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  • “We Put Our Hands on the Trigger with Him”: Guilt and Perpetration in Spec Ops: The Line
  • Tobi Smethurst (bio)

In “Beginnings of the Day: Fascism and Representation” (1998), Gillian Rose considers the quandary of how one might produce art from the perspective of perpetrators of atrocities such as the Holocaust. She proposes the creation of a film “which follows the life story of a member of the SS [Schutzstaffel] in all its pathos, so that we empathise with him, identify with his hopes and fears, disappointment and rage, so that when it comes to killing, we put our hands on the trigger with him, wanting him to get what he wants.”1 However, Rose then goes on to wonder whether such empathy with an SS man is even possible, since the audience would be aware of the identity of the protagonist from the start and would therefore (in the words of Robert Eaglestone) be “unable to want what this evil man wants.”2 For Rose, the solution to this problem is to withhold information from the audience regarding the protagonist’s true nature. This would allow empathy to build for the character until the point when their villainy is revealed, as in Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (1995) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989).3 These fictions encourage us to get behind characters who eventually turn out to have committed morally reprehensible deeds. This leads to a crisis of identification for the reader, since the perpetrator is no longer the other, but the familiar: the character with whom the reader has become intimate in order to inhabit the fictional world.

Taking his cue from Rose, Richard Crownshaw explains why it may be desirable, or even morally imperative, for perpetrator fictions to put the reader in this uncomfortable position. In “Perpetrator Fictions and Transcultural Memory” (2011), he identifies a worrying trend in memory and trauma studies—namely, “the universalization of the victim’s identity in both the theory and practice of cultural memory.”4 What Crownshaw refers to is the fact that when memories, images, and stories of the Holocaust are mediated and remediated, they tend to revolve almost entirely around the experiences of the victims. This is perhaps [End Page 201] understandable: it makes sense that we find it more palatable to memorialize those who were killed than those who did the killing. The problem, however, is that “[t]he universalization of the victim compounds the otherness of the perpetrator and obfuscates the processes of perpetration.”5 That is, by focusing almost exclusively on the victims of atrocities, cultural memory practices cause an othering of the perpetrator and refuse any serious attempt to understand how and why perpetrators become perpetrators in the first place. Crownshaw cites Rose, who suggests that, by identifying exclusively with the victim, we “mystify something we dare not understand, because we fear it may be all too understandable, all too continuous with what we are – human, all too human.”6

At the same time, however, Crownshaw questions whether perpetrator narratives actually risk reinscribing the same problem in different terms, since overidentification with the perpetrator is just as unproductive as overidentification with the victim. With reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat responsible for painstakingly organizing the transportation and killing of thousands of Jews, it has become a truism to say “Eichmann is in all of us.” But, as Crownshaw argues through Maria Torgovnick, it is perhaps preferable to say “anyone could be Eichmann,” since “the former . . . lacks the contingency of the latter. In fact, that universalization of the potential of perpetration is the means by which the contingent nature of perpetration is overlooked.”7 Where the former statement merely asserts that humans are capable of perpetrating atrocities, the latter gestures towards the particular historical, political, psychological, and social conditions that must come together in order for one to become a perpetrator. This congruence of factors is what Robert Jay Lifton refers to as an “atrocity-producing situation”—that is, “an environment so structured, militarily and psychologically, that an average person entering it, no better or worse than you or me, could be capable of committing atrocities.”8 What Lifton and Crownshaw...


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pp. 201-221
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