Is the US Really More Humane Than North Korea?

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I’ve noticed some heartburn in the West from the New Year’s message delivered by the Korean Central News Agency (there’s no permalink, click on the article “Joint New Year Editorial):

We must develop our single-minded unity without interruption into the solidest one which is carried forward generation after generation. Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of our Party and our people, is the banner of victory and glory of Songun Korea and the eternal centre of its unity. The dear respected Kim Jong Un is precisely the great Kim Jong Il. The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should possess a firm conviction that they will become human bulwarks and human shields in defending Kim Jong Un unto death, and follow the great Party for ever. [Emphasis added – CHF] We must become true persons who keep pace with their leader and his true comrades who work untiringly to creditably realize his intentions however hard the times are.

I’m not entirely sure what the heartburn is about. Isn’t this what all governments, more or less, demand of the people they govern? That they become “human bulwarks and human shields” defending the state and its leadership, which never puts itself or its members at risk?

I mean, I know we live in an era in which this kind of sacrifice for the state is pass. Which is why in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush asked not for sacrifice, or commitment, but rather told Americans to “go shopping,” visit Disney World and “enjoy life.” Clearly, the sacrifice was for a small group of others to make. The war would not even get paid for by raising taxes (which is, to be honest, what governments ought to do in wartime to cover expenses, if for no other reason then to show people that war is burden to bear and ought not to be a permanent condition). Clearly, Bush would not openly ask Americans to be a bulwark and a shield for his leadership. No Western leader in our consumerist age would. Or could.

Americans are very lucky, right now. The United States can wage war almost with impunity. There is little cost and little risk. Our capital-intensive form of war needs fewer and fewer bodies (the age of the mass armies has passed as has the age of the mass factory and the mass office and even the mass media), and thus does not need to conscript anyone. Those we attack are weak and far away, and possess no ability to retaliate in an effective manner. And so no American leader need demand that Americans be “human bulwarks and human shields” against some enemy, real or imagined.

But aren’t we anyway? I can imagine that American leaders would, if the need arose, toss away the lives of the people they govern without any thought. A day will come – I believe this fully – when American planes will bomb a people who can and will fight back. Effectively. We have for so long fought that weak that we have no idea what it is to fight the strong and the resolved. I do not know when that day will come, or who those people will be, but between our decaying power and our righteous (but terribly misguided) certainty that we are history’s meaning and direction, I believe it will come.

And then you watch. The demand will be made that we be bulwarks and shields. It will come.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is an anarchist, seminarian, songwriter, sometime essayist and Jennifer's ever-loving husband. He blogs here and here.

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