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April 07, 2010

Support The Troops?

By: John Caruso

[ Since Jon's been writing about the Wikileaks video, I thought I'd repost this article from 2006. Please pardon the uneven link quality—many of the original links have gone bad since the posting was first published, so I've replaced them with the best versions I could find. ]

With the attention being focused on the massacre in Haditha (and now Ishaqi as well), and the utterly predictable efforts by conservatives to downplay  these horrible crimes and to stifle dissent with their endlessly repeated bromide of "support the troops," I thought it would be good to recall some examples from the past few years of just what it is we're being asked to support.

From the New York Times :

"We had a great day," Sergeant Schrumpf said. "We killed a lot of people." ...

But more than once, Sergeant Schrumpf said, he faced a different choice: one Iraqi soldier standing among two or three civilians. He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.

"I'm sorry," the sergeant said. "But the chick was in the way."

From Reuters:

Two soldiers picked out two figures on a rooftop and quickly lined up their shot. Thankfully, First Sgt. Eric Engram saw them and also saw their target. “No man, that's a kid and a woman. It's a KID and a WOMAN,” he bellowed, and his soldiers lowered their rifles.

"These guys are young and most just want to get their first confirmed kill, so they're too anxious to get off shots. I hate to say ‘bragging rights’ but they want that kill,” Engram said an hour later.

Can you imagine what kind of mindset makes a person not just happy, not just proud, but eager to brag about killing another human being?  And can you imagine the (military) culture in which bragging about killing another human being is considered a badge of honor?  I can't either.

From the Scotsman (or see also the London Times):

US marine, Corporal Ryan Dupre, surveying the scene by the bridge at An Nasiriyah, said: "The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy. I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin’ Iraqi. No I won’t get hold of one - I’ll kill him."

From Reuters:

A tracked armored vehicle has crushed two men up the road.

"Killed one, ripped the legs off another," Monty said briskly, a cigarette dangling from his lip.

From Newsday:

"It's like you're fighting a faceless enemy," said Cpl. Jeb Moser, 21, of Ruston, La. "They're all just ragheads to me, the same way they used to call the enemy 'gooks' in Vietnam."

"Raghead, raghead, can't you see? This old war ain't -- to me," sang Lance Cpl. Christopher Akins, 21, of Louisville, Ky., sweat running down his face in rivulets as he dug a fighting trench one recent afternoon under a blazing sun.

Asked whom he considered a raghead, Akins said: "Anybody who actively opposes the United States of America's way ... If a little kid actively opposes my way of life, I'd call him a raghead, too."

From Editor and Publisher:

"We splashed that bastard," a Western eyewitness quoted one Marine as saying to another after they'd shot an Iraqi dead.

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

The 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps said he found the soldier after dark inside a nearby home with the grenade launcher next to him. Covarrubias said he ordered the man to stop and turn around.

"I went behind him and shot him in the back of the head," Covarrubias said. "Twice."

Did he feel any remorse for executing a man who'd surrendered to him?  No; in fact, he'd taken the man's ID card off of his dead body to keep as a souvenir.

From the Daily Mirror:

"There was no dilemma when it came to shooting people who were not in uniform, I just pulled the trigger.

"It was up close and personal the whole time, there wasn't a big distance. If they were there, they were enemy, whether in uniform or not. Some were, some weren't."

Describing the scene during combat Richardson admitted shooting injured soldiers and leaving them to die. He said: "S***, I didn't help any of them. I wouldn't help the f******.  There were some you let die. And there were some you double-tapped." Making a shooting sign with his hand he went on: "Once you'd reached the objective, and once you'd shot them and you're moving through, anything there, you shoot again. You didn't want any prisoners of war. You hate them so bad while you're fighting, and you're so terrified, you can't really convey the feeling, but you don't want them to live." And despite there being no link between Iraq and the September 11 attacks Richardson admitted that it gave him his motivation to fight Iraqis.

"There's a picture of the World Trade Centre hanging up by my bed and I keep one in my flak jacket. Every time I feel sorry for these people I look at that. I think, 'They hit us at home and, now, it's our turn.' I don't want to say payback but, you know, it's pretty much payback."

Perhaps if someone in Richardson's family is ever killed, he can go pick someone at random off the street and torture them to death; that would really give the killers their "payback," wouldn't it?

Note also the phrasing: "I don't want to say payback."  Just like "I hate to say 'bragging rights'."  The reticence is telling.  These are the dirty little truths that lie behind all the elevated rhetoric and noble words.  These are the things you're not supposed to admit are lurking in the shadows, so that you won't disrupt the elevated fantasies of the cheerleaders for war.

From the Los Angeles Times:

"I enjoy killing Iraqis," says Staff Sgt. William Deaton, 30, who killed a hostile fighter the night before. Deaton has lost a good friend in Iraq. "I just feel rage, hate when I'm out there. I feel like I carry it all the time. We talk about it. We all feel the same way."

"I enjoy killing Iraqis."  Does that sound horrific to you?  Think it would to any normal human being? Unfortunately, you're wrong; some people liked it so much they made a sticker out of it. Then again, maybe you're right, since anyone who would celebrate such viciousness isn't a normal human being--or at least that's how I like to think of the world.

From the Seattle Times:

"I want to know if I killed that guy yesterday," Hall says. "I saw blood spurt from his leg, but I want to be sure I killed him."

No, it wasn't enough for Hall to watch the blood spurt from his victim's leg; he wants to know the man was dead, and that he was the cause of it.  After all, he wants those bragging rights.

This article does at least contain some notes of humanity.  One man struggles to reconcile what he's become with what he used to be, and what he hopes to be again:

The vehicle goes silent as the driver, Spc. Joshua Dubois, swerves around asphalt previously uprooted by a blast.

"I'm confused about how I should feel about killing," says Dubois, who has a toddler back home. "The first time I shot someone, it was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever felt."

Dubois turns back to the road. "We talk about killing all the time," he says. "I never used to talk this way. I'm not proud of it, but it's like I can't stop. I'm worried what I will be like when I get home."

That's what the culture does: it turns normal, sane people into people who are obsessed with killing other people ("we talk about killing all the's like I can't stop").  Roll that fact around in your mind for a few moments.  All of us should be worried what it will like when they get home, and bring with them these lessons they learned in Iraq.

