There is no doubt that war is a catalyst for atrocities committed against noncombatants. The report of wholesale shootings at My Lai and the 2003 Toledo Blade account of the Tiger Force collecting ears of those they killed made US brutality in Viet Nam inescapably clear. Last year’s pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib, along with analyses by the Red Cross and Major General Antonio Taguba, seared the image of US abuse in Iraq into our minds. Did all the GIs sent to Viet Nam or Iraq participate? No. But these stories are a grim reminder of the doors our nation opens every time it chooses war.
People in battle operate on fear and adrenaline. When they hear the shooting and feel the homemade bombs explode, when they see a bloody mess where their friend used to be, they experience a surge of hate for those responsible. Whoever killed a buddy from their hometown does not even deserve the name “human.”
Soldiers create their own slang epithet for their foes—something connoting less-than-human beasts—and construct a bullet-proof loyalty for their mates. “We” fight for justice and freedom against those brutes. “They” despise all we hold dear; “they” only understand force; “they” want us all dead. In this chaos with death all around, operating on war stereotypes and their own view of the world, last year’s high school grad may make a snap decision—kill or be killed—on the basis of nationality alone. Fear and adrenaline.
Troops in the field, and we at home, lose track of the fact that these wars did not begin in the trenches. They have been started by political decisions, usually made by middle-aged people in the comfort of well-appointed rooms.
Who decides to put our young sons and daughters into the madness and desperation of war? What noble-sounding reasons do they give us to win our support? And what are the real pay-offs these decision-makers seek, for which they’re willing to trade our children’s peril?
The fear and adrenaline of war can push some of our young people to risk their lives to help others, some to keep their heads down hoping to survive. It also pushes some to brutalize members of the enemy group. Fear and adrenaline can push soldiers to violate their deepest sense of right and wrong, to override what all our values say we must never do. Returning soldiers tell the stories—their own or others’—and live their lives haunted by them.
Who decides to grind our children in the moral crucible of war? What reward of land or oil or political power can justify the choices, and the memories, that are forced upon our young?
The Gulf of Tonkin “attack,” the supposed precipitating event for sending troops to Viet Nam, we now know never occurred. It was a lie by our government. Then why were so many of our brothers and classmates sent to Viet Nam? Why were they ever in the chaotic hell that gave rise to such atrocities?
The Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that could have caused a mushroom cloud, support for Al Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks, were also lies by our government. Why were the decision-makers so eager to send our sons and daughters, students and neighbors to Iraq that they would craft such elaborate lies to do it? Why were our young people ever put in a position where shooting confused civilians at checkpoints was a daily choice?
Once the political decision is made, once the invasion starts, life in the war zone keeps soldiers operating on fear and adrenaline. The evening news and political rhetoric keep their families and the nation in the same highly charged and reactive state. The “enemy” is anyone who kills our kids; their reasons are never worth discussing. If they can be killed in greater numbers by high-tech weapons, it is a victory. Yes, send more money, more hardware, even more of our young to lay waste to those “demons.” Fear and adrenaline.
And it doesn’t end with the last blast of gunfire. Some of our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, come home in body bags, some permanently maimed and disabled. Some, still pumped up on fear and adrenaline, or having have crossed too many limits of conscience and conduct, abuse or kill their own family members. Some commit suicide to escape the horror of their memories; some drink themselves to death. This does not happen to all, but it always happens to some: it is the roulette of war.
How many alternatives should we demand be examined and exhausted before we allow politicians to spin that roulette wheel for children not their own?
Political rhetoric ignores the fact that, whenever our government decides to invade a country, fear and adrenaline work the same way in the people they choose to attack. According to international reports, this now applies to an estimated 200,000 Iraqis who cannot accept that those who killed their families, leveled their houses, rounded up cousins and friends and tortured them, deserve to be called human. They cannot see how anyone who destroys hospitals, water and electricity, who reduces whole cities to rubble, has their best interests at heart. They cannot believe, looking at fourteen permanent US military bases, that an election staged by the occupier will change the real seat of power in their country.
They, too, have their own slang epithet for their occupiers, those “less-than-human” beasts, and have as well a bulletproof loyalty for their mates. “We patriots” fight for justice and freedom, they say, against these brutes. “They” despise all we hold dear; “they” only understand force; “they” want us all dead or to own us and our oil. In this chaos with death all around, operating on war stereotypes and their own view of the world, they make the decision to join the resistance or not—kill or be killed—on the basis of nationality alone. Fear and adrenaline is not creating peace.
This administration started a war on rhetoric they knew to be false; even the currently advertised reason—to deliver democracy—covers a multitude of practices that belie that altruistic objective. No one who is trying to protect family and homeland from foreign occupiers, no one operating on fear and adrenaline, will be won to democracy by tanks and ultimatums.
Since the US began this invasion, upwards of 100,000 Iraqi men, women and children have died, over 1300 US soldiers have died, countless persons have been maimed for life, and millions on both sides hate each other for what they have suffered at each other’s hands.
Whose decision, whose gain, is worth continuing this hell for one more day?
Virginia Curran Hoffman, PhD, LMFT (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago