Triage is a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition. This rations patient treatment efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately.1
To take another tact what happens when triage is applied to entire human groups and Politicians / Philosophers, Sociologists etc, decide that they will be “Doctors” administering “treatment” for the benefit of the entire human race? Perhaps the history of the past few hundred years can indicate what happens.
Triage applied to human groups has a thoroughly unpleasant history but only in the last c. two centuries has it received a whole army of rationalizations and excuse mongering.2
What happens when other human beings are defined as superfluous? The results are truly horrific and generally are characterized by mass death.
Mass death of this sort has existed since classical antiquity and before. One could start with such horrors as the Spartan Massacre of 2000 Helots in a cold blooded attempt to crush potential resistance or the, if anything more, cold blooded Roman obliteration of Carthage in the Third Punic War. The Third Punic War involved Rome deliberately goading Carthage into a war and then utterly destroying the city.3
The Helot episode is described as follows by Thucydides:
Indeed fear of their numbers and obstinacy even persuaded the Spartans to the action which I shall now relate, their policy at all times having been governed by the necessity of taking precautions against them. The Helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves in the wars, in order that they might be receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high-spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went round the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever new how each of them perished.4
Then came new scenes of horror. As the fire spread and carried everything down, the soldiers did not wait to destroy the buildings little by little, but all in a heap. So the crashing grew louder, and many corpses fell with the stones into the midst. Others were seen still living, especially old men, women, and young children who had hidden in the inmost nooks of the houses, some of them wounded, some more or less burned, and uttering piteous cries. Still others thrust out and falling from such a height with the stones, timbers, and fire, were torn asunder in all shapes of horror, crushed and mangled.
Nor was this the end of their miseries, for the street cleaners, who were removing the rubbish with axes, mattocks, and forks, and making the roads passable, tossed with these instruments the dead and the living together into holes in the ground, dragging them along like sticks and stones and turning them over with their iron tools. Trenches were filled with men. Some who were thrown in head foremost, with their legs sticking out of the ground, writhed a long time. Others fell with their feet downward and their heads above ground. Horses ran over them, crushing their faces and skulls, not purposely on the part of the riders, but in their headlong haste. Nor did the street cleaners do these things on purpose; but the tug of war, the glory of approaching victory, the rush of the soldiery, the orders of the officers, the blast of the trumpets, tribunes and centurions marching their cohorts hither and thither - all together made everybody frantic and heedless of the spectacles under their eyes.5
We have unfortunately seen these scenes repeated over and over again through out human history.
We see for example in the enclosure movement that “enclosed” large amounts of formerly communal lands in England. Enclosure basically meant that such land formerly used by the peasants has common property like, pasture and woodlands was taken over by the local landlord and excluded from communal use. This lead to a great many peasants whose existence was formerly marginal to their lives becoming impossible. Because they relied for much of their “income” on the use of such communal properties.6
In other words they were triaged. This lead to an explosion of poverty among the peasantry and a desperate search by the peasantry for new sources of income. Not surprisingly rural violence increased. Thus governments had to cope with increases in vagrancy and other disorders, by regimenting the population more. Fortunately continuing commercial expansion, emigration to the New World, and later the industrial revolution provided outlets for this “surplus” population.7
With the Enlightenment came a revolution of “rationality”, and need to subordinate human wishes to that “rationality”. Thus “rationally” speaking it was best to strive for maximum gains and growth and anything that impeded it should be ruthlessly thrust aside. Thus we have Malthus writing about famine saying:
we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our own towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into houses, and count on the return of plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlement in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent but much mistaken men, who thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.8
What can one say faced with such a passage except to note that it is a profoundly evil passage. One further notes that Thomas Malthus was a Clergyman! His thought though was not unusual at the time, unfortunately. This period saw a great growth in the idea that large sections of the population were “surplus” and needed to be culled down to a more manageable level. Of course “nature” would do but has Malthus said man would help “nature” along. Of course these people tended to forget that what they were advocating was nothing less than mass murder.9
Such ideas soon had pernicious effects in all sorts of areas including the developing “science” of “race”. It ended up with certain of the founders of this “science” openly announcing with relish the coming extinction of whole “races”. In the case of Robert Knox, a British anthropologist, most of the human race. Of course this would all come about and was happening right now by “natural means”.10 Of course even the barest of fact checking would have revealed that the “natural means” were getting plenty of human help.
