Do soldiers need to laugh at killing?

Amongst the various issues raised by the release of the previously-suppressed video of US soldiers massacring civilians in Baghdad who weren’t doing anything was the attitudes revealed by their comments as they killed, and after they killed. They laughed. They joked. They demonstrated utter contempt for those they had just, or were about to, disintegrate through their sights. It was apparent that they did not see these people as human beings whose lives had value, but as an unknown element that could prove a threat and therefore could, erring on the side of caution for Coalition soldiers but on the complete opposite side of caution for Iraqi civilians who might be in the area, be destroyed with no concern.

The argument is that this sort of callous indifference to human life is a vital way of dealing with what soldiers are asked to do.

“You don’t want combat soldiers to be foolish or to jump the gun, but their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real,” says Moore.

It’s laugh or go mad.

But, look – is their job “to destroy the enemy”? Regardless of the consequences? Remember, these people are there representing our governments – representing us. Shouldn’t their job be “to defeat the enemy, whilst avoiding killing if reasonably possible”? Particularly when we’re not talking about a war between armies, but urban pacification? Collateral damage is, in many cases, probably unavoidable. In this case, it is clear from watching the video that it wasn’t – whether or not earlier in the video the camera looks like an RPG, it is absolutely certain that when the helicopter gunner has the group in his sights, before he mows them down, they are not doing anything. Why, if Iraqi lives were valued at all, could the helicopter not have continued to keep them under observation, 30mm cannon trained on them, ready to fire if one of them hefted an RPG to his soldier to fire at them or raised an AK47 to shoot at ground troops or adopted a hostile stance, and covered them until the soldiers arrived to check through binoculars whether they were a threat or not?

The real reason this killing happened is that the military calculation for Iraqi lives vs Coalition lives was (and is) completely off kilter. Fifteen innocent Iraqi lives? Happy to make them pay that if it potentially saves one Coalition soldier.

Anyway, back to the issue of the attitude they displayed: grim humour doesn’t bother me. What bothers me about the soldiers’ conduct in the video is the deadly connection between the contempt for Iraqi life they express in their words, and the contempt for Iraqi life they demonstrate in their actions. This isn’t consequence-free joking: it’s making light of an atrocity so they don’t have to feel bad about it.

But soldiers shouldn’t be committing atrocities. They should be avoiding committing atrocities. That doesn’t mean there won’t be innocent deaths – war is difficult. War is messy. (One reason we should only enter into it if the alternative is clearly even worse.) But if soldiers act carefully, professionally, taking all reasonable steps to avoid killing innocent people, and then innocent people die anyway, then surely they can avoid madness by the very sensible rationalisation that they did all they could? That what they’re asked to do is a necessary evil?

(That of course requires that it be “necessary”, part of the problem with sending them to Iraq in the first place.)

Because these fifteen people dying WAS avoidable. There were alternatives. Whilst I place most of the blame for this incident in the hands of the command that authorised the attack on sketchy information, and on the rules of engagement they implemented that simply make this sort of thing inevitable because their attitude is one of Iraqi lives being next to worthless, not worth taking the time to try to save – I still think the gunner did the wrong thing. He could see they weren’t doing anything when he opened up. He’d been trained to open up regardless, because they were just Iraqis and who knows, they might threaten a Coalition soldier at some point, but following orders hasn’t been an excuse for almost sixty years.

He should feel guilty. And so should we, for putting him in that position.

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21 responses to “Do soldiers need to laugh at killing?

  1. I can’t believe that you would make such a stupid argument here Jeremy. How many hours have you spent playing computer games based upon modern combat?
    How many times have you cheered out loud as you have “Killed” the on screen enemy?

    Have you actually had to kill any living creature if yes what was that creature?

    The later part of this news report puts the leftist hyperbole into context:

  2. Splatterbottom

    They should be happy saving the lives of their fellow soldiers. Having contempt for Mahdi Army freaks (and the Reuters stooges who ran with them to make propaganda) is exactly right.

    The only reason you have the liberty to pontificate inanely about the shortcomings of these soldiers is that people like them have done what they are now doing.

    I know, I know they are not meeting your exacting intellectual and moral standards. Just be happy they have the guts to do what you won’t – serve their country. Clearly they’d never make the cut in the sideline-sniping world of the new ‘progressive’ power elite. But then again they probably wouldn’t find fulfillment in flaunting their shriveled souls and convoluted consciences while claiming to be moral exemplars to the great unwashed.

  3. Splatterbottom is in no way defending the indefensible here .
    Lefty, don’t you realize that if those journalists and kids hadn’t been taken care of, we’d all be dead and speaking Arabic by now. The only reason we’re still breathing at all is because of the Iraqi blood sacrifice so nobly made by these heroic troops.

