Many politicians have claimed that the atrocities committed by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq were a result of improper training. The mothers of these soldiers would vouch for the fact that their youngsters were properly trained to eat from, and then with, a spoon, and sometime later with other, more complex utensils. Their mothers would undoubtedly testify that they were properly toilet trained. Their mothers and fathers would testify to the arduous task they undertook to guide them away from their natural impulses to steal other children’s toys and beat up other children who interfered with their wishes. These parents would tell us how they painstakingly and repeatedly taught them concepts of sharing and cooperation and how they trained them to love. Most of them learned the practice of love by being loved by their parents and families.
Later, these youngsters were taken to churches, synagogues, and mosques and trained in the spiritual foundations of their families and learned the laws of God, Yahweh, and Allah. They were trained to treat their fellow humans with kindness and respect. They discovered their own spirituality and developed consciences. In school, the training continued, reinforcing focus, creativity, discipline, and respect for teachers and other students and, one hopes, the full ramifications of citizenship.
Sometime in the journey through adolescence, this training was undoubtedly challenged by their culture. These youngsters were exposed to cruel, violent and brutal behavior in movies, TV shows, and video games. They may have been exposed to inhumane behavior from other human beings, themselves products of abridged or distracted childhood training.
I would venture to say, however, that in most cases, the early training of these young soldiers resonated so deeply at the core of their beings, that they were not too damaged and certainly not metamorphosed by these experiences.
However, when they became soldiers they were trained to kill. Killing other human beings contradicted all their previous training. It contradicted their consciences, their ethical and religious values, and their behavior patterns. In order to train them to kill, all their prior training, in essence, their very beings, had to be revoked and reconstructed.
A young man who works as a counselor at one of our summer camps told me about his military training. I’ll call him Joe. Joe was an easygoing, handsome guy who played football in high school. After high school he joined the Air Force and went to train in Colorado. His training included watching hours and hours of films that defined patriotism as killing. These films designated enemies and pumped the recruits with rage and hatred for them, hatred sufficient to kill.
The films included close-ups of people jumping to their deaths out of World Trade Center windows and close-ups of charred and desecrated American faces and bodies. They included images of sinister Arabs plotting against America, jeering, taunting Arabs committing brutal acts of violence against Americans.
Joe had a seizure while watching the films and was sent home. He had never had a seizure before. He felt that he hadn’t measured up to his patriotic duty. When he recovered, he tried to re-enlist, but the Air Force wouldn’t have him.
Another young man told me that the cadence chant used by the drill sergeants in his training was “Napalm sticks to kids.” This was presumably done to immunize these young people to the fact that they would kill and maim children. This is a critical immunization for the military, because killing children, women, and male civilians is a given. Civilians are always the majority of those killed in war.
A young Marine told me that his unit’s cadence chants were “Rape and pillage, burn the village,” and his commanding officer described the training as “learning to kill without remorse.”
If we call the pre-military training “humanizing,” then we have to call the military training “dehumanizing.” The training may work for the battleground, but it doesn’t work for functioning for the rest of their lives within any society. Many soldiers who train to fight wars never recover from this state of dehumanization or from the war experience itself. I have uncles who were never able to talk about their war experiences, and another relative who became a hopeless alcoholic, unable to bear his own memories of war. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, thirty-three percent of homeless men are Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. The Bureau of Justice verifies that thirty-five percent of the veterans in state prisons were convicted of homicide or sexual assault.
The soldiers in Abu Ghraib and the supervisors who gave these kids their orders were in this dehumanized state of mind. That was why they were able to order and conduct extreme sexual, mental, and physical torture upon their fellow human beings. No superior in their chain of command mentioned Article IV of the Geneva Convention to these kids. They were all acting according to the methods of war training prescribed by the American military.
Abu Ghraib has given us another chance to evaluate the experience of war at its most basic level. The attack of September 11 was a very sad event. The people of Iraq, including the ignominious Saddam Hussein, had nothing to do with the attack of 9/11, but even if they had, where do we draw the line on these dehumanizing, brutal wars? Is this what we want for our children, or for any children?
The soldiers at Abu Ghraib were following orders and were “properly trained.” They were so proud of their training that they took pictures of it.