An example on this aiding of “natural means” was the Irish Famine of 1845 – 1850 C.E. Britain was at the time the greatest of European powers and per-capita, by far, the wealthiest state on earth. Between those years Ireland experienced the last great famine in Western Europe and wealthy England was basically unable to cope, even though Ireland was right on England’s doorstep.
An endless debate is about whether or not, or how much, the famine was man made. The evidence does however indicate that the colonial dependency of Ireland and the systematic exploitation of Ireland’s peasantry by Government, Church and Landlord created a situation in which the peasantry was massively and fatally dependent on a single crop, the potato.11
The position of the Irish peasantry was one in which being both ruthlessly exploited and dependent on a single crop was combined with the serious lack of work at anything other than subsistence farming and the added threat of massive population increase.12
In one of histories great ironies the potato, precisely because it was easy to cultivate, produced, compared to other crops, prodigious yields per acre and was very nutritious produced in combination with the desperate condition of the Irish peasantry a truly formidable level of population increase that in turn made the peasantry even more dependent on the potato.13
The result when the potato blight stuck was disaster. In 1845 there was a partial failure of the potato crop in 1846 a complete failure of the potato crop. In 1847 there was despite the low level of potato planted a very good harvest. In 1848 the desperate peasantry stacked it’s all in the potato harvest of 1848, but that year was another complete failure of the potato harvest. The result was abyss of misery.14
In many ways the early reaction of the English government was about the best that could be expected. However it did not stay the course it eventually abandoned the Irish to private charity and the operation of “natural causes” and this occurred at about the same time as the second complete failure of the potato.15 The result was mass death and mass emigration from Ireland. By 1851 over one million Irish had died and over one million had fled Ireland.16
Why did this disaster happen or shall we say allowed to become so serious and disastrous? The reason was quite simple many in the British government were fanatical believers in “Laisse-Faire”, seemingly unaware that refusing to do something is an act. That many of the reasons why the great majority of the people of Ireland were so vunerable were the results of deliberate acts of past governments, officials and absentee landlords. They believed devoutly in allowing things to follow their “Natural Course”17 In this they were supported by much of the media, (The Times of London for example) and intelligentsia which could so easily write off large numbers of human beings and sacrifice them to “Natural Causes”. But then it is happening to someone else far away so I guess it is easy for some people.18
The result was the obscenity of allowing food to be exported from Ireland during a famine, it being considered unspeakable that trade should be restricted in this fashion. Further the obscenity of troops guarding convoys of food being sent for export from starving mobs is grotesque. Also the British government was obsessed with saving money and whined about every penny spent and endlessly sought ways to reduce expenditure. In fact the whining from British officials about how much this was costing are decidedly repellent. When in 1847 the British Government suffered some financial problems Irish relief was cut back.19
The British official Trevelyan’s attitude, (he was in charge of government relief efforts during the Irish famine) was one of seeing it has an opportunity to modernize Irish agriculture and to “remove” the surplus population. Trevelyan said concerning the mass emigration from Ireland:
This [problem] being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.20
Trevelyan further states regarding the emigration:
I do not know how far farms are to be consolidated if small farmers do not emigrate and by acting for the purpose of keeping them at home, we should be defeating our own object. We must not complain of what we really want to obtain. If small farms go, and then landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest Capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement in this country.21
Trevelyan saw the Famine as a:
…mechanism for reducing surplus population.
Trevelyan further described the famine, with great coldness and cruelty as:
The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.22
Thus does Charles Edward Tevelyan sit in judgment and pronounce millions as worthy of intense suffering and death. The arrogance is breathtaking. When in 1886 Trevelyan died that was one piece of “surplus population” humanity was well rid of.
To quote another author whose moral sense is not so withered:
There was, of course, yet another way to clear Ireland of peasants and make way for ‘persons who will invest capital’: do nothing during the famine and let the unwanted people die. As the crisis worsened, Trevelyan based his policy on the conviction that famine could best be dealt with by leaving matters to ‘the operation of natural causes’. Trevelyan was wholly supported in this policy by the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who in 1848 refused to consider the allocation of future public funds to assist Ireland. The consequence of letting nature take its course was mass starvation and death.23
Thus did Trevelyan and many others ignore how much assistance “natural causes” were given by man and of course Trevelyan ignored that the “cure” was effected by mass suffering and death. Trevelyan was not so crass has to openly celebrate mass death but he certainly implied such rejoicing over mass suffering and death. Trevelyan for example celebrated as “progress” the mass evictions of tenants that occurred during the famine which greatly increased the number of famine victims. But then “progress” gets rid of the “surplus” population. A certain Nassau Senior, a government economic advisor did however say publicly what many of these moral cretins were thinking when in 1848 he said that the current famine would unfortunately only kill 1 million people and it would scarcely be enough to do much good.24
At the time some British officials did in fact recognize the nature of what was being done and not done in relation to Ireland. Lord Clarendon, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland wrote to the Prime Minister the following:
…I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.25
Trevelyan and others hoped that the mass death and suffering by clearing the “surplus” population would effect the modernization of Ireland’s agriculture and economy. They were totally disappointed.26 Ireland’s population after the famine continued to decline and stagnate; the peasantry continued to be poverty stricken and desperate and unlike before the famine mass migration continued to drain Ireland of its best and brightest. For Trevelyan like the others simply refused to see the obvious that Ireland’s economic plight was largely because of its disastrous economic colonial relationship with England and only if that changed was there real hope of modernization. In fact Ireland did not begin to seriously catch up until the late twentieth century.
