May 5, 2004
And now, a soapbox/rant entry:
I am not sure why everyone is so surprised by the “allegations” of various kinds of torture of Iraqi POWs by American soldiers. As (I hope) most Americans were, I felt shocked and sickened over the photos that we have all been seeing on TV. However, the only part that actually surprised me was that this was coming to light so soon: I imagined that it might be a few years before reports of behaviors like this bubbled to the surface. And I thought that the reports would be about civilian women, rather than military men. (And don’t for a minute think that the rapid emergence of this information is disconnected from that fact, either, but that’s another rant.)
For as long as there has been war, the victors have abused and humiliated the defeated in as many ways as possible. For one thing, there has ALWAYS been rape and sexual assault, among other tortures, of those in occupied territories, whether of civilian status or not. Al. Ways. In every war you can think of, including those within our lifetimes. It’s only recently (in historical terms) that this even ceased being an intentional tactic! However, it hasn’t actually stopped it occurring—it’s just gone a little bit underground.
It was actually only a couple of weekends ago that I was predicting to various people that it would therefore only be a matter of time before we began hearing about sexual assaults of Iraqis by Americans. I don't think any of us like imagining "civilized" troops doing something like this.
But the thing is, people have to be trained to kill one another. Sure, there are a few weirdos who like killing people for kicks. And some people do it out of rage, or self-defense. Some even do it out of some neurotic fear (like “I knew he would win that contest instead of me so he had to die” or whatever.) But most people, most of the time, do not kill other people! That’s why soldiers have to be trained. And what do they have to be trained in? Well, yes, killing techniques, and how to activate those techniques reflexively.
But perhaps more importantly, they have to be trained to not think of those individuals that make up the “enemy” group as human beings. It is very, very hard to kill a human being in completely cold blood. Or for that matter, often even in hot blood, or even when one is in danger oneself. But if a soldier can be led to think of those individuals as less than human, as not really people as such, as not just some person in the same position as oneself, as “other,”—then it becomes a lot easier. (Ditto for distance killing, which allows the killers to see people as simply little dots or targets, or even ignore them as collateral to the destruction of buildings and so on.)
The thing is, once you get your soldiers to think of the people in that occupied country as inhuman enough to be killable, you can’t really get that response to discriminate from one situation to another. So—wait—it’s okay to kill this guy, take his life away entirely, but we can’t stack him and his friends up naked and make fun of them and take pictures of them while they’re alive?! Nobody’s gut emotional response can really get around that contradiction. Empathy is just not selective in that way.
The only way to keep people from doing exactly what those soldiers did is in the absolutely most pedantic, step-by-step, algorithmic, rule-bound fashion that bypasses emotional reactions entirely. Which I’m sure the military already has in place.
However, a lot of that kind of organization depends on people enforcing those rules among themselves. So in a chaotic situation like war (or police action, or whatever they’re calling it this month) it can be even harder than usual to keep those kinds of rules enforced. Especially when the entire culture of the organization is specifically set up to dehumanize Those People as “other.” Then enforcement (unintentionally, of course) simply becomes a lot more lax at every level, and suddenly we have Colin Powell on the evening news telling us that this was just the work of a few bad seeds or…apples…or something.
The scary thing is, I know he’s not a stupid man, so he must actually know he’s lying.