“Fortress of Indifference”

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

            In John Tirman’s book, The Deaths of Others, he discusses what he deems to be a disturbing trait of American citizens. He goes to great lengths to show a historical context, many examples relevant to today’s political climate, and some of the deeply-rooted reasons for this discussed trait. The problem that Tirman brings to readers through his book is the problem of a cold indifference that dominates the American society in response to the atrocious acts that have taken place in American wars and military interventions. Tirman offers readers the thesis that the general indifference to the atrocities of war is a distinctly American characteristic that has roots in the country’s history and origins. He provides a basis, or argument, for this thesis by providing readers with a history of American atrocities, ways that American indifference has been measured, and finally, reasons for indifference of the American public.

            Tirman’s first step in providing a basis for his assertion that a distinctly American indifference exists is to provide readers with a historical context through which they can understand the current climate of indifference. If Tirman is insisting that American indifference exists, he must first show the readers the atrocities that have happened in the first place to which the American public can even respond with indifference. He goes on to discuss at length three specific atrocities committed by American soldiers during times of war or American military interventions.  He discusses the atrocities that took place in My Lai during the Vietnam War, where an American platoon massacred five-hundred villagers with automatic fire and grenades, and participated in rape and destruction of the villager’s homes. He also described the atrocity of No Gun Ri, Korea, in which a convoy of refugees was gunned down by an American helicopter. Finally, he went into detail about how U.S. Marines massacred twenty-four unarmed people, over half of which were women and children, and including a blind 74 year-old man in a wheelchair in Haditha, Iraq. By dissecting these three specific atrocities that have happened in various points in American history, Tirman highlights a pattern in the way that Americans have responded to the atrocities. He asserts that each atrocity, even though they occurred in different times and under political administrations, all follow the same basic pattern. The atrocities all follow a pattern of discovery, denial, cover-up, backlash, and, ultimately, indifference.

            Now that Tirman has provided readers with a historical perspective through which they can understand his thesis, he discusses ways in which American indifference can be measured. He presents various polls that consistently show that the American public overwhelmingly places the safety of American troops and preservation of the American mission over the individual safety and general wellbeing of the inhabitants of the areas where American wars and military interventions have taken place. In Chapter 11 of The Deaths of Others, “The Epistemology of War,” Tirman discusses one such poll that asked “‘If there is a significant increase in the number of attacks on Iraqi citizens by insurgents after the U.S. withdraws its troops from Iraqi cities, do you think the U.S. should or should not send combat troops back into those cities?’ The answer was overwhelming: 63 percent said we should not, 35 percent said we should.” (Tirman, 339). Tirman also detailed individual cases of indifferences throughout history, including the decline in media coverage of Iraq, brushing the Vietnam War off as a “mistake,” and the complete absence of media depictions of the atrocities of the Korean War. These polls and instances certainly translate into the widespread indifference of the American public towards the suffering of foreign civilians that have come to fruition through the atrocities of American forces.

            Once Tirman has put forth the history of atrocities, the indifferent response of the public, and ways that the indifference has been documented, he goes on to give clear reasons for this American indifference. First, he discusses the role that the long history of racism in American has in causing indifference. He asserts that indifference follows the insensitivities that have formed the roots of American globalism: “The roots of American globalism—‘freedom’s empire,’ in Laura Doyle’s conception—were based in part on a supposition of white superiority and destiny that was scarcely questioned from the earliest days of the European settlements.” (Tirman, 344). Tirman basically says that our entire history and the way we discover and present knowledge has led to American citizens generalizing foreign cultures rather than viewing them as a collection of diverse individuals. By assigning each individual of a specific area the values of a specific stereotype, Americans have been put in a position to make judgments about the values of individuals, and, ultimately, value judgments about the sanctity of the lives of individuals. Tirman then goes on to discuss the role that the Frontier Myth has played in the widespread indifference of the American populace. He starts by specifying that the Frontier Myth is a way through which Americans can rationalize violence. He discusses the defensive mindset of frontier violence, and, most importantly, that the “other key dimension of frontier violence is this notion of regeneration, that violence itself refreshes the mission, the identity, the moral worth of its practitioner. It is energizing, an act of rebirth.” (Tirman, 352). If Americans view wartime violence as a way through which the American mission and reputation is regenerated and redeemed, then the lives of civilians are a necessary sacrifice. Finally, Tirman discusses the psychological distancing that most Americans rely on to preserve their belief in a “just world.” Psychologically, Americans feel the need to distance themselves from the horrors of the world, oftentimes by ignoring atrocities, to preserve their belief that the world is a just and deliberate place. These three factors merge to form a “fortress of indifference,” in most Americans, shielding them from the atrocities of the real world.

            Ultimately, Tirman says that the truth of wars, or the “Epistemology of War,” lies in the numbers, instead of any of the various ways of rationalizing civilians deaths. The sheer numbers of civilian deaths that occur in war should be enough to convince people that the true atrocity is war itself. Tirman also gives somewhat of a solution to this unjust system of indifference. Americans need to gather knowledge and educate the younger generation on a more global and universal scale, allowing the public to see the value of individuals and ultimately break away from harmful stereotypes.

            Personally, I feel like this book should be included in the ten books that every American should read. John Tirman brings to light many of the things that are lying just below the public perception. Living in the South, I feel like many people believe, or choose to believe, that things like racism and this idea of the Frontier Myth are simply ideas that lie dormant and have been left behind in our darker pages of history. But the truth of the matter is that this racism and idea of American exceptionalism are active in our culture and upbringing, perhaps so active that the ideas are ingrained and embedded within us from such a young age that we do not even realize that they are still prevalent in society today. I agree with John Tirman. We need a stark departure from traditional methods of world and cultural education that lead to indifference. We need to approach things from a global scale. We need to realize that it is through sheer luck that we were born as privileged citizens of the United States, rather than refuges of some war torn nation, and embrace the rest of humanity as equals moving towards a common purpose. We need to look past ethnic, cultural, and religious divisions and affirm the idea that we are all unflinchingly united as human beings, first and foremost. It is our duty to refuse to turn our heads the other way and indulge in indifference. We need to bring the injustices of the world to the light, so that we can make them right, and, eventually, prevent them completely.