But I've saved the worst for last.  This is from the East Bay Express, in an article about a web site on which American soldiers can get free access to online pornography by posting their trophy photos of dead and mutilated Iraqis:

Six men in beige fatigues, identified as US Marines, laugh and smile for the camera while pointing at a burned, charcoal-black corpse lying at their feet.

The captions that accompany these images, which were apparently written by soldiers who posted them, laugh and gloat over the bodies. The person who posted a picture of a corpse lying in a pool of his own brains and entrails wrote, “What every Iraqi should look like.” The photograph of a corpse whose jaw has apparently rotted away, leaving a gaping set of upper teeth, bears the caption “bad day for this dude.” One person posted three photographs of corpses lying in the street and titled his collection “DIE HAJI DIE.”

There's no shred of humanity here at all.  Did the military turn these people into psychopaths, or did it just give them an outlet for what was already inside them?  In the end it doesn't matter; this is an inevitable result of putting people into a system in which killing another human being is treated as a badge of honor, rather than as the debasing, dehumanizing, horrific act that it is.

If you ever find yourself about to say that you "support the troops," I hope you'll remember these quotes--and the lessons they teach--and realize exactly what it is you're supporting.

— John Caruso

Posted at April 7, 2010 03:39 AM

Great, these people will be running around our streets for years to come.

Maybe we shouldn't bring them home. We should give them a phony war to fight in which half of them are the Blue Team and half of them are the Red Team, and they can take out their fantasies on each other.

Posted by: eatbees at April 7, 2010 05:34 AM

Horror, horror, horror...

Posted by: Rosemary Molloy at April 7, 2010 06:39 AM

What with the increasingly desperate measures being taken to fill the ranks, perhaps the US military is facing an écorcheur problem.

Still, you've got to figure helicopter pilots would be from "the best of the best", so what's their excuse?

Posted by: weaver at April 7, 2010 07:55 AM

One word: 9/11.

Admittedly, that's two words.

And actually, the revenge wreaked upon the Iraqis by our war-fighters is misplaced - but it suited the MICFiC's purposes to misinform them.

Metaphorically speaking, the MICFiC's program is "to milk, shear, and slaughter the sheeple" - except that the slaughter is NOT metaphorical.

I suggest reading the latest posting at Fafblog, which you can get to by clicking on my name below.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at April 7, 2010 07:57 AM

Mistah charley phd.

I like that tag ‘warnography’ over at fafblog, and the question you ask about who will step up to doing all this killing if we don’t—that is truly insightful. Don’t be too insulted by this, but you have potential as a geopolitical analyst.

John Caruso

That's an impressive compilation of sickening conduct/statements by US soldiers in Iraq. If the Pentagon can hide reality, people will accept these foreign wars forever. (Never letting themselves lose the media battle that controls public opinion was the biggest lesson they learned from Vietnam.) So it's good for people to get a dose of reality whenever they can, provided the medicine is administered in a way that doesn't make the patient hate doctors.

But when you say "[t]here's no humanity here at all," I certainly hope you mean in those statements and that conduct, not in the human beings who said and did those things. Rest assured those soldiers are as human as us, and I'd bet most of them have some good qualities too, awful as that contradiction is. Not too many soldiers enlist because they really wanted to be serial killers but figured a war would present a better opportunity.

You seem to be espousing a pacifist position, which I don't share but generally admire. My big problem with the way you present it is that it plays right into the hands of nasty warmongers like Cheney. The appalling behavior you listed is NOT inevitable. Soldiers don't have to behave like that, and most of them really don't, even if they are put in a situation where they might not have the strength to avoid debasement. The old adage about not judging people without walking a mile in their mocassins is worthy. Pious talk from people who haven't walked a foot, let alone a mile, in the boots of soldiers is exactly what irritates the average American, who has the good sense to recognize that fighting in foreign wars isn't entirely enjoyable even if a soldier doesn't get blown to bits. It really isn't helpful to the cause of peace, or necessary, to frame the issue as whether average soldiers are good people or murderous psychopaths. If that's the only question being considered, most people will always say that most of our soldiers are good people. And as far as I know, maybe they are. I've certainly known some really fine vets, though I've also known a few who scared the hell out of me.

Sure soldiers often think and do bad things, but the problem isn't the troops. Supporting the troops is GREAT, and there's no finer way to support them than by not having them get killed, or turning them into killers who wake up screaming in the middle of the night for years, who can't concentrate even if they haven't their brain smashed, and who generally may not really feel that much better about themselves than you seem to feel about them. Supporting people means considering their best interests, which frankly is not a priority in the military, because the military has a different purpose. The problem is in that purpose. Attack that purpose instead of the troops and you may help save some lives.

Posted by: N E at April 7, 2010 10:01 AM

It's called war, Caruso. You wouldn't be acting pacifistic in the situations these soldiers are in. Head over to Sullivan's place to find out more.

Posted by: marc at April 7, 2010 11:01 AM

And can you imagine the (military) culture in which bragging about killing another human being is considered a badge of honor? I can't either.

Of course I can imagine it. That's the only kind of military culture there is. That's what the military does, it's their job. You do your job, it's a badge of honor. Your job is to kill people. Your a soldier. Get it?

Posted by: cervantes at April 7, 2010 11:02 AM

N E,
Please read this post by Ian Welsh, and consider his advice:
" a civilian, it’s in your best interest to not brush aside acts of barbarity by militaries."

Posted by: lurking gnome at April 7, 2010 11:32 AM

That is a good list of quotes.

Journalist Seymour Hersh, who exposed the Mei Lai massacre, has stated this army is the bloodiest U.S. army ever. He said at one point he was going to write an article on this subject but I don't think it ever materialized.

This business about taking "trophy photos" is actually an old practice; it is mentioned in the book "Nam", for example. In Austin, Texas, the daughter of a Gulf war vet brought such photos to the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition. She said her father and other vets traded them like trading cards and she was sick of it.

I read somewhere that that military has developed conditioning to prevent troops from hesitating before shooting someone; In WWII U.S. troops hesitated 50% of time, during the Korean they hesitated 40% ot the time, but by the Vietnam war they only hesitated at a 10% rate.

