Monday, March 12, 2012
We don’t know enough yet about the soldier who massacred Afghani civilians in Kandahar. Surely the tern “lone nut” pretty much must apply.
What struck me, though, in reading and watching some of the commentary about it, was that the media’s next question about it is “Should we get out of Afghanistan?” Yes! I think so, but as a society how about asking this question: “Shouldn’t we think about changing the age-old military strategy that calls for training service members to dehumanize the enemy?”
Psychologist David Livingstone Smith came out with “Less Than Human,” a book about just that question last year. Here’s an interview about it.
There’s a short book excerpt on the NPR page.
When we think of dehumanization during World War II our minds turn to the Holocaust, but it wasn’t only the Germans who dehumanized their enemies. While the architects of the Final Solution were busy implementing their lethal program of racial hygiene, the Russian-Jewish poet and novelist Ilya Ehrenburg was churning out propaganda for distribution to Stalin’s Red Army. These pamphlets seethed with dehumanizing rhetoric: they spoke of “the smell of Germany’s animal breath,” and described Germans as “two-legged animals who have mastered the technique of war” — “ersatz men” who ought to be annihilated. “The Germans are not human beings,” Ehrenburg wrote, ”... If you kill one German, kill another — there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses.”
Smith says it’s been happening all the way back to Mesopotamia.
Sebastian Junger, author and war correspondent, is good on the present-day American version of the state of mind—a military training tactic, but also a way to live with oneself when you kill people in wars:
But of course they have dehumanized the enemy — otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings. Rather than demonstrate a callous disregard for the enemy, this awful incident might reveal something else: a desperate attempt by confused young men to convince themselves that they haven’t just committed their first murder — that they have simply shot some coyotes on the back 40.
Despite denials by the military, many veterans claim basic training emphasizes dehumanization. Because it’s easier to kill a person perceived as being less than human, soldiers are encouraged to believe their enemy is a lower form of life instead of a worthy human adversary. But such thinking fosters such deep hatred that it can readily grow to include civilians from the demonized culture.