Manhattan Project #31 Are you calling my mom a killer?

(wherein, during Jed’s visit to his friend Doris in the county jail, they consider the possibility that we all have it in us to kill, and the prison guard dog makes a move on Jed)

“What are you talking about?”

Doris proceeded cautiously; I could tell he didn’t want to argue about all of this, just discuss it.

“Have you ever heard of Robert Ardrey or Konrad Lorenz?”

“Yeh, I’ve heard of them. But I’m not sure what they have to do with all of this.”

“Oh,“ Doris said, raising his index finger as he had when I mentioned Attila on that first day outside the smoke shop. “They have everything to do with it, at least as far as a lot of people are concerned.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Remember that line from that invention book that really pissed you off, the one about how we’ve always fought wars and war-related inventions helped us become the civilized specimens we are today?”

“Sure, I thought that was one of the dumbest things anyone ever wrote.”

“Well, you’re probably in a minority on that, my friend. Of course, that probably doesn’t come as a revelation to you, does it?”

Let me just stop here for a second and tell you how amazing this whole session was, in a way. It probably says more about me than it does about Doris, but I sat there marveling at his ability to bore in on these profound questions, giving them his total attention, while we sat in a prison library, less than fifteen feet from two prison guards and a police dog trained to tear us to pieces if we made the wrong move. I couldn’t ignore those guys, but old Doris just kept banging along, as if they weren’t there.

“Jed, you’re into Darwin and evolution and all that stuff, aren’t you?”
I nodded.
“Well, Ardrey and Lorenz are just a couple of the more recent writers to carry evolutionary theory to its logical extreme. Basically, they would say that human beings are naturally aggressive because we learned to be that way so we could survive. You know this story. You told it to me when you were talking about your invention theory. Human beings have been inventing weapons and using them on each other since the very beginning because it’s how we’re made. Violence is part of our nature.”

“Lorenz and Ardrey both wrote books about it. Ardrey’s is called The Territorial Imperative; Lorenz wrote one called On Aggression. If you get what they’re saying, it’s easier to understand how we got to where we are today. It’s the way we’ve always been. You can find it elsewhere in history, if you know what to look for.”

“Take the Huns, for instance. They managed to take down most of Europe outside the borders of the Roman Empire and damn near toppled that, too. We don’t even know how many people they killed, but eventually they grew wealthy. And if the historians are right, a big chunk of the credit goes to Attila’s lieutenants, his logades—picked men—who earned rank in Hun society by accumulating more stuff, probably from raiding and plundering. Attila liked that a lot. And he apparently rewarded his logades generously, which might explain why they were so willing to kill for him. You could ask whether the Huns can really be compared to cavemen. But some people would say they can. Early human beings picked up rocks and killed other people when those other people had something they wanted, like food or possessions, maybe better weapons. The Huns started out poor and starving, learned to use bows-and-arrows and iron stirrups, and killed other people who had the food and other stuff they wanted.”

“That’s just one example. Run through everything we know about human civilizations and see if it doesn’t all fit. Look at the Greeks or the Romans or the Persians or the Egyptians or the Hebrew people. I think it’s interesting that one of the first stories in the Torah is about Cain killing his brother Abel, which suggests that those ancient people saw violence as part of human nature. And religious people over the ages have tended to just accept that. I mean, isn’t it interesting that in the Christian world, a faith based on the teachings of a totally non-violent man called Jesus, all but a sliver of believers accept war and killing as part of the natural order of things. Hell, they’re proud of it when their members pull on a uniform and head out to fight. They pray for the soldiers in church.”

“Greek religion sanctioned killing; oracles gave leaders advice on the best time to go to war. The Romans built temples to their gods to curry favor with them when they wanted to conquer another part of the world—and we all know that empires are built on the bones and blood of millions of ordinary people who couldn’t get out of the way. And you can’t turn around today without some Muslim cleric declaring war on infidels all over the place. What a mess we’ve got here. ”

I interrupted him at that point.
“I’ve heard a lot of that stuff before. If it’s all true, how do you explain people like me who really can’t get into the idea of violence and killing?”