There was a very disturbing revelation in one of the few massacre trials of U.S. troops where a soldier testified that they had been trained to execute wounded Iraqis. They called this practice "dead checking". This is probably what was behind the executions that were recorded in a mosque in Falluja several years ago.

I think what we are witnessing is how bloody and ra

Posted by: Edward at April 7, 2010 11:58 AM

lurking gnome

Ian Welsh's article seems about right to me. I agree with it, as did the first commenter there(a vet)though maybe the idea of walking a mile in someone's moccasins before giving a sermon suggests I would. I do think war crimes should always be punished, and further that the media has an obligation to report them, that the military shouldn't be able to cover them up, and even that Fort Bragg's vast PR apparatus shouldn't exist.

That's a little different than suggesting that supporting the troops is equivalent to supporting a bunch of murdering psychopaths. That's what I disagree with. If I wanted to make myself sound self-righteous, antagonize well-meaning people unnecessarily, and lose an argument, that's how I'd structure it. People need to know those facts, but they don't need to come away from the article more irritated at the author than troubled by those facts. Many blockheads would anyway no matter how you present the facts, but even now, not everyone who supports the military is a blockhead.


I once heard someone on NPR who had once trained troops for combat commenting on the fact that he isn't surprised by the violence in our society because the military's method of training troops to kill more readily is desensititization that connects violence in films with emotionally inappropriate responses. He noticed that Hollywood specializes in that and didn't think it surprising that people kill each other with such frequency after being bombarded with Hollywood films all their lives. I wish I could remember that guy's name.

Posted by: N E at April 7, 2010 12:15 PM

What does this say about the Fort hood massacre then? Do we see it as a relevant act of resistance?

Posted by: Jenny at April 7, 2010 12:17 PM

"I enjoy killing Iraqis," says Staff Sgt. William Deaton, 30, who killed a hostile fighter the night before. Deaton has lost a good friend in Iraq. "I just feel rage, hate when I'm out there. I feel like I carry it all the time. We talk about it. We all feel the same way."

And a good many of them enjoy killing you back. After the number of women, children, and unarmed, non-combatant men you've killed, they too have "lost good friends in Iraq" -- to American shelling and bombs and mortar fire and checkpoint shootings and close-up murder. They feel rage. They carry it all the time. They talk about it. They all feel the same way. They wish you'd never come, and they can't wait for you to go away.

I, on the other hand, am dreading your return -- to the sheriff's department of my county, to the security staff at the mall, to the post office... where you'll find you're still feeling that rage. And women and children and non-violent petty criminals will be the target of your "chemotherapy": intimidation and tasering and beatings.

The war of aggression is the problem; the psychopathic killing is an inevitable and foreseeable result.

Posted by: Nell at April 7, 2010 12:46 PM

N E,
I think you are painting with broad brush strokes here about the character of the members of the U.S. military. The picture you are painting is flattering so it largely goes unchallenged, but I think it might be more compelling if you actually cited specific incidents demonstrating the points you are making - in line with how the author of the post documented his points.

Posted by: Justin at April 7, 2010 12:51 PM

As far as I can tell all people have a capacity for savagery, although I'm inclined to also believe that this is amplified by the racist and religious aspects of our "post 9/11 wars."

But think of all the single-incident shooters in civilian life, who, until the day, or even the hour of their mass killings had never committed a violent act, and were pressure cookers, building... (like Major Nidal in Ft. Hood.)

In Nidal's case, if the Army had simply discharged him like he requested one imagines he wouldn't have killed anybody, and might be in private practice making good money, paying the government back for his training like he wanted to, and maybe even helping people.

Instead a bunch of people died, others were seriously injured, and we were treated to a ridiculous debate about whether or not the incident was terrorism. Except I guess it wasn't so ridiculous, since it helped distract people from the people who designed the stop-loss orders and numerous other strategies designed to make us crazy and mean and obedient(or at least unaware).

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at April 7, 2010 01:01 PM

1) The Medium Lobster has another posting up at Fafblog! in the "warnography" category.

2)I want to clarify that my only role at Fafblog! is as faithful reader and occasional commenter - I am not the author of any of the main pieces.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at April 7, 2010 01:08 PM


I didn't intend to paint with any brush at all about the members of the US military. I basically agree with what Nell said above, but if people want to hate soldiers or anybody else, that's up to them. I just don't think it actually helps much, and politically it just feeds into this idiocy that people who oppose war really hate soldiers (and America and God and all other good things).

Mind you, I certainly don't think soldiers are all good people--there are plenty of jerks and criminals and racists and every other crummy type in all walks of life, including the military. But I certainly have known veterans who are quite decent people, and I tend to think that even now they are the majority (I do not claim to have scientific basis for that conclusion). The thing is, even if they all start out as good people, teaching them to resort to violence to solve problems while making them half crazy and tormented by PTSD and various physical problems before they return to confront damaged families and economic problems--that's just not a big help to our society, as Nell pointed out. Anyone can be broken by enough sufficiently bad experiences. Anyone.

Posted by: N E at April 7, 2010 01:17 PM

well, mistah charley, at least you read good geopolitical analysis, appropriately cynical but not overcooked to the point of unchewability. Bravo!

Posted by: N E at April 7, 2010 01:22 PM

I assume most have seen the film "Full Metal Jacket." If not rent it since it gives a rather brutal portrayal of how you turn normal everyday decent people into mindless killers. This is the first half of the film which I remember liking more than the second half which was not nearly as good, IMHO!-Tony

Posted by: tony at April 7, 2010 01:46 PM

Also, I f you want to really read a rather disturbing account of what US soldiers did in the Pacific during WWII see "War Without Mercy" by John Dower. -Tony

Posted by: tony at April 7, 2010 01:52 PM

This is what I don't get. Most of these articles are either biased for or against a viewpoint. You have to look at it a little more evenly.

Yes, we're in Iraq and Afghanistan illegally, killing innocent people on a daily basis. There is no justifiable cause for the military action, and it's a shame and a horror.

