Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America
was something odd about the Lafer boys. While the rest of us – Bob and
Jimmy Miller, Tony Calabrese, Ronny Prybezewski – spent the summer roaming
freely though backyards, up onto garage roofs, along neighborhood alleyways
on our banana-seated Schwinns, the Lafer boys seldom left their own
backyard. On the few occasions that they did, their mother Elise would
ring a cowbell to bring them home, for lunch, or dinner, or simply because
she needed right then, for whatever reason, to know where they
What disturbed me, at age eight, was how Billy and Mark Lafer reacted.
The instantaneous start when the cowbell rang. The look of abject fear.
I’ve lately been re-reading David Griffith’s A
Good War is Hard to Find, a deep meditation on cruelty in its many
manifestations – lynching, hazing, torture – and on our reactions to
the imagery of violence. Linking John Hersey’s Hiroshima,
the stories of Flannery
O’Connor, Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction, with his observations
during the two Gulf Wars and the 2004 release of the Iraq prison photos,
Griffith digs deep into the psychology of human brutality and visits
disturbing aspects of our national psyche. “Those pictures never should
have gotten out,” Donald Rumsfeld suggested after the Abu Ghraib photos
became public, and like those pictures, much of what Griffith asks us
to consider is unpleasant, wants to stay hidden.
The book mentions the infamous Stanford study where normal college students,
assigned the roles of prison guards, exhibited inordinate malice toward
fellow students (the detainees). The planned two-week study only lasted
six days before it had to be stopped – the normal college student guards
became too sadistic.
One time, Billy and Mark Lafer crossed the street and visited the garage
clubhouse in my backyard. They were older – nine and eleven – but comparatively
naïve. We – the neighborhood boys – welcomed them, pretended to
be playing an army game or spy game of some sort, and tied them up.
“You’re our prisoners,” we announced. They laughed.
Until we didn’t untie them. And then lunchtime came. The cowbell rang.
And rang again, more furiously. And again. They squirmed, and cried,
and we thought it hilarious.
Eventually we let them go, and they rushed home. I don’t know if they
were punished, or what was said. Our parents were never told anything.
Which makes me imagine to this day that they took the blame.
To quote Griffith, “sooner or later, brutality catches up with all of
I hope he's wrong.
W. Moore is
the editor of BREVITY.