War is Revenge
For the last six months or so, Doonesbury has been publishing blog entries from US soldiers on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no way to tell just how edited or censored they are; there is no way even to tell if they actually come from soldiers. As with almost everything you see and here, it’s difficult to know what to believe. It’s also difficult not to use that fact to pick and choose what to believe, selecting only that which does not offend your delicate sensibilities—that which you are happy to believe anyway—disdaining that which does not fit within your established mental framework. It is the Internet, after all, where anything could be an elaborate illusion.
That said, assume that How Human are We? by Teflon Don (The Sandbox) is true. That it truly comes from a soldier in the field, one who has recently lost compatriots to an unseen enemy. One who clings to his shreds of humanity through a love of sunsets (even foreign ones), a love of coffee, and a love of music. He writes of the moments before a mission of revenge-taking:
“I think that most of us are out for blood. It might sound horrible, inhuman, even medieval, but the fact of the matter is that someone out there killed friends of ours, and we’re going back into a place where we just might get the guy that did it. We’ll never know if it was him, of course, but there’s always the chance that we’ll even the scales unknowingly.”
Is it true? It could be. This is doubtless the feeling shared by an untold number of soldiers throughout the bloody pages of history. This alienation of the enemy to the point where one is as good as another. But it’s not. This is the most dangerous of feelings, because it cannot be sated. That night, the beast will find comfort in the taking of enemy life. It will pretend to be satisfied and will nod desultory agreement that the lives of compatriots have been avenged. It will soon thirst for more, riding the coattails of a niggling doubt that perhaps the one who was truly responsible got away. Perhaps that one is still out there enjoying a life he has denied your friends. The thought that you yourself are—again and again—snuffing out lives of friends of the enemy, further bolstering his own determination to seek revenge, either never occurs to you or holds no interest. It is subsumed by the overriding needs of the beast.
Is this a valid viewpoint? For the soldier in the field, of course. That soldier’s world has been reduced to this simplified battlefield of life-for-life; a battlefield whose shape has not changed significantly over the millenia. The soldier is performing a duty, one which he has long ago ceased to question. In the execution of this duty, evil has torn from him the life of a fellow soldier. The need to know, on a personal level, that that evil has been snuffed out, is visceral and relentless. It cannot even be satisfied with aerial saturation bombings or other forms on non face-to-face attack. The only thing that truly quells the beast is the right head on a spike.
In the words of the eloquent soldier:
“Killing is not natural to sane people, no matter how often it has happened over eons. There are many ways that you can reconcile yourself in some way to the idea of killing another human. You can think of it as duty – you have a job, and that job requires violence. You can hate – the easiest of all excuses, and the most exhausting. You can look at it as simple survival – if you don’t kill him, then he’ll kill you. However you justify it, you are still in a war, and people will still die. It wears on everyone – the American deaths, the “collateral damage” we inflict on people in the wrong place at the wrong time, the innocents killed when some faceless murderer blows himself up in a crowd. Yes, even the enemy dead take their toll.”
Killing is the most natural of things—it is just not civilized. It is, arguably, more civilized than the many other intriguing ways our society has found to get others to die: alienation and neglect coupled with a moral code that weeds out the weak, the sick and the poor as unfit for survival. Being outside of the soldier’s situation, we have the luxury of noticing that a certain facet of the world that he takes for granted is in fact optional: “…you are still in a war”. For the soldier, this is a given, a constant, an unchanging part of life. The Orwellian “there has always been war and there will always be war”. Perhaps this is indeed so. But there does not have to be so much of it, this killing on both sides, from our clearly unintentional “collateral damage” to their wholly evil “faceless murderers”. We can be choosier about the cause for which we are willing to turn our soldiers into beasts. We can, perhaps, save war for situation where we face a real threat instead of simply a vague unease or outright psychotic hysteria wrought by scary stories alone.
Other wars are consigned to history and, though we may debate their necessity, we cannot do anything about them. They have happened. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are in progress now. The soldier you have just read is in the field now. He is killing now. Again and again. The people he kills weigh heavily on him, but the situation he is in requires him to continue. His friends cannot be brought back. Nothing can be undone. The beast hungers.