“Or me,” he chimed in, with that silly smile on his face. “Or me. That’s always been a puzzle for me. I mean, if people like Ardrey—who wasn’t a scientist but a writer, just for the record—if people like him and Lorenz are right about all of this, then that would have to mean that you and I are mutants. And if being down with killing is a trait possessed by those whose genetic structure will survive, then I guess maybe we’re marked for extinction.”

“That’s a pretty grim thought,” I told him. “Doesn’t anyone argue that these guys are wrong? Or is it more useful to leaders of modern civilizations to let everyone think they are violent at the core and take advantage of that to do more killing so they can amass more power and more stuff?”

“Oh, yeh, there are some people who don’t think killing other people is part of human nature. There’s one guy, Richard Leakey, who thinks we’re meant to be basically cooperative, and that killing another human being is against our nature.”

“Penny Coleman thinks that, too,” I told him.

“Who’s Penny Coleman?”

“She’s the widow of a Vietnam vet who wrote a book about what the military did to her husband that led him to commit suicide. She basically thinks healthy human beings have an aversion to killing their own species. She thinks we turn our soldiers into killing machines and that it’s worse now than it used to be. According to her, we used to train soldiers in military skills and to use military equipment. Now, she says, it’s all about training them to ignore their aversion to killing, to kill reflexively, whoever the military identifies as the enemy—men, women, young, old, boys, girls.”

Doris listened intently to all of that, then said,
“And what is Penny Coleman’s area of expertise? Has she studied this stuff? Does she have a degree in it?”

“Yes, she’s studied it, up close and personal with her husband. I don’t know if she has a degree in it or not. Does that make a difference?”

“I’d have to say it does. I don’t mean to go all academic on you, but there are a lot of good-hearted people out there who say a lot of negative things about armies and war who don’t really have anything more than a little anecdotal evidence to back up their argument. I’m sorry Penny Coleman’s husband killed himself, but that doesn’t automatically convict the Army of bending his mind so he could engage in unnatural behavior.”

He leaned toward me and reached out, almost unconsciously, to lay his hand on my forearm. The next instant, I heard snarling and turned to see the police dog lunging for the table. Doris quickly realized what he had done. He pulled his hand away and sat back in his chair. The guard reined in the dog, but said nothing.

“I guess the dog is just doing his job, right?” He looked toward the door, then back at me. “Do you suppose violence is part of his nature? Or did we have to teach him to do that?”

“Jed, I want to suggest something to you that might actually upset you. I don’t necessarily agree with what I’m going to say, but I think we have to at least consider it. It has to do with your mom.”

I didn’t expect that. “What about my mom?” I asked him, a bit uneasy with where this might be going.

“Well, let’s hold off on Leakey for a moment and take a look at America and violence in the twentieth century. What did your relatives do when World War I happened?”

“I don’t know about most of them,” I told him. “My mother’s father enlisted for a while but didn’t like it so he paid his way out. At least that’s what they say in the family.”

“Okay, how about World War II?”

“Well, that time everybody who was of age and could apparently joined up. My uncle trained as a tail-gunner in a B-29. My dad wanted to be a pilot, but he ended up a radio technician. Neither of them actually got to fight. My one uncle did, I think maybe in Italy or someplace.”

“Did they talk about it afterwards? Anybody say it felt unnatural or anything?”

“No. In fact my uncle came out of the war hating the Japanese so much that when his daughter married an Asian guy he wouldn’t talk to her for years.”

“Anyone else go?”

“Not that I know of. That’s the only family members anyone ever told me about.”

“How about your mom?”

“No, she didn’t go. I don’t think many women her age signed up to fight.”

“But she did sign up, didn’t she?”

“No, she didn’t. She stayed home.”

“I thought you said she worked in Washington.”

“Yeh, as an office clerk.”

