The United States is the most warlike nation on earth and has been for a very long time. It would take too much space simply to enumerate all of the places where the United States is involved today in wars of one kind or another. Not only are U.S. troops actively fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our government has military bases in every part of the globe and CIA and other undercover agents in every country imaginable. Yet to hear our leaders and media pundits tell it, we are a peace-loving country. We are drawn into wars with great reluctance and only because of the bad behavior of others. We are good, and these others are bad, some so bad that they are the incarnation of evil, and it is our duty as the greatest place on earth to rid the world of this depravity. We have military outposts and soldiers in foreign countries only to ensure global security and safety.
When the United States goes to war, then, our soldiers are the embodiment of our virtue, knights in shining armor sent forth to do good deeds. Newscasters never tire of celebrating and thanking our “heroes,” those brave men and women who are sacrificing—and sometimes making the “ultimate sacrifice”—so that the rest of us can remain free.
Neither the notion that the United States is a “peace-loving country” nor the image of our soldiers as “embodiments of our virtue” can stand up to a close look. The facts of U.S. war making and the unsavory motives behind it are easy enough to find. Just read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for most of the details. Here I want to talk about the troops. Ever since the United States invaded Iraq, we have been admonished by nearly everyone to “support the troops.” Even those opposed to the war use this slogan. When we lived in Estes Park, Colorado, we went to a meeting of a local organization called “Patriots for Peace.” They were opposed to the war but said that we had to “support the troops.” In the discussion that followed the meeting, we discerned an unwillingness by most of the participants to ever say anything negative about U.S. soldiers.
If we say that we support the troops, doesn’t this mean that we also support what the troops are doing? If not, then it must mean that we are somehow able to divorce the soldiers as persons from their actions. I don’t see how this is possible. A person cannot be separated from his or her actions. “Actions speak louder than words.” “By their fruits ye shall know them.” These are cliches, but they are true. There is no other way to judge the troops that to judge their actions.
Every year, in honor of my late father, who was indelibly shaped by his experiences in the Second World War, I read a book or two about war. This year I read The Deserter’s Tale by Joshua Key. Key grew up poor in a small Oklahoma town, without a father and with a string of violent stepfathers. He learned how to shoot and hunt at a very early age, and he was adept at fighting and fixing things. Army recruiters found their way to the family trailer when he was in high school, but he didn’t join the army until he was in his early twenties. By then he was married with two children and another coming soon. He and his wife couldn’t make enough money to get by, no matter what jobs they took or how many time they moved in search of something better. Their debts began to pile up, mounting to near the breaking point after four trips to the hospital for a kidney stone. In desperation, he and his wife began to think about the military as a way out of their financial mess. The Marines turned him down because he had too many kids and too much debt. The army recruiter, however, saw a warm body who would help him meet his recruiting quota. He told Key how to answer the questions he asked and took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to facts such as Key’s pregnant wife, his two herniated discs, his arrest for hitting a policeman, and his mounting debts. When Key said adamantly that he didn’t want to be separated from his family, the recruiter promised Key that he would get the training he wanted and spend his tour of duty building bridges in the United States, where he would be assigned to a “nondeployable base.” Key duly enlisted and soon found out that everything the recruiter told him was a lie. Not long after basic and then specialized training, he was sent to Iraq. He had been taught to make and defuse bombs and mines.
Key’s description of his training accords with many other accounts I have read and heard. A revolution in training recruits occurred after the Second World War. During that war, researchers discovered that a high percentage of soldiers failed to fire their weapons in combat. As a consequence of this finding, the U.S. military revamped the ways that soldiers are trained. Most people recoil at the thought of killing someone. Yet war is nothing more than organized killing. Other things equal, wars are won by the soldiers who are the best and most prolific killers. Therefore, soldiers have to be trained to be willing to kill and to be good at doing it. How is this done? There are many techniques. One way to get people to do bad things is to do bad things to them. Sergeants relentlessly harass and intimidate recruits, mentally and physically abusing them. Those who cannot take this are ruthlessly weeded out or subjected to particularly vicious treatment. The idea is to strip away the old personas of the young men and women and create new ones, fit for the killing fields. Contact with the outside world is prohibited, and a new world is presented to them as their only reality. In this new world, only blind obedience to authority is acceptable. The drill instructors are gods, and swift punishment awaits anyone who disobeys.
