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Apr. 8 2010 - 7:04 am | 6,830 views | 2 recommendations | 16 comments

The Good (Psychopathic) Soldier

Cover of "The Psychopath: Emotion and the...

Cover of The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain

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


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  1. collapse expand

    More on Our Honorable Soldiers, via Truthout:

    [Jason] Washburn [a corporal in the US Marines who served three tours in Iraq] testified on a panel that discussed the rules of engagement (ROE) in Iraq, and how lax they were, to the point of being virtually nonexistent.
    “During the course of my three tours, the rules of engagement changed a lot,” Washburn’s testimony continued, “The higher the threat the more viciously we were permitted and expected to respond. Something else we were encouraged to do, almost with a wink and nudge, was to carry ‘drop weapons’, or by my third tour, ‘drop shovels’. We would carry these weapons or shovels with us because if we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent.”

    Jason Wayne Lemue is a Marine who served three tours in Iraq: “By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the officers would take care of us.”

    As Charles Davis notes:

    yes, let us condemn the emperors first, but let us not forget that the we-were-just-following-orders defense has a rather sullied history and was rejected at Nuremberg for good reason. While most soldiers are probably good people who love their children — not unlike their commander-in-chief — they are willing participants in an immoral, vicious endeavor; let’s not pretend otherwise.

  2. collapse expand

    “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people he didn’t exist.”

    I was never a big fan of that line but it works so well in the folowing context: Cronkite, pictures of babies on fire and dead soldiers ended the war in Vietnam. Much in the same way that print and broadcast media ended the Nixon regime.

    Guys like Cheney, and to a lesser extent Karl Rove, decided that could never happen again. They’re idea was to get most of the really nasty shit done in the name of god and country off the books. I mean shit- you can’t blame the armed forces for the isolated horrors committed by the blackwater mercs. Outourcing critical government function also gave us the millions of missing Bush admin emails, (oddly enough the IT guy that designed the system died in a bizarre plane crash,)imbedded reporters and an outright ban on any imagery not specifically designed to win support for the occupations.

    As a result those images, tapes and articles are now framed as threats or inconvenience rather than evidence.

    for instance: http://trueslant.com/susannahbreslin/2010/04/07/an-appetite-for-snuff/

    • collapse expand

      True. Wars end only when the public’s conscience has been raised, which only happens when they can see the truth. Shield them from the truth, and they’ll happily live in a fantasy (the bloodless war) forever.

      Hiring a small, professional army and private mercenaries to do the dirty work ensures that a fraction of the populations bears all the burden of the conflict. As a result, the war can go on forever. Unless, of course, the empire runs out of money or the citizenry rebels.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    A few months, ago a young cousin of mine enlisted in the army. Since then I’ve been becoming less and less comfortable with the support the troops meme. Our media class, even those who are against the war, bark out at the slightest provocation, “The soldiers are honorable and brave. We support the troops.”

    My cousin is not a monster. I’m sure he would not volunteer to do something that he considered wrong. His mother didn’t support his decision, nor, to my knowledge, did much of the family. I can’t say for sure that the media influenced his decision, but he got the message that joining the army was an honorable thing to do from somewhere.

    Why do those in the media encourage our children to aspire to be soldiers? I believe it is because when you’re sitting in an air-conditioned office in Manhattan being called names like liberal and anti-American seems like a terrible fate.

    Secondly, there’s another level of dehumanization that’s at play here. It’s gone on much longer than our dehumanization of Iraqis – our dehumanization of the American working class. Unlike my cousin, I grew up with a tad more money, went to college and now live in Manhattan. I’ve spent plenty of time in those air-conditioned offices and I know how the working class is derided and mocked, how casually their occupants toss off words like “low class” and “trailer trash.”

    Trash. Garbage. Worthless things. If we didn’t see the working class in this country as expendable, would we be so easy about turning them into psychopaths and destroying their lives.

    • collapse expand

      You make several great points here. I’ll try to hit all of them:

      1. “Supporting the troops meme”. Many conflate the notion of supporting the troops with supporting the government’s agenda. In theory, the soldier is a very honorable figure. They put themself at risk for bodily harm in order to defend us and the nation.

