How is it possible for decent, apple-pie-fed American guys, with democracy and justice injected into their cells since birth (or conception, depending on your values) to commit barbaric acts and atrocities in Abu Ghraib, in Falluja and many other hard-to-pronounce locations?
A Swedish journalist, winner of the Great Journalism Prize of 2004, was an ”embedded reporter” with Unit 366 of the 1st Brigade Patrols in October 2003, in the city of Baiji.
Witnessing an outrage
His analysis makes a noteworthy step toward an explanation. To appreciate it, we first need to know what he experienced (my excerpts and translation):
… Sure, afterwards Genaro, Adland and the other soldiers admitted that this Arab man was innocent of the grenade attack against us. But now -- now Genaro takes a run, grunts and hits the Arab with a terrible force in the head with his rifle butt. … Genaro emits ever louder grunts and pounds his rifle against the back of the man’s head again, and again, and again. While Genaro wipes the sweat off his forehead, the others kick the man’s face, arms, legs and belly. … Their bystanding buddies are screaming ”hit that motherfucking Saddamist, hit him”. … The asphalt is covered by the man’s blood and vomit, attenuating his loud screams into muffled, grotesque sounds.
After the terrible assault and battery the soldiers are again transformed into decent guys. They go back to chatting about surfing, food, girlfriends and babies.
The next day the Swedish reporter visits the victim, Mahad Ibrahim Ali, at the hospital. The battered man’s condition is still critical, due to serious injury and massive haemorrhaging.
They just don’t understand
Afterwards, a couple of the soldiers try to explain the outrage and the cruelty:
-- Eehh, what the fuck. He refused to cooperate.
-- Truth is, the Iraqis don’t get it. They just don’t understand that we only want to help them to re-establish order.
-- In the heat of battle, you know, you don’t always have time to interrogate people.
Superbly well-mannered boys
The journalist Mustafa Can (a native Swede, but with Turkish-Kurdish roots) had come to know the soldiers of Unit 366 of the 1st Brigade Patrols as friendly, superbly well-mannered boys. They offered him their last cigarettes and were happy to give him food and chocolates. How could such decent individuals suddenly explode into monsters, and then go back to being superbly decent again? Can makes the following observation:
The American soldiers that I met during and after the war … were imprinted by a society where the myth of their own country as the mainstay against totalitarian bestiality had been glorified and embedded as an important element in their civic culture. The soldiers really believe – or believed – that they are making a contribution in the name of humanitarianism.
But in many of these soldiers the most important humanitarian quality was trained away in the testosterone-saturated soldier camps: the doubt. It is the courage to admit divisiveness and hesitation, the courage to question presidents, war strategists and other superiors who tell you that they have the noblest of motives and that they are in possession of the truth in its highest form.
When accepting the idea that one ideology or civilisation is superior to another, then the gallows are in fact already erected.
An unsettling analysis
Can’s analysis is unsettling. It makes you realise the true character of the supposedly democratic-minded US army that was sent to Iraq.
The country that sent the soldiers is indisputably freedom-loving and staunchly democratic. But the dichotomous righteousness of its present leaders, their almost fanatical conviction of possessing the absolute truth and the blessing of God didn’t at all dispatch a democratically-minded army to faraway lands. It rather sent a traditional one-track-minded army, an army without the benefit of the doubt, without the humanitarian doubt that is the hallmark of democracy.
Uttering the word is not enough
It’s hence hardly surprising that the ethos of such a traditional-minded army is bound to be identical to that of most armies we read about in history -- the belt buckles on German uniforms in WWII carried the inscription “Gott mit Uns” = “God is with Us”. How can we expect the soldiers of a traditional-minded army today to behave differently than soldiers have behaved in traditional armies in the past? Fighting for freedom and democracy with democratic means seems to require a bit more afterthought and sophistication than just uttering the words.
Dagens Nyheter, 2004-11-19 (Kulturen, M. Can: Schysta killar exploderar i våld)