Next to obedience, group loyalty is stressed above all else. Combat groups are relatively small, and daily and extremely close personal contact, combined with extraordinary danger, fashion an environment that makes it likely that one person will sacrifice for another. No one will want to let the group down. Soldiers might not want to die for some abstract or even patently unbelievable cause, but they will die for one another. Group allegiance is encouraged by the claustrophobic conditions of boot camp. The sergeants craftily build loyalty by punishing the entire group if one person disobeys orders or falls behind in a drill. He will take a few “good” recruits aside and tell them to beat up a particularly habitual laggard. This makes the chosen ones feel special and tells the rest what happens when you let the group down. Key tells us:
There is one other thing I was taught at Fort Leonard Wood that chipped away at my soul and made it that much easier, a year or so later, for me to accept and take part in the violence that my fellow soldiers dished out to civilians in Iraq.
Twice during my time at boot camp, a drill sergeant by the name of Johnson made me get up from my bed in the middle of the night, collect one or two aides, and beat up recruits who were falling behind in their duties or failing to comply with orders.
Sergeants, I was told, were not allowed to beat up trainees. So they used me to do their dirty work, and I, stupidly, felt honored to do exactly as they said.
The enemy must be seen as deserving to die. It is hard to kill those who are like us, so the enemy must be as radically different, so unlike us that we can think of our adversaries as not quite human.
Key is taught that Muslims deserve to die. Every day, the soldiers practice stabbing dummies (constant, and increasingly realistic, simulated killing helps to prepare soldiers for the real thing and also blurs the difference between the two), egged on by their commanders. “Kill, kill, kill the sand niggers.” Key and the other privates shout too, while the sergeants mingle among them to make sure everyone is screaming. “One shot, one kill, one Arab, one Asian.” No distinction is made between Iraqi insurgents and civilians. All Iraqis are terrorists, not even human. They were “ragheads,” habibs,” “sand niggers.” Key says, “No wonder my wife and I both thought, by the time I flew overseas to war, that all Muslims were terrorists and all terrorists were Muslims and that the only solution was to kill as many Iraqis as possible.”
By the time the training is over, the new soldiers have come to feel special, a breed apart, ready to do battle with evil. Many have internalized their superiors’ instructions to rank the army first, God second, and family third.
It is remarkable that anyone would think that young men and women trained in this way would all of a sudden act like boy scouts when they got to the war zones. It would be much the same as expecting boys who went into a Catholic seminary when they were twelve and then were indoctrinated day and night for many years to come out as free-thinking and tolerant priests. Add into the mix the facts that sociopaths and psychopaths are going to be attracted to the military, the Army now actively recruits criminals, and reservists not infrequently have backgrounds as police officers and prison guards—two other occupations that attract their share of warped personalities—and you have a recipe for gross violations of human rights. What is important to understand is that these violations are built right into the very structure of the military, and for that matter, though not developed in this essay, into the very essence of the imperial political system of the United States, whose leaders, after all, give the ultimate orders.
Much of The Deserter’s Tale recounts in awful detail what Key and his fellow soldiers did in Iraq. What makes his testimony so striking is that he does what he did even after he has come to see it as reprehensible and to learn that much worse was done by other soldiers and in other parts of the country. Key, himself, manages never to kill anyone. What he and his company spent a good deal of their time doing was making house raids at night. They would be given directions to a house in which there might be insurgents. They would drive there by truck convoy. Key would place an explosive by the door and then detonate it, blowing up the door and part of the house. Then soldiers would rush in and all hell would break loose. The residents would be routed from their beds, with soldiers screaming at them in a language they didn’t understand . The men were rounded up (everyone over five feet tall, including boys), roughly handcuffed, beaten if necessary or just for fun, and hauled off to a detention center. The house would be ransacked, much of the furnishings and personal belongings destroyed or stolen in the process. Protests were dealt with harshly, with beatings and arrests.
