Raining blood

Historian Howard Zinn reflects on a photo accompanying an article in The New York Times:

“That was Jeremy Feldbusch, twenty-four years old, a sergeant in the Army Rangers, who was guarding a dam along the Euphrates River on April 3 when a shell exploded 100 feet away, and shrapnel tore into his face. When he came out of a coma in an Army Medical Center five weeks later, he could not see. Two weeks later, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, but he still could not see. His father, sitting at his bedside, said: ‘Maybe God thought you had seen enough killing.’

“The newspapers on December 30 reported that 477 American GIs had died in the war. But what is not usually reported is that for every death there are four or five men and women seriously wounded.

‘The term ‘seriously wounded’ does not begin to convey the horror . . . ”


My brother Mark is one of those left-wing college profs you always hear about, taking it upon himself to try and open the eyes of his young and impressionable charges to the crimes of the powerful and the true horrors of war. Thus, his reactions to my post on cinematic violence were particularly incisive: we don’t so much need less exposure to violence, he thinks, but more exposure to truly realistic violence. Mark is not, however, an experienced blogonaut, and was flummoxed by Haloscan’s limit of 1,000 characters or less “for a non-upgraded account.” So he resorted to e-mail (which I have edited slightly to remove typos and correct orthography). Being a Latin Americanist he prefers the term “Usian” to “American” to denote a citizen of the U.S.A.

“I agree with all y’all’s points, but I think that seeing so-called ‘real’ gross violence is somewhat therapeutic (it can turn people way from naive support for wars, for example), and I’m pretty sure I’m not a psychopath. It is truly amazing how few of my conservative, pro-war students can stomach the graphic photos from the Middle East, Chechnya, and so forth, that are floating around the web–photos of what it actually looks like to ‘have one’s head blown off’ are apparently enough to change a lot of folks’ opinions. If we could get the smells in there too, you might be able to convince a few more. In comparison, no fictional movie is ever more than one long, faked orgasm. Usians understand violence as something theatrical, and they like it, are drawn to it, for that reason. Because it is primarily something they experience vicariously, they have the feeling in the backs of their minds that they can always run faster/draw first/survive flaming crashes, etc. Show them real photos of severed Algerian heads with penises stuffed in them, or severed heads in Nanking with cigarettes placed in them–they literally run and vomit. No Hollywood movie will ever show that type of stuff, because it’s considered ‘pornographic,’ so it gets an X rating.

“Some will argue that plenty of Usians experience real violence in their own lives, but I think that many who do become inured and in turn, as they have been kicked since they were children, turn around and kick others (collectively, the State of Israel, for example). They have been dehumanized and are I suppose more prone to dehumanize others; many of the sheltered who haven’t, however, in my opinion, should be shown a little real gore–especially [images of] the children we use for ‘collateral’–and of course they should empty their arsenals into their TVs while Fox is on.”


The Saga of Burnt Njal, arguably the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas, does not shy away from graphic depictions of violence, nor – in contrast to contemporary traditions on the continent – does it idealize them. It chronicles a blood feud that spans generations and engulfs much of northwestern Europe. It also describes the 11th-century conversion of Iceland to Christianity, which is depicted as a more-or-less voluntary, collective decision impelled by the need for a unitary, theological basis for the unwritten constitution – a decision strikingly similar to the one just arrived at by the members of Iraq’s (non-)Governing Council. The anonymous Christian author of Njal’s Saga naturally represents this as something favored by the wisest men of Iceland, who see the new religion’s potential for lessening violence.

What the author does not suggest is that the old beliefs were without basis in “reality.” The matter-of-fact narrative style, common to all the major sagas, actually conforms quite closely to the modern idea of realism. This lends considerable impact to the periodic incursions of the weird, the uncanny and the horrific. From the translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (Penguin, 1960):

“On the morning of Good Friday, it happened in Caithness that a man called Dorrud went outside and saw twelve riders approach a woman’s bower and disappear inside. He walked over to the bower and peered through a window; inside, he could see women with a loom set up before them. Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the verses they were chanting:

‘Blood rains
From the cloudy web
Of the broad loom
Of slaughter.
The web of man,
Grey as armour,
Is now being woven;
The Valkyries
Will cross it
with a crimson weft . . . ‘

“Then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands. Dorrud left the window and went home. The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.

“A similar marvel was seen by Brand Gneistason in the Faroe Islands.

“At Svinafell in Iceland, blood fell on the priest’s stole on Good Friday, and he had to take it off. At Thvattriver on Good Friday, the priest seemed to see an abyss of ocean beside the altar, full of terrible sights, and for a long time was unable to sing Mass.”


I used to listen to a lot of music by bands whose lyrics dealt with these kinds of themes extensively – bands with names like Violence, Slayer, Sepultura.

Pumped with fluid, inside your brain
Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes
Burning flesh, drips away
Test of heat burns your skin, your mind starts to boil
Frigid cold, cracks your limbs
How long can you last
In this frozen water burial?
Sewn together, joining heads
Just a matter of time
‘Til you rip yourselves apart
Millions laid out in their
Crowded tombs
Sickening ways to achieve
The holocaust

Slayer, “Angel of Death,” Reign in Blood (Def American, 1986)

I assure you that years of listening to death metal and punk rock did not desensitize me; quite the opposite. By contrast, the much more cerebral, angst-ridden lyrics of so-called alternative bands left me cold. Raw anger seemed, if nothing else, an honest and heart-felt response to the world we live in. But any more, when I hear the latest reports out of Haiti or Iraq, all I can do is weep.

Just one link (because this is not, after all, a political weblog): War Needs Good Public Relations

Via Negativa cross-references: For more on the sagas, see Poetry or vomit? For more on pre-Christian Europe, see Diagnostic test of certain hypotheses about the Old Norse worldview . . .

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