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Review of

David Griffith's A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America

Soft Skull Press, 2006

 

By Dinty W. Moore

There 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 were.

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.

Cruelty.

To quote Griffith, “sooner or later, brutality catches up with all of us.”

I hope he's wrong.


 

Dinty W. Moore is the editor of BREVITY.