It can be stopped, though. He should be removed from the field of battle. They all should. Whenever one thinks that a soldier’s bloodlust is justified, one should immediately wonder why that soldier lusts for blood. Was he always this way? As he himself mentions, it is not a “natural” condition. No, had he never been shipped overseas into this situation, he would have never become the animal he regrets being. He would never have earned the psychic scars he attempts to soothe with writing. He would never have come to the fork in life where he either rests in peace in an early grave or suffers a lifetime of trauma in a nation that no longer cares for the monster they created.
Soldiers should never be in these situations, these morally ambiguous firefights where there is no clear goal except, after a time, revenge. It is only the loftiest, most high-minded of goals that survive even a short while in the minds of those sent to fight for them. The shifting, disengenuous and almost wholly non-existent goals of these recent wars didn’t even last through the first day. This soldier knows that he has become a monster, but his conscience is almost clear because there is clear revenge to be had. The alienation/racism that allows one enemy to be substituted for another is utter and complete. But he should never have gotten so far down this road.
Why is he there? Most soldiers are brainwashed into believing that Saddam Hussein and Al Queda are in cahoots; they are there for revenge-taking on a national scale. Those that sent him may have been looking to conquer the Middle East, secure oil resources that India, China, Russia and Europe covet, or land lucrative defense and rebuilding contracts. It surely wasn’t a sudden interest in democracy in any real form. At any rate, the goal for the soldier quickly turned form abstract blood fued to concrete revenge. Granted, a soldier always has the choice of putting aside the weapon and doing nothing, but it is far easier to say than do, especially when the situation has already changed so utterly for him. Do not pretend to know the tunnel-vision that results from the type of situation found on a constant battlefield like Iraq. Do not pretend to know how that simplifies life choices and makes civilization optional in the face of survival.
It is, in fact, to exactly this state that much of terrified America found itself reduced, prepared to slaughter untold millions of “them” through bombsights as revenge for the thousands “they” took from us. It is a primitive instinct where lashing out in the general vicinity of the perceived “they” slaked the beast’s need, inchoate as it was. But only temporarily. Soon, the beast was ready, once again, to be goaded to unneeded war; the public—almost gleefully—let tunnel-vision take over and civilized action became optional in the overwhelming need for revenge, in the face of unquenchable fear. Unquestioning, they followed the vague lead of innuendo to the sands of Iraq, led by an administration and media with profit on their minds.
The blame lies not with the soldier, but with those who sent him there to have his humanity stripped away for the hollowest of causes, one whose true nature is still not known, perhaps because even our leaders cannot face the shallowness of their own dreams. The blame lies with every American who votes to continue the war, who rewards the warmongers with new terms, who doesn’t agitate now to make them stop.
The article, Why Can’t We Talk about Peace in Public? by Matt Taibbi (AlterNet), contains some disturbing quotes from other soldiers in Iraq. They are far less reflective than the soldier from the article above.
“It’s starting to sink in… I’ll have to go home, the opportunities to kill these fuckers is rapidly coming to an end. Like a hobby I’ll never get to practice again. It’s not a great war, but it’s the only one we’ve got. God, I do love killing these bastards. … I still have 20 days of kill these motherfuckers, so I don’t wanna take even one day off.”
The author is an airforce pilot, seeing the world through a high-tech bomb sight; seeing his targets as splotches on a screen; seeing everything that moves as an insurgent. Though the soldier is clearly to blame for his own complete lack of empathy, it’s hard not to consider the sheer amount of brainwashing, both military and civilian, that went into creating this fine human being. It’s hard, in fact, to lay the blame for what he’s become at his feet. He is what he was raised to be by a society that needs grist like him for its perpetual wars. Or, as Taibbi puts it:
“In my mind, all the people in the Bush administration and in Congress and in the media who got these kids sent there in the first place have to be the first ones held responsible for whatever those kids do after being thrown into the fire. I just don’t yet have the stomach to start pointing the finger at a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings who never should have been sent there in the first place.”