The Marines’ Massacre at Haditha
Murderers, and Casualties, of War
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, December 22, 2006
The dark side of any military: always faithful--to savagery
The prevailing atrocity of war, of course, can never be the individual acts of soldiers in the field, no matter how savage the acts, no matter how amoral the soldiers. The prevailing atrocity is in the nature of the soldiers’ training, in the unquestioning obedience to the chain of command, in the belonging to an organism maniacal in its single aim. It’s in the nature of military machinery designed to dehumanize the enemy to more easily sedate the soldier’s conscience as he goes about committing mass murder. It’s in the nature of ethical and semantic distortions going back to Hector and Achilles as the language and “rules” of war are invoked to justify mass murders, to create artificial boundaries between military and civilian targets that end up branding the massacre of half a village in an air raid as “collateral damage” but an identical massacre by foot soldiers a criminal act punishable by… death. It’s in the nature of wars that place young, immature, pimply men in the most savage situations they will ever face, and expect them, after al the training they’ve received to be savages — to kill in the most efficient, self-preserving, unit-preserving and unthinking way possible — to rise above the savagery. Rise as they may, there is always the overriding factor of war’s character, whether it is a “just” war or not (to note that other obtuse demarcation). “I see how peoples are set again set one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another,” Erich Maria Remarque’s hero says toward the end of All Quiet on the Western Front, words bridging the only truth from one pitiful war to another.
Iraq is a war began on false pretenses, waged on an overcurrent of revenge for 9/11, and prosecuted against an Arab race in whom Americans, led by a Southerner nostalgic for the Southern impulse to oppress, have found their new niggers. The expectation that soldiers would not savage Arabs with pent-up relish and pride, with a sense of national mission and a sense of deliriously Christian self-righteousness no different than the delirium that so energized so many slave-whippers of old, is itself beyond naïve. It is complicity in the crime, because the hypocrisy of those sudden pangs of principles is the same hypocrisy that drummed and shouted and “supported” those troops into battle despite the false pretenses, despite the lies, despite the utter disconnect between 9/11 and Iraq. But they were all Arabs. They were all the same. They were all worthy of American justice. It’s the same hypocrisy that judges a young man’s savagery while keeping a blind eye to the savage institution and the savage policies and the savage imperial presumptions that made that soldier an instrument of the savagery.
There is no question that the murder of innocent people, whether fighting-age men, women or children, is a culpable act in any circumstance. There is no question that the Haditha massacre is no different than cold-blooded killing. It was cold-blooded killing. But the Haditha massacre is barely a symbol of the war that produced it, and the Marines who committed the murders merely bit players in the comedy of duplicity in whose second act they will now be ordered to star, so the rest of us moralisers, the Marine Corps above all, can feel better about God, country and conscience. So the Marine Corps can cleanse itself of the inhuman stain that happens, in this rare case, to make a public appearance, but that happens to be what the Marine Corps (and the military, any military) is designed to inflict first, foremost and always. The Marine Corps, the nation’s elite killing machine where uniforms, ritual, mottos and Jack Nicholsonisms à-la-you-can’t-handle-the-truth do such a seductive job of obscuring the reality of what, in the end, is nothing more than a honed and polished bringer of savagery at its consummate best. The Marine Corps that is just now playing the atrocious comedy of seeming so righteous in the severity of the charges it is meting out. The Marine Corps that every day has its boots’ imprint on Iraqi doors and Iraqi necks, dishonoring the very words its stands for. Semper fidelis, yes, but to what? You can start with prettily uniformed savagery and make your way up the chain of command, all the way up to the man who so lovingly, lustily, stupidly calls himself the Commander in Chief.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remind, again and again—in the barbarism of soldiers torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, Kandahar and other prisons, in the murder of civilians, the blind and excusing eye of the military, the rank justifications of a nation of armchair bloodbathers back home—of the famous story Daniel Lang reported in The New Yorker in October 1969 that eventually became “Casualties of War,” the movie starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. Penn plays the role of Vorst, a platoon leader, Fox of Private First Class Sven Eriksson, a member of the platoon. The platoon goes off on a long patrol. Vorst orders the capture of a Vietnamese teenager so the platoon can enjoy enslaving and raping her along the way. Which the platoon does, with the exception of Eriksson. The girl is finally murdered. Eriksson reports the crime. The military tried repeatedly to warn him off the case. He persevered. The case was finally investigated. But the men, Vorst among them, got off, as they usually, always do. Isn’t William Calley, the ringleader of the My Lai massacre, selling jewelry somewhere in Georgia?
This is how Eriksson described the military mentality, the subservience, the institutional complicity to murder and savagery, to Daniel Lang: “‘They scare that discipline into you in basic training,’ Eriksson told me. ‘It’s obey the man over you, follow the chain of command, or into the stockade you go.’ Something that added to his feeling of frustration in those trying weeks was that he could not find it within himself to single out Vorst as the arch-villain, from whom all evil flowed. Eriksson said to me, ‘It only looked as though he was the one out to do everything in, but the C.O., I knew, had someone over him, and his superior had a superior. That was the thing about the chain of command—you couldn’t tellk who was to blame for what. It had nothing to do with a man being responsible for his own behavior. Just as long as he stayed in line, just as long as he kept the set-up going, he could do whatever he wanted.’”
And isn’t that what we’re being asked to do, as a nation, regarding not only Iraq but the whole farce known as the war on terror?
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