Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

January 4, 2008

If you find yourself becoming desensitized to the news and the images on television, start worrying now. Your humanity is at stake. In his title, Jonathan Glover is referring to this meaning of ‘humanity’—the quality that makes humans, well, ‘human’. To put it another way, the meaning here is the opposite of ‘inhumanity’. I did not realise the subtlety of this meaning the first time I picked up the book. I thought it was a book on twentieth century history, and expected a light read on twentieth century human endeavour on the topic of morality. What I instead got was an unflinching look at the horrors of the last century: Srebrenica, Auschwitz, Rwanda, Hiroshima, Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, Vietnam, and of course Iraq, seen through the eyes of a moral historian.

Cruelty, torture and barbarism are inhuman. Humans see the value of honesty in relationships, generosity amongst friends, warmth towards children and creativity in work. But why is it that humans as a group behave so horrifically inhuman? The disparity is chilling. What caused the students in Mao’s China to inflict such unspeakable cruelty to their teachers and parents? What caused the American soldiers to go on a rampage and kill innocent villagers in My Lai? Why was there little restraint in the decision to bomb Nagasaki?

Senseless as all these might seem, there are some patterns that history instructs: the erosion of moral identity, tribalism, the Hobbesian trap, utopian projects and the desire to create mankind anew.

As depressing as it all is, there is hope. The first step is to not look away but to learn from the past. John F. Kennedy had read The Guns of August, a book that details the way Europe drifted into a war that no one wanted. When confronted with what was later known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was certain that no matter what happens, he was not to repeat the mistakes of the leaders of Europe in 1914. Both he and the Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev, knew they were in a trap that ordinarily would have escalated into war. Khrushchev too wanted to avoid war and wrote to Kennedy thus: ‘You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut’. Both men found a diplomatic solution and nuclear war was averted in the fall of 1962.

Perhaps Humanity is the Guns of August for the entire century: a compendium of errors that led to the horrors of the recent past. My only hope is that it is read by all who are in a position to decide ‘not to tighten the knot’. After the missile crisis, Khrushchev was reported to have said, ‘Don’t ask who lost or who won. Mankind won’.

Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

Jonathan Glover

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