HMS Ulysses And The Trolley Problem

I’m a professor of philosophy, and quite frequently, I teach classes on social and political philosophy and philosophy of law; the subject matters of these classes and their attendant discussions, very often stray, as they should, into ethical theory and its foundations. There, on numerous occasions, my students raise the The Trolley Problem and ask me what I think the ‘correct solution’ is. I’ve come up with a variety of responses over the years and have ‘settled’ on something like the following:

The Trolley Problem is not a problem or a puzzle to be solved. There is no solution per se. It is a mistake to ask anyone for their solution to it. The Trolley Problem is rather, designed to illustrate the insuperable difficulty of ethical decision-making, to suggest that very often, if not always, we will find ourselves unable to make what we, or anyone else, would consider to be a ‘correct’ or ‘satisfactory’ solution to an ethical problem. Indeed, the fact that such ethical decisions will leave traces of dissonances within us and others should suggest to us that any decision-making ‘calculus’ or ‘procedure’ is likely to be flawed, and that at best, we should only expect ‘approximate’ or ‘satisficed‘ resolutions of ethical dilemmas.  These dilemmas serve to educate us about the dimensions of the human problem that generated them, and may further guide our ethical decision-making in related domains. But that is all they are supposed to do; they are not supposed to adjudicate between ‘rival’ ethical frameworks and show that one leads to ‘better’ decisions than the other. There is no ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ that is ‘correct’; instead, if the problem is fully fleshed out, at best we should expect to learn about the kinds of human situations that can give rise to them, and how we may ‘work around’ them in the future. We will gain, as a bonus, an added insight into why human affairs have been quite so messy and complex over the years. That is all we should expect from our reading of, and ‘resolution’ of, ethical dilemmas.

To illustrate this claim–and to further make the point that literature can provide moral instruction as well as, if note better than, formal ethical theory–I tell them the story of reading Alistair Maclean‘s WWII novel HMS Ulysses as a teenager, and the effect that one particular incident within it had on me. The precise details are a little hazy–as might be expected, given that I read the novel more than thirty years ago–but the outline is quite clear. An Allied convoy consisting of merchant ships and destroyer escorts is headed to Murmansk to deliver supplies to Russian forces; a German U-boat sneaks in and torpedoes one of the ships of the convoy; as the ship burns but refuses to sink, the captain of the HMS Ulysses orders it sunk in order to prevent its burning ruins from attracting German long-distance bombers and other U-boats from attacking other ships in the convoy; this order is reluctantly executed by a young midshipman despite the fervent expressions of horror and dismay by junior officers and enlisted men; after the torpedo is fired, we find out that that midshipman’s brother was one of the sailors on the ship he had just torpedoed.

When I finish telling this story, suitably embellished to bring out the horrors of the situation being described, I describe the conclusions I drew upon reading it:

War is a cruel and inhumane business; it makes monsters out of all us; military discipline is fascistic. We should not fight wars because we should not put men and women in conditions that require them to take decisions like the one the captain of the HMS Ulysses and the midshipman had to take.

There was no ‘correct solution’ for this WWII trolley problem. The only solution to it was to not fight the war that allowed it to develop. But notice again, that WWII was a gigantic Trolley Problem all of its own with no ‘solutions’ except for very difficult, painful, and entirely ‘suboptimal’ ones. By its end, the Allies had committed many war crimes in an effort to combat other moral atrocities.

There is no getting away from the difficulty of ethical decision-making; any ‘professional’ ethicist who believes otherwise is a charlatan. Those who believe such solutions obtain are deluded.

Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.

Kōbō Abe’s ‘Woman in The Dunes’ And The Scientist’s Existentialist Despair

Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes wears and displays its existentialist, absurdist aspirations openly and transparently; this is its terse Wikipedia summation:

In 1955, Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher from Tokyo, visits a fishing village to collect insects. After missing the last bus, he is led, by the villagers, in an act of apparent hospitality, to a house in the dunes that can be reached only by ladder. The next morning the ladder is gone and he finds he is expected to keep the house clear of sand with the woman living there, with whom he is also to produce children. He eventually gives up trying to escape when he comes to realize returning to his old life would give him no more liberty. After seven years, he is proclaimed officially dead. [citations removed.]

