The Holocaust Shrug

David Gelernter

This article is reprinted with  the permission of The Weekly Standard magazine where it was first published 4/5/2004. For more information please visit .

The Holocaust Shrug
From the April 5, 2004 issue: Why is there so much indifference to the liberation of Iraq?
by David Gelernter
04/05/2004, Volume 009, Issue 29
I HEAR AND READ ALL THE TIME about Democratic fury; evidently, enraged Democrats are prepared to do whatever it takes to rid the country of George W. Bush's foul presence. Somehow Republican rage doesn't seem quite as newsworthy (and when it does show up, the storyline is usually "Republicans Angry at Bush"). To be fair, Republicans do control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and ought to be far gone in euphoria. But they are not. There are lots of unhappy and quite a few furious ones out there, and they are not all mad at the president. Some reporters will find this hard to believe, but quite a lot of them are actually mad at the Democrats.

Consider Iraq. By overthrowing Saddam, we stopped a loathsome bloody massacre--a hell-on-earth that would have been all too easily dismissed as fantastic propaganda if we hadn't seen and heard the victims and watched the torturers on videotape. Now: There is all sorts of latitude for legitimate attack on the Bush administration and Iraq. A Bush critic could allege that our preparation was lousy, our strategy wrong, our postwar administration a failure, and so on ad infinitum . . . so long as he stays in ground-contact with the basic truth: This war was an unmitigated triumph for humanity. Everything we have learned since the end of full-scale fighting has only made it seem more of a triumph.

But Democratic talk about Iraq is dominated not by the hell and horror we abolished or the pride and joy of what we achieved. Many Democrats mention Saddam's crimes only grudgingly. What they really want to discuss is how the administration "lied" about WMDs (one of the more infantile accusations in modern political history), how (thanks to Iraq) our allies can't stand us anymore, how (on account of Iraq) we are shortchanging the war on terror. But don't you understand, a listener wants to scream, that Saddam's government was ripping human flesh to shreds? Was consuming whole populations by greedy mouthfuls, masticating them, drooling blood? Committing crimes that are painful even to describe? Don't you understand what we achieved by liberating Iraq, what mankind achieved? When we hear about Saddam and his two sons, how can we help but think of the three-faced Lucifer at the bottom of Dante's hell?--"with six eyes he was weeping and over three chins dripped tears and bloody foam," Con sei occhi piangea, e per tre menti / gocciava 'l pianto e sanguinosa bava, as he crushes human life between his teeth.

I could understand the Democrats' insisting that this was no Republican operation; "we were in favor of it too, we voted for it too, and then voted more money to fund it; we want some credit!" Those would be reasonable political claims. But if you talk as if this war were one big, stupid blunder that we are stuck with and have to make the best of--you are nowhere near shouting distance of reality; people would suspect your sanity if you were not a politician already. Instead of insisting that the war belongs to them, too, Democrats are running top speed in the other direction. Howard Dean led the way on this flight from duty, honor, and truth, but it didn't take long for most of the nation's prominent Democrats (with a few honorable exceptions) to jump aboard the Dean express--which is now, absent Dean, a runaway train.

People ask, why this big deal about Saddam? "Isn't X evil too, and what about Y, and how can you possibly ignore Z?" But we aren't automata; we are able to make distinctions. Some evil is beyond our power to stop. That doesn't absolve us from stopping what we can. All cruelty is bad. Yet some cruel and evil men are worse than others. By any standard we did right by overthrowing Saddam--and do wrong by denying or belittling that fact.

The Democrats' refusal to acknowledge the moral importance of the Coalition's Iraq victory felt, at first, like the Clinton treatment--more relativistic, warped-earth moral geometry in which the truth gradually approaches infinite malleability. Overthrowing vicious dictatorships and stopping crimes against humanity were no longer that big a deal once Republicans were running the show. It seemed like the same old hypocrisy, sadly familiar. (I will even concede, for what it's worth, that Republicans can be inconsistent and hypocritical too.)

But as we learned more about Saddam's crimes, and Democrats grew less convinced that the war was right and was necessary . . . their response took on a far more sinister color. It started to resemble the Holocaust Shrug.

I SUGGEST ONLY DIFFIDENTLY that the world's indifference to the Coalition's achievement resembles its long-running, well-established lack of interest in Hitler's crimes. I don't claim that Saddam resembles Hitler; I do claim that the world's indifference to Saddam resembles its indifference to Hitler.

The Holocaust was unique--"fundamentally different," the German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote, "from all crimes that have existed in the past." Hitler's mission was to convert Germany and eventually all Europe into an engine of annihilating Jew-hatred. He tore the heart out of the Jewish nation. There is nothing "universal" or "paradigmatic" about the Holocaust, and next to Hitler, Saddam is a mere child with a boyish love of torture and mass murder.

Yet Saddam, like Hitler, murdered people sadistically and systematically for the crime of being born. Saddam, like Hitler, believed that mass murder should be efficient, with minimal fuss and bother; it is no accident that both were big believers in poison gas. Saddam's program, like Hitler's, attracted all sorts of sadists; many of Saddam's and Hitler's crimes were not quite as no-fuss, no-muss as the Big Boss preferred. Evidently Saddam, like Hitler, did not personally torture his prisoners, but Saddam (like Hitler) allowed and condoned torture that will stand as a black mark against mankind forever.