“Where did you say she worked?” Doris was looking at me very intently. It began to dawn on me what he was arguing.

“For the Manhattan Project. So?”

“Did she know what she was getting into in Washington?”

“Well, she always told me she didn’t, but other people in the family have made it pretty clear she knew exactly what she was part of.”

“Do you think she had a hard time deciding whether or not to take that job?”

“Hell, I don’t know. She was right out of school, her brother and my dad had gone off to war. She hadn’t found a job yet. She never told me how she was recruited or how she made up her mind to go. But the article they eventually wrote about her in the local paper made it sound like she was there doing her patriotic duty. Of course, that’s the way they wrote up all that stuff in those days, I guess.”

“In the pictures you said you had from when she worked there, is anybody wearing a uniform?”

“Sure, the military ran the whole thing. General Groves was in the Army Corps of Engineers. So what?”

“Well, you said you blame Einstein for inventing a weapon that threatened the whole world and killed your mom, and it sounded like she died thinking the bomb took her life. But the fact that she went down there and pushed paper and supported the project suggests she didn’t really have a problem with it.”

I started to feel a little irritated by where Doris was taking our conversation.
“So what are you saying? That my mom was as guilty of killing all those people in Japan as Truman and Groves and Einstein? She was a saint; she never hurt a soul in her entire, radiation-shortened life. How can you suggest something like that?”

Doris lowered his voice, and spoke in flat, uninflected tones.
“I mean no disrespect to your mom, Jed. But if we accept Ardrey and Lorenz’s argument that we are all inherently capable of violence, that we will all kill if that’s what it takes to survive, then how can we exempt your mom from the vast pool of ordinary, genetically-sound human beings?”

“That’s pretty low-down, Doris. I mean, if that’s true then we’re all a bunch of killers, just waiting for something to set us off, some threat that makes us willing to do great harm—to snuff out—other human lives. That’s pretty hard to accept, especially when there are two of us sitting right here who would say we aren’t like that.”

Doris leaned forward again, but not enough to sic the dog on us.
“Forget about us, Jed. Look way, way back. Imagine what went on over the thousands of years people have been walking around on the earth. What do you see?”

I shook my head. I didn’t want to visualize the pictures I knew he was trying to paint in my mind, pictures like the ones in that book in my elementary school library.

“You want to know how all that violence happened, why ordinary people let it happen. You want to blame the powerful, the wealthy, politicians, professional soldiers. Well, you can lay blame on them, if you want to. But as you said yourself, that doesn’t explain the enormity of the violence we’ve seen over all these years. But if we agree with Tennyson that all of nature, from the titmouse to the corporate titan is red in tooth and claw,” he made the quote sign in the air with his fingers around that last part, “then it pretty much all makes sense. Like that old Pogo cartoon said, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’ Then we have an answer, right?”

I shook my head slowly, trying to keep that kind of thinking from finding a place to roost in my mind.
“Obviously I’m not eager to accept that explanation, ‘cause if it’s right, there really isn’t anything we can do about all of this. And after all these years, I’m not ready to accept that. Call me Pollyanna, but I just think it’s got to be something else. And there are at least a few people who agree with me. What about Penny Coleman? She doesn’t believe that. She’s not ready to call my mom a killer. My wife doesn’t buy that stuff, and she’s one of the smartest, most insightful people I know.” I scrambled to put off what was beginning to feel like an inevitable conclusion. I threw out everything I could think of, and ended with an appeal to a different school of science.
“And what about Richard Leakey? You can’t ignore him, can you?”

Doris’ face brightened up a little.
“Oh, yeh, we haven’t really heard from him yet, have we?” He was obviously enjoying this conversation, even if it had taken a kind of depressing turn. He really is a professional student, always reading and thinking, and obviously not afraid to let the thoughts lead where they may. “Leakey, yeh, he’s basically a pretty interesting dude, you know?”