Yes, there is a Sisyphean task here; the labors are joint–crucially, involving both a man and a woman–but seemingly infinite and never-ending anyway. The mystery over why Niki is treated as he is by the villagers is never given a satisfactory solution, and indeed, as in the case of those who counterproductively continue digging in holes, efforts to solve this conundrum only heighten its inexplicability. Bafflement, bewilderment, anger, frustration are Niki’s primary responses, and they are all equally efficacious–that is, they are not in the least.

A perplexed protagonist, a brutal, unrewarding task, an unsolved mystery, the realization that deliverance is not forthcoming; yes, this is an existentialist novel.

There are two interesting embroiderings of these basic existentialist themes in Abe’s novel. First, the novel is set ten years after the end of the Second World War, ten years after hell was dragged  up from its depths and deposited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus, on the Japanese nation. This is a world in which the firmness of an older universe has been replaced by the shifting and transient sand of a new relationship with the world; sand, as Abe reminds us, is ‘fragmented rock,’ once solid and imposing, now beaten down. The Japanese, of whom Niki and the woman are as good representatives as any other, might yet be buried by this relentless invader of their older world. Second, Niki is not just any man, any Japanese. He is a schoolteacher, and moreover, he is a man of science. He is an entomologist; he studies sand as well, and is fascinated by its physical properties.

As a man of science, Niki expects his situations in this world to be infected by the same reason he sees underwriting the cosmos. He is, precisely because of this intellectual orientation, unprepared for the villagers’ mysterious, criminal behavior: Why have they kidnapped him? Do they really think they can get away with this absurd plot? The villagers do not care; they are absorbed in their task. The woman does not know and she does not too, seem to care too much. If there is a concern for consequences, it is a narrowly circumscribed one: what will happen if the sand is not kept at bay? This encounter, this futile dashing of the hopes of the man of science that a reasonable explanation will be found for all that afflicts us, that the methods which have made so much of the world comprehensible will make the villagers and their task less mysterious, gives Abe’s novel its most acute sense of desperation and despair.

Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’: The Holocaust Brought To The Present

One of the most distinctive features of Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah is that it features no archival footage. Not a single second of it. There are no grainy, black-and-white flickering images of Jews being herded into train cars for shipment to concentration camps, pushed and shoved along by brutal, indifferent German soldiers, of camp inmates peering out from behind barbed wire, their bodies gaunt and emaciated, of mass graves being filled with the corpses of men, women, and children, of piles of clothing and other personal belongings belonging to the dead, of the gas ovens in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed, of the liberation of death camps by the Allied forces. There is no reliance that is, on a standard means of depiction of that moral catastrophe.

Instead, we have a series of interviews, one after the other, with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. There are those who lost their entire families, those who watched trains full of deported Jews rolling past their villages, their passengers sometimes visible, on their way to almost certain death, those who saw the entire Jewish population of their town taken away, and those who supervised the deadly business carried out within the confines of places whose names have become a grim directory of death: Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The interviews do not flow smoothly: Lanzmann speaks in French, his interpreter translates into Polish, the interviewee replies in Polish, the interpreter translates into French; sometimes its French to Hebrew or Yiddish; we watch the subtitles go by. Sometimes the interviewee does not want to talk; the memories of the past are too painful and he does not want to confront them again, but Lanzmann urges him on. Sometimes the interviews are conducted by way of subterfuge as in the case of former concentration camp guards who have to be kept unaware that they are being interviewed for a documentary movie. In both cases, we cannot look away; we remain transfixed.

The Holocaust did not take place all at once. Its horror built up over an extended period, starting with the promulgation and internalizing of the virulent ideology that animated it, going on to crude massacres with traditional weapons, and finally reaching a grim crescendo in the death camps where the killing of Jews was transformed into a mechanical, grimly efficient process through the use of gas chambers. Shoah‘s structure and narrative mirrors this progression. It runs for nine hours and layers and layers of disbelief and horror accumulate as our viewing progresses.

