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Civilian Massacres: From Vietnam to Iraq

Evil in the Valley

by BRIAN DOWNING

For several months now, there have been troubling reports of a number of Iraqi civilians murdered over the past year by American troops. The military has recently indicted several soldiers and marines. Not all the evidence is at hand and no one has been convicted. However, the enormity of the incident and its ramifications for the war as well as for what’s left of our standing in the Middle East (and the world as a whole) call for reflection, however preliminary it might be. How do massacres of civilians happen? What forces are at work? What will the impact be on the war?

Cultural Images

Pointing out sordid currents in American life for answers will recall the accusations of racism and militarism during the Vietnam War. Many who remember the heated rhetoric of the time will reflexively reject similar arguments to explain events in Iraq. But the assertion that American troops are shaped by their nation’s values is not manifestly implausible, and in any case the connection is eagerly praised when framing acts of courage in battle and largesse toward civilians. We boast of our compassionate traits when displayed in war; we should acknowledge abhorrent ones if they appear.

The soldiers who went off to Southeast Asia brought with them supreme confidence that right and wrong were clearly defined, any American cause was just, and killing the enemy virtuous. These beliefs had entered the American mind at the country’s inception in battle, but the Second World War deepened them and made the nation’s mission in the world more insistent. Fighting, killing, and prominent display of weapons were every-where in youth culture, signaling that war and violence were natural and essential to resolving matters. The media beamed out the message, repeatedly, in countless war films, magazines, news stories, and even comic books.

America was blessed, ordained to enlighten the world. The beliefs and institutions that had defeated fascism would hold the line against if not rollback communism then spread the freedom and abundance we enjoyed. Attitudes toward the Third World, including Vietnam, ranged from a patronizing view that it had to be placed on the proper developmental track, by force if need be, to a darker one that saw its people as sinister jungle denizens, much like the Japs in the films we boys watched so devotedly from the early forties on.

The defeat in Vietnam gave rise to short-lived antimilitarism but more importantly to new war myths that permeated youth culture and inspired the next generation of soldiers. We lost, it was widely held, because we had to fight (all together now) with one arm tied behind our backs and because civilians meddled with war policy. These legends were driven home, repetitively and iconically, in a slew of vengeance films, whose stars, despite their age and good health, had adroitly avoided the opportunity to show their mettle in Southeast Asia and to teach us that an insurgency is best fought through massive firepower followed by magnanimously patting the head of a grateful local national. Operating outside the contemptibly pusillanimous command structure, a lone man achieves an ersatz victory through the proper use of force that had been denied the American soldier. Many Vietnam veterans wryly smiled or wistfully contemplated the creation before their very eyes of a new heroic war mythology, one at least as alluring and illusory as the old one John Wayne had embodied, the one that had brought hope and joy to their youths but bitterness and alienation to their adolescence.

Over the years, the cinema has made great efforts to portray non-whites and non-Americans in a more respectable light than had earlier efforts. Blacks, Asians, and other minorities are presented in a more favorable manner, but not so the benighted denizens of the Middle Eastern wastelands. Numerous films, many churned out by the Golan-Globus mill, depicted Arabs as treacherous, unreasonable, backward, fanatical, and bloodthirsty beasts who had to be nobly confronted and justly slain, mano a mano, by American warriors, often disillusioned Vietnam veterans, often the same actors who had earlier proven their valor and craft in the vengeance genre. Once again, our champions manfully operated outside the confines of spineless authority.

Though not necessarily well known among cinema-goers, such films did well with boys ­ the rank and file of our next wars ­ who learned that the only good Arab was one immolated or blown to bits. The nettlesome matter of collateral damage, with which only pacifists and defeatists concern themselves anyway, was deftly handled by the unguent credo proclaimed on the young war enthusiast’s T-shirt of choice: Kill Them All – Let God Sort Them Out. World events, it must be admitted, did little to balance the Golan-Globus depiction of the Arab; but, it must also be admitted, neither did other filmmakers. The 9/11 attacks solidified the image, and while much of it remained with the war enthusiasts who stayed a-bed, it was also carried along by many troops going off to the Middle East. Rarely had an enemy been so demonized before the outbreak of war.

