I remember being a young Marine recruit at Parris Island, August of 1966, running, running, boots thumping on the grinder, exulting in the sense of power and communion that comes of men acting in unison, shouting, “Luke the Gook comes marching by, stick your bayonet in his eye, lef rye lef rye lef….” Only an idiot goes to PI—Third Batallion, Disneyland, in my case—in August. I was one. It goes with being nineteen.
Under a leaden sun that beat down like a soft rubber truncheon, we unlearned civilization. How to clap a hand over a sentry’s mouth while inserting your Kbar in his kidney; agony, shock and instant blood loss prevent a struggle. We ran in formation shouting Kill! Kill! Kill! We learned that it is better to shoot an enemy in the bowels than the head because trying to keep him alive would strain the enemy’s medical resources, and the man would probalby die anyway. Peritonitis is your friend, we learned. The other guy’s peritonitis.
Months later at Lejeune we slogged day after day, on three and a half hours sleep, through the greasy clay mud of a North Carolina autumn, from range to range. We learned flame throwers, which if you haven’t you don’t know what hell is, and how to burn the enemy alive. Again, that sense of power. We learned to use white phosphorus, WP, Willy Peter or other names less printable, to cover enemies in burning goop that you can’t put out. We learned to be what human beings shouldn’t be. We felt an exhilarating freedom, of not being subject to moral constraints. We learned to suppress conscience, morality, and empathy. This, more than the use of weapons, is the goal of military training.
It works. Generations of study of psychological conditioning have gone into making it work. It plays to all the animal instincts of the young male, the desire to belong, for adventure, to prove himself, to win.
The love of combat, or the love of a highly romanticized idea of combat, runs deep in the race. Go to a movie in the style of Star Wars and watch the audience as the hero’s starfighter twists, dodges, fires, closes in on the villain. They will be on the edge of their seats, almost orgasmic. What proportion of movies, of video games, turn on war, gunfights, and the like?
It is not hard to direct the instinctual combativeness into hatred of any desired foe. Tribalism is innate in humanity. But the hostility cannot be precisely focused. Typically the soldier is young, not too bright, poorly educated, and not real sure what the war is about. You cannot train him to hate the enemy according to fine distinctions. They are all gooks, dinks, slopes, zipperheads, sand niggers, towel heads. That much used slogan of the Albigensian wars, “Kill them all, God will know his own,” becomes emotional bedrock to soldiers.
And so he comes to hate them all. Viets, Afghans, Iraqis, or Cambodians, Laos, whatever, are weird, alien, dirty, can’t talk English, sneaky, and you can just tell they don’t like Americans. Watch their eyes. They’re hiding something, aiding the enemy. They are animals, don’t deserve to live. And so in every war you hear the plea, “Screw the rules of engagement. Turn us loose. We’ll end this fast.”
And so the atrocities come. Always. Inevitably. In every war. In ancient times they were not called atrocities, but just “war.” Conquering commanders would perhaps put the whole city to the sword, or at least allow the soldiers a few days of raping and looting. Today we are more squeamish, and avert our eyes. Read carefully the history of any country’s wars, certainly including America’s. Ghastly examples abound.
The military’s response to a discovered atrocity is to lie about it if possible. This is not from shame. In Afghanistan, the Pentagon knows that the Taliban cannot defeat American forces, but public opinion in the US can. If lying doesn’t work, spin, spin, spin. In the latest atrocity by US forces, in which a GI killed sixteen Afghan civilians for fun, or maybe from boredom, the Pentagon is saying that he had suffered a head injury. Oh. (The magazine The Nation quotes Afghans as saying that there were several Gis, drunk and laughing. I guess they all had head injuriies.)
The atrocities will continue. They always do. They are part of war, especially of wars against populations. Most go unreported. A few years back I was in China and met a young Puerto Rican vet from New York. His mother had taken him on tour to celebrate his live return from Afghanistan. He told me of being on patrol in some town when a woman had accidentally blocked the path of the sergeant in charge of the patrol. He rifle-butted her. A small thing, not up there with splashy atrocities like killing a bunch of children. The kid said he knew it was wrong, but in a firefight you have to depend on the other guys and you can’t risk having the sergeant down on you. He didn’t say anything.
If you suggest that such behavior isn’t a real good idea, the hardnosed will say, what the hell, tell them to get over it, we’ve got a war to fight. Thing is, Afghan men are as hard as any who ever lived, and they take mistreatment of their women seriously. They take the murder of their childrn for fun seriously. A horizontal butt-stroke to the face of someone’s wife means that you aren’t going to win your war. Pissing on Afghan dead, kicking their doors in at three in the morning, kill teams sportively murdering civilians, all the things that boot camp makes inevitable—they all mean you are not going to win your war.
Even Republicans can tire of killing, or conceivably can. But it is not just the weariness of Americans with endless war that threatens the Pentagon. The Afghans hate the United States, and their soldiers have begun killing US troops. The Pakis, furious at American intervention and random killing with those fun new drones, are at the point of revolt. The atrocities will continue because, after all the medals and stories of heroism at the O-club, the high-fives and the teary-eyed tributes to the fallen, atrocities are what armies do.
When you have trained men to behave in a certain way, don’t be surprised when they do.