When Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out all the more exceedingly, Crucify him.—Mark 15:14
What America learned from World War II, after a billion people died and half the Earth was scorched, was to outlaw war on civilians (which works but at bestial cost) and to ban torture (because it’s ineffective, leads to retaliation, kills the souls of torturers, and if you say a soldier can slap a prisoner the whole affair becomes something medieval real fast). America learned this. It’s in the Geneva conventions we signed and in our own Army’s field manual on interrogation. How did we forget so much that, in Iraq and Afghanistan and our offshore prisons and the whole world, for that matter, torture became official U.S. policy?
What David Griffith does in A Good War is Hard to Find isn’t to attack the Iraq war or the Bush administration, both easy outrages, but to explore the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in relation to the larger problem of human evil. First, I must honor the fact of this book. Here’s a young man—he was in high school during the Gulf War—who earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh and is now a professor at Sweet Briar College, who gave himself the authority to engage. He’s no expert, except perhaps in our common language, and that’s the point. He didn’t let Abu Ghraib go down in the flood of fractured information in which we’re drowning. It was deeply significant beyond mere politics, and he saw that. I admire his creative and brave response more than I can say. He used the self in the best possible way an artist can, as an instrument of inquiry into something larger.
A Good War shows how a narrative line can be supplied by a writer exploring a Big Idea instead of by event sequence, plot; the essays are linked only by the author and his inquiry. His own story, unfolding in various scenes, is vital to this: our guide is one of us, an American kid who stumbled upon Hiroshima as a fifth grader and got a seed of doubt and awe planted. And we can see how his past and his preoccupations bear on his response to evil. Griffith grew up steeped in violent movies, watching in boyhood basements and college dormitory outings, and his book reflects those experiences and his growing moral imagination as a husband and as a committed Catholic. He shows us scenes of himself enjoying violence and becoming uncomfortable, and ultimately he grasps the felt, moral response to violence in Blue Velvet and Deliverance in contrast to Quentin Tarantino’s creepy aestheticization of violence and denial of its seriousness in Pulp Fiction.
His book is deceptively easygoing because it’s personal, restrained, and profound rather than clever. Before you know it, you’re contemplating his true subject, of which Abu Ghraib is a banal symptom. Griffith approaches this the way we must approach something so large, in the sideways manner poetry does, probing at the margins of something large and abstract. And then we get the title essay, which meditates upon Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor’s moral vision of the evil (“pride”) intrinsic to human nature. Taking his book’s title from her iconic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” about a family led by its foolish, pridefully unconscious matriarch to execution by a merciless serial killer, Griffith asks much of any reader ignorant of religion or anyone unwilling to consider why America seems peculiarly susceptible to the grotesque violations of its transcendent ideals that its power permits and encourages.
“[B]y separating sin from nature, we forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional—a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil in a War on Terror,” he writes. “Was there ever a greater occasion for pride? Is this the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs? Are these images evidence of the subterranean flaw beneath our benevolent, Christian surface?”
I’d call his and O’Connor’s “pride,” instead, “ego”—but pride is synonymous and may be better, an old word that captures religion’s profound, ancient struggle with the intrinsic problems of being human. Yet what of Abu Ghraib torturer Charles Grainer, who had a Jesus license plate on his truck and a stone engraved with a Bible verse in his flower bed? His particular dogma probably told him that evil was outside himself. This seems worse than religion’s other supposed sin of telling us we’re intrinsically bad. Maybe his religion told him both.
It isn’t just the polarizing fundamentalists who externalize both good and evil—God is out there but so is evil, waiting—but also the angry atheists, as literal-minded as the fundamentalists, and hardly worth discussing, being even more spiritually ignorant, yet who are exerting a baleful influence on the milder folk caught between. A Good War was well-reviewed, including in The New York Times Book Review, despite discussing human nature as imperfectible (and containing evil!) and mentioning God. I hope readers understand Griffith isn’t proselytizing, but can they also imagine themselves as torturers at Abu Ghraib? Or as leaders whose arrogant, power-corrupted pride set the sin in motion? Or as a member of a fearful, angry electorate who put into office such men, who promised not only protection but vengeance?
Humans are torn, moment by moment, between their ravenous egos and an intrinsic moral sense—grand creatures with certain inalienable flaws. This divide is the source of human hypocrisy, in which we can tumble into evil. Although going completely to the dark side isn’t inevitable, under the wrong example and leadership, men will. Abu Ghraib is a warning, not an aberration. The men who put Jesus to death were, after all, ordinary, good citizens, the ruling elite and its mob muscle.
The beauty of A Good War is Hard to Find is that it does not politicize this human dilemma nor does it let anyone off the hook. Nor should it, for the problem it ponders is a daily and everlasting one.