I was reading William Everdell’s superb book, the First Moderns, the other day, and came across an unfamiliar name: Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau. Everdell’s book explores the emergence of the “vortices” of modernism by tracking the various conjunctions of theory and practice not only in the obvious places, the big metropoles, but on the periphery. And, indeed, even in the metropoles modernism was a negotiation between outliers and the establishment. One of the monuments of modernism, Everdell claims, was invented by Weyler y Nicolau: the concentration camp. Or campos de reconcentraciòn, as he named them.
It is an interesting story. According to Everdell, Weyler y Nicolau, fighting against the Cuban insurgents in 1897, decided to experiment with an American invention, barbed wire. Why not string barbed wire around areas that were insurgent strongholds? Since insurgents weren’t formally organized, it seemed like a good way to contain them, a sort of cordon sanitaire. No sooner thought of then done. Soon camps sprang up, thousands of potential insurgents were surrounded by good, healthy barbed wire, and the dying started. The U.S. decided to protest the inhumanity, sending a note to Spain on June 24, 1897. The Spanish reply was interesting: the Spanish government noted that the cruelty of the camps was not different from the cruelty exercized by Sherman on his march to the Sea in 1864. Everdell digs up a clever conjunction of names, here:
“But Secretary Sherman [John Sherman, the man who had penned the American protest to Spain] probably knew better than any Spanish journalist how "cruel" Weyler's policies were, for he was the brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, the general who had become famous by marching from Atlanta to the sea and becoming the first to treat civilians as combatants in a modern war. The Spanish knew it, too. With a fine sense of irony, Madrid replied to Secretary Sherman's protest against what Spain was doing in Cuba by calling attention to what the Secretary's brother had done in Georgia and Carolina thirty years before.
We don't know who in the Spanish foreign ministry put that reminiscence in the note, but the odds favor Weyler himself. At the time of the March to the Sea, the future Captain-General of Cuba had been twenty-five, serving as the Spanish military attaché in Washington, and writing home about how impressed he had been by General Sherman's remarkable new interpretation of the laws of war.”
We like Benjamin’s image of human history as a multiplying pile of ruins observed by an appalled but impotent angel, but in many cases history seems more like a frightened monkey making its way over the trapeze equipment hanging from the ceiling of some big top, a matter of hairy leaps and enormous swings.
Weyler’s invention soon caught the eye of the British, who tried it out in South Africa; soon that caught the eye of the Americans, who were fighting a pesky war against the Filipinos.
“As near as we can tell, the first American concentration camps were built for the Filipinos in that month of November 1900, which means that the British were just ahead of the Americans in adapting Weyler's invention. By December 20, when General Order Number 100 on the treatment of civilian "war rebels" was issued by General MacArthur (this was Arthur MacArthur, whose son Douglas was to follow in his and Weyler's footsteps as proconsul of the Philippines), the ''reconcentration camps" were there to receive them.”
And so one aspect of modernism was launched. An aspect that has been with us persistently ever since, although Americans don’t like to notice their own use of reconcentration camp – how much more comforting to read, for instance, about nasty Lenin and his proto-gulag than to contemplate the fact that William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were responsible for more deaths in a lager than Lenin ever was. Bringing us, of course, to present day Falluja and the new American notion of the high tech reconcentration camp, all about getting your pass, plucking out genetic information, and in general treating the non-American human being like a hog prepared for slaughter.
Talking about which -- the Americans are up to their old tricks again. Another election looming. Another series of military actions, based in Anbar province, motivated by little more than the desire to prevent Sunnis from going to the polls. Last year, the game was to reconcile the Shi'ites to the American tote in Iraq, Allawi, by showing that Allawi was willing to slaughter Sunnis without compunction. This time the game has changed. The Americans have given up the idea of a minority ruling the Shi'ites, and are being used as tools by the present government. Having no choice, the Americans are embracing an obviously dubious bunch, hoping that allies like Chalabi will emerge to rescue the plan to steal the oil and make Iraq an American military platform. But we think the last named are yesterday's options -- they aren't going to happen.
For comic relief, the AEI publishes a ripe load of garbage by Ur-neocon, Fred Kagan, that is a joy to read. This is how these people talk to each other. It is a little weird reading this article in a publication that proclaimed, just six months ago, that the war was over and America had won -- apparently this is the afterimage of Mission Accomplished, the part of the trip where we slaughter -- or 'clean and hold' merrily merrily merrily. It is thinkers like Kagan that have made D.C. what it is today -- a rat's nest of second-raters.