West stumbling in Afghanistan’s Heart of Darkness
Published On Sat Mar 17 2012
“The horror, the horror!” Mr. Kurtz, the European intellectual, would-be civilizer and homicidal self-made god of Congolese natives, the man who uttered those words in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is, of course, insane.
So, allegedly, is the U.S. soldier who murdered 16 Afghan civilians — men, women and children — in Panjwai district within Kandahar province last weekend. The final four words uttered to Conrad’s protagonist, Marlowe, by Kurtz as the latter expires on a jungle steamer have echoed down the 112 years since the book was written, reverberated in the facts, in the repetition of atrocities but not in anything that anyone in the West has learned. The words have sailed on in darkness as U.S. soldiers have had themselves photographed urinating on the corpses of dead Afghans, as American military “kill squads” murdered Afghan non-combatants, as U.S. officials burned scores of Qur’ans in an Afghan garbage dump, as U.S. soldiers massacred civilians in Haditha in Iraq and at My Lai in Vietnam.
Heart of Darkness is said to have been hugely influential. But how influential has it really been? First it was seen as a parable on the evils of colonialism. Long after, it was tossed into the maw of Postmodern literary deconstruction: the fact that author and protagonist were themselves white Europeans managed to obscure if not delegitimize an ugly and far more important message that remains directly relevant to the massacre in Kandahar. While the exact meaning of Kurtz’s “The horror, the horror,” has often been left to debate, there is another short quote of Kurtz, this one appended to one of his pamphlets on native improvement: “Exterminate the brutes!”
What the West has walked into is directly the result of historical myopia, an unwitting stumble into a quagmire of the past, indeed, we might say, into the murk of Conrad’s dark river.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, poor nations, which had gained their independence over the previous century only to become client states of the two superpowers, knew real independence once again. There appeared the illusion of a world of pre-colonial of independence until those states often collapsed in tyranny, anarchy, or fell afoul of the West. In any case, what has often followed is not so much “neo-colonialism” as western military occupation with a timetable, an exit strategy and crucially, a mission civilisatrice — the time-honoured “civilizing mission” — education, human rights and so on, an echo of the “civilizing mission” of the old empires.
The fact that westerners no longer live in a colonial world like that of the British Empire seems to have blinded them to their own compulsion to “civilize” the peoples in the countries they occupy when there is no known instance in history of one country “civilizing” another country overnight during a military occupation and simultaneously looking for a fast exit.
But more precisely, “The horror the, horror!” and “Exterminate the brutes” are ugly. Ugly because they are so intimate; far more intimate than war, occupation or exploitation. There is a long record of colonial agents, officials, viceroys, medical people and many others coming to hate the peoples they are trying to help because of the stresses involved. Many who started out as idealists ended up facing their own racism, if not indulging it. Why should today’s soldiers, whether in combat or development, be any different? Doubtless there are now aid workers and humanitarian relief people whose frustration has grown to hostility because of burnout, cultural conflict, miscommunication or psychotic confusion when friend and enemy all look alike. And it works the other way too: Afghan soldiers fighting or training alongside NATO troops have begun to turn on their erstwhile allies, killing them.
It happened under the French in Algeria, under the British in India, it has happened in all interventions. There comes a point when a civilizing military occupation becomes insane, at the end of its tether, like the soldier accused in the Kandahar massacre. How far are we really from Mr. Kurtz when he wrote the words, “Exterminate the brutes!”?
Hugh Graham is a Toronto writer and journalist. His last book is Ploughing the Seas, about the CIA and the rebel resistance in southern Nicaragua in the 1980s.