Dehumanization – of them and us

I’ve listened to several of the accounts being given at Winter Soldier and they are both enlightening and horrifying. They are also nostalgic.

One of the many panels of speakers concentrates on the process of dehumanizing the enemy. This, like so much of military training, is an extremely effective method of changing the mindsets of new enlistees, most of them teenagers, so they are ready, willing and even eager to spontaneously kill other people. Consider how intense this training must be in order to turn a normal, fun loving, hormone driven high schooler into an unquestioning killer in a matter of weeks.

A critical part of this training involves dehumanization. The idea here is to make trainees think of the enemy, not as opposing soldiers but as less than human. Animals if you will. There is far less of a possibility that an American soldier will balk at the order to kill when he believes that what he is killing is not a person at all, but a lower form of life deserving only disgust and hate.

The problem with this training is that it does not stipulate a difference between enemy soldiers and local civilians. All are lumped into one category, given derogatory names and on the battlefield are ultimately treated the same. This is not only  part and parcel of the way American troops are trained, it is not new.

Those of us who were trained to go to Vietnam learned that the Vietnamese, whether they were civilians or combatants, were Dinks, Gooks, Slopes or Slopeheads and Slants. They were just little bastards that lived like animals in the jungle and it was ok to treat them accordingly.   There was no place for respect for any member of the population and thus, the civilians became victims, not only of the VC, but of the American forces as well. The result was the same as in Iraq today. Greater numbers of civilians were killed than the actual enemy. And no matter what the military public relations folks say, this is condoned and encouraged behavior.

An example, then and now, of how this plays out and the mindset of our soldiers can be seen in the rules of engagement. Instructions are that anyone who is out after the curfew set by the military is a potential target. While on paper it may say that authorization must be given to fire on them, in actual practice this decision is left up to the soldier. In order to achieve the military’s most prized goal – body count – the target will be shot, even if the soldier knows that there is no threat and the target is an innocent civilian.

Free fire zones are even more fun because you can shoot anything at any time. Calling in gunships or artillery on a few rice pickers or water buffalo just so you can watch the fireworks is great entertainment. According to some of the testimony at the hearings the last couple of days, this type of activity is still common.

At the 1971 Winter Soldier, time and again the veterans repeated this theme. Villagers were tortured, raped and killed, often with an unbelievable level of brutality, for no other reason than suspicion or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This included elderly, children, livestock and even babies. The official records would show that they were “suspected VC sympathizers”.

Listening to these brave young men give testimony in the current hearings is just absolutely heart wrenching. The guilt they feel comes through with every word. Now that they are back in the US they have regained some of their “normal” perspective and look back at their own actions and those of their comrades with horror and disbelief.

It must take an enormous amount of courage to come forward, publicly and even broadcast live, and admit to these atrocities. They deserve our respect as much for this as for their service overseas. I think they also deserve our time to listen to them, as uncomfortable as it may be. They are giving these testimonials, often at great personal risk, so that we – the public – will hear the truth about what is happening. We should be willing to listen.

The military goes to great lengths to instill in our soldiers a willingness and even eagerness to commit violent and brutal acts automatically and without question. It works. What the military does not do is spend any time or effort to debrief or untrain this mindset once the troops come home. Indeed, as we have heard time and again, treatment for those who suffer the depression, guilt and even suicidal reactions for what they have seen and done is pitifully substandard. Quite simply, once their combat roles are over, no one cares.

It is no surprise that many if not most of the returning troops suffer from PTSD and worse.  What is shocking is our unwillingness to insure that these brave men and women get the very best and most timely treatment that is possible. But they don’t and they won’t. Its just not in the budget. And the administration and the pentagon is never going to admit that they know this going in. But of course they do. It is an acceptable cost of performing the war.

Trust me when I say that most if not all soldiers who have been in a combat zone, whether they were participants or witnesses, will never again be the same as they were before they went. The experience is so horrifyingly surreal that recovery from it is just not possible. Many can not adjust at all and we read about them as suicide or homeless statistics. It is just so damn sad.

In a necessary war, where our country is actually under threat this situation might be understandable. But in the case of Iraq, where we all know that the invasion and occupation was based on lies and propoganda, there is just no excuse, no justification for allowing it to continue. It is no less than insane and it must be stopped. The American people still have the power to do that. But if we continue to spend the obscene amounts of money to perpetuate this nightmare and the number of physically and mentally wounded continues to grow, we may reach a point where recovery is simply out of reach.

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Explore posts in the same categories: America, Bush/Cheney, Iraq, Lying Bastards, Military, Winter Soldier

7 Comments on “Dehumanization – of them and us”

  1. irgen Says:

    This killings has been going on since the dawn of history. Nothing new.

    In today’s term, the home-coming surviving combatants bear a new armor of hatred and utter disregard of what’s civil and military. Everyone is fair game to them; they’re taught thus and to behave otherwise is unthinkable.

    There’s no utopia today or in the future. The warmongers, jihadist, lobbyists will rule anytime. Just live with it. What we can do is to chip at their armor, to clamor for sanctity of lives, hopes and eventual return to sanity.

    Thanks Brian.

  2. Buffalo Says:

    Once again – well written, Brian.

    Is it possible we are taught to demonize the enemy to make it easier to do the things we must do even though it brings with it undesirable side effects?

  3. expatbrian Says:

    irgen – thanks for the comment. Can’t just live with it, though and our troops shouldn’t have to either. The cancer is the war itself. Thats what needs to be avoided and if it means killing the warmonger, jihadist or lobbyist, so be it.

    Buff, as you are well aware, the army doesn’t care about the side effects, just the results. Demonizing or dehumanizing the enemy is a powerful tool for that goal. I have a close friend who is a retired cop and was Capt Medina’s radio man at My Lai. During his testimony before a congressional committee and later to me he stated that he felt worse about the livestock that got killed (at My Lai) than the people.

    Thats what you call successful dehumanization.

  4. eeyore Says:

    WE ???

  5. expatbrian Says:

    eeyore – if you are referring to Buffalo’s use of the term “we” in his question about training, it is appropriate. He and I (we) were both trained to do exactly that and both did so during our tours in Vietnam.

  6. eeyore Says:

    so much for “I’m just along for the ride”

  7. expatbrian Says:

    Jeezus eeyore, I wish you would just say what you mean and stop with the quirky little crap. If you have an issue, lets hear it.


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