Long-Term Consequences of the Lessons of War
I don’t know what was going through Robert Bales’s mind in March, when he quietly picked up his rifle and went house to house shooting anyone he encountered. I have no idea how he arrived at the decision that this was an appropriate course of action. Perhaps it came suddenly. Perhaps he got some bad news from home, or learned he had lost yet another friend. Maybe it was gradual, the cumulative effect of violence pooling within him over time. Maybe what started as a trickle of anger during his first combat deployment grew into a torrent of rage by his fourth. But his action, which we call abhorrent, is visible to us only in its extremity. It is a manifestation, a symptom of the violence in which we have long been engaged.
War is a choice that we make, and killing is inherent to that choice. Teaching people to kill involves teaching them that the people they will be killing are not quite human. They are objectified. They are the enemy. They are targets. They are collateral. In the short-term pursuit of waging war, we blind ourselves to the long-term consequences of teaching these lessons.
We express shock and outrage when the bodies of dead enemy soldiers are photographed being urinated upon, or detainees are tortured at Abu Graib, or civilians are consciously targeted. These are described as isolated incidents committed by a mentally fragile soldier who snapped, or the unsupervised night shift, or the discipline problem. But these descriptions are attempts at rationalization, divorcing the events from their context.
For years we have been using phrases like “targeted strike” and “precision bombing” and “surgical operation” in an attempt to cleanse the morally repugnant act of destroying another human being of both its meaning and its repercussions. By adopting these terms, we embrace the illusion that violence is containable. Killing is seen not as inherently horrific, but as a policy choice. But teaching people to kill destroys not only the target, but the student.
Tragedies like the murdering of Afghani civilians, or the infamous torture at Abu Ghraib, or the execution of twenty five Iraqis in Haditha, shock us, but they only represent extreme versions of acts committed in the daily course of waging war.
I don’t know what was going through the mind of Robert Bales when he killed those seventeen people. He has been described by family and friends as a man of honor, a man who joined the military because he felt the need for something bigger in his mind, and his heart, and his soul. But again, he has become visible to us only in his extremity. One needs only look at the rates of divorce and alcoholism and drug use and suicide by veterans returning from combat deployments to see the more common effects American soldiers regularly suffer as a result of our decision to go to war.
Extreme acts are called atrocities and make headlines. But they shock us both because of what they are, and what they represent. Tragedies like these recent murders force us to acknowledge, if only momentarily, that the waging of war tends to destroy not only the enemy, but also ourselves.