During Vietnam, we in the U.S. saw the war. We saw photographs come back that froze scenes of horror in front of our eyes. During current wars, though, we have television cameras and satellites and near-instant information exchange, we see far-off shots of bombs falling. Sometimes we see the aftermath.
But we don’t see the war. It bubbles up like the return of the repressed now and again, like this tape, released by the site WikiLeaks, resurfacing from 2007 into a national consciousness that has mostly put Iraq behind us. It doesn’t happen like that there anymore, we did what we needed to, we elected Obama, we’re getting out, right? Never mind that we’re just moving on to Afghanistan, spilling over into Pakistan, to other nations.
So we watch this video, and we are horrified. We are horrified by what happens, and what it tells us about the “troops” we “support,” these mostly working-class young people who sign up to serve their country or just to pay the bills.
But this video doesn’t tell us about individuals. We don’t know who the soldiers are. We just get anonymous voices. Instead, it gives us ghosts of what we do to soldiers. And what we make them do.
Many have compared the action of the soldiers on the WikiLeaks tape to people playing video games, with the living, breathing humans below just targets on a screen. Have video games and violent media desensitized us? It seems the conversation will start again.
Gaming site The Escapist took this question on in 2008, in an article by Robert B. Marks that revealed several interesting bits of information. One of them being that in 1947, it was revealed that only 15 percent of soldiers not under direct supervision had actually fired their weapons in combat. Marks writes:
In extreme stress, the logical part of your brain shuts down, relinquishing control to your middle brain. . . The middle brain is not at all logical – it relies on instinct – and by forgoing the process of rational thought, it can react faster to situations in which a moment of hesitation could be deadly. In around 85 percent of trained soldiers up to the end of the World War II, there was a part of their middle brain that recognized that the enemy was another human being, and refused to kill him.
In other words, despite every claim that the world is a violent, Hobbesian nightmare, most people’s instinct is not to kill. But, Marks points out, this led not to an end to war, but to a change in military training, where targets were made more and more realistic.
It helped increase the numbers of troops who would fire their weapons at the enemy to 90 percent in Vietnam. (It’s worth noting here that Marks says that this is where violent video games come into play—that same middle-brain training. In other words, we still have control—we’re hardly programmed by media.)
But there’s another dimension to this dehumanization. Every war we’ve taken on since World War II has been against an enemy that is somehow racially “other” from the (shrinking) majority of people in the U.S. The difference not only in language, but in features and skin tone allows us to push the “enemy” further into a different category: nonhuman, monster.
Leonard Cassuto, in his book The Inhuman Race, writes of “the attempt to turn a person into a thing on the basis of race.” His focus was on race relations within the U.S., but the same tropes apply here. He notes that it is nearly impossible to completely objectify another human:
“Tugged in the competing directions of “human” and “not-human,” the victims of this objectifying treatment are not completely transformed in the dominator’s eyes. Instead, they find themselves in-between, in flux. Neither one thing, nor the other, they become grotesque.” –xv
He continues, later:
“It might be more precise to call this “attempted objectification,” a process in which a person is made to enter into the liminal space between human and thing, a grotesque space where the person’s essential humanness is questioned but not altogether denied.” –16
Dehumanizing, objectifying makes a person into a thing, easy to kill, but this tension that Cassuto notes creates something else: a monster, something threatening, frightening, always on the attack simply by existing.
Judith Butler, famed gender theorist, took on this same issue in her book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?. In a recent interview, she said:
If we were to start to grieve those against whom we wage war, we would have to stop. One saw this I think very keenly last year when Israel attacked Gaza. The population was considered in explicitly racist ways, and every life was considered an instrument of war. Thus, a unilateral attack on a trapped population became interpreted by those who waged war as an extended act of self-defense. It is clear that most people in the world rejected that construal of the situation, especially when they saw how many women and children were killed.
Modern warfare demands this, that entire populations rather than the armed opponents across the trenches or the calvary charging at you, become the enemy. But when you dehumanize a country’s worth of people, you get children and noncombatants dead. You get soldiers who laugh.
Yet not only do we train troops to dehumanize the enemy, we dehumanize them as well. We reduce them to casualty numbers and anonymous voices on a videotape. We abandon them when they return, struggling with what they’ve seen, what they’ve done, what has happened to them. By using military training designed to work on the unconscious parts of the mind, we treat soldiers as just more tools to be programmed, the human version of a Predator drone.
When incriminating photos and videos of war turn up, we like to blame a few individuals, it’s true. We know the names of the “few bad apples” at Abu Ghraib. And it’s true that this is precisely the wrong way to react, if it is the culture of the military that we want to change.
But Katrina vanden Heuvel, quoting Bob Herbert, notes that to even attempt to understand the sacrifices made for war, we have to tell the stories of human beings. I would add that we need to understand the stories not just of the dead and wounded, but of everyone—even those soldiers of whom we would make monsters to lessen our own complicity in the realities of war.
People directed anti-war protests personally against Bush; there is not the same kind of anger against Obama and so the protests fall to the side. Perhaps, though, there’s a better use for that tendency to personalize: thinking about the human beings harmed by the war, on all sides, and thinking of that harm not only as what happens when bullets pierce flesh and bombs fall.