I told him I didn’t really know, but he was welcome to enlighten me. As he launched into it, I glanced over at the guards. The one with the dog was staring at the ceiling; his partner looked like he’d fallen asleep standing up. I hoped Ken the investigator, whoever he was and wherever he was, was enjoying our chat. Doris, it turned out, actually knew a lot about Richard Leakey.

“Richard Leakey came from a famous family that discovered ancient human skeletons in Africa. He didn’t set out to be an anthropologist, but that’s what happened. And what he saw convinced him that the earliest human beings survived not through aggression and violence, but by cooperation, working together. And other scientists have backed him up on this. In fact, they almost made a joke of Ardrey and those other guys after a while.”

“Okay, but how did Leakey explain all the violence, all the killing?”

“He concluded that as long as our ancestors were hunting and gathering, and dependent on each other to have enough to eat, things were okay. But once we invented farming, and started inventing a bunch of other stuff, there was always someone around who wanted to take the food we’d grown away from us. Obviously, we didn’t just give it to them, especially if we didn’t know them. So they had to take it, by force. Leakey is convinced that’s how war was invented. He doesn’t think we are born with a war gene or a killing gene that inclines us to treat each other violently. Does that sound better to you?”

It did make me feel a little better. I had actually heard Leakey’s name before, but I’d never read any of his books. Hearing Doris’s description and not hearing much else about Leakey before made me wonder how hard he’d worked to override the natural aggression guys.

“Sure, that sounds better. But how come I never really heard about this? Even in school the teachers always told us human beings are naturally violent. They had us draw cave men with big clubs on their shoulders, ready to bash the brains out of anyone else who threatened them.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you ran into me, ‘cause I’m someone who reads and listens a lot. And I happen to know that Leakey has actually been pretty vocal about his views on this. Back in 1986 he and a bunch of academics signed what they called The Seville Statement on Violence. Eighty-six was called the International Year of Peace, and Leakey and his friends said they were putting out their statement to advance the cause of peace. And here’s where my basically photographic memory comes in really handy. I am about to list for you the five propositions they included in what they wrote. They didn’t pull any punches in responding to the red tooth and claw crowd.”

“They said it was just plain bad science to say that we inherited the tendency to make war from our animal ancestors. Warfare, they said, was invented by human beings. They said it is also bad science to say that war or any kind of violent behavior is genetically programmed into our basic nature. They said it’s also bad science to argue that aggressive human beings have been more successful in climbing the evolutionary ladder than those who were cooperative. In fact, they said, it’s the cooperators who are still around. More bad science, according to the scholars, is thinking we have a violent brain that just automatically reacts violently to any kind of stimulus. And, finally, and I sort of like this one the best, they said it’s really bad science to think war is somehow an instinctual behavior of humans. If anything, they said, we came up with the idea of fighting wars when our minds reached the point that we could consciously think about things, rather than just reacting like a fish or a frog would, out of their much more primitive brains. How about that, cowboy?”

Before I could answer him, the guard without the dog stepped toward the table pointing to the clock on the opposite wall.

“Visiting time is up, Mr. Schmidt. Mr. Berman, I have to ask you to remain seated right there while we escort Ken back to his cell.”

He reached over and took Doris by the elbow and steered him through the door. The canine squad went with them, but not before the dog made one more lunge toward me, and barked a couple of times. I knew better than to try to shake Doris’s hand. I just looked straight at him as he stood up and said thanks and said I’d see him when he got out. As usual, he just smiled, shrugged his shoulders slightly, and walked away.

A minute or so later the guard without the dog came back and escorted me to the main lobby. He was silent until we got to the door. As I passed him he said, “Love your station, man. Not sure why you came to see this guy, but it was nice to have you here.” He leaned close to me and whispered, “There wasn’t really anybody listening in. We just say stuff like that to mess with the druggies’ heads.” He straightened up. In a normal voice, he said, “You have a good evening, sir.” It was quite an hour. I got back to the station in plenty of time to get ready for the late show.


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