Psychiatry And Iraq Atrocities: How Killing Becomes A Reflex
By Penny Coleman
22 August, 2007
1971, Lt. William Calley was sentenced to life in prison for his role
in the massacre of some 500 civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My
Lai. In response to Calley's conviction, Vietnam Veterans Against the
War (VVAW) convened the "Winter Soldier Investigation." Over
a three-day period, more than a hundred veterans testified to atrocities
they had witnessed committed by U.S. troops against Vietnamese civilians.
Their expressed intention was to demonstrate that My Lai was not unique,
that it was instead the inevitable result of U.S. policy. It was a travesty
of justice, they claimed, to focus blame on the soldiers when it was
the policy makers, McNamara, Bundy, Rostow, Johnson, LeMay, Nixon and
the others who were truly responsible for the war crimes that had been
In 2004, the release of the
Abu Grahib photographs broke the unforgivable silence in the mainstream
press about atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq. Haditha
followed, then Mahmoudiyah, Ishaqi, and at this writing, countless other
instances of savage, homicidal violence directed at civilians have been
reported. The July 30 issue of the Nation included an article, "The
Other War," by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, which used interviews
with 50 combat veterans to make the case that American soldiers are
using indiscriminate and often lethal force in their dealings with Iraqi
civilians. These veterans, the authors report, have "returned home
deeply disturbed by the disparity between the reality of the war and
the way it is portrayed by the U.S. government and American media."
I would wager that they are more deeply disturbed by the reality itself
than the way the media reports it, but certainly government and media
distortions are another layer of betrayal. In a letter protesting that
article, Paul Rieckhoff, president of the anti-war organization Iraq
and Afghanistan Veterans of America, made an argument parallel to that
of VVAW, namely that "(a)nyone who wants to write a serious piece
about the ethical lapses of the U.S. troops should start and end the
article by putting blame where it belongs -- on the politicians who
sent our troops to war unprepared and without a clear mission"
(the Nation, 7/13/07).
I'm not suggesting that American
soldiers take no responsibility for their actions. Like Rieckhoff, I
would argue that we must balance outrage at criminal and sadistic acts
with the insistence that we "guard against blaming this new generation
of veterans for the terrible and tragic circumstances" that led
to those acts. And I agree that, once again, the architects have been
given a free pass and that the soldiers, who are doing exactly what
they have been trained to do, are taking the blame. But I want to focus
on an aspect of the situation that is never addressed in the mainstream
media, and not often enough elsewhere: specifically that American troops
are trained to act in criminal and sadistic ways.
Military training has been
part of the experience of millions of young American men since the Revolutionary
War. Prior to the Vietnam era, however, that training consisted largely
of practicing military skills and learning to manage military equipment.
It is only in the last half century that training has evolved into an
entirely new phenomenon that makes use of the principles of operant
conditioning to overcome what studies done over the last century have
consistently demonstrated, namely, that healthy human beings have an
inherent aversion to killing others of their own species.
Operant conditioning holds
that organisms, including human beings, move through their environment
rather haphazardly until they encounter a reinforcing stimulus. The
experience of that stimulus becomes associated in memory with the behavior
that immediately preceded it. In other words, a behavior is followed
by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence, reward or punishment,
modifies the organism's tendency to repeat the behavior. Today's recruits
are intentionally and methodically subjected to a training regimen that
is explicitly designed to turn them into reflexive killers. And it is
very effective. It is also carefully concealed. The military would prefer
to keep their methods out of sight because of the moral and ethical
discussions, not to mention the legal restraints, which public scrutiny
and constitutional debate might impose. Or so I would like to believe.
War Psychiatry, the army's
textbook on combat trauma, notes that "pseudospeciation, the ability
of humans and some other primates to classify certain members of their
own species as 'other,' can neutralize the threshold of inhibition so
they can kill conspecifics." Modern military training has developed
carefully sequenced and choreographed elements of what many would call
brainwashing to disconnect recruits from their civilian identities.
