When you can blithely kill something which is no threat to you, you'll
right in the U.S. military:
"I believe it [a shot of 1250 meters which killed an Iraqi resistance
fighter] is the longest confirmed kill in Iraq with a 7.62mm rifle,"
said Staff Sgt Gilliland, 28, who hunted squirrels in Double Springs, Alabama
from the age of five before progressing to deer - and then people.
Ace sniper Gilliland has killed between 55 and 65 Iraqis in less than five
months, but we're assured that "Every shot has to be measured against the
Rules of Engagement [ROE], positive identification and proportionality."
Right. Just like the invasion of Iraq. The fact that the observation post from
which Sgt Gilliland does his shooting has graffiti reading "Kill Them All"
kind of gives the game away.
The quote of the article belongs to Gilliland's commander:
With masterful understatement, Lt Col Robert Roggeman, the Task Force 2/69
commander, conceded: "The romantic in me is disappointed with the reception
we've received in Ramadi."
Years after undergoing it, I realized that one of the main purposes of
boot camp is to break down the recruit’s sense of him or her self –
whatever it may be – and to re-form him or her as one who will unquestioningly
obey orders and subsume his or her interests to that of what our drill instructors
called "the big green fighting machine."
The Desert They Call Peace
by Justine Nicholas
Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
These words of Tacitus came from the mouth of Calgacus, the Caledonian tribal
leader, just before he and his minions were vanquished by the Agricola-led Roman
armies in Mons Grapius (83 A.D./C.E.). Nearly two millennia later, they remain
perhaps the best summation of the essence of war and its outcomes.
"They made a desert and called it peace." If past conflagrations
teach us nothing else, it should be this: However noble some believe its ostensible
purpose to be, war can end only with destruction on one side, or both –
and perhaps even among people and lands that were supposed to be neutral. Furthermore,
the repercussions of the money, materiel and lives expended in the cause of
destroying a putative enemy deplete not only a nation's might and wealth, but
also the spirits of people on both sides.
I was reminded of this after reading Ira Katz’s editorial, "War
Remembrance," on this site. He proposes war memorials that do not glorify
slaughter and use abstract terms such as "honor" and "sacrifice,"
but instead show such things as "the poignant letter of a soldier to a
mother the day before he murders someone else’s mother."
His proposals are ones I can wholeheartedly endorse. I would also add another
component to the museums and other sites he envisions: re-enactments of actual
military training. Better yet, I would encourage more people to actually undergo
it themselves – without, of course, actually joining or being conscripted
into the Armed Forces.
Recalling my own military training nearly three decades later (That’s
as close as this lady will come to revealing her age! ;-) ), I realize that
it was designed to cause young people like me to put aside any sense of what
most of us would think of us morality and decency. It also, in many ways, defies
common sense. Yet, because it is done in isolation from anything else anyone
does in his or her life, it is easy for a culture to "compartmentalize"
or simply ignore it in much the same way that diners who are savoring medallions
of veal don’t think about the conditions under which calves are raised
One could say that it was intended to create a "desert" in our minds
and spirits which we could claim as a "victory" – or peace,
if you will – over our previously mundane and presumably undisciplined
First of all, my training, like that of other recruits, was conducted far from
the communities in which most of my "classmates" and I were born and
raised. In essence, we are quarantined for the duration. As any interrogator
or torturer knows, it’s a lot easier to render someone malleable if he
or she is kept away from whatever formed his or her previous identity.
For the first few weeks, there was no interruption in the training. When breaks
– "leaves" – were finally granted, they were not long
enough for many of us to return to, much less to spend any significant time
with, loved ones. And the bases in which training takes place – think
of Camp Lejeune or Fort Bragg – are in or next to towns in which the main
diversions are bars and massage, tattoo and porn parlors. Few parents or elders,
no matter how libertine they may be, would want their kids around such things.
Yet those same guardians think nothing of letting their charges join the military,
where it’s almost impossible not to be exposed to the very things that,
if they partook of them while at home, would lead to the arrest of these same
caretakers for endangering the welfare of a minor.
Years after undergoing it, I realized that one of the main purposes of boot
camp is to break down the recruit’s sense of him or her self – whatever
it may be – and to re-form him or her as one who will unquestioningly
obey orders and subsume his or her interests to that of what our drill instructors
called "the big green fighting machine." This is done, in part, by
having the newbie perform demeaning tasks and subjecting the enlistee to rigid
yet capricious discipline. The drill sergeant might make you "Drop and
give fifty!" or to clean a toilet bowl with your bare hands because he
has a hangover or got into an argument with his wife.
In retrospect, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of that attempted psychological
disassembly and reassembly occurred on the rifle range. Few, if any, of us in
my "class" had ever handled a weapon, much less shot at anybody, previously.
We started by learning how to disassemble and reassemble our M-16’s. While
this serves a practical purpose for anyone who should end up in a field of combat,
it also had another effect: What had been a fearsome weapon for many of us became
simply a tool for accomplishing a task.
Then, once we knew our "friends" inside and out, we took them to
the target range. At first, we shot at concentric circles that didn’t
look much different from the targets of many children’s toys and games.
It was just bigger.
However, over the weeks, the shapes of our targets gradually changed: from
round to oblong, and finally into something that resembled a person. As the
targets morphed, drill instructors give them names: In my day, "Igor"
and "Ivan" were common. (I’m sure today’s recruits shoot
at "Saddam" or "Muhammad.") Thus did the drill sergeant
accomplish something that even the most brilliant and demented psychiatrist
would have difficulty in achieving: He broke our resistance to killing other
people, yet managed to convince us that whom we were killing wasn’t really
I have talked with people who have toiled in the Armed Forces of this and other
nations, and some who are currently enlisted. (One was a student of mine this
semester and is going to Iraq during the first week of the New Year.) The details
may vary somewhat, but the overall scheme of military training is much the same
throughout the world and has been throughout history.
Most of us, whether or not we have any religious background, are taught "Thou
shalt not kill," or some dictum with the same meaning. Even with the increase
in gang membership and its resulting violence, it’s still pretty rare
for a child or a teenager to kill someone else, at least in countries that aren’t
in a state of war. Also, studies have shown that most people retain at least
some resistance to killing: Compare the number of people on Death Row in the
US to the number of people who are actually executed. (To me, that alone is
a good reason to abolish the death penalty.) And, of course, anyone who kills
– as Albert Camus so poignantly showed in L’etranger (The
Stranger) is not the same person he or she was before taking another life.
Yet we are explicitly or implicitly taught that the ending of another person’s
existence – creating a desert where something once flowered, so to speak
– is going to help bring about peace, which is usually defined as the
conflict ending in a "victory" for our side.
If the lesson of Tacitus’s words is not internalized, many more will
blindly go along with the brainwashing that occurs in military bases –
and through the lies and other distortions political leaders use to drum up
support for marching their young people to slaughter.
And as Katz pointed out, those young people may be or could become artists,
engineers, musicians or doctors. But they may never have the chance to put those
talents to use in ways that truly benefit themselves and others. Instead, he
– like the young man I taught this semester – will be sent to create
deserts that some leader can call peace.
January 2, 2006
Justine Nicholas [send
her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.