Friday, May 16, 2008

Hindsight of a Trained Killer

by Peter Sullivan, posted on the website of Iraq Veterans Against the War

I served in the Army National Guard from 1995-2007. Following 9/11 I spent time on state active duty in Clinton, IL in 2001, and on federal active duty Wiesbaden, Germany in 2002, and in Ft. Polk, LA from 2004-2005. My not having served in Iraq or Afghanistan is simply good luck. Most of my enlistment was spent as an infantryman in Illinois, but I was a member of an artillery unit in the Colorado National Guard for about a year in 2000, and my Illinois unit was converted into a cavalry unit not long before I got out. At no time during my enlistment was I in a non-combat unit. I had every intention of staying long enough to collect a retirement check from the military. For a while, when asked how much longer until I got out, I was one of those guys who would say "12 years," or however many years I had to complete until I had 20 years in service. Most soldiers respond to this question with however long they have left on their current contract.
In 1995 at the age of 17 I boarded a plane for the first time in my life to fly to Ft. Benning, GA (via Atlanta) for basic training. I had just completed my junior year of high school, and was taking advantage of the military’s "split-option" program which allows National Guard recruits to space out their training over two summers so they can use college benefits immediately after high school graduation without having to worry about the one year of service required before benefits are available.
As the "Home of the Infantry," Ft. Benning has a reputation for being tougher than other Army basic training installations. Its reputation is warranted based on what I’ve heard from soldiers who went through boot camp at other locations. One of the first things that struck me about the place was its focus on killing. I didn’t find this disturbing since the infantry’s job is to kill enemy soldiers, but it was certainly outside my realm of normal experience to hear grown men say things like "what makes the grass grow?!" and expect to hear "Blood! Blood! Bright red blood makes the grass grow green!" as a response from teenagers. As I made my way through boot camp and AIT (Advanced Individual Training, the second phase of training completed the summer after boot camp) this new culture of killing went on and I didn’t notice it much. It even made me feel kind of tough – I mean, who wouldn’t feel untouchable marching in formation with assault rifles chanting "left, right, left, right, left, right kill!!! Left, right, left, right, yes we will!!" or charging at dummy enemy soldiers with a bayonet, stabbing and twisting while shouting "KILL!!"?
After boot camp was over and I was back with my unit, all this talk about killing never stopped. The frequency toned down a bit, but killing was definitely still the name of the game, which of course made sense to me being in a combat unit. Killing. It’s just what we were supposed to do. If we didn’t do it, we’d get killed ourselves. It wasn’t long before I just didn’t notice all the talk about killing at all anymore. I probably quit noticing even before I was finished with boot camp. I joined the military knowing that I was going to be trained to kill in combat, so here I was being trained to kill in combat. Just a day at work.
At some point still very early in my career though, I briefly noticed the talk of killing again. I noticed when I heard someone sing the following song (to the tune of "Jesus Loves the Little Children"):
"napalm sticks to little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They all scream when they ignite"
I also noticed the first time I heard someone ask the question, "what’s the heel of the boot for?" I noticed when this question was asked because the acceptable answer to this question is "crushing baby skulls." I quit noticing things like this soon enough and started to think of them as jokes just like everyone else. Someone would walk up to a group of soldiers and ask one of the young privates "what’s the heel of the boot for?" and as soon as that private responded with "crushing baby skulls" (they almost always knew the appropriate response) everyone would burst into laughter.
I didn’t notice killing again until much later in my career. I eventually became a leader myself, and would ask my young soldiers what makes the grass grow and what the heel of the boot is for. It was especially fun to ask the highly motivated ones and see just how loud they could yell it. The more furious the young troop’s delivery was, the funnier it was. It wasn’t uncommon to see a sergeant or staff sergeant walk past a private or specialist without stopping and have a lighthearted exchange about killing children – or women, or some combination of children and women.
By this time, the "global war on terror" had kicked off, Saddam’s statue had fallen, and I can remember watching it on TV and wishing I was there. I remember considering trying to volunteer for an active duty unit who was going to be sent, or trying to find a National Guard unit that was going that I could transfer into. By now killing was such a non-issue that I actually wanted to do it. I remember imagining what it would be like to look through the rear aperture of my weapon, get a good sight picture, squeeze the trigger, and watch a man fall. All I knew at that time was that 9/11 had happened, and that those god damned hadjis were going to pay.
Hadji. That word entered my lexicon sometime after 9/11 to refer to pretty much anyone from the Middle East. My current understanding of the word is that it is a term of respect referring to a Muslim who has made the required pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca. None of us used the word out of respect for Muslims who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. We used it as a racial slur similar to the word "nigger." It was frequently prefixed by the word "fucking" as in, "those fucking hadjis."
Toward the end of my career in the military, I noticed killing again. This time, we were qualifying with our rifles, and someone had gone downrange beforehand to place towels on the heads of all the silhouettes to make them appear Muslim. I probably noticed this because somewhere within me was the idea that not all Muslims were bad, but as it had been years before, killing was again but a fleeting thought before it turned into just a joke, a game, a trade – not unlike masonry or carpentry.
Somewhere along the way - I don’t know exactly when - I began to study the "war on terror" and became convinced that I had been duped and used as a pawn to advance someone else’s agenda and build someone else’s fortune. A surefire way to get me angry is to try to exploit my desire to do the right thing, so when I was tricked into risking my life for what was at first a bogus mission, and later a very vague mission with no end or reward as far as I could tell, I made the decision to leave the Army. I guess it was my way of "sticking it to the man" and letting everyone know that I would no longer be fooled.
Having been out of the military for over a year now, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences without having to filter my own thoughts as a kind of unconscious defense mechanism. In other words, there is no longer a need to rationalize my way around my behavior or the things I said or did or thought in the Army that I probably always knew were wrong, but couldn’t admit because I would then be required to face them. I recently had a playful exchange with a young man I know who knew I had been in the Army during which we were "talking trash" to each other before he said, "I wouldn’t mess with Pete. He’s a trained killer." I didn’t think much of it at that moment, but his comment stayed with me for a while.
I’ve heard soldiers referred to as "trained killers" before, and my interpretation of the term has always been that soldiers have been trained on various weapons and hand-to-hand combat techniques; therefore, they are trained killers. I think the true meaning of the term is different though, and much more frightening in its social implications. It’s true that I have been trained to proficiently employ various hand-to-hand combat moves, knives, machine guns, assault rifles, pistols, grenades, grenade launchers, missile systems, and artillery cannons, but simply knowing how to use these weapons does not make me a trained killer any more than knowing how to drive a nail with a hammer makes me a trained carpenter. What makes a soldier a trained killer is very effective psychological conditioning that allows the soldier to overcome his or her inherent resistance to killing other people. The constant barrage of songs, chants, and slogans about killing, stabbing and firing at human-shaped targets, making a joke out of killing babies, women and children – these are what make a trained killer. These things are the mechanism by which events like Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Guantanamo Bay, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bataan death march, and Auschwitz are made possible.
With a few minor adjustments, a soldier can be trained to more effectively kill specific groups of people. Placing towels around the heads of human-shaped rifle targets and calling them "hadjis" trains soldiers to kill Muslims. Replacing the towel with a cone-shaped Vietnamese peasant hat and calling it a "gook" trains soldiers to kill Asians.
When I think back on what the Army made me capable of, I feel angry because I’m only figuring it out now. Duped again! 12 years of learning to hate and learning to want to kill people because it was kill or be killed. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, people are going through the same thing to advance an agenda that isn’t theirs and to build fortunes that aren’t theirs only they’re firing at silhouettes of "those fucking Americans," and by "American" they mean what we soldiers mean when we say "hadji." A frequently unnoticed human cost of war is that in order to wage war, humans must give up part of their humanity.
What a clever sham it is.

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