On the personal level, though, you have to try and imagine what it's like to be there. Sure some of these guys are assholes who want to shoot people. But for the most part, they're your soon, your brother, your neighbor, your best friend. You go somewhere, you strip the humanity from yourself and your enemy. You see death on a near daily basis. You watch friends die. You see the people of this country committing atrocities against each other. And most importantly of all, you spend every day afraid for your life. Think about that. Imagine what it must be like to be stuck there, in a war, watching death all the time, and wondering when you're next.

When civilians are gunned down, it's almost always by accident. The only people proud of killing innocent people are sociopaths. The soldiers who murder innocent people are most often afraid for their own life. I'd imagine most all of us would be capable of doing the same when it came down to knowing it could be us or them.

Posted by: Matt at April 7, 2010 03:03 PM

The defense from soldiers on this is even sadder:

Posted by: Jenny at April 7, 2010 03:08 PM

I mostly agree with NE's 1:17 comment. The debate about whether the troops are mostly good or mostly bad misses the point. Presumably the majority are decent people, but placed in situations or roles which might lead them to do indecent things. (I'm leaving aside the question of why they are in the military in the first place).

The problem with this issue is that we're generally presented with two choices--either you "support the troops", which means pretending that with extremely rare exceptions they're a bunch of heavily armed saints who never kill civilians except by accident, or else we are a bunch of troop-hating lefties who imagine them all to be sociopathic killers. There's a middle ground here.

Someone in this thread or another mentioned Jonathan Schell's book on Vietnam (or one of them). In it he describes the behavior of the guys conducting air strikes. It's clear that they're "normal" Americans and they probably would be perfectly normal members of society back home. It's also clear that they are killing people without taking much care to determine whether they are VC (not that we should have been there killing anyone, but set that aside) or peasant farmers. They laugh, they joke. Most "normal" people are probably monsters in some settings. It's the same as what happened in the Milgram experiments.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 7, 2010 03:13 PM

Donald, that was me mentioning the Schell book. Specifically, the passage I excerpted here where Schell rides with a helicopter pilot who sees evidence of VC in everything he surveys from the skies.

Posted by: justin at April 7, 2010 04:24 PM

The debate about whether the troops are mostly good or mostly bad misses the point.

Definitely agreed—the point isn't the troops, it's the policy. And while I can understand the confusion, anyone who reads this posting as an attempt to paint every soldier in the US military as a psychopath is missing the point by a long way; there's a reason I said what it is we're being asked to support rather than who.

For anyone whose first response to this posting is that soldiers are just people like you and me, though, while I largely agree with you, try applying that line of thought to German soldiers in Poland in 1939 (or pick your own example of designated and universally-reviled enemies). Is your first impulse to think of them as brothers and sons and friends? If not, why not? That's worth serious consideration.

American soldiers mean no more and no less to me than the soldiers of any other country, and especially no more and no less than the soldiers of any other country that engages (or has engaged) in aggressive war. They're tools of US foreign policy, and that policy makes the sorts of things I collected in this posting inevitable.

Posted by: John Caruso at April 7, 2010 04:54 PM

N E,
That's a little different than suggesting that supporting the troops is equivalent to supporting a bunch of murdering psychopaths.

Caruso's post doesn't make this equivalence. I see he has just clarified his position above, so I won't comment on it further.

I once heard someone on NPR who had once trained troops for combat commenting on the fact that he isn't surprised by the violence in our society because the military's method of training troops to kill more readily is desensititization that connects violence in films with emotionally inappropriate responses

I believe the name you're looking for is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of "On Killing" and "Stop Teaching Our Children to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence."

Posted by: l. g. at April 7, 2010 05:15 PM

American soldiers mean no more and no less to me ... than the soldiers of any other country that engages (or has engaged) in aggressive war.

Exactly. It was okay and Serious to revile, y'know, Russians occupying Afghanistan and shooting people. It's not Serious to do so when the shooters are American. We just want to what any humanist should do: call that shit.

It's a tall order for most, though. Orwell's saying may be less true now than in the thirties, but it's still accurate: Nationalism is the strongest force in human affairs. Religion and international socialism are weak as straw compared to it.

Posted by: Cloud at April 7, 2010 05:16 PM

Those interested in considering German soldiers in Poland in relation to these issues (though 1942 is a better year than 1939) can refer to the work of Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Batalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. (Browning's Nazi Policy: Jewish Workers, German Killers is worthwhile too). Browning's conclusions are in accord with the results of Milgram's experimental findings, but more illuminating because of the very real events involved, which remove them from the realm of speculation. Many of those ordinary Germans about whom Browning wrote were directly involved in implementation of the gruesome work of the Final Solution as executioners of women and children. They were not Nazis at all, or psychpaths, or especially ideological, or even eager to do it. Americans don't reflexively think of those ordinary Germans as brothers and friends simply because they weren't Americans.

A decent case can be made that such things are indeed 'inevitable' in war, because they are so common. But that word 'inevitable' is dangerously fatalistic. The reasoning that 'war is hell' can quickly lead to the emotional conclusion that atrocities are just part and parcel of what to expect. Well, they don't have to be. Soldiers shouldn't be put into these situations, and the worst among them shouldn't be unleashed to commit war crimes. I don't think those guys in that Apache were psychopaths, but you don't have to be a psychopath to commit a war crime. You just have to be in a war and make the wrong choice when presented with it.

Posted by: N E at April 7, 2010 05:59 PM

Thanks l.g. (I like it!) for giving me Grossman's name. Caruso's view is clearer to me now too, though we may still disagree on trifles or truffles or something like that.

Posted by: N E at April 7, 2010 06:12 PM

Great article and good job on the updates. The one that says it all for me (I don't think it's here but sorry if it is and I missed it):

"Another sergeant shot a man in the head without cause while questioning him, Needham said, then mutilated the body, lashed it to the hood of his Humvee and drove around the neighborhood blaring warnings to insurgents in Arabic that 'they would be next.'

Other Iraqis were shot for invented reasons, then mutilated, Needham said.

The sergeants particularly liked removing victims' brains, Needham said.

Needham offered a photograph of a soldier removing brains from an Iraqi on the hood of a Humvee and other photos as evidence. His father supplied copies to The Gazette.

