War is Hell
There is a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about this pseudonymously written article in TNR by a soldier in Iraq. He discusses the dehumanizing quality of war in some detail by recounting some revolting anecdotes about the behavior of some soldiers, including himself. It opens with this tale:
I saw her nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq. She wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn't really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor. The thing that stood out about her, though, wasn't her strange uniform but the fact that nearly half her face was severely scarred. Or, rather, it had more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head. She was always alone, and I never saw her talk to anyone. Members of my platoon had seen her before but had never really acknowledged her. Then, on one especially crowded day in the chow hall, she sat down next to us.
We were already halfway through our meals when she arrived. After a minute or two of eating in silence, one of my friends stabbed his spoon violently into his pile of mashed potatoes and left it there.
"Man, I can't eat like this," he said.
"Like what?" I said. "Chow hall food getting to you?"
"No--with that fucking freak behind us!" he exclaimed, loud enough for not only her to hear us, but everyone at the surrounding tables. I looked over at the woman, and she was intently staring into each forkful of food before it entered her half-melted mouth.
"Are you kidding? I think she's fucking hot!" I blurted out.
"What?" said my friend, half-smiling.
"Yeah man," I continued. "I love chicks that have been intimate--with IEDs. It really turns me on--melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses ... ."
"You're crazy, man!" my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.
"In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? IED Babes.' We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles."
My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground.
A lot of people, for a variety of reasons, think this story is untrue. And it may be. But it certainly doesn't surprise me. I worked years ago on the Alaska Pipeline and was exposed, at a young age, to the misogynistic preening of certain men in such situations and I assume the hyper-testosteroned environment of war makes it even more acceptable and sadistic than what I lived with.* And that was a lot. (Of course it was 30 years ago, so perhaps there has been some consciousness raising since then.)if this story isn't true in this instance, it almost assuredly is true in its essence. There is a certain type of person, particularly in these stimulating macho environments, who lose all social restraint and become barbaric jerks. And there are always a whole bunch of sycophants who join them, either for fear of being called a pussy or genuine attraction to such cruelty.
It actually reminded me a bit of our compassionate conservative president's famous comments about dispensing the death penalty:
While driving back from the speech later that day, Bush mentions Karla Faye Tucker, a double murderer who was executed in Texas last year. In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, Bianca Jagger and a number of other protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Tucker. 'Did you meet with any of them?' I ask.
Bush whips around and stares at me. 'No, I didn't meet with any of them,' he snaps, as though I've just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. 'I didn't meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like 'What would you say to Governor Bush?'
'What was her answer?' I wonder.
'Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, 'don't kill me.'
I must look shocked -- ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel, even for someone as militantly anticrime as Bush -- because he immediately stops smirking.
Can you not see this person laughing himself silly at that "joke" about the disfigured woman? I can. And there are many more people like him than we should be comfortable with.
The TNR piece goes on to describe some sick corpse desecration, which doesn't strike me as being unusual among the more psychotic types in war. Something similar was recounted in Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" about the first Gulf War. And I've seen pictures of WWII trophies that would turn your stomach.
The final anecdote in the piece is about a soldier who enjoys running over dogs with a Bradley vehicle. It's thoroughly revolting, but again, there are certain types of people who are inclined to this sort of thing. Animal cruelty can be found in even the best of families:
We were terrible to animals," recalled Mr. Throckmorton, laughing. A dip behind the Bush home turned into a small lake after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out.
"Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them," Mr. Throckmorton said. "Or we'd put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up."
President Bush seems to have grown out of that ugly habit and transferred his sadism exclusively to humans --- he does seem to genuinely love his dogs and as far as I know he isn't into any of that faux-hunting stuff that Cheney loves so much. But again, he would likely be leading the hysterical laughter at these antics. It's his nature.
There are always some despicable sub-humans who fully embrace cruelty and sadism when they are given the opportunity. And there are always a number of people who will go along with them, either because they are of the same psychology or because they fear ostracism by the group. It's fairly obvious Lord of the Flies stuff.
But there seems to be some idea in both left and right quarters that this can't possibly be true, and even if it were, it doesn't say anything about the troops as a whole. I don't get this. Our military is occupying a country in the middle of a violent civil war. The soldiers in this occupation are being deployed over and over again to try to "win" something that isn't even defined. To my way of thinking it's a miracle that so many of them are able to keep it together at all. Of course, there are some crazed psychos among them and probably some serious psychological damage among a fair number of others. And because of the macho, group pressure and people like Bush and this author egging them on instead of showing mature leadership, there is little to curb this behavior other than some rather quaint appeals to honor and duty, which must be sounding rather hollow to a lot of them at this point.
Iraq is creating monsters everywhere, from terrorists, to extremists to damaged American soldiers who are so tired from repeated deployments that they are losing track of what is normal. It is a quagmire of a cock-up of a depraved and inexplicable invasion and nobody knows exactly why it started and nobody knows exactly how it will end. It makes me crazy just thinking about it.
Consider the percentage of the general psychopath population that joins the military and the more delicate psyches who get irreparably damaged by the experience. Then you add in the locker-room group leaders like Bush and the author, who are obviously sadistic by nature, and who egg them on in subtle and not so subtle ways, and you potentially have a fair percentage of damaged soldiers coming back into American society --- and a complete unwillingness of that society to admit it.
I would guess that the vast majority of the troops are going to be affected in some way, but most of them will do ok with the help of friends and family and their own psychological strength. But there are going to be quite a few who are seriously screwed up and this society is going to pay a price for that. War is bad enough when the cause is clear and just. When it's not, it creates a form of psychological violence that's even worse.
It seems that the lessons of Vietnam were disappeared down the rabbit hole immediately upon Bush seizing office. But one of the lessons that we can still retrieve is the necessity of spending however much it takes to ensure that veterans get decent psychiatric care. Wars have always created massive numbers of psychological casualties, but that is no excuse to ignore them.
So far, it's not looking good:
Yesterday, Missouri Senators Christopher (Kit) Bond and Claire McCaskill joined forces to sponsor an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 that would temporarily suspend the Pentagon’s use of Regulation 635-200, Chapter 5-13: “Separation Because of Personality Disorder” discharge for combat veterans, pending a thorough and comprehensive review of the current procedures and the establishment of an independent discharge review board. They were joined by additional co-sponsors Barack Obama, Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray.
"Abuse of personality disorder discharges is inexcusable. This amendment will put a stop to these discharges until we can fix the system," said Senator Bond. "The men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom have earned a debt of gratitude from all Americans that we will never be able to pay in full. The very least we can do is take care of their battle wounds, whether physical or mental, and ensure they receive the treatment and benefits they deserve."
The abuse of the 5-13 is especially insidious, because it is being used to deny combat veterans the benefits and care we owe them. A Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine discharged under Regulation 635-200, Chapter 5-13 stands to lose all benefits. They can not collect disability pay; even for life-altering injuries sustained in combat; nor are they entitled to medical care through the VA for those very combat injuries.
To me, the personality disorder is the kind displayed by towel-snapping cretins in leadership positions whose cruel, sadistic chit-chat feeds the truly psychologically damaged among them. But however you define it, it should not be used, period. All Iraq war vets should be entitled to as much psych counseling as they want. For free. Forever. For our sake as well as theirs.
Do we want people running around who think it's funny to cruelly insult the weak or dress themselves up in corpses and run over dogs in the street and leave them untreated? Really? We have a man currently in the white house who could easily fit that profile and look at what he's done.