Not once does Key’s company find caches of weapons or insurgents. He soon realizes that what they are really doing is traumatizing and tearing apart families, none of whose members have done anything wrong. If we multiply the homes invaded by Key and his comrades-in-arms by all of the companies doing the same thing, we get tens of thousands of households uprooted by the “liberators.” Key wonders what happens to all the shackled men. Later he learns about Abu Ghraib, and he has his answer. In addition to the home invasions, Key observes truly horrific events. A young girl who brings him food when he is doing guard duty at a hospital (an officer upbraids him for talking to an Iraqi doctor there. He is told not to fraternize with the enemy. So much for winning hearts and minds) has her head blown off. Some soldiers kill four Iraqi civilians, expending so much fire power that the heads of the murdered men are severed. The soldiers then start kicking the heads around like soccer balls. As Key rides away from this, the driver of his armored vehicle swerves so sharply that Key is bounced around. When later he asks the driver why he swerved, the driver says that he was trying to run over one of the heads. Key’s descriptions of his mates’ daily behavior makes it impossible to believe that such homicidal cruelty was uncommon in Iraq. They were the payoffs of basic training and the fear and paranoia that must inevitably accompany an occupying army. In other words, they were endemic to the military system, standard operating procedure.
I am aware that military recruiters prey on poor, young, and often minority men (and women too), telling them all manner of lies to seduce them into joining the army or marines. I know that job opportunities are often limited for youth not lucky enough to have been born into families with more means. I have some sympathy for what soldiers endure on the battlefields, and I can only imagine the horrors that await many of them when they finally come home. If they weren’t physically harmed, they certainly were mentally maimed. What they did in Iraq and Afghanistan will haunt them until they die, and the inability of more than a few of them to rationalize their actions and adjust to a society that cares very little about them has led to and will lead to suicides, divorces, child and spouse abuse, admissions to mental hospitals, and crimes, including murder. As Eric Bogle sings in the song No Man’s Land, “A whole generation butchered and damned.” Veterans should get whatever treatment they need, just as every sick person should.
I also understand that war’s foot soldiers and cannon fodder do not bear ultimate responsibility for war. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, and yes, Barack Obama, are all war criminals in my mind. By their actions they began and prosecuted these wars and gave at least tacit approval for every bad deed done by every soldier who committed one. But if I do not support the leaders who led us into Iraq and Afghanistan, and scores of other places, I can hardly support the troops who carried out the orders. To support the troops is to support what they have done—killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, laid waste the country’s infrastructure, forced millions to become refugees, tortured and raped prisoners, stole money and every other thing of value they could lay their hands on, terrorized children and aborted their childhoods, brought disease and malnutrition, looted and ruined the artifacts of one of the world’s greatest civilizations, and trampled the dignity of an entire nation. To support the troops is nothing less than to support the worst kinds of criminality. “Bring the troops home now.” Yes. “End the war now.” Yes. “Support the troops.” No!.
It is a sick country that sends its young to war with such indifference, calling them heroes but neglecting them when they have stopped dodging bullets and bombs. However, it is a sick public that believes that they are heroes in the first place, that swallows whole the lies their government and a suppliant media tells them about our altruism and commitment to human freedom. Key’s book puts the lie to this whole sordid business. Key eventually refused to return to Iraq and, after a long sojourn underground with his family, escaped to Canada, where he is an ardent antiwar activist. Hopefully veterans will take Joshua Key’s lead and try to make amends for what they have done. Hopefully, they won’t let their children do what they did.