August 5, 2006
The mounting revelations of war crimes
in Iraq have ripped the mask of democracy and nation-building
off of a fatigued and wearied Uncle Sam, revealing the true face
of U.S. imperialism. At least thirty U.S. servicemen are being
prosecuted or are under investigation for the murder of Iraqi
civilians. Twenty-one year old Steven Green, who served in the
502nd Infantry Regiment, was charged with the gang rape and murder
of a fourteen-year old Iraqi girl in Al-Mahmudiyah, south of
The accused, with the assistance
of five other soldiers, allegedly premeditated the attack and
carried it out in broad daylight. After a drinking bout, the
soldiers changed out of their uniforms and Green covered his
face with a brown skivvy undershirt to avoid detection as they
entered the woman's house to commit the crime. After the sexual
assault, they murdered her and poured a flammable liquid over
her body to destroy the evidence. Afterwards, Green shot the
victim's parents and sister in the head, execution-style. The
soldiers made a pact to never discuss the incident.
Yet this is just the tip of
the iceberg of the U.S. occupation's horror show in Iraq. Out
of revenge for the death of a fellow Marine, who had died from
a roadside bomb last November, members of Kilo Co, 3rd BN, 1st
Marine Regiment are accused of killing twenty-four unarmed civilians
in Haditha. Iraqis claim that Marines gunned down unarmed teenagers
in the streets and then stormed through homes, killing residents,
including babies and the elderly, in what can only be described
as a blood bath. Likewise, in March in the town of Ishaqi, witnesses
claim that eleven civilians, including children under the age
of five and a seventy-five year old woman, were forced into a
corner of a room with hands bound and then brutally shot by U.S.
Explaining how U.S. soldiers
could be capable of such ghastly deeds has led to blatant distortions
and false claims by the media punditocracy. The Fox News and
Limbaughesque loudmouths were quick to blame the anti-war movement's
criticisms of the conduct of the war as a scheme to demoralize
America's "will to win" and a ploy aimed to bolster
the propaganda efforts of "al Qaeda operatives." Some
in the blogosphere even absolved U.S. war crimes as a just response
to an insurgency which has utilized beheadings, kidnappings,
and roadside bombs--even though the targeting of civilians is
in contravention of international humanitarian law or let alone
the fact that the Iraqi resistance is born out of the very presence
of U.S. troops as an occupying force.
Liberal analyses rely on two
versions of the "bad apple" hypothesis that are equally
inept. On the one hand, it is claimed that the war crimes are
the result of a renegade president who flaunts international
law. According to such a view, the impeachment of Bush would
be a step forward in remapping what is merely a stray path on
which the neo-con Republicans have circuitously navigated U.S.
democracy. On the other, many argue that such incidents are
the result of a few deranged individuals and that Steven Green's
discharge with a "personality disorder" is proof that
his actions represent an isolated incident by an unstable individual.
The former argument buys into the liberal myth that the U.S.
military is somehow capable of humanitarian interventions-if
only Al Gore or John Kerry were president, or so they say. Such
an assessment fails to acknowledge that U.S. imperialism has
never been humanitarian nor has it been free of blatant war crimes,
as the history of military intervention under Clinton
in Kosovo or Somalia will attest. The latter is merely another
version of the "support our troops" sloganeering which
holds that the U.S. military, as a whole, represents the lofty
ideals of honor, courage and commitment. While many have loved
ones or relatives in service; or may have served in the military
themselves, there can be no denial that the military is a tool
of big business--and comes at a cost to human life that is, as
they say, "priceless." In describing the interventions
that he participated in during the early decades of the 20th
century--and the corporate interests he served--U.S. Marine Gen.
Smedley Butler said: "I spent most of my time being a high
class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the
Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."
Some of the Bushies and the
Pentagon war planners attempt to camouflage the mounting war
crimes and the staggering count of Iraqi dead by painting a rosy
picture of how troops are giving candy to Iraqi children or rebuilding
schools and hospitals in Afghanistan-even though the infrastructures
of these countries were destroyed by U.S. bombs and firepower
in the first place. Yet despite the deceptions and manipulations,
the realities of the war are coming home. With almost 2,600
U.S. troops now dead and thousands more maimed and crippled,
one thing is for certain. In this "dirty war," troops
cannot tell friend from foe, leading to war crimes against a
civilian population. It is also certain that, with our government
promoting a campaign of lies and deception to justify its illegal
actions (with the complicity of both parties in Washington),
and with U.S. troops fighting to support a regime that lacks
popular support and legitimacy, the war in Iraq will increasingly
resemble another immoral and unjust war from a not so distant
The atrocities of Al-Mahmudiyah,
Haditha, and Ishaqi resemble the war crimes committed by U.S.
troops in the American War, the Vietnamese name for the conflict
known in this country as the war in Vietnam. On March 16, 1968,
members of Charlie Company murdered 347 unarmed men, women, and
children in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Lt. William "Rusty"
Calley became infamous as details emerged of how he herded some
100 Vietnamese into a ditch and machine-gunned them to death.
When he saw a baby crawling away from the dead, he grapped the
child by the leg and threw it back in the pit and opened fire.
