Friday, June 02, 2006


Track eight on Peter Gabriel's 1986 album, So, is titled "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)." It's a brief piece, primarily instrumental, that references the 1963 experiments of American psychologist Stanley Milgram. It's a chilling piece, drawing heavily from bands like Pink Floyd, and gives disturbing musical life to the natural conformist tendencies latent within human nature.

I've been watching the news lately, primarily coverage of last year's alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by Marines in Haditha, and thinking of this song. I admit: as a soldier, this incident, along with similar incidents perpetrated by military personnel, strikes extremely close to home. I am a soldier. I am like these young men. We are soldiers. From Day One of Basic, we are conditioned to respect and follow the Core Values of our service. We are trained to adhere to a so-called "higher moral standard," and for this we are honored and respected as heroes.

But there is a conflict in our programming. As soldiers, we are expected to stand up and dedicate our lives to the defense of a set of principles--principles which, according to our superiors, are unique characteristics which make our country great above all others. I'll admit, such a message rings in my ears with the sinister echo of Nationalism. But on top of these ideas, we as soldiers are then expected to embark on long journeys abroad, where we will be exposed to, and expected to perpetrate, acts of cruelty and murder. Without a doubt, such acts carry a dramatic physical and psychological toll on the human mind and body, and such acts can only ever truly be justified in the name of some greater good. The veterans of WWII understood this. They fought not just for the American way of life, but for all those who stood to lose something at the hands of Axis oppression. No war is ever noble, but theirs were actions which truly served the good of all.

But what happens when the ideas for which we are expected to kill do not hold such a clear mandate? What happens when the horrors we are expected to face are not in the name of collective good, but rather only serve the interests of an elite few? What, then, happens to our ethics as soldiers? When we start to feel that our situations are hopeless--that we are doomed to die on foreign soil, away from our loved ones, for what may be nothing--human minds and values become corrupted. If one asks any Vietnam veteran, I'm sure that they will agree. Human minds and bodies are affected by combat, and when that combat is against an enemy whose true nature and motivations we fail--indeed, are encouraged NOT--to understand, I think we as human beings lose something. On that level, I can understand the rage and outright hatred those Marines must have felt after the roadside bomb attack which killed one of their own. But I cannot abide their response to it.

Worse than their actions, however, has been the response of the American media and viewing public. While many construe the alleged massacre as a new "My Lai," still others criticize those who speak out against it as traitorous or opposed to American interests. Worse yet, some are outright apathetic. It's like these people see the news, read the reports, and then go back to watching "American Idol." What reasonable human being can react this way? Are we so blinded to the world by our own nationalist propaganda? Are we like those German houswives, hearing stories passed down from Auschwitz or Treblinka, willfully oblivious to the horrors represented by those churning smokestacks? If such is true, I am utterly horrified of my fellow human beings and their failure to question authority.

But what, then, does this say of my own service? I was not drafted. I made the choice, freely, to enter the Armed Forces during a war whose pretenses I did not believe were just. In doing so, I feel that I bear some responsibility for the actions of my Administration. In signing up, however benificent my intentions, I have willingly enabled the actions of those above me to enforce foreign policy decisions whose effects will cripple us for years. Worse yet, I imagine these Marines, whose own grief and rage led them to exact a terrible vengeance upon Iraqi civilians, and to my own horror, I cannot guarantee that I would not do the same in their boots.

Would I kill in the name of a war in which I don't believe? Will I? My duty tells me "yes," if only to protect my fellow soldiers and myself. If it gets me back into the arms of my wife, I will fire my M-16 until the heat fuses bolt and barrel. If my life and safety requires that I comply in command-sponsored murder, then a murderer shall I be. I am not proud of this. I am not a hero for this. I am a young man, with a wife and dreams yet unfulfilled. But to my command chain, I am equipment. I am cannon fodder. I am a pawn, an asset whose life means less than a political agenda. To paraphrase Palahniuk, I am the middle child of history. There is no nobility in what I do. There is only fear, and desire, and duty. I am honor-bound to protect my fellow soldiers. I am honor-bound to serve a noble testament to my profession. But I am also bound to my own desire for my life to have meant something, and I am bound to my wife, to make sure that her support for my decision was not a mistake.

