The Psychology of the Workaday Killers 7

“I just remember thinking to myself, I just brought terror to someone else under the American flag, and that’s just not what I joined the Army to do,” he said

The Nation has a fascinating survey of US vets returning from Iraq. It is being much quoted in the media and on the net, but it is well worth reading the original.

You may have to click botton right to get past the financial appeal first – although the financial appeal itself is pretty interesting.

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7 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Workaday Killers

  • kazbel

    I think it's important to understand that it's not just Americans who act in this way. Joanna Bourke's book An Intimate History of Killing (about war in the C20th) gives some idea of what happens in modern warfare. (It should probably be read with Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing for an understanding of some of the worst aspects of recent wars.) There is, of course, an American slant to the soldiers' conduct.

    Very shortly after the war in Iraq began, I was with a group of people idly watching television. There was a snatch of film of U.S. soldiers entering an Iraqi house. There attitude was exactly that described by many of the soldiers interviewed for the Nation article. We were appalled. After seeing such behaviour in front of a TV camera I no longer had any hope that the situation could be retrieved. (I saw the film in late Spring/early summer 2003 and, so far as I know, it has never been shown again.)


  • stevie

    This article made me cry, especially the following statement:

    "I go out to the scene and [there was] this little, you know, pudgy little 2-year-old child with the cute little pudgy legs, and I look and she has a bullet through her leg…. An IED [improvised explosive device] went off, the gun-happy soldiers just started shooting anywhere and the baby got hit. And this baby looked at me, wasn't crying, wasn't anything, it just looked at me like–I know she couldn't speak. It might sound crazy, but she was like asking me why. You know, Why do I have a bullet in my leg?… I was just like, This is–this is it. This is ridiculous."

    What the hell are we doing? How can we stop this war? My baby boy is not even two years old – just imagine if it was our country that had been invaded. I mean, how mad would we feel…

    This was also reported in The Independent – I wonder how many other newspapers gave it so much coverage?

  • Sabretache

    Tom Engelhardt has a good commentary on this with a separate related article by Dahr Jamail "Thousands of Stories to Tell — And No One to Listen".

    Stevie's question is apposite: "How the Hell would we feel?". It's also rhetorical – Like I say to anyone who will listen (and there are precious few who will REALLY listen or care in this shallow, fantasy-world of 'progress' and celebrity culture we inhabit) I would be an 'insurgent' – no question; I would make life (and death) as difficult as I possibly could for the invaders until they either got the Hell out of my life and country – or I died in the effort – simple as that. Oh – and 'Quislings' would be dealt with

    What is being done in Iraq (and Afganistan) is absolutely unconscionable on any measure; but the thing that makes it far worse is the sanctimonious nature of the political justifications for it, together with the sytematic denial and minimisation of of the destruction being wrought. It is consistently presented in terms of OUR self-sacrifice in a nobel effort to help the poor bloody natives – just 'don't mention the oil' – that's all. As if we'd be anywhere near the place if their principle natural resource were fruit and veg.

    BTW – how do you post a live link in these comments?

  • Chuck Unsworth

    My concern is that these comments by serving (American) soldiers nearly always relate to their feeling after they had carried out such actions.

    The essence of good soldiering is to anticipate. That includes anticipation of the effects of one's actions.

    What these reports reveal all too clearly is that many of these young men who wield lethal force seem not to understand what it is they are about to do, and to whom. Frankly that is stupid, grossly irresponsible and amoral. The irresponsibility is both theirs and their commanders – and goes (in this case) all the way up the line to the White House. If a senior general or political leader orders actions they should understand precisely what it is they are instructing others to do. If they do not then they are not fit for their rank or office.

    Soldiers should always be taught to weigh up their intended action. The whole point of their intensive training is to reduce the potential for such disasters. Poor training and education is at the heart of this, but it is instilled and reinforced by inept and corrupt political leadership.

    There is a sound argument for absolute division between politics and military action. To our cost and shame that division has been eroded in recent years. The net outcome is that troops can, and sometimes do, behave in a reprehensible manner.

  • andy cyan

    From what I gather, American soldiers are trained explicity to forget moral instincts in combat. "We dont do bodycounts" is an operating principle.

    When they come under fire in Iraq, they are instructed to return fire on "everything that moves" in the general directions that they think the attacks are coming from. The reflex to "kill kill kill" is aggressively drilled into the poor sods in training.

    Military research has shown that if more conscious discrimination is allowed toward whom you are shooting at, firstly you will take longer to shoot at them and secondly your aim will suffer because of natural unconcious resistence to killing another person -freind or foe. They figured out in the 2nd world war less than 5% of soldiers were really fighting because of this very strong human instinct not to kill.

    I dont ~think that British soldiers are trained to kill with the same eagerness that US soldiers are, but then I used think all Western soldiers were good guys.

    I can see how returning 'unreasoned' fire would frustrate their foe, since they cant use crowd cover, and may even be reluctant to engage when there are innocent countrymen/women/children around to get slaughtered in the berserk reaction.

    So these tactics could make sense for the soldiers in the immediate sense, but they sure cant be good for stabilising the country and winning the hearts and minds. The grunts are fed this fantasy that they are there to help, but the top planners must be aware these are tactics to use when you want to kill innocents and engender more violence, simply -because that is the natural result of such conduct.

    I can empathise with resistance fighters of good concience but "War is worse" than noncooperation, surely.

  • peacewisher

    If what you say is true, andy, then all those shoot-em-up quick computer games are ideal conditioning. By the time they are old enough to really become soldiers there will be no danger of an emotional component to their actions – it just becomes another round (sorry about pun) of mindless finger pressing.

    Just think… they are training their soldiers from the age of 5, or even younger!

  • andy cyan

    Hi peacewisher,

    Im not too worried about computer games as if they were an effective conditioning tool i think they would be an official part of army training.

    Of course soldiers can testify that they learn positive traits such as discipline, initiative, respect for order and authority, loyalty, selflessness and level mindedness even.

    But the official use of obscene mantras combined with disorientating shouting and excercise levels is a known and acknowledged activity. Maybe this kind of training could even be justified for extreme conflict situaions like there was in the 2nd World War, but they are obviously unsuitable for peacekeeping and conflict resolution. But then its also obvious that military corporations fear peace breaking out across the globe like we fear famine.

    Sorry I dont remember references well to back up my outlook on these things, but for me the evidence is everywhere. Perhaps im terribly jaded.

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