  4. “I can’t believe that you would make such a stupid argument here Jeremy. How many hours have you spent playing computer games based upon modern combat?
    How many times have you cheered out loud as you have “Killed” the on screen enemy?

    Have you actually had to kill any living creature if yes what was that creature?”

    I don’t understand your argument here. You can tell the difference between killing a human being and not killing a human being, right?

    I was unaware that you can’t have an opinion about a massacre until you’ve killed a real person yourself.

    DR – couldn’t have said it better.

  5. blasttyrant

    The video and the response by the soldiers involved is pretty fucked up but it’s by no means anything new.
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/a-dead-iraqi-is-just-another-dead-iraqi-you-know-so-what-456905.html

    By Iains logic I should be allowed to go round shooting up the cops whilst laughing the whole time and then just pin the blame on Rock Star Games! What a giant dildo you are Iain.

    Splatterbottom – It’s just the sort of reaction to expect though from dopey fucktards that let News Limited to the thinking for them.
    I suppose Steven D Green is your hero?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmudiyah_killings

  6. Hello Jeremy

    Dehumanising the enemy is nothing new, it has been the standard practice of warring nations since warfare began — it is an effective means of motivating people (both civilian and military), to support the war effort.

    In this particular case, according to comments made on the Slacktivist site you linked to there is another, unedited version of this film clip which contains more of the lead up to this incident and comments from the ground units indicating they were coming under small-arms and RPG fire from a group of 10-20 indivuiduals.

    It would be interesting to see that version, it may well add some context to what we see in the edited version and explain why the helicopter crew acted in the way they did — as an aside I would question why whoever at Wikileaks released this clip decided to release an edited version which is clearly designed to slant the opinion of the viewer. (I thought Wikileaks was supposed to be an impartial source).

    I would answer your question regarding destroying the enemy by saying that it depends on the situation — if you are fighting an all-out war with an easily identifiable enemy, then yes, the role of the military is to do whatever it takes to destroy that enemy, if however, as is the case in Iraq where we are trying to win hearts and minds and the “enemy” are within the civilian population, it is better to take a more measured approach and avoid killing whenever it’s reasonably possible…Bearing in mind there will always be circumstances where it is simply unavoidable.

  7. “They should be happy saving the lives of their fellow soldiers.”

    Exactly! Who cares whether the length of time they spend in the field and the lack of mental health evaluation and support means the number of soldiers with PTSD rises every day? Who cares whether they exhibit inappropriate responses to stimuli and their long-term outlook for mental health and substance abuse problems is frighteningly high? Who cares if they become junkies or alcoholics or commit suicide or come home and can’t function?

    They should be grateful that they can save each others lives! Happy!

    “The only reason you have the liberty to pontificate inanely about the shortcomings of these soldiers is that people like them have done what they are now doing now”

    Shortcomings? This isn’t about the shortcomings of the soldiers. It’s about the shortcomings of the leadership. It’s about not caring for or monitoring the mental health of soliders. It’s about them being hung up to dry when they do invariably end up with PTSD, or some other form of mental illness, writing them off as bad eggs or weak men.

    So you reckon we should just ignore the warning signs, tell them they should “just be happy” and hope things work out when they get back?

    Our soliders are risking their lives in our name. They deserve far better than that, SB.

  8. Jeremy
    I ask if you have every had to kill (even just an animal) because I suspect that you haven’t and in that instance your underdstanding of killing is all theory.
    For the record I do understand the difference between killing and not killing a human being But in war most soldiers have to depersonalize what they are expected to do just as they know that their enemy will be doing. Because you can be sure that those who hold the RPGs and the AK47 are not considering the coalition troops, or even the fighters from rival militias are actually human either. Sadly that is the cold reality of war and you are not going to change it any time soon.

  9. this post seems messy and doesnt have a point?

  10. “if you are fighting an all-out war with an easily identifiable enemy, then yes, the role of the military is to do whatever it takes to destroy that enemy, if however, as is the case in Iraq where we are trying to win hearts and minds and the “enemy” are within the civilian population, it is better to take a more measured approach and avoid killing whenever it’s reasonably possible…Bearing in mind there will always be circumstances where it is simply unavoidable.”

    I agree entirely.

    Where it is avoidable, though, every effort should be made to do so.

    I’ve seen a 39 min version of the clip, but there’s not much more at the beginning. You see them fly in, but you don’t see anyone engaged in gunfire.

    Iain – the point is that human life has value. That’s not shown by the military’s approach to this. Your asinine attempt to bring in videogames or whatever just makes no sense.

    Karl – in what way? The point is that soldiers should have clearer, better guidelines, so that they don’t need to justify atrocities by dehumanising their targets. An accident is not an atrocity. Accidents are understandable. The problem in this incident is that they couldn’t go home afterwards and say they’d done everything reasonable to avoid killing those people: they’d killed them first and asked questions later. They can’t take comfort in having acted as professionals engaging in a necessary and unavoidable evil, so instead they have to stay sane by pretending the fifteen people killed don’t matter.