I still believe in my country. I am still a patriot. But I am doubtful about what our nation is fast becoming; about the way that our ideals are being twisted and corrupted, and I am worried that we will never learn from the mistakes of Iraq, any more than we learned from those of Vietnam. I am worried that, one day, history teachers will show footage of American soldiers marching, just as today they show images of Hitler's Wehrmacht goose-stepping through the streets of the Reich. I am worried that my only legacy will be that of enabling a machine of corruption and terror. I am worried that it may be too late to be redeemed for my mistakes.

I am worried that, in the words of Daniel Ellsberg, "We weren't just on the wrong side."

I'm worried that maybe we ARE the wrong side.


Blogger jim said...

gutten tag, i was in goeppingen, between munich and stuttgart, long ago, you anywhere in that country, you not far from there. i will read some more of you blog, takes me back. i have a son who recently returned from iraq. he is totally a patriot.

me, i am against the war, but i am for fighting it fully while there, you will shoot when you need to shoot, no question. here, the public will have to deal with the politicians and see what the outcome will be, meanwhile you should get everything, the best, and do everything necessary.

i agree tho, even a soldier has to question strange commands.

difficult times. good luck to you, i will visit again.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

hey, thanks for leaving evan a comment - very sweet of you.
i don't know what to say about this post.
i just hope you come back in one healthy, spiritual piece.

11:25 AM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

You're between Scylla and Charybdis, mon ami. And you're too self-aware to take the easy way out and pretend you can't see it.

Worse than their actions, however, has been the response of the American media and viewing public.

Gods yes. I keep wondering... who are these people? Do they really think that shouting soundbytes without content is somehow useful? This is not Mai Lai. This is also not acceptable behavior. Where the happy fuck has the middle ground gone, where people can navigate to a truth and a response that is not black or white?

But I am doubtful about what our nation is fast becoming; about the way that our ideals are being twisted and corrupted

You aren't alone there. We are handing over our rights and our ideals for ostensible "safety" and the (im)moral highground. We're Da Big Bads! No one messes with us! But in reality someone did, and we're still bleeding from that, and this is our mental bandaid. We're not powerless. See what we're doing?

Meanwhile the wound festers underneath. Haditha--is one manifestation of the infection. Abu Ghraib. Gitmo. The indifference and ignorance of our citizens.

Sigh. I won't fill up your comments with ranting. You're a good guy. Remember that, even if 'our side' ends up being wrong.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been doing a lot of reading about the US military and social psychology and media and WWII preparing to write a seminar paper on war films (Hollywood vs. official military films). It's really underlined for me how different things are today with an all volunteer force.

Back then you can see in the concerns that the films have that what mattered most was that the American public believed in what they were doing. Selective Service and rationing made it damned difficult to do anything in half-measures. You needed something like Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" series to make the transition from civilian to soldier make sense because it wasn't just a choice, good or bad, that someone made. It was a duty. And that duty was something that could not be demanded lightly.

I think professionalism has done wonders for our military in terms of effectiveness in warfighting, but I worry that, as you say, the military trains the weapon without concern for the person that is left behind when that weapon is decommissioned. I think that ignoring that and isolating the military from the civilian populace is both foolish and cruel.

Hang in there and do what you must to come out the other side in one piece.


8:58 PM  
Blogger midwesterntransport said...

spc freeman, i came here via antiprincess and i was really, really moved by this post.

it must be tremendously difficult to reconcile your training with this, "what happens when the ideas for which we are expected to kill do not hold such a clear mandate?"

And I think what your words point to is a serious flaw in the way that some conservatives and progressives talk about war. many people in the u.s. deal with the war in a very abstract way. it's not here, we don't live in that kind of terror - it feels awfully far away.

but for soldiers, or for anyone living in a country ravaged by war, it has a *very* personal face. i think most people would choose to defend their friends, their brothers and sisters rather than think about the political or moral consequences of their government's decisions - because we're more accountable to our friends than we are to the nameless enemy.

nobody wants their friends or family to be hurt or killed. whether or not the government or military is right or wrong often takes a backseat to one's personal investment in staying alive.

i have two brothers in the air force. neither has served in the iraq war, but the change that the first one experienced after joining the military was significant. he has become conservative in a way that i simply could not have anticipated, really a whole new person. sometimes when he speaks, i hear a party line, not independent thought. when i read the thoughts of a person like yourself, i have hope that not everyone turns out that way.

anyway, thanks for your thoughts. you've helped me think today, too.

may i link to this? and post a bit of it on my blog?

