Wednesday, November 18, 2009


each and every subject's
easily erased
each model reduced
to black and white figures on a page

portraits of new monsters
an old image retraced
paint it all with numbers
a distortion of common shapes

broken down and rebuilt
servitude in relief
sculpted to be ruins
for a landscape of pride and belief

two thousand feet above
a thousand miles away
nemesis needs no face
for this reconceptualization of space

may good fortune strike us blind
may we see not their eyes
may they wear our masks so bold
may these young hearts beat cold
that we may destroy all our enemies

I don't see or understand
why or where these men stand
but empathy alonecould stay this failed artist's hand

I didn't want to write a song about how war is wrong. That's been done a lot. And I don't really have much in the way of a fresh compelling argument that would make me want to write one; much less think the world needs one. I completely agree with Edwin Starr's (and before him, The Temptations') answer to the question of, "War, what is it good for?" So much so that I feel reiterating it, with only subtle variations in phrasing, would do nothing but render a simple idea unnecessarily complex.
So, this is not an anti-war song. I'm anti-war...well anti-modern war. There's been no armed conflict involving Canada or America during my lifetime that I think were justified. I say during my lifetime because WWII, of course, is a gray area. I mean, Hitler was trying to take over the world and kill a lot of people in the process. But I digress. This is not an anti-war song. Nor is it a commentary on the necessity for violence when faced with violent attack. This is a slightly different beast. This is about the how of war - particularly how you get people to kill.

About a year ago, I bought a copy of Gwynne Dyer's WAR, for three bucks at the used book store by my work. In the 80s (when the book was written) a documentary series about it had been produced. I saw portions of it at school (several times in varying grades) and had even used the text for a report in the days long before I ceased to be a virgin, but not much of it's information had survived my later party years. All I remembered was some cool pictures and the utter horror that the idea of nuclear holocaust awakened in me. When I reread it though, I discovered that the cold war sections were far less interesting** and that the book's overall theme regarding the evolution of warfare, particularly the evolution of combat training, was far more engrossing.

The most interesting part of the book deals with Dyer's claim that the vast majority of human beings are not born killers. This isn't to say we lack the capacity to be killers just that most of us do not want to kill and find the idea both repugnant and terrifying. This characteristic is not something that the common soldier lacks, as the research of SLA Marshall demonstrated. During WWII, Marshall conducted interviews with soldiers from hundreds of different battalions of the US infantry. What he found was that in any given battle only 25% of the men were actually firing their weapons at the enemy because they did not want to kill. Their dispersion in foxholes allowed them to neglect their duty with little to no ramifications, simply because no one was close enough to observe them. When the US military was informed of this statistic the methods they had been using to train new recruits changed drastically. They military took Marshall's study very seriously.

In the past couple of decades Marshall's findings have been the centre of quite a bit of controversy. Both his conclusions and testing methods have been called into question. Regardless of whether his work is legitimate or spurious, the affect that his research had on the military provides a partial answer to this song. The post-Marshall army had to think very seriously about how to make a soldier. As Dyer points out, the primary method they introduced was desensitizing recruits to the suffering of their enemy and to indoctrinate them, "in the most explicit fashion (as previous generations of soldiers were not) with the notion that their purpose is not to just to be brave or to fight well: it is to kill people." There's a joke here that a funnier man could make which would illustrate, in a far wittier fashion than I am capable of, that the army figured out that the best way to make a soldier was to just tell a soldier the truth about what he is being trained to do. Of course, the same 'duty to your country' stuff was still used to great affect, but it was the emphasis on killing that was the newest tool to be used. Stripping the young man of his compassion for the enemy, and essentially transforming him, both physically and mentally, into a killing machine, is the object of boot camp.

Back then the first step in creating soldiers was making sure that they know exactly what it is they are supposed to do. The form of the soldier dictated its function. But that isn't the first step, anymore. With the days of conscription long gone, the first step is getting someone to enlist. The recruitment propaganda that takes the form of commercials, with all the excitement and feel of a summer blockbuster, is one of the techniques used to attract young recruits. Trolling economically under privileged neighborhoods for youth with minimal career options is another popular method. The oldest and truest method, of course, is to project the image that the young recruit would be taking on the role of the protector, and in order for that to be effective, a threat must be introduced. The creation of a new enemy is essential for the military recruitment process, and the enemy changes often.*** The past century saw us slapping Japs, bombing Gerry, and fighting terrorists and communists of all different types the world over. In each instance the importance of overcoming these enemies through violence was fully stressed. The humanity of each force we opposed was stripped, be it through racism, or through the introduction of the enemy as an idea - we're not fighting people on the battlefield, we're fighting communism, or terrorism. These aren't humans we're shooting at; they are representations of all that is in contrast to our way of life. They are the thing that will take away our freedom and comfort, or worse still, our lives.