Military Training

In basic training, the recruit is uprooted and reoriented into a new moral environment to reduce individuality, accept harshness, and put aside civilian norms. Military life after initial indoctrination continues to be rough, wearing down sensibilities and inculcating obedience. Soldiers must distance themselves from family and community to become parts of a total institution dedicated to controlled violence.

In 1942, civilians went into the service reluctantly, often despised the harsh regimen, and did their duty. But postwar youths were eager to be converted into warriors and looked forward to their war. Military training became harsher and more brutal than during World War Two, in part because studies found that training had not adequately prepared soldiers for combat. But it also stemmed from the increasingly militarized society recruits came from, and from the aura surrounding drill instructors who had won their spurs at Normandy and Okinawa and were held in awe by postwar youth. Owing to renewed interest in World War Two, the pathos of Vietnam, and attendant mythologies, similar eagerness has been found in young soldiers of recent years. Whatever their generation and war sentiments, soldiers learn to put aside much of their pasts and become willing if not eager to pull the trigger. They are taught to obey the commandment all but engraved into every part of military life ­ Thou Shalt Kill. But only at the appropriate time.

No effective military can be an assemblage of wanton killers, and ours certainly isn’t one. Killing is circumscribed by lawful orders, directed through the chain of command, based on international principles of warfare and specific rules of engagement. The zeal for violence instilled by early socialization and military training must be held in check by NCOs and officers. They must assess specific situations as they appear in combat, control their troops’ aggressive impulses, and channel them into lawful and tactically appropriate directions, lest hatreds and frustrations erupt into murderousness and engagements degenerate into slaughter.

At the tactical level, the Dak Tos and Ramadis, the A Shau and Tigris valleys, this responsibility is placed on soldiers in their early twenties, young men under more stress than most can imagine. If there is a greater responsibility heaped on a young man, I don’t want to know it. At the elevated and remote level of geopolitics, the onus of maintaining the line between civilization and barbarism lies with presidents and generals. If there is a place at which killing has been more effectively planned and carried through, I don’t want to know it. As the dismal history of wartime massacres attests, each level has failed.

The Experience of War

Readers can to some extent understand the culture from which soldiers come, and perhaps also the training and coarsening they go through, but the experience of combat is far from the ken of almost all Americans ­ hence our naiveté on many matters of war. As a young soldier is sent into combat, he feels horribly vulnerable and for the first time mortal. He ponders the superficiality of his preparation for war and the puerile understanding of it his upbringing conveyed. The entrancing surrealism of war begins to take hold, from the vacant or hostile stares of experienced soldiers (two weeks often suffice), bullet and blast marks on vehicles, shrapnel singing homage to the Doppler effect, and the occasional glimpse of the wounded, or worse.

The mind looks for analogous experiences in one’s past. It’s not playing war in the backyard. It’s not television or a movie. The mind jumps from worthless experiences and stock footage to the deadly present, and a sense of cold immediacy takes hold. "So this is war. A new world; different rules; us versus them." In time (two months often suffice), emotion flattens, one’s death there is accepted, and the ensuing resignation of hopes and fears allows for proper functioning. It is perhaps a sine qua non. War becomes an almost dispassionate routine of maneuver and destruction, which though corrosive to the soul is at least an obstacle to bloodlust.

It is well known that an insurgency has no frontline, except for the thousands of them that pop up suddenly and disappear just as suddenly, usually after an inconclusive exchange of ordnance. In that imprecise and ill-boding world, soldiers see civilians around them, Vietnamese or Iraqi, as adepts in the guerilla movement or at least aware of ambush positions and mine locales. A villager selling a drink is surely trying to poison you; a farmer’s concerned look as a patrol nears is proof of membership in a local cell; and it’s common knowledge that even little kids will pop a frag on you. The bleak almost paranoid outlook is a natural evolution of the us-versus-them world of the infantry, which is a useful operating assumption in some places, but the basis of a lethal reaction in others.

