Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, August 22, 2005 10:23 pm

Rough men

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lex @ 10:23 pm

“Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” — George Orwell

I detect a new meme arising: the notion that because the men and women who enlisted in the military did so voluntarily, as legal adults (by and large), then somehow neither we nor the government is responsible for whatever happens to them while they are in the military (examples here, here and here, to name just a few).

That’s utter bullshit for many reasons. But perhaps the most important is that a soldier/sailor/Marine/airman’s free choice to enlist does not absolve the government (that is, all of us) of its legal and moral obligation to send forces into combat only under conditions recognized as moral. Why? Because of what we know combat does to our countrymen and -women who participate in it even with the noblest of purposes and the free-est of wills.

I’m not just talking about the risk of being shot at. I’m not even talking about the risk of military service generally, which, even in peacetime, often involves your basic OSHA-nightmare scenario of moving lots of very heavy equipment very fast in less-than-ideal conditions.

I’m talking about the damage that taking part in combat does to human beings. Just more than a year ago, I blogged at work about this article in The New Yorker that talks about the damage we do to people whom we ask to kill, damage that may be far greater than that suffered by people who are themselves injured:

In 1947, in a slim volume entitled “Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War,” Marshall took the military by surprise. Throughout [World War II], he declared, only about fifteen per cent of American riflemen in combat had fired at the enemy. One lieutenant colonel complained to Marshall that four days after the desperate struggle on Omaha Beach he couldn’t get one man in twenty-five to voluntarily fire his rifle. “I walked up and down the line yelling, ‘God damn it! Start shooting!’ But it did little good.” These men weren’t cowards. They would hold their positions and willingly perform such tasks as delivering ammunition to machine guns. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to aim a rifle at another human being-even an armed foe-and pull the trigger. “Fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual,” Marshall wrote. “At the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector.”

The Army took his findings at face value — and changed its training accordingly, author Dan Baum writes: In the Vietnam War, 90 percent of riflemen or more fired their weapons. But that was the last time American soldiers had to kill people up close in large numbers … until now:

In the current Iraq war, though, soldiers are killing with small arms on battlefields the length of a city block. Exactly how many Iraqis American forces have killed is not known — as General Tommy Franks said, “We don’t do body counts” — but everyone agrees that the numbers are substantial. Major Peter Kilner, a former West Point philosophy instructor who went to Iraq [in 2003] as part of a team writing the official history of the war, believes that most infantrymen there have “looked down the barrel and shot at people, and many have killed.” American firepower is overwhelming, Kilner said. He ran into a former student in Iraq who told him, “There’s just too much killing. They shoot, we return fire, and they’re all dead.” Even some of the most grievously wounded Iraq-war veterans seem more disturbed by the killing they did than they are by their own injuries. I spent a week in December ['03] among amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and was struck by how easily they could tell the stories of the horrible things that had happened to them. They could talk about having their arms or legs blown off in vivid detail, and even joke about it, but, as soon as the subject changed to the killing they’d done, a pall would settle over them.

Kilner and a number of observers inside and outside the Army worry that the high rate of closeup killing in Iraq has the potential to traumatize a new generation of veterans. Worse, they say, the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs avoid thinking or talking about it.

But rest assured, those we send to fight are thinking about it:

An eight-year-old girl holding a four-month-old baby came to my position begging for food and water. The little baby was so hungry, she was trying to nurse off of the girl. What really happened is she pulled a gun on me and I had to shoot her and the little child. When I saw my nephew for the first time, he was sleeping and my sister said, ‘Hold him, I need to go to the restroom.’ With him just laying there motionless, I started crying and gave him to my aunt. She said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I walked outside. I didn’t hold my nephew for another two hours. It took so many people to try to calm me down. I thought I killed him. That’s what happens in my nightmares.

Former war correspondent Chris Hedges noted in his best-selling book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”:

… within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later. By then, these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them. …

The task of carrying out violence, of killing, leads to perversion. The seductiveness of violence, the fascination with the grotesque — the Bible calls it “the lust of the eye” — the godlike empowerment over other human lives and the drug of war combine, like the ecstasy of erotic love, to let our senses command our bodies. Killing unleashes within us dark undercurrents that see us desecrate and whip ourselves into greater orgies of destruction.

