March 02, 2007

To Save Ourselves, We Must Change Who We Are

Let us first note history repeating, from the Philippines over a hundred years ago:
One Nebraskan soldier boasted to his parents of his comrades' bold, aggressive fighting spirit, restrained only by officers' reticence. "If they would turn the boys loose," he wrote, "there wouldn't be a nigger left in Manila twelve hours later." ...

The ultimate form of exterminist war was the killing of acknowledged noncombatants. As early as April 12, 1899, an entry in Chriss Bell's diary took derecognition to its furthest extension: Filipinos had already "caused so much trouble & murdered so many of our boys" that U.S. soldiers "recognize them no longer but shoot on sight all natives. Natives will not or cannot understand kind & civilized treatment. If you treat them as equals they will think you are afraid of them & murder you."


One of the most banal and brutal manifestations of racialization was U.S. soldiers' imagination of war as hunting. The Manila occupation and "friendly policy" had frustrated martial masculinity; the metaphor of the hunt made war, at last, into masculine self-fulfillment. All at once, a language of hunting bestialized Filipinos made sense of guerrilla war to American troops, and joined the latter in manly fraternity. "I don't know when the thing will let out," wrote Louis Hubbard one week into the war, "and don't care as we are having lots of excitement. It makes me think of killing jack rabbits."


The most notorious orders of indiscriminate killing were Gen. Jacob H. Smith's late October 1901 instructions to Marine Maj. Littleron W.T. Waller, following Filipino revolutionaries' successful surprise attack against U.S. soldiers at Balangiga on the island of Samar, to make reprisals against the entire population of the island. "I want no prisoners," he had directed. "I wish you to kill and burn." Smith ordered "all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States." When Waller had asked the general for clarification, Smith stated that he considered any person over the age of ten "capable of bearing arms." The interior of Samar must be made "a howling wilderness!" The direct result of these instructions was systematic destruction and killing on a vast scale.
To Iraq today:
"The fellas from 121 started showing up the other day. It's starting to sink in... I'll have to go home, the opportunities to kill these fuckers is rapidly coming to an end. Like a hobby I'll never get to practice again. It's not a great war, but it's the only one we've got. God, I do love killing these bastards. ... Morale is high, the Marines can smell the barn. It's hard to keep them focused. I still have 20 days of kill these motherfuckers, so I don't wanna take even one day off. " -- letter home from an unnamed Marine F/A -18 pilot in Iraq.
The letter from Iraq is discussed in a Matt Taibbi article, which is well worth your time, especially for its conclusion:
After four years of Iraq, we still can't talk about peace in public! This evil bullshit has been buried in the commercial media's descriptive campaign language seemingly forever by now, but it may be time -- in the wake of this Iraq disaster -- to start thinking about where it comes from and what effect it may have on the national psyche.

I believe that Marine pilot is driven by the same forces that render the presidential candidacy of someone like Dennis Kucinich impossible in America. A country that feeds itself through the manufacture of war technology is bound to view peace, nonviolence and mercy as seditious concepts. It will create policies first and then people to fit its machines, finding wars to fight and creating killers to fight them. If that's true of us, and I think it is, our troubles won't be over even if someone brings the Iraq war to an end. We'll be treating the symptom and not the disease. And the reason our elections are a sham is that the disease is never on the table. Excepting the occasional Kucinich, no one in either party is interested in trying to change who we are, no matter how sick we become.
In the middle of his article, Taibbi says that he's "always wary of these stories about American soldiers acting like hateful, mindlessly violent psychopaths in Iraq, though they're not exactly rare." He emphasizes that "[i]t's not that I don't believe these stories, and not that I don't want to hear them," and writes:
[A]ll the people in the Bush administration and in Congress and in the media who got these kids sent there in the first place have to be the first ones held responsible for whatever those kids do after being thrown into the fire. I just don't yet have the stomach to start pointing the finger at a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings who never should have been sent there in the first place.
Taibbi is trying to grapple with an immensely complex question here, precisely the kind of question banished from thoughtful consideration by our culture's determined stupidity and superficiality: the allocation of moral responsibility for war crimes -- and in a particular context, when the invasion and occupation of Iraq constitute one incomprehensibly huge, continuing war crime in their entirety. I won't criticize Taibbi too strongly for his attempt, although I find his remarks on this point far from satisfactory (and certainly incomplete, although that may be due in large part to length limitations). At least, he's not trying to sanitize and whitewash the worst of the U.S. troops' behavior -- or at least not exactly, although some of his comments come a little too close to that approach in my judgment (even if that isn't his intent, which I don't believe it is).

I'll be addressing this particular subject in much more detail when I continue "The Personal Factor" series of essays. One issue that Taibbi doesn't mention, and one which almost no one is prepared to discuss, is what kind of person (speaking in general terms) is drawn to military service -- drawn, that is, to a life which finds its most basic, necessary foundation in unquestioning obedience. (Paul Fussell discusses this issue, and its crucial connection to the "culture of war," in a speech that I excerpted here.) That is a point of the greatest significance, and it will be worthwhile to examine some of its ramifications. For the moment, I would like to remind you that, even in a military setting and even when obedience is considered in many ways to be the primary foundational virtue, we will always see one extraordinarily rare kind of person:
When the order comes down to treat a prisoner with unspeakable cruelty, to "waterboard" him, to electrocute him, to cut him, to hang him on hooks from the ceiling for days on end, or to commit any number of other unforgivable crimes, there is always the man or woman who will say -- without bravado, without show, without explicitly staking any particular moral claim, but as a simple, unadorned statement of fact:
No. I will not do this. You can torture me, or say you will kill me. I cannot and will not do this to another human being. I will not do this.

It is the person who says, "No," whom we must seek to understand. It is not melodramatic or engaging in overstatement to say that he or she is our salvation.
Also related: On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility (I)

On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility (II): The Culture of War, and the Culture of Chicken Shit