Monday, August 20, 2007

Combat veterans speak

This is a long piece and sometimes a depressing one, but one with which Americans really should come to terms. Chris Hedges ("War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning"), a combat reporter for two decades (mostly for the NY Times), along with some other Nation writers, interviewed 50 combat veterans -- people who were willing to give their names, ranks, and units in which they served, not anonymous types -- about their experiences in Iraq.

They confirmed that life is cheap over there, at least to the American soldiers. Sometimes when Iraqi civilians are killed soldiers go th the trouble of placing bombmaking materials or guns near the bodies to make it look as if they were insurgents, but often they don't bother such incidents are seldom investigated. Although sometimes such killings come after roadside bombings when the Americans are worked up or on edge, oaftentimes there's no real malice. They're put in a place where they really can't tell for sure who is a foe, where they've had the experience of innocent-looking people or even children opening fire on them. So it's hardly surprising that they would get a little trigger-happy. Not all of them. Only a minority commit true outrages, but there are plenty.

Whenever we write of such things in the Register, such as the ongoing Haditha trial, we get two kinds of reactions. One is complete denial that our military people could ever do such a thing as kill an innocent civilian. They are trained and they are our boys, and even to suggest that they could be anything less than perfect is to give aid and comfort to the enemy. The other is to say that whatever they do they had to do, and it is wrong and perhaps treasonous to want to hold them accountable in the way we might hold a domestic criminal accountable. They are not criminals by definition, becauwse they're just doing the job we sent them over there to do.

Sometimes the same letter will embody both ideas, though they seem logically imcompatible. Unfortunately, that support-right-or-wrong phenomenon is one of the inevitable outgrowths of a war of any duration. As the great conservative sociologist (yes, there have been such paradoxical creatures) Robert Nisbet wrote in his invaluable little book "The Present Age" in 1988:

"Wars, to be successfully fought, demand a reduction in the taboos regarding life, dignity, property, family, and religion; there must be nothing of merely moral nature left standing between the fighting forces and victory, not even or especially, taboos on sexual encounters. Wars have an individualizing effect upon their involved societies, a loosening of accustomed social bond in favor of a tightening of the military ethic. Military, or at least war-born, relationships among individuals tend to supersede relationships of family, parish and ordinary walks of life."

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