Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Collateral Damage

Great warrior? War does not make one great. -- Yoda

First of all, tip of the hat to Mike Harrington who noted this at Facebook.

Wikileaks has obtained, edited, and published a video taken by an Apache helicopter during an alleged firefight in Baghdad in July 2007. The video shows the shooting of a group of men by the helicopter crew, which believes the men are armed insurgents, although none are behaving aggressively and two are journalists employed by Reuters. A van that arrives after the firing and attempts to remove the lone wounded survivor is also fired upon. After the dust settles the only survivors are two girls who were in the van and wounded by the helicopter fire. The US Army claims that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the rules of engagement.

The reaction by those who are appalled by war is predictable, and limited. They are shocked, SHOCKED, and appalled of course, by the actions of the helicopter crew and the totally typical Army response. Having watched the video (edited to 17 minutes out of 38) I am also appalled that the crew 1) is so ready to fire on a group of men who were not attempting to shoot at them, 2) clearly can't tell the difference between a telephoto lens and an RPG, and 3) is so callous in their collective attitude towards the dead, dying, and the wounded. But there is a deeper issue here that no one is addressing.

WE make these soldiers what they are. Oh we will deny it, of course. In our own best Orwell-speak we'll offload the responsibility to the military. But who raises the young men and women who put on the uniforms? We do. Who teaches them the fundamentals about how to treat others? We do. Then we turn them over to the military, turn away and pretend not to know, let alone care about, what the military will do to create a killing machine with no apparent regard for the humanity of those being killed. Whether they grow up in families that endure no shades of gray and everything is in black and white, or in families that reflect on how they relate to the world, the effect is the same. The worst tendencies in humans become the desired traits for an effective soldier. WE allow it and WE do not do anything to mitigate it.

Then, when these young people come home, psychologically wounded by what they have done we are shocked, SHOCKED again! Oh the horror, oh the humanity! Oh the evil of the military!

We go through these convolutions because, for many of us, violence has no legitimate role aside from watching grown men pummel each other in a boxing ring, knock each other senseless on a football field, or as characters killing each other in a video game. Anything else, aside from deadly force by the police to protect the public, is treated as a criminal act. Yet violence still permeates the daily lives of many in this country. Violent acts are the ultimate expression of power over and against another. It is the tool of choice for the Lord's Resistance Army in the Congo, al-Qaeda, the military junta in Myanmar, the opposing armed groups in Iraq, the Chechens and Russians, and ad nauseum. Violence is why we have our own instruments of violence, known as the military. The common factor in all of this is to indoctrinate your members into thinking of your opponent as a faceless 'other' who has no claim to any human rights. A dehumanized target is much easier to kill, no matter its appearance.

The soldiers who populated the armies of World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam and Gulf I were no less idealistic than those in the military now. What we don't have is the video and audio evidence of their behavior when they engaged their opposite number. I doubt it was much better than today. But today's soldier comes out of a different cultural milieu that has embraced technology as an extension of the person. Killing people in a video game, or via a drone, or from a distance on an aircraft or ship, is not the same as looking your opponent in the eye as you kill him. They are doing this in the context of information that says the 'other' is a personal threat to them and to the mission. When you watch the video and listen to the crews, think on that.

We need to be clear on what our national values and principles are. We need to be clear on what our role is in the world and how we build relationships while keeping threats at bay. This requires a great deal more of our attention and commitment to holding ourselves and our representatives accountable for the choices we make. It means looking past the Madison Avenue hype that so stirs the soul while depriving reason of the facts needed to make a sound decision. It means acknowledging that in a violent world there will continue to be a violent response to conflict if the jawboning is unsuccessful. It means unhooking our young people from the technology that enables the virtual barrier between humans and facing real life as it really is. It means teaching them that the 'other' is also us, and just as human as we are.

It also means really reflecting on what the attributes are to be fully human, even in the face of deadly violence. Did the crews of the Apache helicopters demonstrate those attributes? Or were they just soldiers following orders to intercept and stop insurgents, even if it meant making unsupported assumptions? These are questions that need more reflection, but I am sure they did what they were trained to do, because WE wanted them trained to do it.


Michael J. Harrington said...

Bravo. There is so little good writing these days about morality, values, and how all that happens. So, um, how do we get you elected?

Kheris said...

Thank you. Elected? Only if I win the Really Big Lottery......