The Army's criminal investigation division interviewed several soldiers from the unit and said it was 'unable to substantiate any of his allegations.'"

I hate to be ants at a picnic, but I disagree in part with the "sane people turned into killers" aspect of the discussion. Whether Americans want to admit it or not, we're the products of a sick materialist culture that treats people like objects and when you give the worst of us carte blanche to live out our video game/torture porn/9-11 revenge fantasies at the expense of random foreigners, that chosen few will show the true colors of modern "civilization".

The horrors of war can break even the most balanced, normal, saintly person and turn them into a rabid psychopath, but you have to admit the Abu Ghraib folks and the Mahmudiya rapists were just pure human shit to begin with. I'll make a wild guess and predict the active recruiting of prison inmates hasn't produced the best pool of possible soldiers either.

Posted by: the pair at April 7, 2010 06:43 PM

"Americans don't reflexively think of those ordinary Germans as brothers and friends simply because they weren't Americans."

NE, I think it's pretty clear John meant someone's brothers and sons and friends, not their own. Which is why his question/comment is important: If not, why not? That's worth serious consideration.

Posted by: Peggy at April 7, 2010 08:38 PM


I apologize for being unclear. If John's point is that people need to stop thinking that Americans are exceptional, I agree entirely with that. And if his point is that Americans should realize that their current and former enemies all were people with families and friends, just like their own soldiers, I agree entirely with that too. And I agree that people who can't fathom that really should think about it more.

But if anyone assumes that reflection on the Nazis should lead to the conclusion that American war criminals might well not be such "ordinary" people any more than the Nazis were, the assumption is contradicted by scholarship. The low-ranking German war criminals who carried out the Holocaust were in fact sometimes quite ordinary men acting under orders they didn't especially like.

I think that would surprise most Americans, who don't view their enemies as ordinary people basically just because they aren't Americans. They're evildoers, so everybody is browbeat to deny their humanity, not recognize it. It's always discouraged and sometimes, like right after 9/11, it is all but mandatory.

I'm not really entirely clear what John Caruso's ultimate take on this is, but he seems to have been clearer than I have been, so that's probably not his fault.

Posted by: N E at April 7, 2010 10:18 PM


I wasn't criticizing your post--I think we need more such reality checks about what actually happens in combat.

As for German troops in WWII, well, I suspect that the average German was no different from soldiers in general, so yeah, I think that under the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances ordinary people including my friends, relatives, and me might be monsters. Anyway, the difference between what the Nazis did and what Americans have done is more a matter of degree.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 7, 2010 11:05 PM

I replied before I saw the replies after John Caruso's--anyway, NE's point about the German soldiers in the 10:18 post was the one I was making. I haven't read Browning's book, but have read about it secondhand. And scholarship aside, it just seemed like common sense to me--atrocities are very common in war, from what I've read, and it seems almost a truism that ordinary people can do horrible things when ordered to do so or when fed enough propaganda or when under enormous stress.

It's also why I condemn unreservedly Palestinian terrorism, for instance, without thinking that they are somehow "evil" beyond the comprehension of us "civilized" Western folk. If anything, we're much worse because of our violence under much less provocation and our smug complacency about it.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 7, 2010 11:15 PM

It seems to me that having an all volunteer military leads to self-selection of people inclined to perpetrate these kind of misdeeds. An organization whose stated mission is to kill people, which recruits amongst those of our society with little to lose anyway, is just asking for the horrors portrayed here.

Posted by: Bill Sherlock at April 7, 2010 11:51 PM

Ever since I watched the Wikileaks video yesterday, this song has been running through my head:

I'd kind of like to know why N E thought that John C was "espousing a pacifist position." N E, you seem to be espousing Hermann Goering's position. Not that I'm surprised. Just sayin'.

I don't know whether I'm a a pacifist myself, and it doesn't seem to me to be a particularly relevant question here. But Christopher Isherwood did become a pacifist when he realized that any 'enemy' soldier might be somebody's Heinz, his German boyfriend who was drafted into the Nazi military. It happens. But it's irrelevant here.

I don't agree with 'the pair' that the Abu Ghraib people were "human shit to begin with." Certainly the American soldiers in the video were not off the leash: they cleared their every move with HQ. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib had been trained in torture, they didn't make those techniques up themselves. That doesn't mean they aren't responsible, but that they were just doing their jobs, following orders.

I can't see how anyone can be surprised that if you train people to be killers, and give them heavy ordnance to play with, they'll kill. If you train them to torture and give them prisoners to play with, they'll torture them. I seem to recall (it was a long time ago) that William Calley's mother complained that the Army had made her son into a killer. No shit, Sherlock. What did she think the Army did to people, teach them basket weaving?

At the same time, if Iraqi insurgents had managed to shoot down that helicopter, I daresay they'd have said similar things about the Americans they killed. The difference, and the point that must never be forgotten, is that the Americans are invaders and occupiers. If you invade a country, at least some of the people there will shoot at you. It will then be necessary to kill more of them, and more of them will shoot at you. But you, as the invader, are the one who is in the wrong.

Invaders cannot invoke self-defense. Suppose you're a Mafia hood, and your boss tells you to break into someone's house. The resident pulls a gun on you; you kill them. You can't plead self-defense. The American invaders of Iraq are in a similar position, morally if not legally. Even if someone on the ground in this video had weapons, the Americans were not acting in self-defense, even pre-emptive self-defense: they were invaders and murderers.

That's not to say that they're "human shit." The Mafioso I just invented might be a nice guy, good to his buddies, respectful to his superiors, kind to his Mom, a regular at Mass and confession. All that is irrelevant when he breaks into your house and, confronted by an armed homeowner, guns you down.

The best way to "support the troops" is to get them out of there. It's a good thing to be reminded what they're doing in our name, but I don't really believe that most Americans will be moved by this story, even if they hear about it (and the corporate media are spinning it predictably). It's business as usual, and they know it.

By the way, has everyone here heard about the US atrocity in Afghanistan in February? Business as usual, folks, business as usual.

