Haywire soldiers

February 23, 2007

iraq-girlgun.jpgYou send a man to a foreign country with a great big gun. Before that you have spent between 2 months and a number of years teaching him how to kill other human beings in as many different ways as possible. He arrives in a war zone and has to kill to survive. Mostly he tries to just kill people who want to cause him harm but, in an urban environment, he will end up accidentally killing the odd civilian as well. As well as civilians who aren’t odd: are children, are teachers, are salesmen/ cooks/ firemen. Ordinary people.

Sometimes when pinned down, to protect himself and his men, he calls in an airstrike on a building. He knows there are civilians as well as the enemy inside. They use them as human shields after all. The people who authorise the airstrike know it and the pilots in the jets know it.

To get through the night, to sleep at all, this man is going to have to adjust his ideas of what is right and what is wrong. What is acceptable and what is not. Anyone doing that in such an envirnment risks insanity, by any definitionof the word. He will be trying to find some solid ground on which to place his actions. Of course, there is no solid ground, was is insane. Everything he is doing goes against everything he was programmed to believe was good or right growing up. All the rules about the sanctity of human life and value of the individual are gone. All societal norms are squashed.

He sees friends killed and he builds up a sense of his own mortality and the immediacy of death. He also realises his life has no worth in this place just as he gives no worth to those he has to kill and see killed. Life becomes visceral, only for sensation. If he has personal demons or pathologies that he has kept control of in his former life they will be released.

From the BBC:”In November, Specialist James Barker, 24, admitted rape and murder over the killings and was jailed for 90 years.” Was this US soldier not also a victim here? In the same story: “Sgt Paul Cortez admitted four murders, rape and conspiracy to rape. His plea means he will avoid the death penalty.”

These men are not heroes but they are not “evil” either. Until you have had to kill, and kill en masse, you cannot know and cannot judge what a person goes through. Even if you had you cannot be sure your experience was the same. It goes to background, genetics and upbringing. Some people hold in great pain to become good citizens and behave well in society.

None of this detracts from the vicious and brutal nature of these killings and rapes. But some of the burden of the behaviour must lie beyond the men on the ground. If you jail these men you must surely jail the Generals who order the attacks, the pilots in air strikes, the President who orders a war. If they escape then these men must too, and be given treatment in a mental hospital not cast into jail.

ref: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6384781.stm

Separate subject: [link] an interesting article on reasons for America wanting war with Iran. There are primary sources listed. Anyone know how true this is?


7 Responses to “Haywire soldiers”

  1. Oscarandre Says:

    Provoking piece, Jester. I watched a fascinating doco on Robert McNamara last night entitled “The Fog of War.” McNamara raises the notion that he and others associated with such events as the bombing of Dresden or the incendiary bombing of Tokyo (100 000 dead civilians) would have been considered war criminals had the war been lost. In the end, as Sherman said, “War is cruel and you cannot refine it.”

  2. Solnushka Says:

    It’s not that I disagree with you. In fact you could argue that it’s mildly heartening that soldiers have to have their minds twisted a bit in order for them to be able to kill other humans. But it’s a bit like crazed animals – sounds like these guys have gone a bit too far round the twist. Can’t let them back into society and all that. They might bite.

    Western armies are having a bit of an uphill struggle with this one though I reckon because of the refusal of the home population to collude in the demonisation of the enemy/ our cause is right process that goes with the brainwashing. No wonder half our soldiers are supposed to have depression and/ or other symptoms of mental stress.

    Perhaps soldiers always did, of course. But I worry about the extreme brutalisation of a lot of the soldiers in the Russian army. Frequently by the Russian army. They don’t seem to suffer the consequenses of a particularly nasty fight in Chechneya much themselves now, and what they’ve achieved in Chechnaya is certainly… effective, but I can’t see that it’s helpful to Russia to have a bunch of deadened psychotics running about and I certainly wouldn’t want to meet them on a dark night.

  3. Dear Solnushka,

    I also agree that people who have gone through this are in a condition to be let back into society without help first. Ideally you find diplomatic ways of solving conflicts but if it comes to a war the troops need to be treated better when they make it home.

    Any person who kills other humans is going to have trouble fitting back into society. It worked better when war was almost a game and people used to have tea parties on top of hills to watch- it was sort of like sport but with gore and death.

    Any society that trumps the importance of the individual and programs it’s people like that is going to have problems with it’s soldiers when they return from a war where civilians are killed, accidentally or not.

    Most people have little problem justifying killing someone who wants to kill them be it a murderer in their home or another soldier and recover quickly. It’s when you know ordinary people trying to just live their lives are dying because of you you lose your mind somewhat.

    I have a friend who was with the armed forces during apartheid South Africa and I know of what I speak. He has been through multiple “programmings” in his life. Most South Africans and, indeed I imagine Russians, over a certain age have been the subject of contrary programming or brainwashing through a state that controlled media and then fell allowing the media their own message.

    That alone confuses people morally but it is worse when that moral confusion has added to it murder. That’s why I speak of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation board so highly. They understood that from day one.

    My ultimate point is, though, that punishing these soldiers for losing their minds in a situation not of their making is unfair unless you also punish those who created the situation in the first place. The first step to recovery is not punishment.


    ps. It is a pleasure to have your commentary. Always insightful and personal.

  4. Dear Oscarandre,

    All war is criminal and all actions within it criminal. Sometimes the only way to justice is through a crime. Ultimately every society has to decide what is more important: justice or the rights of man? The USA has made that decision. They have decided that whatever their version of justice is, that it is the more important thing.

    Europe, who have seen enough war and bloodshed on their own cities to last forever have the other view entirely. Note that only the English, who have never been occupied in living memory and Australia- likewise, are the only western 1st world countries to join in. Not that the people were for it- but they didn’t care enough to take to the streets and topple the government. Prime Ministers, of course, unlike Presidents, topple as soon as the other ministers in the party believe that they have definitively lost them the next election.

    It is also confusing that the country I was programmed to look at as “the good guys” actually are approaching the human rights record of China. If you take only the last 5 years they are actually worse than China, beaten by only a few mad African countries for behaviour (Congo, Sudan etc.)


  5. Solnushka Says:

    It’s a bit like certain other criminals, though. I mean, mad dogs should be, ah, gently removed. It’s not a matter of condemnation necessarily, but protection of society. I couldn’t give a hoot about how they got that way – I don’t want them around my kids. So to speak. I agree it’s annoying that it is blamed on the individual rather than the system.

    Thing is you also can’t punish the Generals (or whoever) for doing to soldiers what they need to do in order to get them to be able to persue the sort of wars that are waged now against all civilian instincts. Although you could argue that once you’ve got them to that point you then have to make damn sure they are kept under control, which doesn’t seem to have been the case in a couple of well publicised incidents. That’s punnishment worthy perhaps.

    You’re right about war being launched into too easily though. And it probably is because of the significant players having forgotton the essential cruelty of it all.

    There’s a quote by Kruschev about why he backed down over the Missile Crisis somewhere which essentially was about having a sudden flashback to the horrors of what Russia sufered in the second world war. I like to think that it’s a genuine thought and that even someone who can survive under Stalin and condem half the Ukraine to starvation has their limits.

  6. […] a book in a thread as a result of Midnight Jester’s very thoughtful and sensible post on the nature of responsibility in war. Suddenly you realise that you have done this so frequently over the last few years that rather […]

  7. Solnushka Says:

    Incidently I do appreciate you have already suggested two things your country is doing about it and have got a project of you own going along those lines yourself.

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