits to being "naive enough to survive." Is that a reference to the Germans in Berlin basically going on with daily life while the Russians were advancing? Hitler was insanely calling on nonexistent units to guard the city while Fascist loyalists were rounding up anyone who could hold a gun (and shooting anyone who couldn't or wouldn't). Those who were able to simply ignored their former leaders, clearly seeing the bankruptcy of their ideology. Or is it referencing earlier times, when defeat wasn't certain, when many who benefited from having the Nazis in power simply chose to ignore their atrocities, if not participate in them? In this case, is being "naive" an excuse?

Soon it became clear I was way off. She was telling the story of her being raped by the Soviet troops. I didn't catch it right away, but on second listen it was extremely obvious right from the beginning. The song isn't about the politics, at least not in a direct sense. It's simply about one girl who was one of the many victims, all across the world, of a horrendous war crime that still happens on a regular basis today. She was "naive enough to survive" her rape, not Nazi Germany. Moreover, when she mentions this, it's to imply her mother was also raped and never really fully recovered from the violation.

I picture her sitting down with her son to explain to him who his real father is, or, perhaps more accurately, which group of men his father may have been one of.

"Lord God let the walls melt into the door. Let my skin grow o'er and heal my sore."

What makes this song so brilliantly written, is what isn't written. The unspoken context. Carroll no doubt wrote this from a German woman's perspective on purpose. It isn't hard to feel sympathy for a victim that's on your side. We can all do that. But what about the other side? WWII is one of the rare historical situations where nearly everyone is in agreement that Nazi Germany needed to be destroyed. And by God, it sure as hell did. But we don't like to dwell on what that actually meant. We aren't told anything of the storyteller or her family's politics. Perhaps they were Nazis and active within the party? Maybe they were apolitical and just "going with the flow"? Or, which would add a horribly tragic twist to the story, maybe they were anti-Fascists and actively participating in the resistance? The question Carroll wants us to ask ourselves is this: Does it matter?

My initial reaction made me think about that question. Indeed, the Russians were on the right side of history, especially when it came to sacking Berlin. Despite the terrible leadership of Stalin (whose betrayal of the German working class was one of the major reasons the Nazis were able to take power in the first place), the Soviet Union played the leading role in defeating Fascism. No single country sacrificed more. This, of course, doesn't excuse the actions of many of the Soviet soldiers entering Berlin. Some accounts say 90,000 women were treated for rape in Berlin hospitals, and there's no telling how many were raped but didn't seek treatment. Just thinking about the sheer size of the crime is so daunting it's tough to comprehend that it actually happened. Lootings and robberies were also rampant. The city was completely destroyed. I was in Berlin in 2006 and there were still marks left from the battle.

"I heard that our brothers and our fathers did the same on their side. I heard that all brothers and all fathers do the same during war time."

I would like to say with one hundred percent certainty that if I would've been there I would've pulled my comrades off the helpless German girls and women; I would've drawn my weapon to make sure no one was shooting unarmed civilians; I would not have allowed the smashing of Nazism to forever be soiled by the uncivilized actions of bloodthirsty hooligans ignorant of the historical significance of the situation and hellbent on pillaging the enemy's capital simply because they can. But, in all honesty, I don't think I can. At least not with one hundred percent certainty. I think of my brother, shot in the back of the head by a German solider during the occupation because he looked up while being marched to a prison camp. I think of my sister, raped by multiple German soldiers as they passed through what's now Belarus on their way to Moscow. I think of my best friend, a man I'd known since he was a child, who I watched spend his last few weeks in agony coughing and moaning until he finally died of pneumonia fighting on the Eastern Front. All of them are walking beside me as I march into Berlin. All of them demand their revenge. Am I strong enough to tell them no? Why should I? The Germans could have said no, but they didn't.

And so on and so on millions of times over...

War is a crime, and the context is the culprit. It is a crime against the unwritten laws of human nature, not of any passing government. Yes, it's true, in this society, sometimes we need to commit crimes. But unless we have a clear understanding of the context, the crime of war is the worst possible crime. It makes us act in ways that aren't natural. War can make our friendly neighbor down the street order the massacre of an entire village. It can make a family man, a church going man, earn a living as a guard at concentration camp. It can make the computer whiz you went to high school with spend his days firing missiles from a drone into a family's living room thousands of miles away, only to drink beer and watch football with friends minutes later. They may be called heroes, evil-doers, allies, or enemies; but they are really just criminals.

History tells me I'm in no way immune from such a crime. And it says the same thing to you. We just have to make sure our crimes are in the right context.

"I was a child. I was on the wrong side. I was broken in by broken men with draining eyes. War sleeps deep in a man, long after guns are gone. He loses care for small things, and I, I was a small thing."

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Wall Street has got a brand new bag

From the NY Times:
The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die.