Posted by: Duncan at April 8, 2010 12:50 AM

Bill Sherlock

Your observation has some merit, but conscripts turn into war criminals pretty easily too. All those German reservists in Battalion 101 were conscripts, not to mention ordinary blue-collar trade-union types, but when given their orders (importantly, with an option not to participate if the work was too gruesome for them) they were willing to shoot women and children in the back of the head at close range. It bears emphasis that not only was their no threat of danger or retaliation against any soldier who felt that he couldn't commit the war crimes in question, the officers gave them the option to opt out without any sanction. Fear of the Nazi regime was NOT an issue. And yet, though the soldiers didn't even want to perform the horrible task assigned them, with almost no exceptions they did perform it, if only because it didn't seem right to leave the dirty work to the rest of their fellow soldiers. That may not surprise others, but it astonished me, and it still disappoints me.

I mentioned in this thread that I'm not a pacifist but generally respect them. I have come to think pacifists are morally ahead of me, because it has become clear to me that if morality does not rest on bedrock convictions (which many people find in religion), not many people are strong enough to find their way in situations that present the temptation to do evil, even if only because it would be socially awkward not to. A soldier could be called upon to kill villagers in Vietnam or the Phillipines or Central America, or in Poland or China or Rwanda or pretty much anywhere, and it could happen regardless of what army a soldier might be part of. NOT doing it seems to be harder than one might think without having been part of what led to the event.

So sure the military attracts some blood-thirsty yahoos, some of whom I've met, but I think the problem goes well beyond that.

Posted by: N E at April 8, 2010 07:19 AM

oh yeah, there doesn't need to be a war either.

Posted by: N E at April 8, 2010 11:31 AM

The soldiers may or may not be ordinary people, but they are definitely war criminals. In a just world they would be arraigned in a court for their crimes, along with any higher-ups who are also responsible.

I quite agree that atrocities are common in war, but as I mentioned in my earlier post, according to Seymour Hersh we have today the most brutal U.S. army ever. I think the latent tendency in soldiers to commit atrocities has been accentuated by propaganda and a leadership promoting rather than opposing this behavior.

As I recall, one of the findings of the Johns Hopkins study of Iraq casualties was that hundreds of thousands (80%?) had been killed by U.S. troops. I have no doubt that this video is a very small tip of a very large iceberg.


On a similar theme, psychologist Robert Lyfton has described this war as an "atrocity producing situation" because it lacks a legitimate justification.

Posted by: Edward at April 8, 2010 12:17 PM

The Mafioso I just invented might be a nice guy, good to his buddies, respectful to his superiors, kind to his Mom, a regular at Mass and confession. All that is irrelevant when he breaks into your house and, confronted by an armed homeowner, guns you down.

You've literally taken the words right out of my mouth, Duncan, since I posed this exact analogy to a friend in talking about this. The point being the same one I was making above—namely that nobody in the US bothers thinking about the humanity of German soldiers in Poland or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan or the kid in the poor neighborhood who grew up feeling he had no other option than to join the local mob; they focus on the atrocities and crimes. But when it comes to American soldiers they immediately, reflexively look to the humanity of the attackers rather than the victims, empathizing with their circumstances and feelings and fears.

At least one difference, though, is that German soldiers could well have been shot for deserting, but US soldiers face nothing worse than a few years in prison if they refuse (and likely not even that, and a massive support network and media notoriety to boot). Which is just one reason why it's ridiculous to excuse the atrocities they commit as an understandable expression of their intense fear of their intended victims.

Posted by: John Caruso at April 8, 2010 01:46 PM

I don't know--I think about the humanity of the German soldiers and the Russians in Afghanistan whenever I think about those wars. The funny thing is my impression was that this was once a commonplace POV, but that it has changed in recent years, where people in the mainstream have decided that any attempt at understanding how ordinary people could do unspeakable things is the sin of "moral equivalence" or worse--that is, you are bad if you don't demonize war criminals rather than look at them as human beings who might not be that different from oneself. So the way this works in practice goes like this--

A) An Arab kills unarmed people--Horrible, terrible, motivated by hatred of the "West" or Jews or Americans or whatever. No excuse possible and any attempt at context is support for terrorism.

B) An American shoots up some civilians--War is a tragic business.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 8, 2010 03:41 PM

On the 2006 Johns Hopkins study published in the Lancet--

I don't have my copy handy, but they found that of the deaths where the killers could be identified by the respondents, roughly 30 percent were killed by "coalition forces".

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 8, 2010 03:43 PM

It may not have been fear of their intended victims, but fear of letting down those who they depend on every day to survive, their fellow soldiers. And media notoriety may be a disincentive to someone in that situation, not a bennie.

Most human beings are weak. Fact of life. They depend on the opinion of their fellows, even if the general culture they are living in is horrific. Living according to principle is hard, if not virtually impossible to them. Particularly after a government school "education".

Again the real problem is putting people in such circumstances in the first place. "Support the troops" is propaganda-speak for "support the Empire", since anyone with any concern for troops would pull them out of the Hell they are in.

Posted by: Paul at April 8, 2010 03:44 PM

John Caruso

I think your first points are very good, though overstated because some people do think about those things, but I can't agree that it should be encouraging to US soldiers who decline to commit war crimes that they would get "nothing worse than a few years in prison" and "a massive support network and media notoriety to boot." I keep looking back to make sure those are real quotes, so much do those statements surprise me. Every time I give blood they ask me if I have ever been in jail for more than three days, and I always feel extremely glad that my answer is 'no,' because the implication of the question is extremely clear in context. Three days. Yikes. You, John Caruso, are a braver man than I.

Now, the Red Cross's questionnaire may be based on a conservative assumption to safeguard our blood supply, because I don't think all inmates get raped. After all, my beloved, affable dad was a prison guard, though in a friendlier part of the country (in the opinion of nearly all non-Indians), and if that was going on, the guards made sure not to notice, or at least they didn't tell their kids about it. But even if you don't get raped at your meet-and-greet upon arrival, prison just isn't an enjoyable place. That much I figured out. It really isn't even very nice if you get to go home when your shift is over, and staying there in that little room with the toilet 24/7 (assuming you don't end up solitary, known as 'the hole'), well, give it a try sometime before you recommend it. And remember, when you get out you get to have people turn you down for jobs bagging groceries because of your record, so the real fun, for the rest of your life, is just getting started!

