Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Worse Than Dying - Part II

I've been front-paged on the Smirking Chimp (one of my very favorite sites since I began blogging in 2004) since the beginning of this year, and what I write usually seems to be well received - I get a lot of reads and a lot of positive 'votes'. This latest post "Worse Than Dying", however, seems to be scaring people away. I've gotten about a quarter of the number of reads as is usual for me, and only two comments.

One of the commenters remarked upon the conflicting feelings we have towards our soldiers when we hear about the atrocities perpetrated by some in the military; in Haditha or Abu Ghraib, for example. It's hard to sympathize with our soldiers when we hear of these awful horrors being done in our name. And, as progressives, we tend to be on the side of peace, not war. It's difficult for some to identify with people who choose the military as a career - who join the armed forces knowing they will be trained to kill. Even though the incentives offered are varied - college money, career training, discipline, citizenship, patriotism, family tradition, a leg up out of poverty or gangs - the bottom line is that every soldier who signs on the dotted line, in peacetime or in war, knows that they will be trained to kill and may be asked to.

Most soldiers who join the military voluntarily do so because they want to serve their country, and love it enough to lay their life on the line for it. However, there have always been a certain percentage of people who join the armed services simply to have a socially sanctioned outlet for their natural cruelty and desire to dominate others. This is true of the police, too. But we now have a new factor to consider. As people become more and more skeptical about the war and the reasons we are over there, it is becoming more and more difficult to come up with enough soldiers to feed the gaping maw, and the military is becoming less and less selective about who they recruit. This has resulted in more soldiers who should never be allowed to hold a loaded weapon - people with criminal records, mental and emotional problems, drug problems, antisocial tendencies, aggression and anger-management issues - all people who would be 'unfit for service' during a more rational time. And when you add these unstable people to the mix, give them weapons, amp them up and turn them loose, they may not have the self-control to stop when ordered to. You end up with a Haditha; with an Abu Ghraib. But the ultimate responsibility for that atrocity rests with those in command, who design the agenda, set the parameters, create the culture and wield the authority. Abu Ghraib, for instance, was the result of overall policy dictated and approved all the way from the top, not a 'few bad apples' at the bottom. Above all, soldiers are trained to obey authority without question, not make their own policies, and to think that the same methods of torture used in Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and other war prisons were simultaneously and independently dreamed up by low-level guards and interrogators is to be seriously or even intentionally deluded. Soldiers take their policy from the top, and our recent revelations about torture policy coming all the way from the White House and approved by countless high-level members of government bears this out absolutely.


When a soldier is placed in harm's way by his superiors, he must be equipped to survive and succeed in his mission. If he is unable to defend himself when attacked, or kill the enemy when ordered to do so, it is a criminal act to put him in that position. But as normal humans, the resistance to killing is so deeply ingrained that the training to overcome that resistance must be equally as intense. The techniques of desensitization, conditioning and denial are employed to enable this basic resistance to be overcome and to enable the soldier to obey the orders he is given. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains how conditioning works:

When people become angry, or frightened, they stop thinking with their forebrain (the mind of a human being) and start thinking with their midbrain (which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal). They are literally "scared out of their wits." The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning.

That is what is used when training firemen and airline pilots to react to emergency situations: precise replication of the stimulus that they will face (in a flame house or a flight simulator) and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response,stimulus-response. In the crisis, when these individuals are scared out of their wits, they react properly and they save lives.


Conditioning enables the soldier to do what he is told under extreme duress, without thinking about it consciously. He simply reacts the way he has been trained. ‘Muscle memory’ bypasses the midbrain’s deeply-ingrained resistance to killing another human. Add desensitization (wallowing in violent imagery until it no longer has any emotional effect upon the subject) and denial (the defense mechanism that enables us to function by pretending and believing that something objectionable does not exist) and you have a human grenade with the pin pulled. But as successful as we have been in removing the resistance to killing, we have not been anywhere near as successful in rebuilding what has been torn down when the soldier leaves the battlefield; a part of him is destroyed which can never be fixed.

