Lessons from the Iraq War: Scott Beauchamp on Antigone, Simone Weil, and “the unfathomable wickedness of murder.”


Painting by Sebastien Norblin (1825), Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

It’s a busy weekend for me, busier than is reasonable, but I wanted to take a moment to point out “The Problem of Force: Simone Weil’s Supernatural Justice,” a moving and provocative essay by Scott Beauchamp in The Point. It weaves together his experiences as a soldier in Baghdad, with Sophocles‘s Antigone, with the words of Simone Weil, who writes, “In all the crucial problems of human existence the only choice is between supernatural good on one hand and evil on the other.” 

It begins:

Every human death feels unnatural. Even the peaceful passing of elderly relatives who’ve lived rich lives and completed the full circuit of experiences we all feel entitled to—work, marriage, children, vacations, holidays—are attended by a grief so massive that it slips our processes of rational cognition. It hits us obliquely, and never chronologically. I’m walking through the produce aisle of the grocery store and unexpectedly, while lifting a bag of apples into my cart, I feel the shocking lightness of my grandfather’s body as I bathed him while he was dying of cancer. Anguish so vast that it reaches you in fragmented details outside of time. A sack of apples becomes a spirit medium. How can the loss of a person be natural?

Soldier turned writer Beauchamp

Every human death feels unnatural, but murder even more so. The first murdered corpse I saw was in Baghdad during my initial deployment as an infantryman in 2007. In the middle of an otherwise uneventful patrol through the heavy stench of narrow streets, a group of smiling children gestured for us to follow them. They laughed and danced their way to a road which opened up into a spacious dead-end street a little wealthier than the rest of the neighborhood. Patriarchs smoked nervously in doorways, aloof but expecting us. The children, still laughing and asking for chocolate, had clustered around a body slumped over on its knees at the edge of the curb. The man had been bound, gagged, tortured, and killed. His skin bloated and shifted colors in the sun. Flies filled the air, buzzing with the same strange energy as the children. In my memory, I can’t recall the man’s face, only his wounds.

It had been a political murder. This was at a time of sectarian violence, when Baghdad neighborhoods were being consolidated by a long-oppressed Shia majority and Sunnis, some former bigwigs under Saddam Hussein, were being run out of the city in often violent fashion. To the Shia, it was retribution for decades of a criminal dictatorship. What did it matter to them that Saddam was gone if the Sunnis still had the best houses, the best jobs, and all the money? The body we found had been mutilated and conspicuously placed as a warning: leave now or this will happen to you. The corpse that had nauseated me and shocked me into a life-altering sense of disgust had been created by someone’s idea of justice. That’s the double scandal of a person murdered in the name of justice, whether it happens in a Baghdad street or in the middle of the road in Minneapolis: the unfathomable wickedness of murder is justified in the grim vocabulary of order and stability. It’s enough to make you question the legitimacy of any manmade definition of justice.

How does Weil and Antigone come into it? Here:

Supernatural love, always.

For Weil, when agents of the state resort to violence, they are always morally wrong. On the other hand, the supernatural conception of justice also demands that we extend compassion to those who have recently been perpetrators of violence. After all, Polynices hadn’t been merely a passive victim. He’d fought and killed and if he’d been successful in battle very well might have pillaged Thebes and sold its citizens into slavery. Nevertheless, Antigone honors him with a burial. Why? Creon, confused himself, asked the same question. “I was born to join in love, not hate—that is my nature,” she responds.

What sort of eyes does it take to see your enemy as more than your enemy? What sort of heart does it take to love them? In a 1947 essay called “Void and Compensation,” Weil wrote, “I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.” The line reflects her conviction that transcendent love begins in forgiveness, including the forgiveness of one’s own previous failures to transcend one’s tribal “role.”

Read the whole thing here.

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