More importantly, I feel sure that a soldier who has to "decide" whether to commit a war crime doesn't often consider what the media will say about him or whether a support network will come to his aide. You're no doubt right that killing women and children or even unarmed men doesn't directly result from being afraid of THEM, but as the psychologist Lifton referred to by Edward said, it's an 'atrocity producing situation.' A minority of soldiers may just be killers and thugs at heart, but I think it's a minority even if Hersh is right about today's army. The problem is, even those soldiers that aren't natural homicidal manican will snap under sufficient stress.

Posted by: N E at April 8, 2010 04:29 PM


30% is much less than the 80% I was thinking of, but as I recall it still implied a huge number of Iraqis killed by coalition soldiers; in an invasion that faced little opposition why were so many Iraqis killed?

Posted by: Edward at April 8, 2010 07:11 PM

donald and edward

The category of "killed by coalition forces" is going to be undercounted if it only includes those directly killed by weapons of coalition forces. That isn't the mainstay of fourth generation warfare. The war tactics employed in iraq at least as early as 2005 were much more like those used in El Salvador in the 80s, and deliberately so. In El Salvador a group like Lancet might have concluded that no one was killed by U.S. forces, which would certainly bare little resemblance to what actually happened there.

The Salvadoran Option in Iraq as of January 2005:

Posted by: N E at April 8, 2010 08:14 PM

"The category of "killed by coalition forces" is going to be undercounted if it only includes those directly killed by weapons of coalition forces. "

There's a good chance you're right about that. I remember reading about the "Salvador option" too. Presumably we'll know more in about 50 years or so, if someone chooses to declassify records. Or maybe, with groups like wikileaks around, it might happen sooner.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 8, 2010 10:10 PM


I agree with you that these studies are probably undercounting the number of killings in various ways. Even so, just going by these figures alone the picture that emerges is horrible.

Another form of indirect U.S. assault against Iraqis is by encouraging the various factions to fight each other; this strategy has been written about by at least two of Petreus's advisors, Biddle and an Australian fellow. I often wonder if the U.S. was behind the bombing of the Samara mosque which set off the Shiite-Sunni massacres.

One other comment on the studies of Iraqi fatalities; they are based on a comparison between measured death rates and what would have been expected in the pre-invasion Iraq. I wonder what the figures would be if the comparison were made with pre-sanctions Iraq.

Posted by: Edward at April 9, 2010 10:23 AM

I find the number of comments trying to pretend that soldiers are nice people really pretty depressing.

What do these monsters have to do to convince you all? They'd all cut their own mother's head off and spit down the neck for giggles. They are merciless killers and they enjoy their work.

You all need to get real about that.

Posted by: DavidByron at April 9, 2010 01:56 PM

I like how they are careful to censor the "swear words" out of the soldier's quotes, because that is obviously the most scandalous and horrifying part of this whole deal.

Posted by: saurabh at April 9, 2010 01:59 PM

"Definitely agreed—the point isn't the troops, it's the policy."

John, that's wrong. Firstly it is hardly a question of picking only one, but most important if you did have to pick one it would be keeping the policy and losing the murderous thugs, not losing the policy but keeping the murderous thugs.

You're saying that Nuremberg was in error; that you can't blame people for just following orders (to murder people).

The fact is that the left throughout history has been the enemy of the thug enforcers of the elites.

"We Shoot At You"

Posted by: DavidByron at April 9, 2010 02:05 PM

I'll add a thought not mentioned in the above: if you really think that soldiers are not to blame for their mass murder and torture because their behaviour was partially explainable by social pressures on them, then you are shifting the blame for those murders onto yourselves.

But not on to me.

If "society" is to blame for the behaviour, if we are all just programmed according to our societal expectations, then specifically those to blame are those who endorse those expectations of murder. In other words those who justify or explain away the soldiers murders are pushing the soldiers to continue to kill whereas by condemning those actions, we push society and the soldiers themselves, the other way.

You can't say the soldiers don't know what they are doing is wrong and then refuse to tell them it is wrong.

Posted by: DavidByron at April 9, 2010 02:23 PM

Firstly it is hardly a question of picking only one, but most important if you did have to pick one it would be keeping the policy and losing the murderous thugs, not losing the policy but keeping the murderous thugs.

The policy we're talking about is sending the US military to other nations to enforce US interests. Are you really saying you'd choose to keep that policy in place as long as it was carried out by nicer soldiers? It's a false dichotomy, but assuming it actually did hold I most definitely would choose to "lose the policy but keep the murderous thugs" (keep them here in this country, that is, rather than massacring civilians in Iraq and elsewhere).

And regarding those thugs, I've known plenty of people who were in the military (including my father, who served in both Korea and Vietnam), and most of them weren't either murderous or thugs; they were just regular people doing a job, and usually one they'd been inculcated into thinking of as a particularly noble and important calling. The thug percentage is no doubt higher in the military than in the general population (and not by accident), but you're painting with far too broad a brush.

You're saying that Nuremberg was in error; that you can't blame people for just following orders (to murder people).

No, not remotely. Responsibility isn't an either-or proposition (and Nuremberg doesn't imply that it is). That's why I'm calling out the atrocities soldiers are committing while simultaneously pointing out that those atrocities are just an inevitable concomitant of the ongoing, much larger, and encompassing crime that is American foreign policy. There's no contradiction, and as you said it's not a question of picking only one.

Posted by: John Caruso at April 9, 2010 03:01 PM

David Byron:

What do these monsters have to do to convince you all? They'd all cut their own mother's head off and spit down the neck for giggles. They are merciless killers and they enjoy their work.

You all need to get real about that.

Oh, I am, I am really real about this. And while I'm being real, I really have to point out that you sound exactly like an American jingo explaining why we have to kill the raghead terrorists, because they're not human. They're merciless killers and they enjoy their work, and you pacifists think they should be invited over for tea.

The point I and others were trying to make is that it doesn't matter whether the soldiers in the video are nice guys, or whether Osama Bin Laden loves his mother, or Karl Rove is an amoral shitbag. The issues are structural, not personal.