And it’s not just nightmares about killing to which we subject those who serve. In wartime, many soldiers with little or no training inevitably become responsible for the care, feeding and security of prisoners of war or, as in Iraq, civilian detainees of uncertain provenance. It has been common knowledge for at least three decades that absent rigorous training and close supervision, human beings almost invariably become sadistic and abusive when given the power of life and death over others. Joseph A. Dennison, a psychiatric social worker for more than 30 years at Veterans Admininistration hospitals (full disclosure: He’s also my next-door neighbor), writes in this essay about Abu Ghraib about the damage that that urge does in a military context:

I, as a psychotherapist/counselor, have come to appreciate that war has a way of twisting, disturbing and distorting a person’s soul, mind, heart and conscience. I can begin to understand how the integrity of a soldier’s nervous system, mental capacities and soul can be significantly depleted over time, especially when one is on foreign soil in war conditions where one’s next breath is not guaranteed.

When a soldier’s psyche is spent, when he or she doesn’t want to continue to be overseas in a foreign land where lives are in constant jeopardy, where there are frequent incoming and outgoing missiles, where soldiers are killed, maimed or dismembered, A SOLDIER’S MORAL, ETHICAL, SOCIAL AND PERSONAL CONSCIENCE AND JUDGMENT CAN BE SERIOUSLY COMPROMISED. (emphasis in original)

Guarding POWs or detainees, then, can be a potential set-up, not consciously designed but nonetheless disastrous because all the pieces for aberrant behavior are contained in the same place.

Put another way, almost anyone put in this position runs a significant risk of being morally compromised. This is particularly likely, Dennison writes, because the military’s command structure meshes with a deeply felt human need to obey:

Perhaps one of the most illustrative and well-known example of an experiment in obedience was conducted by Stanley Milgram in a university setting. The primary participants in his study were ordinary people who were instructed by an authority figure to administer increasing levels of electric shocks according to the program’s experimental design. Although the primary participants thought that they had the power to actually administer increasing amounts of voltage to their subjects for inaccurate responses, in reality, the test was constructed (unknown to the participants) so that no one was injured. The amazing result was that over 60 percent of the participants, as instructed, continued to administer shocks because of inaccurate subjects’ responses to the maximum 450 volts, considered to be a highly painful level. Participants were more likely to give the shocks when closely observed and encouraged by an authority figure. (More on Milgram’s experiment here — Lex)

I don’t know the context of George Orwell’s quote above. Myself, I am comfortable with the situation it describes, on this condition: When we ask “rough men” to kill on our behalf, we must do so only in full understanding of the almost inevitable damage our request will do to them as well as our enemies and any innocent bystanders. Accordingly, it seems only right, fair and moral that we ask people to kill only for the best and most urgent of reasons, particularly because, despite what many “they made their bed” types say, many, if not most, of our service people had no idea how likely they were to suffer significant psychological and moral damage even if they were discharged without a mark on their bodies, to say nothing of how inadequate our government’s response to this problem would be.

So in short, if you think anyone who enlisted in the military “knew what they were getting into,” you’re wrong.

So don’t you dare claim to be “supporting our troops.”

UPDATE: Greetings to everyone who surfed over here from Stinging Nettle, Just a Bump in the Beltway and the Daou Report. Y’all make yourselves comfortable. There’s beer in the cooler and snacks in the fridge. We like a good discussion here and all political philosophies are welcome, but please, no trolling and no feeding the trolls. If you get bored with the current discussion, there’s about 3 1/2 years’ worth of archives to keep you entertained. And y’all come back now, y’hear?

4 Comments »

  1. [...] the damage it can do even to service members who return home without a mark on their bodies. (He talked about it a little on this blog almost four years ago. Another example here.) And the level of compassion he showed [...]

    Pingback by RIP: Joseph A. Dennison « Blog on the Run: Reloaded — Friday, July 10, 2009 9:34 pm @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  2. [...] All wars are like this, Chris. That’s why it’s such a lousy idea to start one, particularly when you don’t absolutely have to. [...]

    Pingback by Blog on the Run: Reloaded — Friday, November 6, 2009 9:01 pm @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  3. [...] made a cameo here at Blog on the Run in 2005.) None of this should be at all surprising to anyone who has observed, first, the American [...]

    Pingback by People are people … « Blog on the Run: Reloaded — Sunday, March 21, 2010 10:58 pm @ 10:58 pm | Reply

  4. [...] the pure evil behind cutting VA funding, and the subject of war in general, I’ll refer you to this, which I wrote almost seven years ago and which remains, I believe, relevant. Share [...]

    Pingback by Memorial Day « Blog on the Run: Reloaded — Monday, May 28, 2012 10:38 pm @ 10:38 pm | Reply


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