Shoah‘s exclusive reliance on non-archival footage means that we are forced to reckon with the Holocaust not as the usual historical exhibit, one consigned to the past, standing as a relic of sorts. Rather, here they are: those who lived, but remember those who died, those who saw the living die or on their way to death, and those who killed or supervised the killings. This technique, this director’s choice, makes Shoah the singular act of remembrance that it is.

Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Post-Apocalyptic Literature

There comes a moment, as the reader moves through Part Two of Ian McEwan‘s Atonement, of sensing something familiar and  recognizable, a deja-vu of sorts, in the sparse yet rich, brutal, unsparing descriptions of physical and moral catastrophe on the long, hot, bloodstained road of retreat to Dunkirk. They are all here: the dead–animal and human alike, the wounded–ditto, the breakdown of social order, the confusion, the  stupidity of attempting to impose order on the essentially chaotic, the slippage of  familiar hierarchy, the formation of new alliances and the disintegration of the old, the cruelty of the mob, the heroism of the individual, the relentless reminders of the eternal importance of the most basic things of all–food and water, the suppurating wounds that will not heal, the dirt and squalor, the fragility of life, the greed and desperation and violence of the desperate, the sordid and sublime actions of those trying only to survive, the fear hanging over all human actions and pronouncements, the grim determination to persist matched by the hopeless flopping down, the giving-up in despair. This is post-apocalyptic literature.

Descriptions and evocations of the aftermath of the apocalypse-whatever its reason, whether pandemics, or vampires, global heating or cooling, asteroid, comet and meteorite strikes, or killer zombies, or human interference with the order of nature gone terribly wrong–are a modern staple of literature and film and television. They exercise a peculiar and particular fascination on our imagination and sensibility; we are obsessed by the opportunity the various apocalypses provide for all manners of investigation and speculation. Here may be found laboratories for moral experimentation, that will reveal how human ethics will reconfigured by challenges to its comfortable verities; here exist all manners of paradigm shifting notions of politics–anarchism and libertarianism obtain traction, perhaps?–and economics and law–think new modes of property and ownership and inheritance and criminal justice.

McEwan’s revisitation of an old disaster reminds us post-apocalyptic speculation is as old as the hills. (Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah is a Biblical tale of the supposedly oldest apocalypse of all.) And the most familiar member of that genre is the war novel or film. The battlefield is the oldest venue of apocalypse; the scorched, smoking, stinking, corpse-littered lands through which invading armies moved have always been classic settings for post-apocalyptic reckonings of the changes induced in man and world by catastrophic, deranged violence. The Grande Armée‘s retreat from Moscow was an apocalypse for its soldiers, as they fell, stumbled, froze, were picked off by wolves and Cossacks, or were sometimes beaten to death or had their throats slit by vengeful villagers. They too found occasions for heroism and cowardice; they too, fought for scraps of food and drops of water and betrayed friends and rescued strangers. They too, found on those frozen wastes of the endless, pitiless, Russian landscape, moments for the most elemental decisions of all, and found themselves turned into either saints or sinners.

To be fascinated by the apocalypse is the oldest form of staring into the abyss.

War is Hell – I: The Battlefield as Open Toilet

The smell of the battlefield is, quite often, a recurrent theme in the ‘war is hell‘ school of military writing. As the dead decay, slowly putrefying in the open, their remain are worked on by maggots and flies and slowly leach into the ground beneath them. The malodorous miasma that results from these corpses hangs over the field of combat, seeping into the nostrils, sensibilities, and undying memories of those who fought on it, and those who are left with the pitiable task of cleaning it up.

But the battlefield is not just host to the dead; it is also host to the living (among them the soon to be dead.) The living still need to eat. And after humans consume food, after a process of biological digestion and processing, they need to defecate. Human centers of habitation have tackled this basic need by building toilets of varying–and the with the passage of time, increasing–sophistication. When human beings congregate in large gatherings like rock concerts, organizers provide portable toilets; campgrounds often feature these nods to a simple human function too. When the humans leave, their waste leaves with them, taken elsewhere for disposal. But on a battlefield,  on a stretch of land dedicated to killing humans and fending for survival, a portable toilet–complete with toilet paper and in American national parks today, even a bottle of hand sanitizing liquid–is an unimaginable luxury. So as men go about the business of killing and eating, they go–because when you have to, you just have to–anywhere and everywhere. And so they do their dirty business–that of killing–surrounded by, and in the midst of, their own waste.