Since we are a nation which has a standing military, and live in a world with nations that still wage war against each other, we must acknowledge the important role our military plays in our democracy. We must have a fighting force ready, willing and able to defend our nation at need. And, sadly enough, that involves killing. As a person who believes in peace and works for peace, for me to deny the reality that the military is an integral part of the structure of our society would be worse than na├»ve. It would be irresponsible. That is why I think it's so very important to never, ever ask someone to shoulder the horrific burden of causing the death of another person unless it is unavoidable. We owe that much to every single soldier that puts on the uniform of the United States of America. This is not to say I approve of war; I wish that no nation chose to solve differences by attacking other nations, and my goal is to work toward that aim no matter whether it is possible or not. It is because I value peace that I respect those that have volunteered to put their lives on the line for us, and it is because I honor their service that I am outraged that their service has been so disrespected by those who command it. And a war of choice, of greed and profit and imperialism - is murder, plain and simple. With ‘special circumstances’, as the prosecutors put it.


In the aftermath of Vietnam, and the lessons we learned at such a terrible cost, the Weinberger doctrine (named for Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defense) attempted to lay a moral foundation for determining our war policy. It stated that:

  • "The United States should not commit forces to combat unless our vital interests are at stake."
  • "We must commit them in sufficient numbers and with sufficient support to win."
  • "We must have clearly defined political and military objectives. "
  • "We must never again commit forces to a war we do not intend to win."
  • "Before the United States commits forces abroad, the U.S. government should have some reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and their elected representatives in the Congress .... U.S. troops cannot be asked to fight a battle with the Congress at home while attempting to win a war overseas. Nor will the American people sit by and watch U.S. troops committed as expendable pawns on some grand diplomatic chessboard."
  • "Finally, the commitment of U.S. troops should be as a last resort."


Every single one of these directives was ignored by the Bush Administration. And the Weinberger doctrine did not even consider the possibility of lying to Congress, the soldiers, and the American people about a casus belli - the very idea was unthinkable. Who would imagine the need to list it as a possibility, much less actually have it happen? The war cheerleaders are constantly harping on 'winning', it is true; they love to use the phrase "Don't you want us to win?" to bludgeon Democrats or anyone who objects to our continued and unwanted presence in Iraq. But one cannot define 'winning' without 'clearly defined political and military objectives.' How can you 'win' when there are no rules to the game? They use the word 'win' without any context whatsoever and imagine they are 'supporting the troops' by doing so. You can't ignore every other guideline and then bray about 'winning'. And instead of looking for the best way to end our part in this conflict, they insist that the sacrifices of those that have fought and died will mean nothing unless we continue to send more men and women to fight and die. 'Winning' means whatever they want it to mean this week - whatever suits their political or financial interests at the moment. And if you don't agree, you're a Troop-Hating, Terrorist-Loving Traitor.

This loathsome Administration sent men and women to die - and to kill - for shabby, venal, self-serving, and ultimately criminal reasons, and lied to them about why they were really over there, knowing full well that if they told the truth about why they wanted to attack Iraq, that they would not have been allowed to "use force", as they so euphemistically call it. It's easy to spill someone else's blood when you're talking in terms of numbers and statistics and tactics. When you are removed from the actual dying, the actual killing, you can ask for 'x' number of 'units' to go here or there, do this or that. 40,000 troops ; 75,000 troops ; 150,000 troops - just numbers, units, a recipe for war. Add 50,000 units and mix well, then fry until crisp. But what about that one soldier - your own son, daughter, husband, sister?

The America I believe in does not attack another sovereign nation that presents no danger to us. The America I love is an example of the best we can be as humans, not a thug to be feared and despised. And the America I am working towards is one that will not defile its military of which it is justly proud by allowing it to be used as a tool to further the greed and power-lust of amoral sociopaths who will steal our future as well as our present.

