Monday, September 26, 2005

The Warriors

The other day I saw (on a blog, from an e-mail? Don't remember now...) this article about a porn website on which our soldiers in Iraq exchange gory photos of mutilated Iraqi bodies for a free subscription to porn. War Pornography was published on a news website I was not familiar with, so I posted the link in the comments to a couple of good liberal blogs, asking for the verification of the story.

The next day, Nation published a shorter story on the same topic: The Porn of War, which prompted Billmon to write an excellent post, Heart of Darkness, in which he links this phenomenon to the big question: Should we pull the troops out:

"Some withdrawal advocates simply want to see American soldiers taken out of harm's way, and are indifferent to Iraq's future, which they believe was never our business to begin with. Others are trying to fit the war into an ideological template they've cherished since Vietnam, in which the U.S. is always the imperialist aggressor and the insurgents are always the people's champions. Still others don't want to admit that a neo-colonial occupation could ever be the better alternative (or the least worst one, anyway) even for a fragmented Third World nation on the brink of civil war. Most, I suspect, are simply trying to find a path out of the swamp, and are picking and choosing the arguments that look like they might get us there without too many more deaths on our conscience."
(And on the topic if we should pull the troops out of Irq, ask the experts: Juan Cole says so. While initially I was of the mind that perhaps we could stabilize the country etc., the way BushCo behaved there quickly made me switch to the idea that we need to get the hell out of there).

Please go and read the whole long Billmon's post - it is worth your time.

The comments on Total Information Awareness in response to the story were also very interesting. This exchange, in particular, put forward something I've been thinking about for a long time now:

"Bottom line = That's war guys.

It's been observed by many combat veterans that the American 18 year old, when trained, armed and placed in combat, is as barbaric and as brutally savage as any 18 year old that rode with Ghengis Khan's hordes.

The trading of pictures is just another form of trophies of war behavior. Again, standard stuff down through the eons.

Liberals like to deny this reality by citing works like one discussed here a while back wherein the author (himself not a combat vet) attempts to prove that most troops won't engage the enemy with aimed fire and that killing is traumatic to most, etc, etc.

Conservatives don't face up by 1) denying that it ever happened 2) relying on their security in knowing that we are the good guys so what ever....

Both camps are wrong. War is brutal and it brings out the worst in all who participate (though it can also bring out the best in those who participate as well, regardless of side).

And those [who] participate generally adapt to the environment by becoming modern day savages.

Good on them. They're human.

A curse on the flag wavers and politicians who want to sell us the idea that we are different and that war is noble.

I'll agree that war is hell, and humans (especially young males) can be brutal. In the proper circumstances, almost all of us could become so. I'm not concerned by the gore, nor even at the display of trophies. Like you said, avedis, normal combat stuff.

My concern is that this graphic violence is so well accepted, encouraged, even celebrated by what appears to be a larger and larger part of our military and even civilian populations. Tens of thousands look at this site every day, and has anyone in the government or the military said anything against it? A small point, but it sure looks to me like the Geneva Conventions are being violated. As Billmon wrote, at what point does the "brutality mentality" needed to win in Iraq spill over to here at home? It's the occupier/occupied variation of an old theme, Lincoln expressed it, that slavery enslaves not just the slaves, but the slaveholders as well.

This is one more straw to add to our occupier's burden. At what point does the load become just too much? Transport yourself back to 2002 and the runup to the invasion. Would you have said at that time that all the "compromises" to our self-image that we've since seen would have been acceptable, or even possible? Or is the slowness of the descent hiding just how far down we've gone?

CW, I share your concerns. We are losing even the veneer of civility.

But then I don't even know what that means.

I came from a sub-culture where people sit around the country club in the evening, having a few drinks, and discussing - with an odd glee and pride - how they were going to screw someone out of their money.

I mean, is that civilized? But that's how business has been done in America - at the higher levels - since day one.

Since the 1960's our culture has been becoming more crass. This is due, I suppose, in large part to the proliferation of mass media as a huge business enterprise and the need to appeal to the masses, who - and pardon the snob in me - are crass.

Shakespear said that, "Men love not to hear of the sins they love to commit."

But the masses find such sins entertaining and they lack the formal upbringing that teaches that such sins should be kept hushed.

So I think all of that is an influence in creating the conditions and circumstances that concern us.

