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Saturday, February 05, 2005

When It's Fun to Shoot People

"Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling. You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

Those were the words of Lt. Gen. James Mattis, a Marine general in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How does one begin to understand those statements? If James down-the-street were making those statements, I’d think he was crazy. But this is a Marine general. Does that make a difference?

On the one hand, I know a tad bit about how the military works. It’s not tame stuff. So I can understand how someone who has trained to kill might think that way. On the other hand, I’ve read about soldiers who return from war disillusioned, scarred and traumatized. They suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have nightmares about the people they’ve killed and the friends they’ve seen die. Many soldiers come away with their goodness intact. They’re able to withstand the indoctrination without having it impact their sense of right and wrong. These are the ones who suffer upon return as they reflect on the gruesomeness that is war.

So how does one begin to understand those statements? I can think of three possibilities. The first is that the general’s just plain sick to make those statements. Ordinary people are not born with a tendency to kill. They find it abhorrent; they do not take pleasure in killing others. So perhaps this guy has lost his conscience. The second is that he was making those statements in jest, not intending for them to be taken seriously. Perhaps he’s trying to cope by denying his feelings of remorse and guilt for his actions. Even so, I think those are some very insensitive statements to be making!

The third is that he has been deluded and brainwashed into simplistic thinking. He’s been trained to blot out from his conscience the implications of killing other human beings. In essence he’s become dehumanized, his natural inhibitions shredded away. Everyone in the military goes through this process. They learn to objectify and depersonalize the enemy until they can convince themselves that they are the good boys, the enemy the bad. And I am not blaming them for doing this. It is the group mentality that reinforces these ideas. It is the institutionalization of the military and the intensive training that recruits undergo that mould them into killing machines.

I’d like to believe that the general’s statements stem from the first or second possibility. Perhaps he’s just the anomaly we can all dismiss. And yet it is ironic that we indoctrinate and train people to be killing machines so that they can fight this war against evil. My moral sense tells me that if war is to be fought, it must be done with a grim sense of duty. There is nothing glorious or even glamorous about war.

But I’m not sure it is possible to mobilize so many people to fight for an ambiguous cause. The threat has to seem great, the evil on the other side “clear and present”. And so we act as if those who go off to war are participating in a noble action to stamp out the Great Evil.

It is a tremendous sacrifice - tremendous because we as a society lose something precious in that process. By trivializing death and human suffering, we lose our morality. And when statements like the one from the commander seep into the living rooms of human beings, his ideas become normalized in the our minds. Those of us who have the luxury of sitting out this war of terror should ask ourselves whether it is worth it to risk losing our dignity - our humanity - in the heat of war.

And we must not lose sight of the fact that statements like the one Mattis voiced, and the thoughts that are reflected in them, are never justifiable. Perhaps we can excuse it from a Marine general. But those of us who no longer live in a “state of war” must recognize that things are never so black and white. War is so much more complicated than that.


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