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Who Watches the Watchmen?

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Yesterday, I wrote about a simple truth: people hate armies occupying their country. I used real world examples and analogies to prove my assertion, but I think literature demonstrates this simple truth better. As my proof, I offer three examples from art.

First up, we have J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. In an unnamed city in an unnamed empire, the military has gone off to attack the “barbarians”, leaving behind a garrison to “protect” the city. But the town turns into a military police state. With the main battalion gone to fight the barbarians, the remaining soldiers terrorize the town:

“Among the small garrison that has been left behind there is more drunkenness than I have ever known before, more arrogance towards the townspeople. There have been incidents in which soldiers have gone into shops, taken what they wanted, and left without paying. Of what use is it for the shopkeeper to raise the alarm when the criminals and the civil guard are the same people? The shopkeepers complain to Mandel, who is in charge under the emergency powers while Joll is away with the army. Mandel makes promises but does not act. Why should he? All that matters to him is that he should remain popular with his men. Despite the parade of vigilance on the ramparts and the weekly sweep along the lakeshore (for lurking barbarians, though none has ever been caught), discipline is lax...

“The soldiery tyrannizes the town. They have held a torch-light meeting on the square to denounce 'cowards and traitors' and to affirm collective allegiance to the Empire. WE STAY has become the slogan of the faithful: the words are to be seen daubed on walls everywhere. I stood in the dark on the edge of the huge crowd that night (no one was brave enough to stay at home) listening to these words chanted ponderously, menacingly from thousands of throats. A shiver ran down my back. After the meeting the soldiers led a procession through the streets. Doors were kicked in, windows broken, a house set on fire. Till late at night there was drinking and carousing on the square. I looked out for Mandel but did not see him. It may be that he has lost control of the garrison, if indeed the soldiers were ever prepared to take orders from a policeman.

"When they were first quartered on the town these soldiers, strangers to our ways, conscripts from all over the Empire, were welcomed coolly. 'We don't need them here,' people said, 'the sooner they go out and fight the barbarians the better.' They were denied credit in the shops, mothers locked their daughters away from them. But after the barbarians made their appearance on our doorstep that attitude changed. Now that they seem to be all that stands between us and destruction, these foreign soldiers are anxiously courted. A committee of citizens makes a weekly levy to hold a feast for them, roasting whole sheep on spits, laying out gallons of ram. The girls of the town are theirs for the taking. They are welcome to whatever they want as long as they will stay and guard our lives. And the more they are fawned on, the more their arrogance grows. We know we cannot rely on them. With the granary nearly empty and the main force vanished like smoke, what is there to hold them once the feasting stops? All we can hope for is that they will be deterred from deserting us by the rigours of winter travel.”

In an almost uncanny parallel, Kafka’s “An Old Manuscript”, describes the same situation. Written from the perspective of a shopkeeper in the square of a medieval town, he opens the windows one morning to discover that a band of barbarians have taken up in the square, hired by the king to defend the kingdom:

“As is their nature, they camp under the open sky, for they abominate dwelling houses. They busy themselves sharpening swords, whittling arrows and practicing horsemanship. This peaceful square, which was always kept so scrupulously clean, they have made literally into a stable. We do try every now and then to run out of our shops and clear away at least the worst of the filth, but this happens less and less often, for the labor is in vain and brings us besides into danger of falling under the hoofs of the wild horses or of being crippled with lashes from the whips.

"Speech with the nomads is impossible. They do not know our language...Whatever they need, they take. You cannot call it taking by force. They grab at something and you simply stand aside and leave them to it.

“From my stock, too, they have taken many good articles. But I cannot complain when I see how the butcher, for instance, suffers across the street. As soon as he brings in any meat the nomads snatch it all from him and gobble it up. Even their horses devour flesh; often enough a horseman and his horse are lying side by side, both of them gnawing at the same joint, one at either end. The butcher is nervous and does not dare to stop his deliveries of meat. We understand that, however, and subscribe money to keep him going. If the nomads got no meat, who knows what they might think of doing; who knows anyhow what they may think of, even though they get meat every day...

“‘What is going to happen?’ we all ask ourselves. ‘How long can we endure this burden and torment?' The Emperor’s palace has drawn the nomads here but does not know how to drive them away again. The gate stays shut; the guards, who used to be always marching out and in with ceremony, keep close behind barred windows. It is left to us artisans and tradesmen to save our country; but we are not equal to such a task; nor have we ever claimed to be capable of it. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.’”

“Who Watches the Watchmen?” Juvenal’s old refrain is answered in both of these passages: no one does. You can’t. A feeling of helplessness pervades these passages.

Perhaps my final example explains it the best. In the Simpsons episode “Homer the Vigilante”, Lisa asks Homer, "If you're the police, who will police the police?" Homer tells her, "I don't know. The Coast Guard?”


One comment

So what you’re basically saying that it’s not possible to “watch the watchmen?”