Also, I see the US as undergoing a transformation of conscience that resembles that of Germany circa 1935.

We are allowing the dark forces of the psyche to take the lead. I don't know why. I'm not sure anyone does, but the rightwing has recognized this shift and is riding it.

This thing has a momentum and a life of its own. I'm afraid it will have to live out its natural life span before the pendulum swings the other way; which it will, eventually.

I only pray that the destruction wrought by this zeitgeist will be reparable.


Now, don't get me started on the "bad apples" theory, as the rot has already quickly spread to the whole barrel of apples.

I'd rather take a look at some unspoken assumptions underlying all of the rhetoric - both on the Left and on the Right. Those hidden assumptions are also taboo topics: the myth that US soldiers are wonderful guys and the myth that the USA is the greatest country in the world. The two are connected to each other, of course, by a myth of American superiority. We went to Iraq (and many other places before) because the Iraqis could not help themselves - they are kids and they need adult help. What a load of bull! Why do we think we are any better or smarter than Iraqis?

But, before I launch into my tirade, I'd like you to right-click ("open in new window") on these links and take your time reading those articles before coming back here. It is worth your while, believe me:

Yugoslavia Sojourn

In the articles above, Michael Parenti describes, with sharp accuracy, what happened in Yugoslavia, and how this links to Iraq (Noam Chomsky, in his book "The New Military Humanism" explicitely explains how the intervention in the Balkans made attack on Iraq possible). I have some qualms with his description of Yugoslav economic system (he is a socialist, after all, so he has his axe to grind) as he ignores the economic reforms of 1990 - arguably the best year in the 1000-year history of the country, as well as the story of how the regional leaders (Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic) worked hard to undermine the reforms and thus undermine the authority of the federal government led by then Prime Minister Ante Markovic.

Also, I do not agree about his rosy descriptions of Milosevic. A very good friend of mine is a family friend of Milosevic, so I have it on good faith that he is actually quite a nice guy in person. But, even Molly Ivins admits that Bush is a nice guy in person. I have written before that the two are very similar to each other: each is way over his head, surrounded by yes-men and propped by some very shady characters. With these two caveats taken into account, Parenti's analysis is spot on.

The take-home message from Parenti's articles is the neccessity of every US Administration (Dem or Rep) to defend the myth that US-style political system - and even more importantly the US-style economic system (the winner-take-all "free-market" capitalism) - is the only viable system. Every country that pursues a different model and succeeds has to be demonized, then destroyed. Recent examples: Yugoslavia, Cuba, Iraq and - watch-out tin-foil-hatters - Venezuela.

The goals of US foreign policy are a) to open up rich markets for US megacompanies, b) to eliminate any examples of successful alternatives, and c) to keep Americans from revolting against the economic system that is designed to make rich richer and poor poorer. Attack on Yugoslavia served all three purposes. Attack on Iraq does the same. Afghanistan was done quickly and half-ass-edly because it did not do anything to further any of the three goals - it is just something that the US populace expected to be done in response to 9/11, so it was "done". North Korea is a disaster - a great example of an alternative system NOT working well - so attacking it would serve none of the three goals, either. That's why we are not attacking North Korea and never will.

The Myth of the Wonderful American Soldier

First of all - I do not want anyone to die. I don't want anyone to get killed in any war. Not even the worst of the worst scum on Earth deserves to be killed - life in prison is just fine. And yes, I support the troups by asking for full and immediate withdrawal from Iraq. But this is because they are fellow human beings, not because I think they are wonderful human beings.

I am speaking statistics here, but most of the soldiers are 18-year olds, from poor families, from poor little towns, from poor Red states. A person who is curious, open-minded and hungry for knowledge does not apply to join the military - he is more likely to apply to graduate school. A person who wants to help other people and make a difference in the world will not join the military - he is more likely to join the Peace Corps, get a job with Red Cross, volunteer at a local shelter, and get politically active. Joining the army is the last-ditch effort to escape poverty and misery of dying little towns and villages of America.

A regular soldier grew up in a little village, surrounded by neighborly bickering and gossip, getting zero education from the atrocious local public school, getting indoctrinated into quasi-Christianity in the local Baptist church, enjoying a good fist-fight every now and then, followed by a can of Miller Light, some dope, some greasy food and some porn. He is ready to join the military because he truly believes that soldiering is something heroic. He is more than happy to join an organization which, unlike the chaos of his home, is based on order, hierarchy, discipline and obedience. He does not need to drink Kool-Aid for political indoctrination - he, like Obelix, fell into a cauldron full of Kool-Aid when he was a baby and is thus irrevocably indoctrinated for life.

