Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Asymmetric Inhumanity

What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter [proposing negotiations], were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

- U.S. Grant, describing meeting with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox to end the Civil War, 1865. Emphasis added.

It's Memorial Day, which started as a remembrance of slain Union soldiers, and later became a day to remember all Americans killed in war. Grant's passage remains one of the more memorable descriptions of the American Civil War, and captures some of the futility and pointlessness of most wars.

It's only right to honor those who served and those who are serving. However, Memorial Day and Armistice Day are also for remembering the ugliness of war, working to prevent unnecessary conflicts, and to hasten the ends of wars still raging. Somehow, the war-makers tend to avoid these lessons.

I'm reminded of a passage from novelist and Vietnam vet Tim O'Brien (quoted in a previous post):

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

Not all who fought in the American Civil War were noble, nor evil. (Although the abolitionists and the slave-owners hold greatest claim on each trait, respectively.) But war itself is evil, or ugly, and it's dangerous to forget that. It's dangerous, while we're honoring those who deserve it on Memorial Day, to mistakenly ennoble war itself, and forget what war does to human beings – to its victims, its participants, and its perpetrators.

Wikileaks released this video in April 2010. You may have already seen it; if not, be warned that it's graphic. The incident took place in 2007 in Iraq. Even if we posit that the vast majority of those who serve in the Armed Forces for the United States are honorable, things like this happen:

There was much discussion of this at the time it was released, but perhaps the most sobering aspect is how common such killings are in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever good the American military has done, it has unquestionably killed many innocent civilians. The number of those killings have outpaced any good will we ever earned. The most charitable interpretation of this video is that these warriors were once decent human beings, but became desensitized to violence over time, or saw so many of their comrades killed over time they became willing to kill at the slightest perceived risk or provocation.

Last month, Wikileaks released some Guantánamo records, confirming that many prisoners were held for years despite being innocent or being held on the flimsiest of charges. Back in 2006, three inmates at Guantánamo committed suicide. One was set to be released, but didn't know this. The suicides drew this response (emphasis added):

Meanwhile, a top US official appeared to row back from the tough line taken by other officials over the suicides.

At the weekend, one top state department official called them a "good PR move to draw attention", while the camp commander said it was an "act of asymmetric warfare waged against us".

"I wouldn't characterise this as a good PR move," Cully Stimson, US deputy assistance secretary of defence, told the BBC's Today programme, on Monday.

"What I would say is that we are always concerned when someone takes his own life, because as Americans we value life even if it is the life of a violent terrorist captured waging war against our country."

The most charitable interpretation is that the first two quoted officials were once decent men, but their response to the chronic abuses at Guantánamo was to further dehumanize the prisoners, imagining them to be devious masterminds, such that an act of deep human despair became a personal insult and an attack on America. In normal circumstances, they would have investigated and stopped the regime of torture, abuse, and indefinite imprisonment without charges, rather than resort to Orwellian language about suicide being a "PR move" and "asymmetric warfare." They would have worked to alleviate rather than excuse human suffering.

Lastly, drawing from a February 2011 Washington Post article entitled, "Petraeus's comments on coalition attack reportedly offend Karzai government ", there's Jonathan Schwarz' post, How to Burn Children and Live with Yourself" (emphasis his):

KABUL - To the shock of President Hamid Karzai's aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday...that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting...

Karzai's office placed the civilian death toll at 50....

Wahidi, the provincial governor, sent a three-person fact-finding team up the valley to the village of Helgal. They returned with seven injured people, including a woman and a man, both 22 years old, and five boys and girls 16 or younger [with] burns and shrapnel wounds...

"[Petraeus] claimed that in the midst of the [operation] some pro-Taliban parents in contact with a government official decided to create a civilian casualty claim to pressure international forces to cease the [operation]. They burned hands and legs of some of their children and sent them to the hospital," a second participant said...

(The entire short post is well worth reading.)

The most charitable interpretation is that David Petraeus was (or is) a decent man, but in the heat of the moment, angry at his perceived foes, he dehumanized them and imagined them so vile that they would willingly – nay, gleefully – burn their own children to make him, and America – look bad.

There is no question that there are genuinely honorable people serving in the military, and they deserve to be remembered. There is also no question that war is hell, and that even in wars fought for the noblest causes, or planned with best intentions, innocents will die. In unnecessary wars, or unnecessarily-prolonged wars, that's all more starkly the case – or perhaps there's just less pretense. As Americans, there's much we can take pride in, but I feel Memorial Day should have more the feeling of a funeral than a celebration. It's a day to note human folly, and the narcissism of imperialism and hatred. It's a day to remember that, especially in war, our own countrymen are capable of saying and doing truly evil, despicable things – and doing so in our name. It's a day to remember the danger of believing in asymmetric humanity – the lie that other humans are truly lesser beings, and do not value life or love their children. Most of all, it's a day to remember that we don't have to repeat the same terrible mistakes over and over and over again.

(See also "Fuck War" by Atrios [via], plus Daniel Larison and Andrew Bacevich. This post is part of The War Series.)


fiver said...

Just a note on those three "suicides" at Guantanamo. From Scott Horton:

"According to the NCIS documents, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously."


Batocchio said...

That's a great point I forgot to mention, fiver, thanks. Scott Horton actually recently won the National Magazine Award for that story.

Tata said...

This post says everything I'd say if I could summon the strength anymore to write about war and the shame we overlook on the way to grilling hamburgers in our backyards.

I don't understand how people my age, who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War and televised body counts could be persuaded to visit this horror on our children and grandchildren. And yet, we have endless war. How can it be?

Batocchio said...

Tata, I wonder the same thing, especially since, as you note, most of the people who presented a fraudulent case to sell the Iraq War lived through the Vietnam War and should know better. Of course, most of them didn't serve in that war, and perhaps didn't know anyone who died in it. It's a severe moral failing. And of course, there can be very good money and political power to be had by war-mongering, although that shouldn't be the case.