Vietnam is now infamous in the public memory as the "bad
war," largely because a vocal anti-war movement opened a
public space that allowed the exposure of war crimes, such as
My Lai. The Winter Soldier Investigation, held in Detroit in
1971 by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, included the testimony
of over one hundred veterans who testified about war crimes they
had either witnessed or committed, including rape and torture.
Yet the comparisons to Vietnam
extend beyond the massacre at My Lai. In fact, the dehumanization
of the enemy and the callous disregard for human life exhibited
in both Vietnam and Iraq travels in multiple directions. Atrocities
were not only committed "in country" to Vietnam but
were also exported to the U.S. from overseas. Recently, the
finally released report by a special prosecutor on systematic
police torture exposed what African American victims long knew,
that Chicago police detectives during the seventies and eighties
tortured nearly two hundred African Americans to gain coerced
confessions. John Burge, the Joseph Goebbels of Chicago, practiced
torture techniques on African Americans in the west side of Chicago
for more than ten years and is now retired in Florida where he
receives his full pension. He was also a Vietnam Veteran who
served in the Ninth Military Police Company. Burge's instruments
of torture included mock executions with pistols, a cow prod
targeting the victim's genitals, and a black box that generated
an electric shock when a crank was turned. In fact, this black
box technique was the same device utilized by U.S. soldiers in
Vietnam, a field telephone that was jimmied into a torture method
known by soldiers as "the Bell telephone hour." It
is likely that Burge first honed his skills as master-torturer
in the fields of Vietnam.
The barbaric acts committed
by Chicago's "finest" are reminiscent of the same incidents
that took place at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. torture chamber in Iraq,
where at least twenty-seven military intelligence officers and
numerous military contractors humiliated detainees. According
to the military's own investigation of the abuse, there were
at least forty-four accounts of abuse which included sodomizing
of detainees, stripping them naked and leading them around on
leashes, and attaching electrical probes to their genitals.
In one case, military personnel attempted to force two teenage
detainees to defecate by terrorizing them with aggressive and
Thus, given the massive scale
of abuse committed by the U.S. from Vietnam to the Middle East
and even within the criminal injustice system; and realizing
the similarities between the inhumane conduct of the Steven Greens,
the Lt. Calleys, and the Jon Burges-all military veterans, it
is far time that we look far beyond the "bad apple"
thesis. Because rather than a few bad apples, it is clear that
the contents of the entire wretched barrel are, in fact, rotten.
If the military is capable of producing "personalities"
that kill babies, rape women, and torture the innocent, then
what is responsible for the degradation and dissolution of these
military personnel? How and why do U.S. soldiers lose their
humanity? A closer examination of military recruit training
may shed some light on these questions.
With the recent allegations
of U.S. war crimes, many are criticizing the standards for recruitment
and training. Some are pointing to the fact that in 2005 the
Pentagon increased the number of admitted Category 4 enlistees,
recruits with low test scores, and is currently giving more waivers
to those with criminal backgrounds and drug abuse histories.
Such adjustments are a necessary response by the U.S. Army,
which consistently failed to meet recruiting goals due, in part,
to the counter-recruitment efforts by segments of the anti-war
movement. Others fault basic training for the increase in war
crimes, claiming the military is in need of improved ethics training.
If only the military instilled proper values and respect for
the Geneva Convention, it is argued, then troops would behave
with more compassion, a sort of "occupation with a human
face," so to speak.
Meanwhile, the Department of
Defense boasts that is has modified recruit training to teach
the essentials of fighting in Iraq and the principals of urban
warfare. Yet returning troops report that none of their training
prepared them for what they experienced in Iraq. "You can
train up all you want, but you're not going to be prepared until
you get here and mingle with the culture," explained Spc.
Travis Gillette, an Army infantryman who served in Iraq.
Gillette's advice reveals
the contradiction of U.S. occupation. Indeed, learning about
Iraqi culture and its people might, on the one hand, improve
relations between U.S. soldiers and the civilian population.