After growing up blowing up frogs, hanging cats and having sex with farm animals, slaughtering humans is no big deal. The darkies are animals, after all.

Now, not all soldiers are like this. But the smart guys tend to be seggregated. They rise through the ranks quickly and go to war when they are 28 years old, not 18. They do intelligence, or fly fighter jets, or play with fancy electronics back at the HQ. They are rare animals and too valuable to waste as cannon-fodder on the front lines of the battlefield. That is where the 18-year-olds go. And that is where they are all placed together to play-off of each other's insecurities and build each other's egos.

While commenters on LGF or Free Republic try to one-up each other who can slander the 'evil libruls' better, the soldiers have an entirely different game to play. Words are not enough. They have rifles and are supposed to use them. Machismo in-words-only is not enough. The "real men" prove themselves to their buddies by being as ruthless and merciless in their killing as possible. There's a reason why they post their pictures on the porn site, or why they posed for pictures at Abu-Ghraib - it builds their self-esteem and covers up for their fear and insecurity.

Also, don't forget the Stanford Prison Experiment. Even the nicest of the nicest are capable of atrocious cruelty. Yet, the young men and women on the battlefronts are even less socially conscious and are developmentally primed for such behavior to begin with. Also, don't forget how much trouble the veterans of previous wars had to get integrated back into the civilian society. You start out as half-animal, you go to war and become a complete animal, then are expected to come back and be a human again? That's tough even for the educated and sophisticated. Can you imagine how hard it is for those boys and girls fighting in Iraq right now?

I don't want to leave you with an impression that I am looking down my elitist nose (and I have a very big nose!) at these people. I do not think they are stupid. I see them as victims. They are growing up in a cruel society in which, due to poverty, religion, miseducation and bad childrearing practices, they remain emotionally and intellectually stunted. They grow up to be cruel, and work hard to perpetuate the cruel society. While some of them express their cruelty verbally (on Wingnut blogs, for instance), and very few express it financially, many have no choice but to express it physically - by joining the military and ending up in crelty competitions with their colleagues. I want to see a society in which all of the young people can grow up to fulfill their fullest potential - emotionally and intellectually. In such a society, the military would be a very different kind of organisation, too. It would be reformed from within, capitalizing on smarts instead of cruelty of the soldiers.

The Myth of the American Superiority

After the last November's elections, almost a year ago, I wrote a very long post about the Big Picture that the election results unveiled. I hope you'll go and read it (again). For the purposes of this post, however, let me just quote a tiny little bit out ot it that I think is relevant:

"Within months, perhaps a couple of years, we will not be:

#1 Military superpower. The world has now seen the limits of our military. We will be stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, beaten by Iraqi partisans a little bit every day. Troops will be more and more doubting and demoralized (as they were in Vietnam towards the end). New conscripts will be there not because they thought enlisting was honorable, or because they hold a naive belief that a stint in the army "turns a boy into man", but due to economic conscription. Removal of Pell Grants and a horrible job situation leave the military as the ONLY option for many young people. The obvious impotence of our military will allow others to thumb their noses at us and go unpunished because we cannot do anything about it (perhaps the Serbs will reclaim "spite" by kicking out the Americans out of Kosovo now that they can see it is a tiger with no teeth). New alliances will be forged, the Russo-Chinese one being the most dangerous. We will not be considered the "only remaining superpower" any more. What is that going to do to our collective ego?

#1 Economic superpower. New Depression, world-record deficit, tanking of the dollar, sale of Federal IOUs by East-Asian countries, switch to Euro as an official currency of international trade, and formation of the European Market which is already bigger and richer than American, will together dethrone the USA from the Number One spot in economy of the World. Read the new books by Reid and Rifkin about the New Europe. They (and Japan and China) will dictate to us from now on, and not the reverse. What is that going to do to our collective ego?

#1 Technological superpower. What happened to the American ingenuity? The USA is slipping fast in its ranking in science and in technological innovation. We have been boasting of our "knowledge-based" economy, but soon we will not be Number One in this area any more, and the agriculture and manufacture are gone already. What are we going to do? Tourism? Who's gonna come? There will be nothing to offer the world that the world cannot invent, produce, and sell cheaper by themselves. What is that going to do to our collective ego?

#1 Moral superpower. That is already gone. An incipient totalitarian theocracy that acts like a bully abroad holds no moral sway over anyone. It will just take some time for the news to arrive to the Red states. We are the last to learn that we are now considered to be a Third-World country. What is that going to do to our collective ego?

Buckle up! The Bushies are about to destroy the core meaning of what it is to be an American. The "City on the Hill" will be gone. The "shining beacon of freedom" will be gone. The "greatest democracy in the world" will be a laughingstock. It is going to hurt."
I think I was right. In all four domains, we have sunk even lower.

Can you point out a single war that US waged on its own and it actually won (or not made up an excuse to leave before the "job is done") on a country larger than San Marino?

In WWI we sent, too late, our boys to die, with no arms and ammunition, in the French trenches.

In WWII, we were again too late, then spent our time in tangential theaters (Pacific and Africa), then, once the Europeans and Russian liberated themselves, paraded into Europe and proclaimed ourselves "liberators".

We had to leave Korea. We had to leave Vietnam. We had to leave Somalia. We had to leave Serbia. We had to leave Iraq - now twice. Taliban is recuperating in Afghanistan. Osama is nowhere to be found. Haiti is in disrepair. When was the last time we went somewhere, won the war decisively, and left the country in better shape than it was before our attack? So, where does the myth of our military superiority come from? From the A-bomb, of course.

The only reason why the rest of the world still respects us is our nuclear arsenal. Our bombs are the only reason why we have not been kicked out of the UN yet, ostracized by the world, under economic sanctions, and our military bases kicked out of various countries around the world.00

Our A-bombs are the last and only thing for which the world respects us right now. It is not our science - we have creationists running the show. It is not our economy - foreigners pay for every cent our government uses for any purpose. It is not our conventional military - too poor of a track record there. And it is certainly not for our moral stance. They don't hate us for our freedoms. They pity us for being so ready to relinquish those freedoms just because a dozen bearded wackos managed to kill some of us in NYC and Pentagon. They shake their heads at the hysterical fear of so many of us that takes its outlets on whichever "other" is available: Iraqis, gays, women, blacks, poor, liberals, atheists, Moslems.

This summer I went to Wilmington, NC to a wedding. Wilmington is a heavily Republican area. During five days there, the only Kerry/Edwards sticker I saw was on my car, and even that one went missing one night. Before the wedding I went to a local place to get a haircut. The lady, about 40-ish I'd say, was talkative. I kept saying uncommital stuff just to egg her on, to hear the whole story.

She was talking about "them". Those "them" apparently was a grab-bag category that included Osama Bin-Laden, Iraqis, Moslems, terrorists of all kinds, and foreigners of all kinds. She was deathly afraid of all of "them".

It never crossed her mind that all those people don't have much to do with each other, or that most of them are kinda nice if you get to meet them. It never crossed her mind that no terrorist is going to waste the time, money and lives to hit Wilmington, NC. It never crossed her mind that 9/11 was a freak accident - one time when the bunch of wackos managed to do something successfully for their terrorist aims. It never crossed her mind that Al Qaida is not some huge monolithic organization, but just a bunch of morons collecting porn on their old computers and always scheming something but rarely ever trying to actually put their schemes to work. When they do, they are successful because our defenses are pathetic, not because they are geniuses.

Yet, in the end, she said this [paraphrase]: "You know, some people say that perhaps we here, in America, don't have the most equal of societies, you know, towards women and gays and such. But you know, I'd never go live anywhere else. Who cares about your rights if you are not safe. I'd rather give up on some of those rights than get killed by terrorists."

Whoa! She is willing to wear a jumper in order to be safe, and she'll be safe if she votes Republican, because Republicans are known to be good at security against the phantom menace she believes in. How many things so wrong can one pack into so little talk?

Yes, we still think of ourselves as somehow superior to the rest of the world. Every foreign intervention is (officially) based on the premise that we need to help because the locals are unable to help themselves - how arrogant!

But this is a core value of the conservative moral order. They do not see the difference between patriotism and nationalism. The American superiority is the in-group snootiness - the essential emotional state of a conservative. So, why do the liberals buy into it all the time?

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