Friday, May 21, 2004

A few thoughts on war being hell

Today's Herbert column tells of an interview with Sergeant Mejia, the soldier who had a weekend off and just didn't go back. He's facing a court martial for desertion.

Some highlights:

Sergeant Mejia's legal defense is complex (among other things, he is seeking conscientious objector status), but his essential point is that war is too terrible to be waged willy-nilly, that there must always be an ethically or morally sound reason for opening the spigots to such horror. And he believes that threshold was never met in Iraq.

"Imagine being in the infantry in Ramadi, like we were," he said, "where you get shot at every day and you get mortared where you live, [and attacked] with R.P.G.'s [rocket-propelled grenades], and people are dying and getting wounded and maimed every day. A lot of horrible things become acceptable."

He spoke about a friend of his, a sniper, who he said had shot a child about 10 years old who was carrying an automatic weapon. "He realized it was a kid," said Sergeant Mejia. "The kid tried to get up. He shot him again."

The child died.

All you really want to do in such an environment, said Sergeant Mejia, is "get out of there alive." So soldiers will do things under that kind of extreme stress that they wouldn't do otherwise.

"You just sort of try to block out the fact that they're human beings and see them as enemies," he said. "You call them hajis, you know? You do all the things that make it easier to deal with killing them and mistreating them."

When there is time later to reflect on what has happened, said Sergeant Mejia, "you come face to face with your emotions and your feelings and you try to tell yourself that you did it for a good reason. And if you don't find it, if you don't believe you did it for a good reason, then, you know, it becomes pretty tough to accept it — to willingly be a part of the war."

Of course, one of my immediate reactions to his descriptions was sort of a callous, war-is-hell-you-signed-up-so-deal-with-it kind of resignation. Maybe that's just because I'm tired. But the root here is what I've said before here: it's fine to cite the voluntary nature of our current military to justify not feeling worse for what's being done to our soldiers - except that it's our leadership's and our responsibility not to take advantage of their willingness to dehumanize themselves for a bit on our behalf.

Whoa - dehumanize. That's a strong word. But that's kinda what needs to happen, right? Go back and read Mejia's words. You make the Iraqis the "other." Give them a shorthand name and make them less human so it's easier to shoot and kill them. You build some walls in your mind, compartmentalize your actions and motivations and then you can sleep at night, curled up next to your gun, RPGs whizzing overhead.

But what if you can't make things line up? What if you can't make the outside match the inside? The given motivation match what you're seeing every day? Then we have a problem. A big one. Humans don't do well with that kind of dissonance.

It makes me think of a small treatise I heard from a respected legal/political philosopy mind a few weeks ago about life in communist Russia. It was a story about a professor who was teaching biology. He had to teach what the regime wanted taught, even though it was clearly wrong. Clearly wrong in the sky is green kind of way. But you teach it and you just believe inside what's actually true. But you say something long enough, you start to buy your own press, and you begin to lose your own battle with truth. His line on this was that there are only 3 ways to deal with life in the USSR: vodka, revolution, or suicide.

I've meandered a bit from Iraq - but I think the danger and the psychological problems are analogous. We'll have soon - I hope - a bunch of guys come home dealing with what they not only saw but what they did. The more fault lines they hit, the more dangerous it becomes for them to exist within their own minds.

From a legal standpoint, it will be interesting to see what happens with Mejia. From a human standpoint, however, it will be more than interesting - it will be more like life and death.

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