The dehumanization of the enemy, as we have already seen, carries on into boot camp. And, as we have also seen, this is where the dehumanization of the recruit begins, as he is slowly molded into a killing machine. But all the propaganda and training in the world won't necessarily spurn a person to kill. There are other factors involved. The military's institutional structure helps to perpetuate the execution of a soldier’s duty. Soldiers are inducted into the lowest rung of the military hierarchy and from there on they're trained to respect and obey every form of authority above them. It is their job to take orders before anything else. And the primary order they are given in war time is to kill. Humans that have difficulty making decisions in a crisis look to authority figures to make those decisions for them, as is evidenced in the controversial Milgram experiment of the 1960s. The experiment's creator, Dr. Stanley Milgram, was basically trying to find out how far people would follow an authority figure (as well as how much pain a person could inflict on another.

During his testing, he would hire an ordinary citizen to be his test subject, and then pair him with an actor who would pretend to be the second test subject. The real test subject was told that the experiment was to study memory and that the other test subject (the actor) had been told to memorize a list. The actor was in a separate room, and while he could not be seen, he could be heard. The real test subject was then told to administer an electric shock to the actor every time he made a mistake reading back the list. With every wrong answer the intensity of the shocks increased. So, here you have this ordinary citizen being told to inflict pain on a complete stranger, the effects of which (the screaming and begging for him to stop) are completely audible. At all times a scientist was present to ask the test subject to continue administering the shocks whenever he voiced misgivings or guilt about proceeding. It's really kind of an asshole trick to play on someone, and there have been a lot of questions raised about the ethical implications of the study. What is interesting, however, is that Milgram found that about 50% of the test subjects kept on administering the shocks - most did it begrudgingly, but they did continue. At the end of the study he concluded that human beings are capable of committing horrible acts of cruelty as long as their instructions were coming from a legitimate source. The test subjects essentially saw themselves as tools for carrying out the orders of an authority figure. If we transfer this scenario to the battlefield, the same type of behaviour is present. Soldiers are expected to obey their commanding officers, and the majority complies with little to no resistance. Those commanding officers, after all, are part of the military establishment and thus employees of their particular country’s government. And it is difficult for most people to conceive of a more legitimate symbol of authority than the government.

The advances in military technology we have seen in the last few decades have changed the face of warfare dramatically and produced yet another method of reducing the enemy to something less than human. We've all seen footage of soldiers in Iraq using video screens to launch attacks on their enemies, and most of us have noticed the eerie similarity between what we were watching on the news and the video games that we've wasted hours of our lives playing. And while, I have no experience in actual combat, I can only imagine that it would be easier to pull the trigger on a two-dimensional figure on a video screen than it would be to pull the trigger on someone standing directly in front of you in the vivid colour of reality. This sense of disconnection that technology creates within a soldier is comparable to the desensitization that distance creates. As Dyer notes, bombers often have fewer reservations about firing on the enemy because they are so far removed from them. In short, it's easier to believe that you aren't really killing people when you don't actually see them.

I've never read "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. As a guy who doesn't appreciate the genius of creating ways to destroy people and parts of the world, I was never too interested.**** It seemed like the kind of book aggressive, young, hot-shot stock market goons would read and declare as their mantra. Maybe I'm being too literal, or too much of a hippie, but I find the notion of killing and conquering as an art form to be kind of unsettling. Oddly enough, the experience of war for humankind has spawned an abundance of brilliant artworks, from Goya’s "Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 3rd May 1808," to Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" to Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." As we continue to invent new ways to take each other apart we create new works to express our horror and to condemn the whole ordeal. An emphasis on the latter seems long overdue. The shape of war is always changing, as are the methods used to mold its combatants. What won't change is man's mortality and the permanence of death.
*Yes, I’m lumping Canada and the US together as a couple, but only because we go to a lot of the same parties.
**This does not reflect the insight or the narrative poetry of the, it's just not as interesting to me because the cold war is over.
***I’m not trying to suggest that the military industrial complex is picking its targets based on efforts to increase recruitment numbers. but obviously the idea of defending the freedom of Americans from liberty hating terrorists in the middle east is enticing to a great deal of young recruits.****Given my initial statement regarding my ignorance of the book's contents, I am in no way trying to diminish it as a work with immense historical

No comments:

Post a Comment