12:30 AM  
Blogger belledame222 said...

> We're Da Big Bads! No one messes with us! But in reality someone did, and we're still bleeding from that, and this is our mental bandaid. We're not powerless. See what we're doing?>

yes, i think that sums up why "we're" Over There, even more than the oil business.

and of course it's also the same process that went into those other people "messing with us" (9/11) in the first place. it comes from a place of powerlessness.

2:46 AM  
Blogger Madeline said...

Thank you for your comment on my blog. I agree with you--any force which trains others to kill and yet pastes on "ethics training" is really just a farce. "Ethics training" is not a bandage for this situation--there is obviously something unhealthy going on in Iraq, if individuals feel compelled to kill entire households full of civilians. I'm afraid that we're the wrong side, too.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Let said...

As usual, excellent post.

I refrained the first few days from commenting at our site as well until more details came out. Like you, I was torn. I think if I were in uniform and saw a buddy of mine blown to bits in front of me, a part of my soul would demand vengeance. But this is a bit more complicated than vengeance, is it not? Talk show radio and tv political pundits allude to many red herrings. Men and women being re-deployed two and three times, each day a reminder this has been an exercise in futility, and a need to justify their decision at many levels. A war-time situation that was impossible to adequately train for. A lack of psychological assistance for those who continue to see death day in and day out. A blind obligation to follow orders. So when does accountability come in?

As far as I know, the marine code is a bit different in that it isn't about blindly following orders and a chain of command. Marines also defend a code of ethics, and the honor of their fellow human being. And if that means you are watching another marine kill with malice and forethought, as a marine it is your duty to kill that marine.

We seem to be in a perpetual mode of "suspended reality", where despite evidence to the contrary we choose to close our eyes to the truth and live in this alternate world where truth does not matter, and reality is perceived and dictated by others. But other than wait for elections, what is there to do at this point? The window of opportunity to demand change has come and gone. I know we are on the wrong side, probably ARE the wrong side, but who do we blame when we are easily distracted by debates like singing the national anthem in spanish or the national marriage amendment?

So, that takes me to this point - if you blame this government, this administration, how long will you choose to continue bending over for it? Each day you do nothing is one pebble in their pocket. There's only so much vaseline in the world, and lately the reality rapes are getting more brutal. When do we take responsibility? If we admit to having a similar response as these marines did, what are we so in shock about and who are we really blaming? It sounds like once again, accountability here is the pink elephant in the room and admitting to horrific responses does not make them less horrific. Just a sad testament to our inability to deal with our own rage as human beings and our instinctive reaction to blame someone else. Sort of reminds me of something my mother used to say regarding what happens when we choose to live "an eye for an eye". Sounds like many of us are already blind.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Hayden said...

deeply moving, deeply thoughtful post. I believe that most of our military is like you, honorable, in control. But I must also feel sympathy for those who fail to emerge from this with honor intact, and who now be evaluated and judged.

Speaking for myself, I am deeply concerned about Haditha, but I neither talk nor blog about it. I don't know how without engaging the lunatics on either side that will accuse and exploit. I'm somewhat reassured by the fact that the legal system still seems to be working, and hopeful that this can be worked through within the law. I think there are many like me, who watch, pray, and hope that legal justice will bring some balance to the horror.

As a 70's peace protestor, I am determined to never turn this into the kind of insanity that scarred our generation of returning soldiers. Wars give out scars enough, those of us at home don't need to add to the burden. It must be controlled through the democratic process.

and then, on my nightmare evenings, I remember that Hitler was elected.

5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last part of this blog reminds me very much of a few lines from my favourite comediean / social commentator Bill Hicks.

He was speaking to a UK audience around the time of the first Iraqi war and in reference to George W. Bush Snr. when he said " he authorises the production of more Stealth bombers, the invisible fighter jet, I guess to help us defend ourselves against the invisible countries who threaten us every day, to be names later. I'm looking around the globe, there's nobody who can threaten us, ever. We know Russia was a lie, there's nothing there, there's nothing anywhere. How does it feel to find out we are the evil empire"

11:29 AM  

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