      But that’s assuming the soldier serves in a defensive role, which in the instance of a US soldier, is almost never the case. The US army actively bombs, maims, and destroys societies with no hope of defending themselves. Soldiers do these terrible things because the government tells them to.

      Occasionally, soldiers resist. For example, groups like IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against The War) form. These soldiers have massive support within the anti-war community, not because anti-war activists hate America and hate the troops, but because IVAW vets acknowledge the government’s agenda is corrupt, they have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, and they know this means they must resist an illegal war and occupation.

      I’m sure your cousin is a good person. I hesitate to write this (feels a bit like “some of my best friends are black!”) but my best friend is a Marine. She’s a great person, a wonderful mom, and one of the most important people in my life. However, because I support her does not mean I then — by extension — have to unquestioningly support a government that wants to send her into harm’s way in order to terrorize poor people.

      2. The media’s soldier worship.

      Let’s remember that most of these media figures never serve in the armed forces themselves, so they’re living vicariously through soldiers. Armchair generals are the first people to cry that it’s time for war, but they would never serve themselves (nor dream of sending their precious children to die in some godforsaken desert).

      But “manly men” (and “good, loyal women”) love war. They like to flex their muscle, so the easy response in the face of conflict is “bomb ‘em.”

      That’s the first layer. The second layer is what you already state: nobody wants to be called a pussy liberal with all their gross “peace” and “love”. Blegh!

      The third layer is much more nefarious. Many of the media outlets are owned by the companies that manufacture weapons used during armed conflict. One example: NBC and MSNBC are owned by GE, which builds fighters, helicopters, nuclear weapons, and unmanned aircrafts. When your business is war, the incentive for peace is almost nonexistent, and the media underlings are unlikely to harbor the desire to ruffle the boss’s feathers by adopting an anti-war platform.

      3. Dehumanizing the poor.

      What a great point. America has a small, professional army, who also happen to be overwhelmingly poor. In a warped way (and I’m not saying this is a conscious effort), war actually functions on two levels: 1) As its meant to function: the US fighting whoever is the newest Foe Of The Month, and 2) Domestic population control. If only the poor die, the oligarchical plutocracy are permitted to function unscathed. Hell, they even prosper. An added perk is that there are less ookie poor people walking around, sucking up welfare.

      Again, not saying this is the purpose of war, but having an army that consists almost exclusively of poor people works out swell for the societal elite.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Dehumanization always seemed a self-defense mechanism to justify abhorrent behavior. What would happen to our society and economy if we started valuing “consumers”, “workers”, “taxpayers” (or labels of your choice) as actual human beings?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I was in the service (Navy) for eight years, and never reached the point where killing became something casual or even fun. It helped, of course, that I never had to do any killing. Serving during peacetime has that advantage. Of course, I had no way of knowing what the war/peace status would turn out to be for either of my enlistments.

    Had my ship been in war, it would have been doing ASW (anti-submarine warfare) duty for our battle group of ships, and I would have been looking at enemy radar and (God forbid) missile emissions. I could have played a significant role in sending a group of people or things to their destiny. Not sure how I would have felt about that. Probably relieved that it wasn’t OUR destiny.

    Not sure what my point is, except maybe that, if we’re going to blame allegedly Terminator-ized soldiers for their behavior, how about the more, um, civilized military members like me? By simply i.d.’ing the source of an electronic emission, I could have played a role in, say, ship-wide loss of life. And I’d have been doing my job.

  5. collapse expand

    Dehumanization of the enemy has been the cornerstone of all armed conflict. “When a soldier assumes the roll of vicious killing machine, they act as a psychopath, albeit a psychopath wrapped in the [country of your choice] flag.” We can point fingers at atrocities committed by the enemy in any number of wars, but we still act surprised that this is the natural result of warfare. Anyone who believes wars can be conducted without atrocities is sadly mistaken.

  6. collapse expand

    “I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” – William Tecumseh Sherman



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    I co-host Citizen Radio, the alternative political radio show. I am a contributing reporter to Huffington Post, Alternet.org, and The Nation.

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