What is revenge for, its purpose? Or retaliation, for those preferring the combat-ready synonym whose pretense is to be denuded of captious rancor. Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris I spotted a comment in an internet thread — must stop looking at those things, the porn of stupidity! — in which someone declaimed, “Retaliation shows them we won’t let this happen again.”1 But of course retaliation makes this happen again. Logic recycles itself with möbius-like persistence.
Several days later, confirmation came that a Russian commercial jet had been destroyed by terrorists avenging Vladimir Putin’s airstrikes in Syria. Almost immediately Putin announced that these airstrikes “must not only be continued but intensified so that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.” Fightin’ words! Apparently, the KGB’s best-known judo champ had neglected to consider the obvious: that his avowed enemy might parse slogans like “retribution is inevitable” with holy literalness.
Retribution, retaliation, reprisal, revenge — can we just call it honor killing? Young Hamlet’s procedural mincing (four hours and twenty minutes of thesis defense we’ll never get back) looks to many of us like panicky equivocation: Hamlet spends most of the play grasping after good reasons to act on principle, or to justify a state obligation of royal vengeance. Which, realistically, he seems to intuit, couldn’t amount to much more than a mindless show of force. Not that mindless force is never useful. Occasionally, for bleak psychic purposes it proves useful indeed. One is reminded of the battle cry of the SPK, (or Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv): “Therapy through violence, kill for inner peace.” And even the Greeks, a sometimes thoughtful people for whom retaliation was of institutional importance, never claimed for it much beyond, in Hans van Wees’s2 canny expression, “status rivalry”: a return of shame resulting from the hubris of adversaries. I’m rubber, you’re glue.
Instrumentally, though, revenge is worse than useless. It proposes violence as a strategy for restoring balance while neutralizing chaos, neither of which by any rational appraisal this can possibly achieve. Instead it’s like tapping the timer in a chess match. Such acts don’t mean that the game is over; only that the other player will now take his turn. One vaguely understands — which is not in the least to say that one vaguely endorses — the Durkheimian angle on violent punishment, particularly when linked to jurisprudence, or even justice: its signifying or in some manner socially reinforcing the seriousness of our moral codes. The question is, why are we baffled when others do it?
And how does bafflement follow — at all — from a cultural forensics based entirely on the controversy of who did what to whom first? On March 16th, 1968, ex-bellhop William Calley, for no combative reasons, let alone military ones, other than those roiling within his own mind, commanded the bright-eyed rosy-cheeked kids serving under him — 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division — to murder five-hundred unarmed women, elders, and children. These innocent villagers of Mai Lai were, he claimed, indistinguishable from guerrilla forces, although no males of conscription age were found there). Following a brief demonstration by Lieutenant Calley himself, using his own M16, his soldiers — initially leery and resistant — got down to work. Calley was eventually convicted of just twenty-two of the hundred-odd murders he had personally committed that day. In testimony he seemed to suggest not only that he had been ordered by higher-ups to execute children and old ladies — sodomizing many of them first, before dismembering and eviscerating them — but that the whole idea of war was to respond in kind. He seemed to be implying: if they do it, we do it back. After his conviction, he was pardoned. (By, needless to say, an American president who would himself require furtive pardoning for crimes against the nation.) Now a free man, citizen Calley earns his living intoning moralistic platitudes on the public speaking circuit.
Or again: throughout US involvement in the Second World War, the city of Hiroshima was spared conventional bombing and ground invasion. This was done in order to preserve it as a test site for evaluating and demonstrating the effectiveness3 of the atomic bomb that would eventually be dropped there on a clear, sunny morning in the summer of ’45. As a public relations stunt for the Pentagon — but in the guise of field research — some 200,000 inhabitants4, most of them civilians, were either instantly incinerated or else lost their lives to blast-trauma and radioactivity in the days, weeks, and months following the attack. In reality the absolute destruction of Hiroshima was scarcely more than delayed cold-blooded revenge for the 2,400 lives lost at Pearl Harbor four years earlier. (The Pearl Harbor attack was itself essentially retaliatory — for political provocations over China and a very effective US embargo.) Few Americans can quote the date on which we, alone among nations and without precedent, waged nuclear war. Most of us continue to parrot the dutiful sophism — if not outright propaganda — that the twin attacks on Japan were a justifiable military operation designed to “end the war.” Or even more preposterously, to end all war. (Especially preposterous when we contemplate the millions of combat casualties since 1945, as well as a perpetual threat of annihilation now hanging over everyone on Earth).
Getting back to those Greeks — when Medea retaliated against the youthful ingénue Glauce, her husband’s friend-with-benefits, by sending this rival a poison-soaked garment, what sort of outcome was expected? What precisely did Medea hope to gain through Glauce’s death? Peace of mind? Full cessation of interfamilial tensions? But we know the story. Her revenge, her return of that shame, resulted in yet another retaliation: two of Medea’s own sons, Mermeros and Pheres, were murdered as payback. Tit for tat. Or eye for an eye, as we like to say, with theologic precision, implying that everything’s thereby settled — done and dusted — just like that. While refusing as usual to contemplate the never-ending downward spiral of nastiness commonly filed under civilization.