In the end the famine helped to profoundly alienate the Irish from Britain and to create a sometimes rabidly anti-English Irish Diaspora. Previous to the famine there was a reasonable chance of Ireland being incorporated the way Wales and Scotland had been incorporated politically and economically, the famine very much reduced the prospects of for that sort of integration. In the end during the Second World War because of Irish hostility to England British ships could not use the ports of the Republic of Ireland and in consequence England was in mortal danger from the U-Boats and hundreds of British sailors drowned.27
In 1841 a census had found the population of Ireland to be 8,175,124; this figure is considered to be an underestimate. In 1851 another census gave a figure of 6, 552,385. Given that the population in 1845, considering population growth and the fact the 1841 census under counted, was at least 9,000,000, at least 2 and ½ million people disappeared through emigration and death.28
The age of Triage was off to a “good” start. I may later explore the further development of the age of Triage and its creation of “surplus” people.
1. See Wikipedia, Here.
2. Rubenstein, Richard L., The Age of Triage, Beacon Press, Boston, 1983. Provides an excellent overview as well of the triage theme of this essay. See also Kuper, Leo, Genocide, Penguin Books, London, 1981, Kiernan, Ben, Blood and Soil, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2007.
3. For the Helot massacre see Thucydides, The Land Mark Thucydides, Touchstone Books, New York, 1996, [A translation of The Peloponnesian War], B. 4 s. 80. For the obliteration of Carthage see Polybius, Roman Histories, B. 36 s. 1-9, 16, B. 38, s. 7, 19-22, at LacusCurtius, Here. Polybius is a bit of a suck up for the Romans see Polybius, Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin Books, London, 1979, B. 36 s. 9, pp. 535-537, for a section which reviews various Greek reactions to the destruction of Carthage in which it is painfully obvious that Polybius in the guise of offering a “balanced” overview of reactions approves and seeks to excuse the inexcusable. For the only overview of the entire Third Punic War from antiquity see, Appian, History of Rome, Book 8, s. 67-136, at Livius, Here.
4. Thucydides, Book 4, s. 80, p. 268.
5. Appian at Livius, Here
6. Rubenstein, pp. 35-82.
7. IBID. pp. 82-97.
8. Malthus, Thomas, Essay on the Principle of Population, 6th Edition, 1826, quoted in Rubenstein, p. 52.
9. See Inglis, Brian, Poverty and the Industrial Revolution, Panther Books Ltd., London, 1972.
10. Hannaford, Ivan, Race: The History of an Idea in the West, John Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 235-275, Ellingson, Ter, The Myth of the Noble Savage, University of California Press, Los Angles, 2001, pp. 279-289, Brace, Loring C., “Race”: Is a Four-Letter Word, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, pp. 117-124.
11. Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger, Signet Books, New York, 1962, pp. 9-48.
12. IBID. Rubenstein, pp. 98-101.
14. See Woodham-Smith.
15. IBID., pp. 358-381, and 405-407.
16. IBID., pp. 409-410, Rubenstein, pp. 113.
18. IBID., for many, many examples.
19. IBID., Rubenstein, pp. 98-127, Woodham-Smith pp. 373-375.
20. Trevelyan in a letter to a friend quoted in Rubenstein, p. 113.
21. Trevelyan quoted in IBID., pp. 113-114.
22. Trevelyan quoted in Wikipedia, Here
23. Rubenstein, p. 114.
24. Woodham-Smith, p. 373.
25. Lord Clarendon quoted in Rubenstein, p. 115.
26. Woodham-Smith, p. 409-410.
27. IBID., p. 409-410.
28. IBID., p. 409.