Americans instinctively treat men and women serving in the military with reverence. The president, the government, Congress, schools, the media and Hollywood conspire to portray soldiers, Marines and special forces as highly ethical individuals not only willing to sacrifice life and limb for the sake of their country but also to topple dictators they’ve never heard of and introduce ‘freedom and democracy’ to far-flung places they’ve never seen on a map.
The establishment cloaks those who serve with honour. Fox News projects them as almost saintly showing soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan distributing sweets to clamouring kids or working with rural populations to build schools. Hollywood partners with the Pentagon to produce inspirational war films: the Pentagon seeks propaganda for recruitment purposes, supplying moviemakers with equipment and extras in return for censorship over scripts. On the rare occasions within those virtual co-productions when soldiers break the code they are always seen to be punished.
When the 1986 film Top Gun was released, army recruiting booths were installed inside cinemas. Movies such as Black Hawk Down featuring the Pentagon’s Black Hawk helicopters indoctrinate the public with the belief that Marines are dedicated, honourable and so loyal to their fellows that, despite the dangers, no man is ever left behind. Naturally, the other side is invariably depicted negatively. It is always America’s enemies who take pleasure in killing, raping and torturing.
Since the war in Vietnam where atrocities committed by US soldiers against the civilian population shocked the world, the military has gone all out to nurture its reputation.
But unfortunately for those who guard its secrets, in these Facebook/YouTube times inconvenient truths emerge to burst that carefully contrived noble bubble. Yet the American people have been so successfully indoctrinated that no matter what volume of heinous crimes comes to the surface, they still buy-in to the few bad apples line put out by former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to excuse the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered by Iraqis detained at Abu Ghraib. Even when it became clear that the methods used — stress positions, salivating dogs, water-boarding, nudity, threats to family members — had been approved at the very top and had been freely practised during the early days of Guantanamo when men were kept in cages like animals, the American public barely reacted with any sort of revulsion.
However, when Newsweek reported that an interrogator at Guantanamo had flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet, Americans were quick to support the White House’s denials and the heavy pressure it placed upon the magazine to retract the story. In 2004, an NBC cameraman embedded with US troops in Iraq was broadly reviled for videotaping the shooting of an injured and unarmed Iraqi in a Fallujah mosque by a Marine corporal. The corporal was never punished but the messenger received hate mail and threats to his life simply for recording the truth.
Similarly, there was an absence of American outrage when WikiLeaks published a video showing the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed Iraqis, including two employees of Reuters, by US Apache helicopter pilots. Chillingly, the perpetrators showed no remorse. “Oh yeah, look at those dead b…….!” said one. “Good shooting,” responds another before launching another attack on the passengers of a van attempting to retrieve the injured. Such callousness is hardly surprising when US pilots are regularly issued with amphetamines to keep them awake.
Last week, the bestial behaviour of some members of the US military reached new heights. A video that surfaced last Wednesday showed four uniformed Marines in Afghanistan, including two non-commissioned officers, laughing as they urinated on the corpses of alleged Taliban fighters. “Have a great day buddy,” said one to a lifeless body on the ground. A US Marine Corps General, Jim Amos, announced that the incident would be investigated, adding that it was “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history”. I would argue with that.
I have long concluded that the US military encourages the dehumanisation of the enemy because it’s psychologically easier to kill a foe that has been divested of his human qualities. This is an integral part of US culture. First World War US Army posters inscribed “Destroy this Mad Brute” showed Germany as a female ravishing gorilla; Second World War recruiting posters depicted Japanese soldiers as rats.
Vietnamese civilians who were killed were referred to as “regrettable by-products’.
When former president George W. Bush placed Iraq in his ‘axis of evil’ he effectively dehumanised all Iraqis in the eyes of ordinary Americans, opening the door to demeaning labels frequently used by US soldiers in Iraq when referring to Iraqis.
Besides being a hothouse for barbarity, war crimes and contraventions of the Geneva Conventions, this culture dehumanises soldiers as much as it does their enemies. In many cases, it is also a barrier to political reconciliation.
Indeed, the desecration of bodies in Afghanistan comes at a time when Washington is holding talks with the Taliban. But the only way such a poisonous culture will change is for true American patriots to begin holding their military’s feet to the fire to uphold the principles it and its army of propagandists purport to hold dear.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the comments may be considered for publication