A notable member of the ‘war is hell’ canon is Eugene Sledge‘s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. In this memoir of his time with the Marines in two of the Second World War’s bloodiest battles, Sledge describes an often ignored aspect of the battlefield with a clear, unsparing eye:

Added to the awful stench of the dead of both sides was the repulsive odor of human excrement everywhere. It was all but impossible to practice simple, elemental field sanitation on most areas of Peleliu because of the rocky surface. Field sanitation during maneuvers and combat was the responsibility of each man. In short, under normal conditions, he covered his own waste with a scoop of soil. At night when he didn’t dare venture out of his foxhole, he simply used an empty grenade canister or ration can, threw it out of his hole, and scooped dirt over it next day if he wasn’t under heavy enemy fire.

But on Peleliu, except along the beach areas and in the swamps, digging into the coral rock was nearly impossible. Consequently, thousands of men—most of them around the Umurbrogol Pocket in the ridges, many suffering with severe diarrhea, fighting for weeks on an island two miles by six miles—couldn’t practice basic field sanitation. This fundamental neglect caused an already putrid tropical atmosphere to become inconceivably vile.

Conjure up, if you can, with your nose’s ‘eye’, the odor Sledge describes. The glory of war indeed.


Beverly Gage Misses the Mark on Ken Burns’ ‘The War’

Ken BurnsThe War–a seven-episode, fourteen-hour documentary on the Second World War, released in 2007–was never going to find favor with all who viewed it. Mostly because it is unabashedly sentimental, an unforgivable sin for those of ironic and skeptical persuasion. Even granted this, Beverly Gage‘s review in Slate–which I read after finishing my view of Burns’ opus–seems particularly misguided.

For Gage, The War is “manipulative, nostalgic, and nationalistic”, a bit like making “The Civil War solely from the Union perspective.” Of course, as Gage admits, Burns set out to provide an incomplete, all-American narrative:

Burns readily admits that The War is neither a complete nor balanced account of World War II. “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting,” reads the opening screen of each episode. “This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.” He means this quite literally.

Imagine that: being forced to take a movie-maker’s manifesto at face value.

The War showcases a handful of lively, eloquent Americans from four disparate towns—Waterbury, Conn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn. The series contains no identifiable historical experts. (Though cultural historians Paul Fussell and Sam Hynes appear frequently, they are also veterans and are identified only as “infantry” and “Marine pilot.”)

This identification should have given the game away to Gage; this documentary was never intended to be an academic analysis of the Second World War; it is meant to give voice to those who are not often heard from–those who remained at home, and those who fought the war.

The War offers no commentary from the German or Japanese side, or even from the British or Canadians.

But a multi-faceted narrative of the Second World War need not be contained in the same source; perhaps we could stitch one–of the various home fronts during that conflict–by stitching together German, Japanese, British and Canadian ones. And since Gage did bring up the topic–why leave out the personal narratives associated with the many home fronts in that war? You know, the Russian, the Polish, the Czech, the Indian–the list goes on.

Indeed, apart from a few necessary mentions to move the plot along, the film says little about Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Hirohito, Churchill, FDR, or any of the other national leaders who presided over the worst catastrophe of the 20th century.

Of all the bizarre critiques that could have been mounted of Burns’ documentary, this one surely takes the proverbial cake. The Second World War remains the most profusely documented and forensically analyzed human event ever; millions of pages and miles of film have been expended on it; its political, economic, and military dimensions have been the object of study for professionals and amateurs alike. The names that Gage lists above are among the most recognizable names in human history–largely because of their role in the Second World War. And yet, somehow, an academic historian insists that a narrative, intended to be narrowly focused through a very particular lens, is flawed, precisely because it disdains traveling through some deep, well-worn grooves.

I could go on on, but I’ll stop here. Gage was clearly determined to castigate Burns for not having made another documentary altogether. Her mood in the review suggests she would have slammed comic book artists for using too many illustrations and comedians for being too facetious.