November 10, 2005
How war brutalizes all of us
In April 1971, there was an attempt to violently overthrow the elected government of Sri Lanka. The attempt was planned in secret by disaffected group of young people called the JVP who organized a militia and launched a surprise attack. The government was initially taken off balance but recovered and managed to crush the uprising using considerable force and brutality. This resulted in the rebel movement going underground, and for the next two decades the JVP carried out further surprise isolated attacks that resulted in the deaths of large numbers of people, including many prominent politicians.
The government responded to this steady stream of violence by giving its security forces considerable freedom to deal with suspected rebels. A college friend of mine told me of his experience when he went to a remote area to visit a high school friend of his who had enrolled in the police force after he left high school. While chatting with his friend in the police station, a person was brought in who was suspected of being with the insurgency. To my friend's horror, his former classmate casually broke off their friendly conversation and started assaulting the prisoner, both to try and get information from him and to deter him from any future action that he might be contemplating. The question of establishing guilt in a court of law did not come up. After the assault was over, my friend's classmate came back and resumed the conversation, almost as if nothing had happened. My friend was shocked at the abrupt switches in behavior.
I mention this story to illustrate a point that I think many of us miss, that wars degrade all of us. At some level of our consciousness we know that in the process of creating an army, we are essentially training people to become cold-blooded killers who can and will unquestioningly shoot and bomb people who may be just like them, but just happen to be citizens of another country or fighting on the other side. The only way that you can get people to overcome their natural abhorrence at taking some one else's life is to both dehumanize them and to get them to view the enemy as less than human. The first half of Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket, which deals entirely with the training that new Marine recruits get, shows how the military carries out this process of taking ordinary young people and making them into people who can be ordered to kill another human being. I am told that the recently released Jarhead tells a similar story.
But this process of dehumanization does not stop with just the soldiers or just with the battlefield. Once people are taught to tolerate this way of thinking, it inevitably spreads. It is almost impossible to contain the ruthless mentality that is desired for the battlefield to just that venue. The abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib (warning: disturbing images) and Guantanamo and Afghanistan are the inevitable consequence of creating this mindset.
There are reports that some soldiers abused prisoners as 'sport.' Other reports say that soldiers used photographs they took of dead and abused and mutilated Iraqis in exchange for free membership in porn sites.
The killing and torture of people in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are just the latest examples of something that happens with all occupying soldiers in all wars at all times.
Ordinary people are, of course, shocked by these revelations, as they should be. It is never pleasant to think that people just like us can be guilty of such unspeakable acts. My friend had that same reaction when he witnessed his classmate's treatment of the prisoner. How could someone who had the same background as him, who just a few minutes before had been chatting about mutual friends, suddenly become transformed and treat another human being so badly, and be so seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had just violated all norms of justice or even just plain civilized behavior?
We try to deal with this disconnect by viewing such acts as aberrations, to blame it on a few 'bad apples,' and console ourselves that most people do not behave this way. And in a purely numerical sense, we are probably right. The actual number of people who actually carry out acts of such brutality as have been revealed so far may not be large. If it were, we would have the equivalent of mass murder.
But we must not forget that such acts can only occur because the ethos in which these people act tolerates, if not condones or even encourages, such behavior. When you train people to kill without thinking, put them in a hostile environment where they feel under threat, give them powerful weaponry, give them unquestioned power over those under their control, and breed in them a sense that they have immunity for their actions, then it is only a matter of time before some do the kinds of things we find abhorrent. I am not sure that any of us would act much differently if we had undergone the same training and been placed under the same circumstances, so we should not be quick to judge the soldiers who do these things as somehow innately evil people, different from us. What we have to do is prevent the circumstances that encourage the baser elements of our natures to surface and allow such acts to be even contemplated. (In response to yesterday's posting, commenter Joshua links to several experiments that study what regular people can be induced to do to other people under particular conditions. Two of the more famous cases, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are particularly disturbing.)
This brutalizing effect of war does not end even when the war ends. The mentality bred by such training cannot be simply turned on and off like a switch. Upon their return, it infects soldiers' personal relationships as well.
By most measurements, there is a higher incidence of domestic violence in the military than in the civilian world. The most recent figures, from surveys conducted by the Department of Defense, suggest that domestic violence occurs twice as frequently in the military as among civilians. But activists and social workers believe that the rate is much higher. "Those numbers are soft," says Hansen. "Essentially, that figure comes from a reanalysis of a reanalysis of a comparative analysis from a study which goes back to the early '90s." Hansen believes the true figure is closer to five times that of the general population. Those who dispute her estimate say that the statistics should be adjusted to account for the disproportionate percentage of soldiers whose demographic profile -- mostly young men, often with relatively low educational attainment, from unstable, low-income families - pegs them as most likely to have a problem with domestic violence in the civilian population (or at least most likely to be reported for it). They argue that domestic violence is no more prevalent in the military than it is in a civilian population of comparable demographics.
Many soldiers will resist the temptation to personally indulge in such kinds of abuse but that effort often exhausts their own energies and they have little stomach left to actively oppose the few who take advantage of their power to abuse others. But we, collectively, also bear responsibility for creating the kinds of conditions that enable these things to occur.
It may be possible that if there are strong countervailing pressures from the top that enforce tight discipline and control and accountability, that some of the worst excesses can be avoided, But what the events at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan show is that the top echelons of the administration, rather than maintaining such strict policies, deliberately cultivated a sense of ambivalence as to whether the Geneva conventions even applied to the prisoners or whether torture was permissible. Seeming to condone torture under these conditions was like lighting a fuse. The only question that remained was when the explosion would occur not if. And the government's desperate battle to keep further information of abuse from being released is an indication that their casual attitude towards the treatment of prisoners has resulted in much more widespread abuse than has been suspected, making it harder for them to sustain the self-excusing 'few bad apples' attitude.
Currently the President and Vice President are lobbying furiously to block the full adoption of anti-torture legislation contemplated by Congress, further sending the message that they are not unequivocally opposed to prisoner abuse. Larry Johnson, formerly of the CIA and the Department of State's Office of Counter Terrorism argues why this is a really bad idea.
In the next posting, we will look at the brutalizing effects of war on the general public.
POST SCRIPT: Blair rebuffed on terror suspect detentions
British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a defeat in his attempt to pass legislation to hold terror suspects without charge for up to 90 days. Parliament gave him an upper limit of 28 days. Meanwhile, in the US, the administration can simply, without judicial oversight, designate anyone (even you or me) as an 'enemy combatant' and that person can be held indefinitely at an unknown location and with no access to anyone to ensure that they are treated humanely.
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