Tag Archives: humility

Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”


Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

Humility is as important as a good military: The First Iraq War

Some have asked if I am a passivist who believes that all wars are morally wrong. The answer is no, but I admit I am very close to that.  There are not many wars I think were justified.

The first Iraq War had what we lawyers like to think of as ‘colour of right.’ There was some justification for that war. After all a cruel and vicious dictator, Saddam Hussein, led Iraq into an invasion of a small neighbour, Kuwait, entirely without provocation. This was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler leading Nazi Germany in invasions of Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland just because he could, and because the neighbour’s big bully, the USA, hinted it would look the other  way. That invasion would have given Iraq access to all of Kuwait’s oil.  Saying that this was unacceptable made sense.

George H.W. Bush the American President at the time got a solid international core of support for his venture.  The broad coalition of countries he got to sign on included Britain, various European countries, Australia,  as well as a number of Middle Eastern countries. He even got Canada to come on board.

The key to that war, unlike the Second Iraq War, was limited aims. The coalition forces  joined to stop the aggressor from its invasion of Kuwait and drive them drive it out of the country.  Iraq was not allowed to convert its gains on the ground into potentially valid claims against the country.  This contrasted sharply with the Second Iraq War where George W. Bush’s lieutenants, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to initiate what they famously referred to as “regime change.”

Many American conservatives had thought George H.W. Bush had stopped the first Iraq War too soon. The Coalition forces could have driven the Iraqi invaders back into Iraq in order to removed the widely perceived ‘evil’ Iraq government led by Hussein, into submission, but the elder Bush decided to stop when the goal was accomplished.  George W. Bush was not so easily satisfied. He wanted to topple the government, and not just the statue of Hussein. This changed the war entirely. Bush Jr. wanted to do what he thought his father should have done–see too it that the regime changed.

The younger Bush had goals that could not be considered modest or humble. He wanted to end the Hussein government and turn the country into a democracy.  Wars without humility are very dangerous things. George W. Bush and the American people found that out the hard way. They ended up with a war that has lasted nearly 2 decades and is still not over. They are still having trouble extricating themselves from Iraq.

The second problem with the Second Iraq War, unlike the First Iraq War, was that there was no legitimate instigation or provocation. The Americans tried to manufacture one, but that failed. They claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and it did not matter that the Americans had them too. Iraq could not have them.

There is no time where humility is more important than war. Hubris is as much of an enemy as the foe. If countries fail to remember this, even powerful countries can be made to pay a heavy price.