Entropic Reasonableness

From time to time, one cannot but wonder how war is possible. That question is usually put by liberals who misconstrue it as an exacerbated outcry against our side ever taking up arms, given the inevitable carnage that we leave behind. From such a point of view, pacifism is indeed the only sane response. The problem is the assumption of sanity on the other side. I grant the universality of reason, but not of sanity. Insane wielders of power are perfectly reasonable. They just twist reason toward insane ends.

The issue arises anew with Inferno, a spectacular history of World War II by Max Hastings, the eminent authority on war. He has read all the studies including a ton of first-person accounts of what it was like to be there. The book makes for gruesome reading. That is, in a way, its whole point.

I necessarily read such things through a Jewish lens. Hastings, however, focuses globally. His topic is not just the Jewish 6 million, but the 60 to 70 million who died overall. “Russia alone lost 27 million people, China at least 15 million.” It’s not just the numbers that stagger; it’s the blatant cruelty. Germany’s forced starvation of Russian prisoners, Japanese inhumanity against China in particular, and Stalin’s wholesale slaughter of almost everyone, his own people included.

It’s hard, but not surprising, to read how Stalin dispatched wave after wave of combatants into the direct line of enemy fire, until corpses piled up higher than people could climb over. It’s both hard and surprising to learn how Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities into submission even though the war was virtually won by then, and there was no need to mass-murder Japanese civilians. The first sortie alone (March 9, 1945), “killed 100,000 people and rendered a million homeless – 10,000 acres, ¼ of Tokyo was reduced to ashes.” Simultaneously, we initiated Operation Starvation (yes, that was its name), 12,000 sea mines to sink anything that tried to land food in Japanese harbors. It was part of our campaign to end war weariness here at home – bring an end to the carnage as soon as possible.

I understand all that. I really do. And I ask all over again how war is possible.

My question, however, is deeper than the liberal outcry for pacifism. I am a Jew who would not be here if Hitler had prevailed.

My point is the distinction between reason and sanity, a pair of virtues that get improperly confused as one and the same thing. Their negation, “unreasonable,” can mean either “contrary to logic”(on one hand) or “defying sanity” (on the other). The difference comes home in Hastings’ conclusion that “one third of all German losses in the east took place in the last months of the war, when their sacrifice could serve no purpose save that of fulfilling the Nazi leadership’s commitment to self –immolation.” That sounds both contrary to logic and insane. But was it?

By then, The Nazi leaders had already committed so many crimes against humanity that another million murders wouldn’t affect their own personal destiny one way or another. Then too, Nazi success earlier had emboldened fascists like Hungary’s Arrow Cross militia, which now had its own brief day in the sun, helping the Nazis eliminate every last Jew still walking.

“A Hungarian army officer rebuked an Arrow Cross teenager whom he saw beating an old woman in a column being herded toward their execution place. ‘Haven’t you got a mother, son? How can you do this?’

“The boy answered carelessly, ‘She’s only a Jew, uncle.’”

What do we make of this behavior? Is it unreasonable?

Not at all.  It is just insane. The sadistic teenager was quite reasonably acting out his own sadism. The Nazis who supported him were equally reasonably winning the only war they could: the war against the Jews. They would surely lose the war against the allies, but maybe they could still leave the world Judenrein.

We regularly conflate the notions of sanity and reason, as if they are the same. Philosophically, it is part of the doctrine left us from the Age of Reason, that gets called (among other things) “rational choice theory.” The basic idea is that left to their own devices, human beings naturally make rational choices. It’s Isaiah 1:18 updated. “Come let us reason together,” God tells Israel, as if reason will inevitably win out.

But reason’s victory can be devastating, if it begins with insanity. The eleventh-century Jewish commentator Rashi knows that for reason also to be sane, it must be predicated on moral assumptions. He notes the prior verse, “Learn to do good; devote yourself to justice,” and concludes, “After you repent and return to me, then come let us reason together.”

It is perfectly reasonable for deranged murderers to go on murdering, reasonable for Stalin to sacrifice his people, reasonable for the teenager to beat the old woman, and reasonable for Hitler to pursue the war against the Jews rather than to devote his army’s flagging energy to the “other war” which he was going to lose anyway. Yes, all of this was reasonable; just not sane.

The insanity of the human psyche will not easily go away. It is the part of us that colludes with the universal force of entropy. We exhaust our best efforts at building, creating, loving, and supporting – but lose it all in demonic outbursts of entropic reasonableness.

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5 responses to “Entropic Reasonableness

  1. What a powerful piece. And good for those who say to me all the time: Rabbi, if we just raise rational children, they will be morally good in their behavior (meaning “sane” and loving.)

    • Thank you. Once upon a time, we all learned that conclusions to an argument follow not just from the application of proper reason but from the axioms to which the reason is applied. Fanatics start with fanatic axioms. Sadists begin with the will to cause pain; racists desire racial purity; and so forth. Reason can operate for good but it can also develop a rationale for achieving evil ends.

  2. I would like to send this to the editor of my local newspaper to be published. Excellent article.

  3. From: frank miele
    To: Kay Ohana
    Sent: Friday, July 13, 2012 8:13 PM
    Subject: Rabbi Hoffman

    Hi Kay: Just a note to let you know I was able to use Rabbi Hoffman’s piece in Sunday’s paper. It is paired with another poignant essay about the Holocaust. Thanks for getting permission for the piece. It works perfectly in this context.

    The Daily InterLake, Kalispell, Montana

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