November 29, 2004
(Swans - November 29, 2004)
The fear that if and when the US forces leave Iraq the region will be
plunged into civil war is one that troubles the West as much as it
does the Middle East. But there is an even greater danger and it is one
that directly threatens America rather than Afghanistan or Iraq. It is
the psychic legacy that members of our armed forces will be bringing
back with them once the fighting is over.
We know from the aftermath of Vietnam that young, impressionable men and women just coming to maturity are powerfully conditioned by the violent and often traumatic conditions they encounter in foreign lands where aggression against the enemy is an inescapable concomitant of battle. The contemporary version of "shell shock," which disabled so many returning veterans after World War I, is a kind of moral amnesia which inescapably affects soldiers in battle zones. The prevailing rationale drummed into them is: "if we don't kill them, they will kill us." Young men barely in their twenties, whose roughest experiences have been college hazing or roughhouse on football fields, become desensitized in battle and develop an immunity to inhuman behavior. We say "war is Hell" because it unfolds in a framework which is progressively dehumanizing. It is 'Hell' because the moral criteria instilled in us since childhood are suspended. Republican antagonists of John Kerry were right in mocking his wish to conduct a more 'sensitive' war against terrorists. 'Sensitivity' is a virtue which military hostilities tend to corrode.
The incidents at Abu Ghraib are an object lesson. The fraternity that war engenders among troops inevitably create callous and amoral conditions which need not be officially handed down in order to become Standard Operating Procedures. The demonization of the enemy, be they Iraqi insurgents, European Jews or naturalized Japanese citizens herded into internment camps, creates its own momentum. The enemy that we are encouraged, indeed obliged, to kill is already susceptible to abuse because they have been branded "the enemy." Hatred of them is a prerequisite to destroying them. It is the natural climate of war, rather than the brutish instincts of a few enlisted men or officers, which stirs the hatred that persuades us that it is right and proper to commit atrocities in the name of democracy, freedom or self-defense. The young men and women who will eventually return to their jobs and families and the relative serenity of civilian life, will bring with them memories and mind sets which will have transformed them forever. Once you have survived desperate circumstances in hazardous enclaves like Fallujah and the Sunni Triangle, you can never again look at the Main Street of your home town with the same eyes. The extreme emotions that war inculcates in impressionable young people become a determining factor in the way returning soldiers deal with their civilian world; an amorality that war perpetuates in every generation unlucky enough to be swept up in its horrors. Can war be humanized? Can we all pledge allegiance to the edicts of The Geneva Conventions and the principle that non-combatants, innocent women and children, must be spared no matter what ravages one side wreaks upon the other?
If events in Bosnia, Chechnya, Israel, the Sudan and New York are anything to go by, no international legislation has yet been drafted that will protect the innocent. War is a juggernaut that rides roughshod over the niceties that politicians evolve to humanize it. Sound principles and lofty aims get swept away in the carnage. Imagine the men and women who inflicted humiliating abuses on Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo back in their home-towns, recounting their adventures to friends and family around a dinner table or at a local bar. Will their humanity have been restored? Will they be contrite and philosophic about their moral slippage? Or will their military experiences, hardened in some cases by their own punishment and humiliation, make them even more twisted and dangerous? Multiply them with the tens of thousands of young men who methodically go off to revenge themselves against the murder of their comrades. Are they discreet about the lives of the innocent civilians they may be annihilating, or driven by a bloodthirsty compulsion to "get even"? And if their mop-up operations lack a certain judiciousness, can we blame them? How would you feel if your best buddy was blown up beside you? Would that make you more empathetic to the enemy?
Soldiers cannot be inoculated against the psychic diseases they pick up in war time. The deepest battle scars are those invisible to the naked eye. The wounds may appear to be in remission but they fester quietly in the minds of men who have witnessed abuses or themselves committed atrocities. Like concealed landmines, they blow up unexpectedly in the midst of family disputes, late-night benders, pressured interpersonal relationships -- anywhere, anytime.
That is the strongest argument against war -- that even when the cause appears to be just, it pollutes the moral atmosphere of the countries in which it takes place. Does that mean that righteous wars should not be fought? Certainly not. When confronted by "a clear and present danger," a nation is morally obliged to go to war -- as we did in 1861 and in 1941. But to engage in a preemptive war without that "clear and present danger" endangers not only our foes but ourselves. Farther on down the line, the price we pay for victory may eradicate the fruits of any apparent victory we may achieve.
The Mid-East turmoil that may follow the withdrawal of American troops will be mirrored in more subtle turmoils that may affect us for the remainder of the 21st century. Our returning victorious soldiers may turn into our worst enemies.
There are "spoils of war" and human qualities which are forever "spoiled" by war. Can returning veterans again become citizens?
· · · · · ·
Iraq on Swans
Charles Marowitz is a writer whose work has appeared in The NY Village Voice, The New York Times, L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly, Sunday Telegraph (UK), London Times (UK), The Observer (UK), Sunday Times (UK), and many other newspapers and magazines. He has written over two dozen books, the most recent being The Other Chekhov, the first English-language biography of the actor-director and theorist, Michael Chekhov, published by Applause Books, NYC.
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