The values, standards and behaviors they have absorbed over a lifetime
from their families, schools, religions and communities are scorned
and punished. Using cruelty, humiliation, degradation and cognitive
disorientation, recruits are reprogrammed with an entirely new set of
learned responses. Every aspect of combat behavior is rehearsed until
response becomes reflexive. Operant conditioning has vastly improved
the efficacy of American soldiers, at least by military standards. It
has proven to be a reliable way to turn off the switch that controls
a soldier's inherent aversion to killing. American soldiers do kill
more often and more efficiently. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On
Killing, calls this form of training "psychological warfare, [but]
psychological warfare conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one's own
The psychological warfare
that is being conducted on today's recruits is a truly disturbing indication
of the worldview of our leadership, both military and political. The
group identity they are drilling into these kids, the "insider"
identity, is based on explicit contempt not only for the declared enemy
of the week, but for the entire civilian population, with a special
emphasis on women and homosexuals. In an army that is now 15 percent
female and who knows (don't ask, don't tell) what percentage gay, drill
instructors still rely on labels like "girl" or "pussy,"
"lady" or "fairy" to humiliate, degrade and ultimately
exact conformity. Recruits are drilled with marching chants that privilege
their relationships with their weapons over their relationships with
women ("you used to be my beauty queen, now I love my M-16"),
or that overtly conflate sex and violence ("this is my rifle, this
is my gun; this is for fighting, this is for fun."). Aside from
teaching these kids to quash their innate feelings about killing in
general, they are being programmed with a distorted version of not only
what it means to be a man, but of what it means to be a citizen. To
ascend to the warrior class, one must learn to despise and distrust
all that is not military. Chaim Shatan, a psychiatrist who worked with
Vietnam-era veterans, described this transformative process as deliberate,
as opposed to capricious, sadism, "whose purpose is to inculcate
obedience to command."
There are any number of ways
that modern training methods both support violence, aggression and obedience
and help to disconnect a reflex action from its moral, ethical, spiritual
or social implications, but one of the best illustrations of this process
is the marching chants, or "jodies," as they are known in
the services. "Jody" is the derivative of an African-American
work song about Joe de Grinder, a devilish ladies' man who is at home
making time with the soldier's girlfriend while the soldier is stuck
in the war ("ain't no use in going home; Jody's on your telephone").
According to the military, jodies build morale while distracting attention
from monotonous, often strenuous, exertion. The following, originally
a product of the Vietnam era, has been resurrected for training purposes
in every war since and is an example of the kind of morale building
that has been judged appropriate to the formation of an American soldier:
Shell the town and kill the
Drop the napalm in the square.
Do it on a Sunday morning
While they're on their way to prayer.
Aim your missiles at the
See the teacher ring the bell.
See the children's smiling faces
As their schoolhouse burns to hell
Throw some candy to the children.
Wait till they all gather round.
Then you take your M-16 now
And mow the little fuckers down.
Thankfully, the brainwashing has not yet been developed that will override
the humanity of most American soldiers. According to the troops interviewed
in the Nation, the kind of psychotic brutality described in the marching
cadence above is indulged by only a minority. Still, they described
atrocities committed against civilians as "common" -- and
almost never punished. As multiple deployments become the norm, however,
and as more scrambled psyches are sent back into combat instead of into
treatment, it is frightening to consider that the brainwashing may yet
prevail. Given the training to which these soldiers have been subjected
and the chaotic conditions in which they find themselves, it is inevitable
that more will succumb to fear and rage and frustration. They will inevitably
be overwhelmed by cumulative doses of horror, and they will lose control
of their judgment and their compassion. Thirty-six years ago, American
veterans tried to cut through the smoke and mirrors of the official
response to civilian atrocities, the version that scapegoated soldiers
and ignored those who gave the orders. As then Lt. John Kerry put it,
"We could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam,
but we feel (that it is) not reds, and not redcoats (that threaten this
country), but the crimes which we are committing." The soldiers
who, following orders, have run over children in the road rather than
slow down their convoy will never be the same again, regardless of whether
government and the media tell the truth. Nor will the soldiers manning
checkpoints who shoot, as ordered, and kill entire families who failed
to stop, only to learn later that no one had bothered to share with
them that the American signal to stop -- a hand held up, palm towards
the oncoming vehicle -- to an Iraqi means, "Hello, come here."
I have heard a number of the men cited in the Nation article speak about
their combat experiences, and they are tormented by what they saw and
did. They want to tell their stories, not because they are looking for
absolution, but because they want to believe that Americans want to
know. But neither are they willing to take the blame.
They have already carried
home the psychic wounds and the dangerous reflexive habits of violence
that will always diminish their lives and their relationships. In return,
they are hoping we will listen to them this time when they ask us to
look a little harder, dig a little deeper, use a little more discernment.
Or have we already arrived at a point in our collective moral development
when, as Shatan predicted, "Like Eichmann, we … consider
evil to be banal and routine?"
is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming
home. Her latest book, Flashback:
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War,
was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Visit her website at
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