The Good (Psychopathic) Soldier
Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist, comes to the defense of soldiers featured in the WikiLeaks video. He convincingly argues that the behavior displayed by the soldiers is not an aberration, but rather the fruit of careful and deliberate training by the military to dehumanize them (and the enemy).
In the footage, which shows a gung-ho US helicopter attack that results in the death of 12 people, including two unarmed reporters, the soldiers are heard laughing jovially post-slaughter. “Look at those dead bastards,” one says. “Nice,” responds another.
Of course, seeing and hearing these atrocities made sheltered citizens balk. A vast majority of Americans don’t serve in the military, they haven’t been asked to sacrifice anything in order to decimate entire overseas societies, and they certainly don’t have to worry about the media violating their gentle sensibilities by showing them harsh images of what their tax dollars are being used for, though they will receive a hefty dose of government propaganda. Thus, Americans were left gaping at the uncensored WikiLeaks video, thinking: How could those unfeeling monsters act so callously?
Well, for starters, the US military built them to be killing machines.
“You don’t want combat soldiers to be foolish or to jump the gun, but their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real,” says Moore.
Right. They have to dehumanize human beings. Soldiers must adopt an abnormal lack of empathy, and fill the vacuum with strongly amoral conduct. In other words, they must behave as psychopaths, unquestioningly mowing down human beings who cross their paths — even if those humans include reporters and children — as they did in the case of the WikiLeaks footage.
This is not to say soldiers are all bad people, or act immorally in their noncombatant, “normal” civilian lives. However, they are trained to kill indiscriminately on the battlefield. When a soldier assumes the roll of vicious killing machine, they act as a psychopath, albeit a psychopath wrapped in the American flag.
The WikiLeaks video is alarming, but unsurprising. This is what war looks like (if only one side having a real army can be called a “war”). It inevitably ends in tragedy, which is why going to war for no good reason — on a hunt for WMDs that don’t exist — was such an epically wasteful decision.
But no one wants to take responsibility for training and arming psychopaths. When confronted with the infamous photo of a Vietnamese girl running naked after being burned by napalm, Nixon said, “I wonder if that was a fix.” The truth — that it was not a fix from one of his vague, amorphous enemies, but rather a very real consequence of unleashing his army of psychopaths — short-circuited Nixon’s brain. The truth was too ugly to believe, so he rationalized his decision. It was a fix. End of story.
When the soldiers in WikiLeak’s video discover that children have been hurt during the carnage, a soldier remarks, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” Another responds, “That’s right.” They must legitimize the horror, or the guilt’s weight will destroy them.
The guilt and trauma are already destroying many soldiers. Between 2002 and 2008 alone, nearly 50,000 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars received diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder. Thousands will try to forget what they’ve done and seen by binging on drugs and alcohol. This is proof that human beings cannot be trained to perform as psychopaths without inflicting permanent damage (both on the oppressed and oppressor).
Natural born psychopaths don’t have to go through the taxing exercise of rationalizing (and later self-medicating to forget) their destructive behavior. They are narcissists who feel they have the right to do whatever they want. US military-styled psychopaths don’t have that luxury. They weren’t born monsters (if anyone is ever truly born a monster).
Combat training “is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being” writes Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Fear, and maybe compassion, are the only things stopping us from killing each other. The military knows how to fix those problems.
They came up with this thing called “Rules of engagement” which gives the killing a shiny coat of order, dignity, and legitimacy. But at its heart, war is always primal, it’s always ugly, and it can only be executed by psychopaths. The nature of the conflict demands nothing less. There is no place for love, compassion, and diplomacy on the killing fields.
Only now are civilian citizens beginning to understand the terrible realities of the current US military occupation. You could almost hear the jaws dropping as the news spread of Gen. McChrystal’s admission that the military has killed an “amazing number” of people in Afghanistan, but to his knowledge, “none has ever proven to be a threat“.
Yet more outrage spilled over when evidence emerged that the Pentagon — the Pentagon! — lied about a massacre in the Paktia province of Afghanistan during which US forces killed two males (both government officials) and three females (a pregnant mother of ten, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager). The official military story was that the women were already dead when US forces arrived, probably as a result of an “honor killing”. The men were shot dead when they exited the building to inquire about why armed soldiers were surrounding them.
As it turns out, the people inside the house were celebrating a new birth. In order to cover their tracks, “US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened.”
These are the real realities of war and occupation. An army that has been trained to behave as psychopaths steamrolls a nation, and this, Americans have been told, will bring peace and democracy to the Middle East.
South Park’s underwear gnomes come to mind.
Phase 1: Psychopathic Behavior As Foreign Policy Strategy Phase 2: ???? Phase 3: Peace