Yet on the other, the danger is that, as a result, soldiers
may sympathize with the Iraqi people and turn against U.S. war
aims and its justifications. In fact, keeping a greater distance
between troops and the civilian population is one of the lessons
the military learned from the Vietnam War, a war in which large
numbers of troops turned against the war and discovered that
the real enemy was the military itself, particularly from 1968
But rather than blaming the
Pentagon for the loosening of recruitment standards and instead
of boot camp needing an overhaul that would require more lessons
in core values, the overall design and purpose of recruit training
should be truthfully acknowledged. In fact, boot camp continues
and has long served the needs of U.S. imperialism all too well.
Despite some minor reforms during the seventies, the goals of
recruit training have changed very little since the Vietnam War.
In order for the military to avoid feelings of solidarity between
their soldiers and the "enemy," it has developed a
tried and true method of conditioning enlistees to kill efficiently
and also, and most importantly for success, to dehumanize an
adversary. As the war whoop jingo printed on t-shirts and flags,
and attributed to the Green Berets in Vietnam, disgustingly puts
it: "Kill 'em all. Let God sort them out."
The Department of Defense structures
basic training with the goal of molding a singular and uniform
killing machine. The notion of manufacturing conformity was
expressed openly in a 1968 U.S. Army publication for new recruits
about basic training, utilizing cartoon illustrations. On the
cover of the brochure is a motley crew of all-white individuals
who represent a range of stereotypes, including a cigarette smoking
cowboy, a guitar strapped and barefoot hippie, a beefy jock in
a "letter sweater," and, of course, the geek with glasses
carrying a bulky briefcase. However, by the end of the pamphlet,
the image of the drill sergeant is presented as the figure to
which all recruits should aspire. Gone are the civilian markers
of individuality, replaced instead by the trim, piercing dark
eyed, chiseled facial boned, short-haired, and, again, white
figure which the military trains one to become.
The brochure explains ten learning
objectives of basic training with humor and cartoons. Lessons
include "learning how to shoot and care for your rifle or
other weapons," "performing guard duty," and "getting
in good physical condition." However, one lesson, in particular,
reveals a not so subtle message about the projection of military
conformity. Lesson nine is "learning how to conceal yourself
and your equipment." The picture is of a recruit hiding
behind a tree as he spies on three scantily dressed white women
as they frolic and splash in a pond. How three sprightly and
smiling civilian women managed to find a pond in the middle of
basic training for their merriment is a question the military
must assume the average recruit would not ask. Yet, the real
purpose of the cartoon was to assert that one's newfound military
identity is to be based upon the affirmation of heterosexuality.
The cartoon was a not so subtle warning that real military recruits
long for and desire white women.
Lesson nine also reveals a
more disturbing current within the military. Not only is the
smirking recruit hiding behind a tree, but he is also, as the
brochure explains, "concealing his equipment." One
wonders what the sly grin on the face of the recruit might also
represent. Thus, not only was the cartoon about affirming heterosexuality
but it was also about confirming a soldier's right to violate
the privacy and space of women. Underneath the surface of the
cartoon is an implied predatory violence.
While the military projected
the experience of basic training with light-mannered humor in
the brochure, the actual experience of basic for many recruits
is far from amusing. Taking away one's individuality during
training is based on a planned and structured form of cruelty.
As Terry Mullen, who served in the Americal Division infantry
in Vietnam, explains, "I remember going into basic and the
first thing that hits you is that they take away from you any
individuality you had and put you in a mass. . . .they tell you
in this situation that you are the legs and they are the head.
You don't think. You don't do anything but act. From there
on it goes. You are in it."
Through basic training, the
military molds troops into fighting members of the Armed Forces.
Key to the recruit training is the inculcation of discipline.
As the 1967 Guidebook for Marines, the bible of rules
and regulations for enlisted personnel, made clear, "when
a Marine learns to be a disciplined Marine, he has learned a
sense of obligation to himself and to his comrades, to his commander
and to the Marine Corps. He has learned that he is a member
of a team which is organized, trained and equipped for the purpose
of engaging and defeating enemies of his country." The
achievement of military discipline is based on the ability to
shut down any emotional feelings so that one is prepared for
the possible exigencies of battle and the ability to overcome
fear. "The individual must be able to recognize and face
fear because fear is the enemy of discipline. Fear unchecked
will lead to panic and a unit that panics is no longer a disciplined
unit but a mob," according to the Guidebook.
Training recruits to be "disciplined"
and not a "mob" is based on removing civilian emotions
of compassion so that troops accept their role of killing during
combat. John R. Fabian, who served in the 1st Air Cavalry in
Vietnam from 1969-1970, explains how drill instructors taught
recruits to quash their feelings of compassion:
The day I went into the Army-I'll
never forget that-I got to basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky,
and the senior drill instructor said, "You are not human
being. You are animals." That stays with me. Everything
they taught you was not to be a human being, to have compassion,
to have feelings. If you had feelings and compassion, you are
a shit soldier. As soon as you got rid of those things, the
better off you were, those emotions.
The process of basic training
is part of a structured environment so that troops replaced their
civilian identity, which allowed a limited degree of emotional
feelings, with an idealized military masculinity based on the
denial of attachment and compassion.
Through ritual-like commands,
recruits learn the acceptance of any and all orders within the
military rank structure. As soon as recruits arrive off the
bus, they receive their new buzz haircut, a ritual of dehumanization.
Throughout the training weeks, recruits live an ultra-regimented
life, akin to prison, participating in daily calisthenics, close-order
drill, and classes in first aid and military history and traditions.
According to Daniel Barnes, who served in an Army infantry unit
from 1969-1970, "the main word was, 'Kill. Kill. Kill,'
all the time, they then pushed it into your head twenty-four
hours a day. Everything you said-even before you sat down to
eat your meals, you had to stand up and scream, 'Kill' before
you could sit down and eat." If for some reason, a recruit
does not perform a task efficiently, drill instructors punish
the entire training unit or team. In so doing, individual recruits
learn to see their larger purpose as tied to the other recruits
and to the training unit as a whole. Thus, one's emerging military
identity is based on a doctrine of conformity constructed around
However, the military has larger
plans for promoting teamwork beyond troop morale and welfare.
The process of breaking-down recruits and molding them into
future troops is based on building a team which was in opposition
to those who were outside of it. Drill instructors indoctrinate
recruits to dehumanize the enemy in order to train them how to
overcome any fear or prejudice against killing. The process
of dehumanization is central to military training. Before Vietnam,
the Japanese and Germans were derogatively referred to as "Japs"
and "Krauts." The enemy in Vietnam was simply a "gook,"
"dink," or a "slope." Today, "rag
head" and "sand nigger" are the current racist
epithets of derision lodged against Arabs and Muslims.
Steve Padris, who served in
the Army infantry from 1969-1970, revealed that he learned in
basic that "the only good dink is a dead dink, and once
you do get over there you can't trust any of the people."
Similarly, Guadalupe G. Villarreal, who also served in the Army
infantry during Vietnam, explains how the racism learned in basic
was tied to national identity as well:
They are indoctrinated and
that is sort of a racist type thing that of course the gooks
are gook and they are inferior to us; therefore, you just hear
this statement. Well, if you kill ten gooks for one American
that's all right because that's how much they are worth. They
would say that anybody would go along with that because that's
what an American was worth, was worth so much more. . . .That
their lives have really no meaning and this, of course, is the
attitude that is shown to you and the ones indoctrinated with
it, this is indoctrinated into you from the first time you get
into the Army until the time you leave. When you get there,
this is the attitude that you find.
Simply put by Daniel Barnes,
all of the Vietnamese "were something less than human."
Military identity is based upon both learning solidarity with
the unit as a means to draw a demarcation between those who were
inside the boundaries of the unit and those who are outside of
it. Drill instructors enforce a dehumanization of the enemy
that infects the entire training process.
Yet the racialized "other"
is not the only group targeted as the outsider. A carefully
crafted campaign of teaching recruits to despise and mistrust
women is also part of the training regiment. Future soldiers
run in formation through cadences based on the repetition of
call and response lyrics with their drill instructors. Cadence
calls are in the lineage of work songs utilized centuries previous
by slaves and often chanted by sailors on whaling vessels in
the nineteenth century. However, a large portion of military
cadences degrade women.
Recruits sing "Jody Calls"
or "Jodies" to encourage male bonding through the homosocial
space of the military. Jody is a mythical figure who stays at
home, avoids the military, and then steals one's girlfriend.
Thus, the Jody figure plays several roles. He represents the
draft-evader or civilian "outsider" who shirks his
call to duty. Military culture teaches recruits to hate and
despise Jodies. Therefore, the "insider" status of
recruits is forged in opposition to all of the potential Jody
"outsiders," civilians who are not in the military.
However, the assumption at the core of the call and response
verses is that if one were not in the military, one would also
be the womanizer that Jody embodies. He is, therefore, both
despised and valorized. The real purpose of the Jody figure
is thus to reinforce the idea amongst recruits that women are
disloyal and two-timing. As the Jody figure perpetuates, women
will always leave a soldier at the drop of a hat. Only military
men and particularly those within one's unit can be trusted.
The following cadence is typical
of the "Jodies" prevalent in today's military and is
representative of the general theme of those utilized in the
When I was home on leave last
Found out the meaning of Jody rhymes.
