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Robert Jay Lifton Headshot

The American Way of War

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The American way of war has been turning many of our own soldiers into criminal killers and desecraters, and does great harm to our overall spiritual health. The wars we have chosen to fight in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, different as they are, have all given rise to what can best be called an "atrocity-producing situation." Sergeant Robert Bales' rampage in which he randomly murdered 17 Afghan civilians, at least 9 of them children, is only the most recent example.

Yes, atrocities occur in all wars, but in a certain kind of war they can become almost inseparable from everyday combat. By atrocity-producing situation I mean an environment so structured, militarily and psychologically, that an average person entering it, no better or worse than you or me, could be capable of committing atrocities. The military structure includes a counterinsurgency war in a distant, alien environment, against a nonwhite adversary, where it becomes extremely difficult to differentiate combatants from civilians. Add to that the uneasy psychological responses of occupiers or invaders, combinations of fear, helplessness, angry grief in response to the death of buddies, and hunger for an enemy who will "stand up and fight."

What can readily result is indiscriminate rage toward all of the nonwhite people one is ostensibly defending, toward every Vietnamese, Iraqi, or Afghan. Sgt. Bales' four combat deployments, along with other personal factors, could have made him especially prone to atrocity, but his behavior most basically reflects the war he was fighting, the atrocity-producing situation prevailing in Afghanistan.

Hence the overall pattern of shocking incidents: repeated killings of civilians, Marines urinating on Taliban bodies, the burning of Korans, the defiling of insurgents' remains as photographed by participants. A readiness for atrocity was observed by Neil Shea, a journalist embedded with American soldiers in Afghanistan. One of them told him that "this is where I come to do fucked-up things," words Shea heard "in many variations, from many American combat troops." Men could be aware that such behavior helped the enemy and could even express cynical pleasure in "recruiting for the Taliban." American soldiers in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam and Iraq, could thus become both victims and executioners, the two roles that Albert Camus wisely warned us to never take on.

Some have compared Sgt. Bales' rampage with the much larger My Lai massacre of 1968, the slaughter by an American company of some 500 civilians in a small Vietnamese village over the course of a single morning. In both cases there occurred a gradual brutalization of American soldiers, which included the swapping of stories among them about the grotesquely violent things one would do to any Vietnamese or Afghan one encountered. Shea heard a soldier refer to a sergeant who told his men to "kill everything," and then himself add: "You know what? Fuck these people," feelings all too reminiscent of those expressed at My Lai.

My Lai became a defining event of the Vietnam War and Sgt. Bales' killings could well become the same for Afghanistan. With both incidents Americans were subjected to grotesque accounts of slaughter of civilians that could epitomize a war they had already come to oppose and give decisive impetus to that opposition.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, visibly upset by American misbehavior in Afghanistan, recently declared: "This is not who we are and it's certainly not what we represent when it comes to the great majority of men and women in uniform." But, I would add, it is what we become when fighting wars structured for atrocity.

We've been involved militarily in Afghanistan for 10 years, long enough for someone born when the war began to be now in the fifth grade. Can we not, however belatedly, draw wisdom from the kind of war we have been fighting there, and have also fought in Iraq and Vietnam? It's time for us to confront and renounce this American way of war.