Hitler was in a profoundly, fundamentally different league. And yet the distinction is unlikely to have mattered much to a Kurd mother watching her child choke to death on poison gas, or a Shiite about to be diced to bloody pulp. The colossal scale and the routine, systematic nature of torture and murder under Saddam puts him in a special category too. Saddam was small compared with Hitler, yet he was like Hitler not only in what he wanted but in what he did. When we marched into Iraq, we halted a small-scale holocaust.

I could understand people disagreeing with this claim, arguing that Saddam was evil but not that kind of evil, not evil enough to deserve being discussed in those terms. But the opposition I hear doesn't dwell on the nature of Saddam's crimes. It dwells on the nature of America's--our mistakes, our malfeasance, our "lies." It sounds loonier and farther from reality all the time, more and more like the Holocaust Shrug.

Turning away is not evil; it is merely human. And that's bad enough. For years I myself found it easy to ignore or shrug off Saddam's reported crimes. I had no love for Iraq or Iraqis. Before and during the war I wrote pieces suggesting that Americans not romanticize Iraqis; that we understand postwar Iraq more in terms of occupied Germany than liberated France. But during and after the war it gradually became impossible to ignore the staggering enormity of what Saddam had committed against his own people. And when we saw those mass graveyards and torture chambers, heard more and more victims speak, watched those videotapes, the conclusion became inescapable: This war was screamingly, shriekingly necessary.

But instead of exulting in our victory, too many of us shrug and turn away and change the subject.

Young people might be misled about the world's response to the Holocaust by the current academic taste for "Holocaust studies" and related projects. It wasn't always this way.

In the years right after the war, there was Holocaust horror all over the world. The appearance of such books as Elie Wiesel's Night and Anne Frank's diary kept people thinking. But after that, silence set in. In 1981 Lucy Dawidowicz, most distinguished of all Holocaust historians, wrote of "this historiographical mystery of why the Holocaust was belittled or overlooked in the history books." I remember the 1960s (when I was a child growing up) as years during which the Holocaust was old stuff. On the whole, neither Jews nor gentiles wanted to think about it much. I remember the time and mood acutely on account of travels with my grandfather.

He was a rabbi and a loving but not a happy man. His synagogue was in Brooklyn, at the heart of an area that was full of resettled Holocaust survivors. He would visit them often, especially ones who had lost their families and not remarried. Naturally they were the loneliest. But what they suffered from most was not loneliness but the pressure of not telling. Pressure against their skulls from the inside, hard to bear. They needed to speak, but no one needed to listen.

Old or middle-aged men with gray faces and narrow wrists where the camp number was tattooed forever in dirty turquoise, living alone in small apartments: They would go on for an hour or more, mumbling with downcast eyes as if they were embarrassed--but they were not embarrassed; they were merely trying to keep emotion at bay so they could finish. Not to be cut down by emotion was the thing; they wanted to make it through to the end. So they would mumble quickly as if they were making a run for it, in Yiddish or sometimes Hebrew or, occasionally, heavily accented English. My Hebrew was inadequate and my Yiddish was worse, but I could get the gist, and my grandfather would fill me in afterward. Once an old man wanted to tell us how one man in a barracks of 40 had stolen a piece of bread (or something like that), and in retaliation the whole group was forced at gunpoint to duck-walk in the snow for hours. He didn't know the right word, so he got down on the floor to show us--an old man; but he had to tell us what had happened.

Steven Vincent went to Iraq after the war and reported in Commentary about Maha Fattah Karah, an old woman, sobbing. "I look to America. I ask America to help me. I ask America not to forget me." Saddam murdered her husband and son. That story takes me back.

My grandfather was driven. He spent years at one point translating a rabbi's memoir from Hebrew, then more years trying to find a publisher--any publisher; but no one wanted it. Holocaust memoirs were a dime a dozen, and (truth to tell) had rarely been hot literary properties in any case. Then he shopped the "private publishers" who would bring out a book for a fee. He tried hard to raise the money. He was a good money-raiser for many fine causes. But this time he failed. No one wanted to underwrite a Holocaust memoir. The book never did appear.

THE HOLOCAUST SHRUG: To turn away is a natural human reaction. In 1999 (Steven Vincent reports) the Shiite cleric Sadeq al Sadr offended Saddam--whose operatives raped Sadeq's sister in front of him and then killed him by driving nails into his skull. Who can grasp it? In any case, today's sophisticates cultivate shallowness. They deal in cynicism, irony, casual bitterness; not in anguish or horror or joy.

Lucy Dawidowicz discussed the unique enormity of the Holocaust. It destroyed the creative center of world Jewry and transferred premeditated, systematic genocide from "unthinkable" to "thinkable, therefore doable." Mankind has crouched ever since beneath a black cloud of sin and shame.

Nothing will erase the Holocaust, but it is clear what kind of gesture would counterbalance it and maybe lift the cloud: If some army went selflessly to war (a major war, not a rescue operation) merely to stop mass murder.

That is not quite what the Coalition did in Iraq. We knew we could beat Saddam (although many people forecast a long, bloody battle); more important, we had plenty of good practical reasons to fight. Nonetheless: There were many steps on the way to the Holocaust, and we can speak of a step towards the act of selfless national goodness that might fix the broken moral balance of the cosmos. The Iraq war might be the largest step mankind has ever taken in this direction. It is a small step even so--but cause for rejoicing. Our combat troops did it. It is our privilege and our duty to make the most of it. To belittle it is a sad and sorry disgrace.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.


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