My girl was running with another guy,
Had planned to write and tell me bye.
But I surprised her with this man,
You should have seen the way they ran.
The guy was a wimp, looked real weak,
My girl was alone, he took a peek.
While I was fighting to keep them free,
They got it on and forgot about me.
In fact, the above "Jody"
is bland and mild-mannered in comparison to the more vulgar and
degrading verses of many cadence calls. The implication and
logical conclusion of such cadences are that women are to be
used for one purpose only-as repositories for sexual aggression.
In Tim O'Brien's classic Vietnam memoir, If I Die in a Combat
Zone, he recalls several "Jodies" that expressed
a profound hatred towards women sung during the Vietnam era.
Therefore, troops learn to forge an identity based on achieving
a group "insider" status in opposition to the feminine
"outsider." The "other" is not only the
nation's so-called adversary but also the entire civilian world,
Producing conformity based
on hatred of the "outsider" is just one purpose of
breaking-down recruits and molding them into troops. The training
also encourages one to lose their ability to think independently
and to become psychologically dependent on the officers and upper
enlisted for all decisions, including the very personal aspects
of one's hygiene and identity. It must be acknowledged, however,
that the military is never completely successful in this endeavor.
Not all troops accept the indoctrination of basic training whole-heartedly.
Some bring a questioning attitude into the military that no
amount of "training" can erase. Still others become
bitter at the military as a result of the harsh treatment, enforced
regulations, and military discipline imposed by drill instructors.
The molding of a uniform killing
machine, the convergence of the hippie, geek, and jock into the
perfect warrior, is far from uniform and less than perfect.
For example, in 1971, Garry Battle, who served in the Americal
Division in Vietnam, reflected, "I made it through basic
training with difficulty. I didn't like stabbing a dummy with
a bayonet. I just couldn't see it. I don't like killing."
Likewise, Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien reminisces about the
close friendship he developed at basic training at Fort Lewis,
refusing to reign in his feelings of compassion. O'Brien explains
how his camaraderie with Eric was built upon defiance:
It was a war of resistance;
the objective was to save our souls. Sometimes it meant hiding
the remnants of conscience and consciousness behind battle cries,
pretended servility, bare, clench-fisted obedience. Our private
conversations were the cornerstone of the resistance, perhaps
because talking about basic training in careful, honest words
was by itself an insult to army education. Simply to think and
talk and try to understand was evidence that we were not cattle
O'Brien and Eric subverted
the military training "to save our souls," relying
on each other as a means to express their hidden protest.
Yet relying on a secret friendship
should not be the only means through which the men and women
in uniform can hold on to their humanity. The deterrence of
more Greens, Calleys, and Burges depends on the strength and
tactics of today's anti-war movement. It should be our task
to not only "bring the troops home now" but to also
give our soldiers the determination and fortitude to refuse to
participate in war crimes and atrocities. It is no coincidence
that the strength of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam
War and the dissension in the ranks, what David Cortright has
called the "soldiers in revolt," were mutually reinforcing.
During the Sixties, many soldiers encountered their first anti-war
or civil rights protest at home and some revolutionary socialists
purposefully entered the military to organize, carrying the ideas
of social justice with them into the military structure. Therefore,
the "GI Movement," the widespread dissent and rebellion
by active duty troops and veterans during the Vietnam War, emerged
out of an organic connection between the organizing at home and
the resistance abroad. It is just such a connection that we
should take heart in from the past and aim to rebuild and strengthen
in our anti-war tactics in the present.
But our ideas are just as important
as our actions. We can neither rely on claims that impeaching
Bush will end future war crimes nor that the actions of a few
individuals are merely to blame. Rather, the entire military
institution and its training are complicit in the project of
U.S. imperialism, including the war crimes of the past, and,
if not stopped, in the continuance and promotion of further atrocities.
Moreover, individual soldiers should never be viewed as cogs
in a wheel or as mere simpletons and powerless victims. The
elemental truth is that generals and war planners call the shots
from air-conditioned building and bunkers far from combat, but
wars must be fought on the ground by working-class troops who,
when organized, can act on their own political principles rather
than on those of their commanding officers. As David Cortright
argues, a new generation of activists in solidarity with active-duty
personnel and military families "need not be helpless before
the power of illegitimate authority . . . by getting together
and acting upon their convictions people can change society and,
in effect, make their own history"--a history that is free
of torture, far removed from war crimes, and rid of the likes
of Steven Green, Lt. Calley, and John Burge.
Martin Smith, a former sergeant in the US Marine
Corps, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He can be
reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org