United States Senators and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld are declaring the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel “un-American.” But when I look back upon U.S. history, it seems this type of dehumanizing behavior by soldiers upon the perceived enemy is common, if not an integral part, of the lure to participate, as a soldier, in war. In the systematic education of paid killers, the dehumanization of the opponent not only serves as a reason to kill the enemy, but also enables a person to detach from the humanity of another, and kill on command, like a robot, without thinking. We see this type of insulated, authoritarian thinking exhibited in the military, in police, and in the criminal (in)justice system in America. Anyone who has ever been dehumanized by a cop on the street, by guards in jail, or has been shredded through the U.S. criminal (in)justice system understands unwilling humiliation by a government authority figure, right here in America, land o’ the free. It is as American as apple pie. My theory is that part of the spoils of being in war is abusing prisoners of war, whether we are talking about cops breaking in doors and brutalizing people in the “war on drugs” on the TV show “Cops,” or riot police acting like robots with brutality against unarmed anti-war protesters in the “war on terror,” or prisoners of war being humiliated to titillate American soldiers in Iraq.
Philip Caputo, in his classic book, “A Rumor Of War,” says men he knew joined the Marines as a way to escape being an ordinary guy, and as a way to get out of living in their parents’ basement, as well as a means to prove something. I grew up during the Vietnam War era, and I honestly hated all soldiers who had any part in that war throughout most of my teens and 20’s. I thought they needed to NOT PARTICIPATE by any means necessary. I had more compassion on drafted soldiers, but even then thought they should have chosen jail over fighting the war. But then I took a university graduate seminar on the Vietnam War. I studied that war I had lived through as a kid, for months. I grew to see the soldiers themselves as victims of deception by the U.S. Government (and I am seeing something that looks and smells really similar right now in Iraq). I began to realize that Vietnam Vets Against the War, and I, were on the EXACT same side. And these vets had BEEN to war, so their arguments outweighed anything I have to say about it. I began to understand why Vietnam Vets were mad, and felt used, by American government. I see a cousin to that anger now, as people who did support this Iraq war now turn against it, angry they were lied to by their own government, about why we are in this war to begin with.
Caputo talks about the “methodology” of war, and how they were brainwashed as soldiers to talk and think in twisted terms. Maps of Vietnam were blocked off and numbered so they referred to what number they were bombing on the map, rather than village names. They used words like “aggressive defense,” for an assault. The indoctrination of the military, with its patriotic fervor, chanting in unison, “pray for war” was a source of excitement for Caputo, as a young soldier. He was happy when he finally got to “see some action” during 1965-66 in Vietnam, and felt he was helping to rid the world of Communism. But that broke down, once in the height of war. He said once in war, the reason soldiers fought changed. When one’s buddy was killed in action, a soldier wanted to take revenge on all Vietnamese due to American racism. He said General Westmoreland had said that the more Viet Cong dead, the better, basically, and saw war as arithmetic of who lost more people. Thus killing more of “them” was “good” and meant we were “winning” the war. Caputo said soldiers also killed because they got into an odd survivalist mindset, brought on by a sort of culture shock, and exacerbated by the reality that they were only rewarded for killing. As Caputo puts it, “There was nothing familiar out where we were, no churches, no police, no laws, no newspapers, or any of the restraining influences…” He comments on many experiences that are horrific and numbing in war, including seeing wild pigs eating napalm-charred corpses, and him thinking how odd to see a pig eating roasted people, as well as soldiers who saved pieces of Viet Cong fighters they killed, as savage prizes, they would display to one another. Everything is foreign in the war experience and disorienting, he explains. He goes on to say “Out there, lacking restraints, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country, and a relentless enemy, we sank into a brutish state.”
In the Vietnam War, the U.S. soldiers could not tell ordinary Vietnamese citizens from “the enemy,” mirroring our experiences in the Middle East right now. So they shot farmers as well as guerrilla fighters. This caused an outcry, so the military told soldiers only to shoot Vietnamese people “if they were running.” When that system failed also, the policy often became, if they were dead and Vietnamese, they were just considered Viet Cong (or the enemy). Caputo knew much of what he was experiencing in Vietnam was criminal activity, against humanity itself, but he also was honest enough to admit he liked the power he got from war. When Caputo returned from Vietnam, back to his parents’ basement, he longed to return to Vietnam where he could command fighter jets to bomb a village over a radio. He felt guilty about this desire to return to something as sick as war. He also now felt alienated from his home in America due to the war experience, which also made him want to go back to war where people understood his mindset he had grown into. You cannot just pull people out of military actions like we had in Vietnam, and expect them to reintegrate immediately into society, in my opinion. Thus when soldiers returned from active duty overseas recently, and killed wife after wife, at military bases in Washington state, I thought about this assimilation challenge. We brainwash soldiers to become killing machines, but we do not seem to invest the same time and effort into brainwashing them back to NOT be soldiers with guns aimed to kill once we send them back out into everyday society! The huge rates of homeless vets testifies to the need for better assimilation processes for more productive transitions. Caputo said he could not do basic auto maintenance, but he could assemble an M 14 rifle blindfolded. Often vets return with skills you can only use in a war, bombing villages is not usually in an ordinary job description.
We see examples of how power corrupts in the fabric of American life daily. And I think that the desire to have power over people is a driving force behind many who join the military, whether they desire to control U.S. soldiers as management, or enemy soldiers as prisoners of war. Prisons, jails, the criminal (in)justice system, and police departments, all over America are dealing with this issue of abuse by the authority in charge. It is not just happening in Iraqi prisons, it is also happening in American prisons. Dehumanizing behavior from cops, jail guards, and prosecutors, is often the first red flag a U.S. citizen gets that their rights are about to be trampled upon by the state. It is not that hard to imagine American soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war, if you have ever seen the brutality of American police in the poorer neighborhoods, or on minority citizens. Anyone who has been abused by cops or jail guards is not “shocked” by the abuse of prisoners in Iraq by American soldiers. It is as American as apple pie.
I thought it was telling that Defense SECRETary Rumsfeld was asked in hearings today by a U.S. Senator if perhaps the recent abuse of prisoners in Iraq was “used to soften them up for interrogation.” An outrageous statement, yes, but abuse of people is justified as normal interrogation technique all the time by police and criminal prosecutors. Very often the police justify the end result of a plea bargained confession (or bullied trade of a confession for their life, such as in Gary Ridgway’s case) and disregard the means used in interrogation such as sleep deprivation, lying about evidence, charges and witnesses, yelling, violence, threats, etc., things I would consider abuse under normal instances. Caputo details Marine training abuses, saying the first goal of that abuse was to simply eliminate the weak. Then he says those abuse techniques are used to destroy each man’s sense of self worth. Which is why this dehumanization abuse is also employed by police, jails and prosecutors, in my opinion. I do not find it a big leap to find evidence of U.S. soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war. That is why we sent them there, in many ways. That is how we trained the soldiers themselves, through yelling and humiliation and all kinds of strange degradation, to become soldiers. Abusing prisoners of war is what we trained those soldiers to do, in many ways, no matter what dainty words we use to give it a pretty package. There are probably racists in America who feel that the Iraqi prisoners should have NO rights, and they are “getting off easy” with degradation, as opposed to death. These same Americans feel the only prisoners of war who need to be treated as the Geneva Convention outlines are WHITE people. The U.S. female soldier pictured with an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, in her hands, with the prisoner forced to act as a dog, has supposedly said she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I have to wonder if she is referring to her behavior in the picture, or her getting caught? Read Kirsten Anderberg’s articles at www.kirstenanderberg.com.