Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dehumanization - of them and us

by expatbrian

I've listened to several of the accounts being given at Winter Soldier and they are both enlightening and horrifying. They are also nostalgic.

One of the many panels of speakers concentrates on the process of dehumanizing the enemy. This, like so much of military training, is an extremely effective method of changing the mindsets of new enlistees, most of them teenagers, so they are ready, willing and even eager to spontaneously kill other people. Consider how intense this training must be in order to turn a normal, fun loving, hormone driven high schooler into an unquestioning killer in a matter of weeks.

A critical part of this training involves dehumanization. The idea here is to make trainees think of the enemy, not as opposing soldiers but as less than human. Animals if you will. There is far less of a possibility that an American soldier will balk at the order to kill when he believes that what he is killing is not a person at all, but a lower form of life deserving only disgust and hate.

The problem with this training is that it does not stipulate a difference between enemy soldiers and local civilians. All are lumped into one category, given derogatory names and on the battlefield are ultimately treated the same. This is not only part and parcel of the way American troops are trained, it is not new.

Those of us who were trained to go to Vietnam learned that the Vietnamese, whether they were civilians or combatants, were Dinks, Gooks, Slopes or Slopeheads and Slants. They were just little bastards that lived like animals in the jungle and it was ok to treat them accordingly. There was no place for respect for any member of the population and thus, the civilians became victims, not only of the VC, but of the American forces as well. The result was the same as in Iraq today. Greater numbers of civilians were killed than the actual enemy. And no matter what the military public relations folks say, this is condoned and encouraged behavior.

An example, then and now, of how this plays out and the mindset of our soldiers can be seen in the rules of engagement. Instructions are that anyone who is out after the curfew set by the military is a potential target. While on paper it may say that authorization must be given to fire on them, in actual practice this decision is left up to the soldier. In order to achieve the military's most prized goal - body count - the target will be shot, even if the soldier knows that there is no threat and the target is an innocent civilian.

Free fire zones are even more fun because you can shoot anything at any time. Calling in gunships or artillery on a few rice pickers or water buffalo just so you can watch the fireworks is great entertainment. According to some of the testimony at the hearings the last couple of days, this type of activity is still common.

At the 1971 Winter Soldier, time and again the veterans repeated this theme. Villagers were tortured, raped and killed, often with an unbelievable level of brutality, for no other reason than suspicion or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This included elderly, children, livestock and even babies. The official records would show that they were "suspected VC sympathizers".

Listening to these brave young men give testimony in the current hearings is just absolutely heart wrenching. The guilt they feel comes through with every word. Now that they are back in the US they have regained some of their "normal" perspective and look back at their own actions and those of their comrades with horror and disbelief.

It must take an enormous amount of courage to come forward, publicly and even broadcast live, and admit to these atrocities. They deserve our respect as much for this as for their service overseas. I think they also deserve our time to listen to them, as uncomfortable as it may be. They are giving these testimonials, often at great personal risk, so that we - the public - will hear the truth about what is happening. We should be willing to listen.

The military goes to great lengths to instill in our soldiers a willingness and even eagerness to commit violent and brutal acts automatically and without question. It works. What the military does not do is spend any time or effort to debrief or untrain this mindset once the troops come home. Indeed, as we have heard time and again, treatment for those who suffer the depression, guilt and even suicidal reactions for what they have seen and done is pitifully substandard. Quite simply, once their combat roles are over, no one cares.

It is no surprise that many if not most of the returning troops suffer from PTSD and worse. What is shocking is our unwillingness to insure that these brave men and women get the very best and most timely treatment that is possible. But they don't and they won't. Its just not in the budget. And the administration and the pentagon is never going to admit that they know this going in. But of course they do. It is an acceptable cost of performing the war.

Trust me when I say that most if not all soldiers who have been in a combat zone, whether they were participants or witnesses, will never again be the same as they were before they went. The experience is so horrifyingly surreal that recovery from it is just not possible. Many can not adjust at all and we read about them as suicide or homeless statistics. It is just so damn sad.

In a necessary war, where our country is actually under threat this situation might be understandable. But in the case of Iraq, where we all know that the invasion and occupation was based on lies and propoganda, there is just no excuse, no justification for allowing it to continue. It is no less than insane and it must be stopped. The American people still have the power to do that. But if we continue to spend the obscene amounts of money to perpetuate this nightmare and the number of physically and mentally wounded continues to grow, we may reach a point where recovery is simply out of reach.

cross posted at World Gone Mad

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3 Comments:

Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

That's a stunning summation and that the truth of it has eluded popular consciousness for so many decades is both a condemnation of the lie machine that our society has become and of the universal human ability to use patriotism, religion and other high sounding ideas to hide from the burdens of decency, morality and civilized behavior.

Whether or not our "experiment" in democracy has worked, it certainly hasn't made us less of the greedy, nasty, murderous little apes we always have been.

If anyone else ever asks me why I don't wave flags or wear little pins or pledge allegiance to this dishonest nation under its sorry god, I will refer them to this.

9:00:00 AM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Surreal. Propaganda. Those are good terms to describe what happens.

On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor last year, one of the major news stations had a story about former American and Japanese soldiers meeting for the first time since the war in Hawaii. The story touched me because the men on both sides were surprised by how nice everyone was. They had gone there with chips on their shoulders expecting to hate instead of forgive, but forgive they did. In the end, they realized that they were all simply men doing what their governments had told them to do. They were able to put their preconceived hatred aside.

They were all old of course, but they went away with a sense of relief that they were able to let go of some of the hatred and anger they had felt all these years. That's something most soldiers never get the chance to do.

5:34:00 PM  
OpenID expatbrian said...

Kathy, There is a large population of American vets who live in SE Asia, many of them in Vietnam and Thailand. Thousands of vets have made pilgrimages to Vietnam over the years. The guilt, the need to revisit the scene in an attempt to find new meaning, are just overwhelming.
Many of us were so very uncomfortable when we got home (after dreaming about being home every minute for a year) that the first thing we wanted to do was go back. There we felt that we fit in. We understood the terrain and our place. Home became the foreign turf. I never stopped feeling that way and now, though I live just over an hour away from Saigon, I am reluctant. My fear is that it will be either uncontrollable emotionally or an utter letdown.

6:31:00 PM  

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