What a strange thing; it’s the third of May, and I was thinking about one of my favorite paintings. Go ahead and take a moment and just look at it—you can click on it and see a larger version, if you want. Think about it.
The painting commemorates an event in history: almost 200 years ago, in 1808, Napoleon’s armies occupied Spain, and the people of Madrid rioted on the second of May. On the third, the troops rounded up people off the street, lined them up, and executed them. These were just ordinary people, peasants and shopkeepers and students, and probably many of them were sympathetic to the rioters and resented the invaders…that is, in the terms of the occupying army, they deserved to be punished brutally. It was among the first in a long series of repressive actions the French took, trying to keep the populace under control.
Look at the people—the affecting strength of the painting is the human responses to imminent, faceless death. There’s horror and shock and fear and confusion and resignation. Then there are the grim, uniformed soldiers committing the slaughter; this is their job, these are the actions they do under orders, orders handed down by ruthless commanders who are certain that a lesson must be taught to the people. This is war, after all.
(For the ahistorical readers: keep in mind that after 6 years of tearing up the country, Napoleon was expelled from Spain, and a year after that, he literally met his Waterloo. And if you needed to be reminded of that, at least remember that these massacred civilians died for a struggle you can’t even be bothered to know about.)
It’s a riveting image. This is what lasts of war—the pain and the grief, the aftermath in which we all say, “What a waste,” when the artists step up and try to show us what it was really all about.
They are building their portfolios right now. Look familiar?
This is not the strange thing, though. Neither the indifference of the warriors nor the pity we feel for their victims is unusual—it stretches over centuries.
It’s just strange that here on the third of May we again have an occupier of a foreign land suggesting that the solution to our difficulties is greater ruthlessness, more indiscriminate killing, deeper disinterest in the human consequences of our actions.
So what do I read here on the morning of the third of May? Glenn Greenwald cites a WSJ editorial that speaks of “moral authority” while advocating greater ferocity.
This is a fact that must be integrated into our public life–absorbed as new history-so that America can once again feel the moral authority to seriously tackle its most profound problems. Then, if we decide to go to war, it can be with enough ferocity to win.
Amanda Marcotte finds a fool who thinks a lethal disinterest is wise.
Which is why there are times when we really should turn off the “smart” bombs and show our seriousness by putting the world on notice that, when we believe the situation calls for it, we are willing to ignore the inevitable bad press and the howls of protest from human rights groups, and exhibit a show of strength and military professionalism that is politically disinterested and tactically thorough and lethal.
Perhaps we’d better start killing all the Goyas in Iraq, too. Two hundred years from now, what will people remember?
This is the Third of May, after all.