More Atrocities in Afghanistan - Why Are We Surprised?

Here we go again. Photos published several weeks ago (taken in 2010) showed U.S. soldiers displaying the corpses and body parts of alleged Afghan insurgents. The images can only be characterized as grotesque. U.S. officials and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen immediately characterized the pictured events as anomalous. A military investigation is underway.

Last year a U.S. soldier pled guilty to the 2010 murder of three unarmed Afghan civilians. The sense when that story broke was that these criminal offenses were just the tip of the iceberg of a rogue military culture. Similar incidents occurred in 2009.

This is old news in Iraq. Atrocities were frequent, including the disgusting treatment of captives at Abu Ghraib. In a 2007 article, journalist Chris Hedges wrote: "After four years of war, American Marines and soldiers have become socialized to atrocity. The war in Iraq is now primarily about murder. There is very little killing."

Why are we surprised?

From September 1966 through August 1967 I was in U.S. Army training. Basic training was followed by Advanced Infantry Training and six months of brutal Officers Candidate School (OCS). I am neither proud nor ashamed of these experiences. I had very personal engagement with the well-calculated process that turns ordinary young men from all walks of life into soldiers who are prepared to give their own lives and take others. It is a ruthlessly efficient system.

First is depersonalization. As you lose your identity (shaved head, olive green fatigues), you are expected to develop a new allegiance to comrade and mission. Obedience is necessary and it is not a subtle expectation. The "enemy" is dehumanized even more clearly. I recall, with surprising clarity, being ordered to (and complying) scream "gook" as we savagely thrust our bayonet blades into straw mannequins wearing Asian-themed hats and clothes. If you expected to complete training, your hostility had to have a ring of authenticity.

This training was accompanied by newscasts which showed the horrors of war in the rice paddies and jungles. I and all of my fellow soldiers were one set of orders and a plane trip away from being in those rice paddies. I was lucky. The closest I came to combat was 30,000 feet, while flying over Vietnam on the way to and from Thailand.

But I had anticipatory nightmares. Those dark nights of fitful sleep were filled with the "enemy" and I would awake in a sweat from the too visceral experience of being on hair trigger alert. I remember that it seemed perfectly sensible to shoot first and ask questions thereafter, as was one of the military mottos. This conversion happened to me, and I was a boy who avoided even mild confrontations on the playground. To this day it makes me nauseous to watch a fistfight or any other violence, but in 1967 I may have been ready to kill men, women, boys and girls I never met. I'll never know, but I don't like to think about it.

From what I've read in the many years since then, military training has become a little less brutal and the dehumanization of the enemy is not quite so explicitly vile. But don't be fooled into thinking it has fully changed, because it is inherently impossible to train men and women to kill others without dehumanizing the objects of their violence. It is not in our nature to kill people who are like us -- mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends and neighbors. If soldiers were not trained to see the enemy as "the other," military missions would be too unbearably painful. So in Vietnam they were "gooks," in Iraq and Afghanistan they are "towelheads." Their religion is false and their values are less noble than ours. We are the great nation, exceptional in all ways. By simple deduction all others are of somewhat lesser value.

I'm not denying the reality of terrorism or the complex reasons that war might be necessary. But even in the most justified or necessary war, the act of killing another human requires a particular and peculiar state of mind that is achieved through military training. It may be subtler today than in 1967, but it is still powerful and intentional.

At that moment of decision, whether by virtue of military mission or self-preservation, the pulling of the trigger or thrust of the blade is possible only because you have been conditioned to believe it is necessary and right. Whether in Vietnam 50 years ago or Afghanistan this week, the soldiers who have been conditioned in this way are placed in thankless situations where rationality is already overridden by constant fear -- road mines, snipers, folks with automatic weapons beneath their civilian robes, dark shadows in the midnight rainforest.

We should not be surprised when the fear and conditioning spill over into what we see as atrocities. The soldier with the hand of an Afghan corpse resting on his shoulder never saw that man as a real human. To the rest of us sentient beings, the horror is unthinkable. To the soldier in the picture it was evidently just another day at the office.

This moral tension is awful. You can't have an effective military if the soldiers are unable to execute the mission. And if they are trained to see the enemy as "the other," the killing cannot be perfectly confined. This is why we must pick our battles with great, great care. But we haven't done that. Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, these atrocities are not the tragic collateral damage of just wars.

They are a national shame.

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