    That’s not the way it should be. We should demand more of the military command who set this fiasco in place.

  11. I wouldn’t read too much into the gunner laughing in this incident — everyone reacts differently under stress (including nervous laughter) – and the laughter in this case could just be a nervous reaction.

    The issue of how soldiers react to killing is difficult I think — again, everyone will react differently, but I believe only the truly psychotic would see any sort of humour in it or see it as some sort of game.

    I reckon equally serious to the act itself, is the apparent cover-up and although the US military and, it appears, government have decided not to investigate it any further, I would’ve thought in the interests of winning over the trust of the Iraqi population they should at least make some effort to have an independent investigation undertaken.

  12. “I reckon equally serious to the act itself, is the apparent cover-up and although the US military and, it appears, government have decided not to investigate it any further”

    well they invaded an entire country on big lies, they’re not going to stop when a small massacre happens

  13. Splatterbottom

    Doktorrudi, no doubt you are bitterly disappointed that the mighty Mahdi Army didn’t get to kill lots of Americans, and that their Reuters colleagues didn’t get to make propaganda for the front page of the NYT. I mean god forbid that the Iraqi people manage somehow to escape the clutches of Islamic extremists. It is only right to call shame on those who would stand in the way of these glorious jihadis.

    Keri,

    Shortcomings? This isn’t about the shortcomings of the soldiers. It’s about the shortcomings of the leadership. It’s about not caring for or monitoring the mental health of soliders.

    PTSD wasn’t mentioned in the original post, which was an attack on the soldiers themselves: They laughed. They joked. They demonstrated utter contempt for those they had just, or were about to, disintegrate through their sights. It was that unworthy attack that my comments were addressing.

    Your statement: So you reckon we should just ignore the warning signs, tell them they should “just be happy” and hope things work out when they get back? Is not based on anything I actually said. The “just be happy” reference was not addressed to the soldiers and was taken completely out of context by you.

  14. That wasn’t an “attack on the soldiers”. It was a description of what they did – they can’t be absolved of all responsibility – in the context of more fundamental criticisms of the inadequate rules we’ve put in place and the “job” we’ve wrongly told them to do.

  15. Wisdom Like Silence

    Jeremy…soldiers follow orders.

    That is the extent of what they care about. It has always been that way with armies, and hopefully, always will be. Following orders isnt an excuse, it’s what there is. You dont get to say “not an excuse for sixty years” because you decide its not nice enoug. Soldiers are trained to do what they’re told, without question or thought of consequence.

    Blaming the grunts or being abhored by the conduct is almost as sensible as being disgusted by the gun or the bullets. The commanders are the ones who should have to answer for that horrible situation, the gunners shouldnt even be part of the conversation.

  16. I *am* directing my main concerns at the commanders.

    (But – as I’ve said several times – “following orders” isn’t a complete defence, either.)

  17. Wisdom Like Silence

    Ezactly, we are on teh same page. Following orders isnt a defence, because for the grunts, there is nothin to defend, since they didn’t do anything wrong.

    Don’t know what you know about UCMJ but most of these kids, as we all know, are poor. Backdoor draft etc. Failing to carry out, or willfully disobeying a direct order loses all payments, benefits automatically for ever and they’re dishonourably discharged. Which in this day is almost the same as being lined up and shot, only much more slow and inhumane.

    Thats just as a BTW, but eye die grass.

    They were told to shoot, they did. They did their jobs perfectly.

  18. Pingback: “If we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent.” « An Onymous Lefty

  19. Wisdom: “They were told to shoot, they did. They did their jobs perfectly.”

    Actually, they gunship crew asked for permission to engage. When the reporter was on the ground dying they weren’t ordered to shoot him. They were hoping he’d pick up a weapon so they could have an excuse to finish him off.

  20. SB: Iraq didn’t have a problem with Jihadists before the invasion. Saddam was a dictator (previously backed and funded by your pals in the GOP, who assisted him massacre his own people, which you never seem to acknowledge), however he was not an Islamic extremist.

    But hey, don’t let the facts get in the way of you abusing “elitist lefties”

  21. Jeremy the US military doctrine is different from that of other nations, it calls for the Army to “destroy” the enemy while other nations have doctrines calling only for “defeat”.

    In fact the US has been criticised for this. I can’t find an exact reference but these comments by a senior British officer might be related. I recall a couple of years ago a senior British officer, with tacit support of the UK defence forces, published a paper discussing the difference between the “destroy” doctrine of the US and the “defeat” doctrine of the British, pointing out that “destroy” is counter-productive to the political aims of war (ie. to a Clausiwitzian view of the modern role of war)

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