That is an America worth fighting for.

Update - during the time it took to write this, I did receive one more comment that touched me very much. Do yourself a favor and read that1guy's story.

7 comments:

physioprof said...

Alicia, I think that these kind of analyses are very disturbing to many readers because the sick-fuck warmongering right-wing oligarchy has been so incredibly effective with their propaganda campaign conflating "supporting the troops" with "cheering on war". They have been working feverishly at this sick depraved mind-control project since the 1960s.

People have been successfully programmed to interpret the slightest hesitation at sending ill-equipped troops off to die in wars of aggression that benefit no one but a global ultra-rich oligarchy as "disrespecting the troops". This is why people find it so difficult to read what you have so powerfully written on this topic.

The corollary aspect of this propganda onslaught is that people have been programmed to see war as some kind of nice clean video game. This is, of course, why the Bush regime brings home the coffins of dead soldiers in secret and does not allow any press coverage. Again, anything you write that powerfully challenges this sick depraved programming that has been hammered into people's minds makes them very uncomfortable.

Alicia Morgan said...

All the money that has been sunk into the propaganda mills that are right-wing 'think tanks' have paid off in spades, to be sure. That message has been bought, paid for and delivered to the masses, and these are the results.

Mauigirl said...

Alicia, this is an excellent analysis of what has to happen before someone can be a soldier. It's something most people don't want to think about and it is important that they understand it. There is a reason so many vets have problems once they come back from war. They have been indelibly changed by war. And to your point, that is why it is so important that we never go to war unless we absolutely have to. And Weinberger's rules should make clear that "America's interests" should not include access to oil. We should only go to war if our country's safety is specifically threatened, not for economic reasons.

Alicia Morgan said...

Mauigirl - as a 'peacenik', this is not a comfortable subject to think about or talk about, but unless we as a nation commit to having no armed forces, we must understand and respect our soldiers. And you're right - that means not placing them in harm's way for any other reason than the most dire and unavoidable threats. To do otherwise is simply murder. Economic reasons are not justifications; they are what the prosecutors call 'special circumstances'.

Comrade Kevin said...

Nothing shows us more clearly the ways in which the civilized impulse has failed than human conduct in a combat setting.

And for pacifists like me, what I wish for (an end to warfare) isn't attainable for most of the world, due to economic, education, and ideological deficiencies.

GreenSmile said...

Great post, Alicia. I think violaton of Weinbergers rules of engagement out to be added to Kucinich's impeachment charges.

Another factor that alienates civilians from vets is just the shame associated with losing...its a defiling thought and we turn away from every reminder that our country, in our name and for some of us, with our votes, screwed up, killed many and made things worse for a lot of people. The soldiers that come back become invisible to us, go unacknowledged except in empty parades and speeches. We as a country tried to forget Viet Nam and seem to have succeeded so well that we have repeated the experience...the soldier gets no such dubious blessing of amnesia.

You clearly don't need to but it sounds like some of your Smirking Chimp readers ought to catch a showing of Ground Truth.

As surely as the war has attracted sickos or caused the army to recruit some, it surely has also seen the degradation of many fairly normal young men who were ill informed enough to believe what they were told were the causes they were fighting for.

That documentary would force the viewers to understand the humanity of the veterans and how that humanity is destroyed...sometimes never to be completely repaired.

HelenWheels said...

Alicia,

First of all, I miss you and I am SO impressed that your book is finished and published!! Talk about impressive.

Regarding this post: Very well said, poignant and true. I couldn't agree more with every word. Can you imagine what it must be like to come back from that meat-grinder and already have a disorder? I can't. Truly, it must just hurt to get through each day.

I agree with GreenSmile, the Weinburger rules of engagement should definitely be in Kucinich's arsenal. And thanks for posting that. I had never read it before.

Hope all is well!