How An Imbalance of Power Unfolds When Two Men Arrive in A Village
More than five million people have been and continue to be slain in the war ravaging the Eastern Congo. The majority of these casualties are innocent victims who had led their everyday lives in villages, helpless against the war brought to them. While negotiating with Congolese authorities for entry into rebel territory, photojournalist Richard Mosse had no idea of a group there killing 45 unarmed villagers. Mosse ventured to the war zone to capture the tired, forgotten war in a new perspective — with vibrant pink hues that can only be achieved by utilizing Kodak Aerochrome infrared film. Through his Infra series, the world (whose residents tend to neglect anything mainstream media ignores) is offered an old story in a new, unseen vision.
Much the same way, Zadie Smith brought to our attention a parable of a crime during wartime. Her short story, “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” details the progression of an injustice committed all too often: a village whose country burns in the chaos of war welcomes two seemingly friendly foreigners who eventually steal its food and items, murder its people, rape its women and girls, and ultimately leave the village to piece itself back together literally and spiritually. In an interview with the New Yorker, Smith blames “imbalances of power” for “what happens when the weak meet the strong without protection”.
It goes without saying that the weak without protection are the villagers and the strong are the two men. This story has played out countless times — the Mỹ Lai Massacre, when U.S. soldiers killed 347 to 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians living in the hamlets of Mỹ Lai and My Khe of Sơn Mỹ village during the Vietnam War; the torture, rape, and murder of hundreds of thousands of Eastern Pakistani women by the Pakistan army, which had specifically targeted Bangladesh minorities, especially Hindus; the surface has only been scratched. One of the longest lists on Wikipedia is a list of war crimes committed throughout our history, and those are only the documented atrocities.
What allows the two men to commit war crimes against powerless villagers? David Livingstone Smith, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, argues that dehumanization successfully picks the lock on a person’s moral code. “Despite what we see in the movies…it’s very difficult, psychologically, to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to inflict atrocities on them,” Smith stated in an interview with the National Public Radio. Once human beings start “treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators,” they can “overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against” inflicting cruelty upon others. It makes harrowing, nightmarish sense, since most people don’t put animals on the same level as humans in their mental hierarchy. By viewing another people as subhuman, soldiers — the two men, in Zadie Smith’s vein — can ruthlessly act on impulsive aggression and unleash carnage on innocent villagers.
The two men, having debauched their humanity, enjoy themselves to their hearts’ desire in the village. The amicable façade is quickly replaced by all of their greed, concupiscence, and bloodlust they intend to fully satisfy with the resources the subhuman beings have. As much as the villagers wish to, they can’t stand their ground and force the foreigners out. Despite their numbers, the two men’s power outweighs theirs. In Eastern Congo’s case, soldiers are basically free to pillage, gang-rape, and massacre as they please. The New York Times called the Eastern Congo war “The World’s Worst War” in an article by Jeffrey Gettleman. The massacres of unarmed civilians continue to wreck the country. But another huge problem is the rape epidemic. “It is as if the real battlefields are women’s bodies,” Gettleman writes. “Out here, hundreds of thousands of women have been systematically assaulted in recent years, leading the United Nations to call Congo ‘the rape capital of the world.’” Militants (often more than two men) invade villages and gang-rape women of all ages. Gettleman noted the twisted brutality of many of the rapes: “What’s the strategic purpose of putting an AK-47 assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Or cutting out a woman’s fetus and making her friends eat it?”
It almost seems like a joke to try to inform the public about the worst war since the Second World War via infrared photography. But by and large, Mosse’s unique photographs help seize modern society’s often short attention span. “It helps the viewer when they feel this tension, this dilemma,” he explained, “when they’re drawn in by this beautiful image and then they catch themselves and realise they’re enjoying consuming a situation of human suffering.” The truth of the matter is, the Congo isn’t getting better. People need to know that innocent villagers are getting caught in the crossfire of this drawn-out war and are being exploited by soldiers. What’s worse is that villagers are powerless to stop it. As Zadie Smith’s short story describes, “…When these two men arrived in the village we spotted them at once, at the horizon point where the long road that leads to the next village meets the setting sun. And we understood what they meant by coming at this time.” Informing the public may not change much of what is happening in the Congo right now, but right now the Congo can change what is happening in the public. The rest of the world’s inhabitants will open their eyes to look beyond the walls of privilege that they’ve constructed around themselves and realize there are people suffering in real time. And the world’s inhabitants, and thus the world, can do something to balance the imbalance of power disadvantaging the weak and fortifying the strong.
“Infrared light is invisible to the human eye so I was trying to photograph something I couldn’t actually see. Another preposterous idea!” Mosse said. “It’s like photographing ghosts. This is the last of this film ever in history and here I am and I can’t see what I’m taking.” Just like how infrared is invisible to the human eye, wartime atrocities are often unseen by justice-upholding authorities or often go unnoticed by the rest of the world. “Two Men Arrive in a Village” and Infra, as well as so many other documents, websites, and other mediums, exist to give form to an abstraction: the imbalance of power between two peoples. Villagers do not have to be weak and soldiers do not have to be strong — human beings are equals.
It’s time we treated each other that way.