In combat, the theory of NCO and junior officer discipline at the squad, platoon, and company levels has to be put into practice more firmly than at Bragg or Pendleton. It is there, naturally, that it is most prone to breaking. Ever mindful of the breakdown of authority in Vietnam, the military now strictly enforces uniform and personal appearance regs, doubtless in the expectation that a tidy, close-shaven soldier is a more controlled one in combat. Army doctrine and socio-consultants tell us so.

In combat, however, new leaders come in as more experienced ones become casualties on the daily patrols. The fluidity of an action can require detaching a squad and sending it to the next village or block. The frustrations of continuous casualties ­ landmines and snipers often figure here ­ without the ugly, primal, but disturbingly mollifying experience of killing an enemy combatant come to a head. And the failure of a young sergeant or lieutenant to repel the swarming rages and push aside the seductive answer of slipping off the safety (a simple silent thumb motion, this) and repeatedly squeezing the trigger ­ hooch to hooch, room to room ­ results in a My Lai, perhaps in a Haditha.

Socialization, training, and combat stress account for only so much. They only make the murderous release a little faster, the remorse a little slower and maybe less sincere. As much as many of us wish to lay blame on politicos in Washington, only partisan casuistry, of which there is no shortage today, can do so. The fault for a My Lai-like massacre lies squarely with the local commander: the sergeant or lieutenant in the hamlet or town. Though many faults may be ascribed to our war leadership, they are no more responsible for a massacre in Iraq than they are for an act of decency there, of which there is certainly no shortage either.

Consequences

What effects will Haditha, in fact and hearsay, have on the war? Domestic support for the war has already fallen so far that the event is unlikely to alter many Americans’ opinions. The allegations, even if borne out by investigation and trial, might have little impact on the Sunni Arabs. Fear of losing support in the Sunni Triangle might rest upon illusions that most Iraqis there do not already dislike or even loathe us. It has long been widely assumed in central Iraq (and also in the Islamic world) that Hadithas are commonplace, parts of a systematic, centuries-long campaign to divide and humiliate them.

It is disagreeable commentary on present sectarian animosities in Iraq that many Kurds and Shi’as will welcome reports of US troops slaughtering Sunni Arabs, whom hard experience, through many decades, has taught them to despise. They might feel that the US has finally realized what they have long known: that successive Sunni Arab regimes have misruled the majority of Iraqis in a heavy-handed manner, and that the end of Saddam’s regime has afforded the opportunity to exert the will of the majority and to right ­ no, avenge ­ past wrongs, fearful and bloody though that will be.

The impact could be most pronounced among our troops there. Transformation from cheery optimism to sullen disillusionment has been the tragic experience of soldiers in war at least since the First World War, and this war, whatever we come to call it, will be no different. Haditha may bring to the fore what they have long suspected or known but felt obliged ­ because of official doctrine, mythic self-images, and fear of sanctions ­ to relegate to the back of their minds: that the cause of winning over the Iraqi people and westernizing them is lost. And it has been a lost cause for over a year, perhaps since Abu Ghraib, perhaps when we crossed the Kuwait-Iraq frontier.

Rebuilding schools and bridges, dispensing the talismanic American candy bars, and even smiling at local nationals will be increasingly reckoned as absurd mummery decreed by distant leaders with no comprehension of the situation in Baquba, Baghdad, or the entire region for that matter. They will see more clearly that the grins of children whom they give small tokens of the American Idea give way swiftly to joy when a convoy is hit by an IED. A redeployment of their us-versus-them outlook will reveal that their dedication and idealism have been cynically manipulated by authority figures their upbringing taught to respect. They will see war policy emanates from men who evaded military service as adroitly as they later cashed out of foundering holdings, by men who value the lives of young Americans much as noblemen once did those of the Hessians and Sepoys they sent off to fight for empire.

The administration is fond of the vogue phrase "tipping point," and invokes its accompanying imagery from time to time to suggest progress in the war, a corner turned, a light . . . . But other, less beneficial junctures are being reached, if they have not been already. Our soldiers are coming to realize that a majority of Iraqis and Arabs and Muslims see them, as many Vietnamese saw us who came of age in their war-ravaged country, not as the munificent avatars of the American Way as we initially saw ourselves, but increasingly as the Evil in the Valley.

Brian M. Downing is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com

© Brian M. Downing