BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The U.S. military chief in Iraq Thursday ordered troops to undergo fresh training in legal, moral and ethical standards for the battlefield, in response to what the mayor of Haditha has called a "day of catastrophe."Listen, I'm all for training to improve our troops, but let's think about this for a minute, people: Does it really take special moral training to know that breaking into houses and slaughtering 24 unarmed non-combatants, then lying about it constitutes behavior that is generally categorized as "wrong," or at least "inappropriate?" That never seemed like something that was a gray area to me and most of my friends. Then again, almost none of us are registered Republicans. But I digress.
Anyway, if these particular soldiers somehow had a moral code that gives a big thumbs-up to massacre, it makes you wonder what kind of guys are joining up in the first place, and what kind ethical training exam they might have had to pass initially:
Question 1 (10 points): You're an occupying force in an unstable nation. One of your buddies is killed by an IED. Locals aren't sympathetic with your mission, and some of them no doubt are behind the bombing. Do you:
(A) Fire a few rounds into a local mosque after evening prayersAnd so on. Whatever the problem is here--and my guess is that it has more to do with how war, occupation, and militarism brutalize even the best people than with individuals with faulty moral codes--it seems unlikely to be fixed with a PowerPoint presentation and the threat of losing a weekend liberty.
(B) Fire a few rounds into a local mosque after evening prayers, then kick the shit out of a few old men for good measure
(C) Get together with your unit and go waste a bunch of raghead women and children
(D) Get together with your unit and go waste a bunch of raghead women and children, making sure to falsify the report so it says they were killed by an IED
(E) both B and D
You might be interested in something I posted on this subject last night:
I, too, am a Vietnam veteran. I was a POW interrogator, not an infantryman. I was exposed to combat without having to carry the burden of it. I saw my fill of the degradation of human beings that inevitably comes with war.
In one case, I had to interview a farmer whose penis had been shot off by (he said) a GI firing randomly from the back of a passing truck. In another case, I arrived at a field hospital to talk to a wounded POW who was supposed to arrive there, and found that even though his wound had been reported from the field as "minor," he had somehow managed to arrive at the hospital dead, with a .45 hole in his chest. Of course, nobody knew anything.
In part, it's simply what war is. We feed ourselves a big line of bullshit about how Americans are different, Americans fight humanely and honorably. I can assure you, Americans are no different from any other hate-and-fear-crazed animals. In highly disciplined units, some control can be kept over this stuff even under stress, but units vary a lot in discipline and morale. Inevitably, some are going to degenerate into it. When you've been in danger for too many days in a row, you feel like you're a character in one of those violent video games. Not only are you on hair-trigger alert all the time, but you feel very alone, very forgotten, pushed out the door of human existence, almost. It's hard to believe anybody will know or care what happens to you--or what you do. All it takes is a weak NCO who lets his men get away with too much bullshit talk about what they want to do to the gooks, and if the right circumstances present, it can happen without warning.
But the problem is a lot deeper than lack of training specifically on rules of engagement. We got a lot of that, they get even more today. (Today engagement takes clearance from much higher than it did in my war.) The root problem, as I saw it in Vietnam, is the overbearing and contemptuous attitude the army fosters toward foreigners. In Vietnam, "gooks" (any Vietnamese) and "chucks" (VC) were virtually equated. Americans, even officers, thought nothing of insulting Vietnamese civilians. I once listened to an American lieutenant berate his ARVN interpreter, an enlisted man, because the interpreter had denied that South Vietnam was a "communist country." The lieutenant told him he was full of bullshit, every other gook was a chuck, etc. And this was our ally, a guy he was supposed to be working with! The whole attitude was, "We're Americans and you're not, creeps." Believe me, the Viets understood and resented it--even those who were most on our side.
It wasn't restricted to interpersonal relations. I cringe when I read about the accident outside Kabul, because that was a constant issue where I was. GIs drove their trucks like maniacs--no military reason, just to scare the gooks off the road--and accidents were common. One CID guy told me once, "I wish one of those gooks would just pick up his rifle and shoot one of these cowboys sometime. Maybe that would get the message across."
The Americans built giant bases and stuffed them with every luxury possible. They loved posing as Lords of the Earth, aristocratic warriors who could live like kings and hire the little people to do their scut work. They hired thousands of Viets to come on the bases and do their laundry, their KP, clean their hootches, burn their shit. (And then wondered how Charlie knew where every fucking thing was on a base.) Sexual harassment of women was so common nobody thought anything of it. Most GIs professed to believe that all Viet women were prostitutes anyway, who were delighted to give them blowjobs for two bucks. Some of them would say so to their faces (GIs and Viets shared a kind of pidgin quite capable of communicating anything sexual.)
Well, you get the picture. Racism and chauvinism aren't in themselves war crimes, but they do as much as anything else to establish the climate in which men will easily take foreign lives in the belief that their system will probably ignore it.
Although I've never been to Iraq, I'm satisfied from what I read that pretty much the same thing is happening there as happened in Vietnam. Maybe not quite as crude; this, after all, is a small professional army, where we were a big conscript one. But I think the basic problem is still the same: "We're Americans and you're not, creeps."