Posted by: Duncan at April 9, 2010 08:48 PM


Petraeus and his counterterrorism advisers (David Kilcullen was the Australian ) didn't come up with anything new with the idea of pitting ethnic factions against each other. That strategy was the main pillar of British imperial strategy, and I assume many other empires before that. It's not too hard to understand why dividing one's enemies and pitting them against each other is a sensible military strategy. It certainly was at the heart of much of what happened at Versailles, and it again seems to be at the heart of US grand strategy in our latest New World Order--in which the goal seems to be to divide up much of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and South Asia and Central Asia. (The resources of empires and big nations are much harder to digest than the resources of small nations.)

I share your suspicion about the bombing of the Samara Mosque because the motive is so clear and the capability obviously existed, but that's one bombing I haven't looked into.

Posted by: N E at April 9, 2010 11:12 PM

whether ... Karl Rove is an amoral shitbag

The DVD "Bush's Brain" answers that question pretty conclusively.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at April 10, 2010 09:43 AM

whether ... Karl Rove is an amoral shitbag

Now, now, you're living in the past and we have to focus on the present. The question now is whether Barack Obama is an amoral shitbag. The evidence is pretty clear that he is.

Posted by: Duncan at April 10, 2010 12:28 PM


Is there a President who you don't believe to have been an 'amoral shitbag'? If so, which one?

Posted by: N E at April 10, 2010 01:31 PM

That's an odd question, N E, and I don't see how it is relevant. But I prefer not to dwell on the dead past, and to focus instead on the present. Barack Obama is the amoral shitbag we have, and he's doing his damneded to live up to the epithet.

Posted by: Duncan at April 10, 2010 03:58 PM


It's relevant because if all Presidents under your view are amoral shitbags, the question (assuming you're right) is why that's so. My assessment is that either the selection process is flawed, or it's impossible to do the job without acting like an amoral shitbag, or both. I think both get closer to being true all the time, so we get what we get, which sucks.

My own view, as you know, is that President often aren't amoral shitbags, and as you might guess I think it makes you sound "exactly like an American jingo." Don't get me wrong, I don't look down on you for it; I enjoy cursing on occasion too, and I can even meet pretty high standards, so that really doesn't bother me that much. Whether from you or me, it's mostly just silly.

Posted by: N E at April 10, 2010 06:11 PM

N E: "Jingo" is not "cursing"; "amoral shitbag" is, but who cares? People are being slaughtered by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you're getting pissy because I said "shitbag"? You really need to get a grip, as I once wrote of Susan Jacoby, who wrote a book fussing over the use of the word "folks" by politicians as a sign of the End Times. What counts, as far as I'm concerned, is that no one in their right mind will look to Obama for leadership, or even as an ally, to change the situation we're in.
The reason it doesn't matter whether all American presidents are amoral shitbags (and Karl Rove was not an American president, by the way), is that people like you use the question to evade the issue. You don't seem to extend to George W. Bush or Henry Kissinger the same sympathy and understanding you demand for Barack Obama. We can debate whether only amoral shitbags seek to become President, or whether the process of inhabiting the Oval Office turns a person into an amoral shitbag, but first we have to admit that the President, in this case Barack Obama, is an amoral shitbag, which you will not concede. I think that someone who overrides due process to order the murder of American citizens, as Obama has, is by that act declaring himself an amoral shitbag. If "shitbag" bothers you, then I'll be happy to call him a terrorist warlord. But amoral he certainly is. It doesn't matter much whether he always was (and I'd say that the evidence indicates that he was as early as his "community organizers" days) or became so because of the pressures of office.

Posted by: Duncan at April 12, 2010 12:35 AM

Left Hook Exclusive: An Interview with an Anti-war Veteran from the Iraq War Jim Talib HM3 (FMF/PJ)
By Derek Seidman
November 29, 2004

On one of my trips to drop off a detainee at the jail, the Senior Interrogator told us not to bring them in any more. 'Just shoot them' he said, I was stunned, I couldn't believe he actually said it. He was not joking around, he was giving us a directive. A few days later a group of Humvees from another unit passed by one of our machine gun positions, and they had the bodies of two dead Iraqi's strapped to their hoods like a couple of deer. One of the bodies had exposed brain matter that had begun to cook onto the hood of the vehicle, it was a gruesome, medieval display. So much of what I experienced seemed out of control, I saw so little respect for the living and almost none for the dead, and there was almost no accountability.

Posted by: Calm at April 12, 2010 09:46 AM


I don't have any particular sympathy for Obama, but you can only make your case that he is an amoral shitbag by judging his results, not his intentions, and I think you won't name a President who you don't consider an amoral shitbag for the same reason. Which makes pretty clear that the identity of the President isn't the issue.

I understand your frustration that even the best Presidents fall so far short of adequacy these days, judging them by what they do. And that's what makes it important to recognize that Obama ISNT an amoral shitbag. If people think that's the problem, they think they can fix it by changing the identity of the President. Well, they can't, at least not nearly enough.

Make no mistake, I'm not pissy about your language. Frankly, I could swear a lot better than that without blushing. With a little practice I might even win a competition. I'm pissy and obsessive precisely because people are getting killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and in a lot of other ways too, not because your language shocks or upsets me. You seem to think that calling Obama a shitbag will accomplish something, but I thik it actualy perpetuates the problem. People have been bitching about politicians forever, and look where we are? People just keep bitching instead of changing things.

Posted by: N E at April 12, 2010 12:12 PM

From Chris Floyd's most recent post on his blog...This is news to me and i am frankly stunned at this info.

Very glad to see humans beings behaving decently toward one another even in the most extreme circumstances. Of course the death machine learned a lesson from all of this.-Tony

"In-depth studies by the U.S. Army after WWII showed that between 80 to 85 percent of the greatest generation never fired their weapons at an exposed enemy in combat, as military psychologist Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman reports. Many times they had the chance, but could not bring themselves to do it. They either withheld their fire altogether or else shot into the air, to the side, anywhere but at the fellow human beings – their blood kin in biology, mind and mortality – facing them across the line. This reticence is even more remarkable given the incessant demonization of the enemy by the top brass, especially in the Pacific, where the Japanese – soldiers and civilians – were routinely portrayed by military propaganda as simian, sub-human creatures fit only for extermination."

Posted by: tony at April 12, 2010 04:56 PM