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Forbidden Games

One of the main requirements for taking the life of another is to dehumanize and brand them as inferior, evil, stupid; gook, swine, rat, dog, coon, raghead–because the difficulty and psychological pain of killing someone recognizably the same is so great.

Pictures from Iraq showing the dehumanization and sadistic torture of Iraqi prisoners by US and British soldiers have outraged many, and many are wondering how this could happen.

Military officers and politicians have tried to explain these horrifying actions as a “breakdown in command,” and “aberrations.” US Brigadier General Janice Karpinski, former commander of Abu Ghraib prison where most of the pictures originated, asked how could people do this? I want to ask her if she remembers basic training, when the military teaches ordinary people to repress normal feelings and empathy in order to kill.

Much of the verbiage offered by American pundits to a bewildered public claim that such abuses would not happen in a well-run military, because officers would be able to check the more perverse and base impulses of the average Joe and Jane (who suddenly find themselves in the extraordinary and dreadful psychological conditions elicited by war). As if it is better to kill cleanly than torture. As if killing itself is not the supreme abuse. The grotesque irony of such logic has eluded these analysts, but the psychological problems stemming from turning our young into killing machines–whether “sloppily” or “cleanly,” “undisciplined or “disciplined”–will not be eliminated by semantics and wishful thinking.

The truth is much more unpalatable and much more frightening: civilized behavior, what we like to call human(e) behavior, is spread like a thin veneer over the land, and the killing ape–who also knows how to mock and abuse and humiliate and torture–is not just the “enemy” without, but is also the enemy within each of us. Not facing that unpleasant psychological truth will always make us worse than hypocrites, as we play the part of shocked innocents while secretly allowing others to act out that part of human darkness we refuse to deal with ourselves.

I have already seen the female reservist who laughingly holds a mock gun at a naked Iraqi man’s genitals virtually described as “trailer trash” in some US media reports. But I have not seen any mention of the residences or names of US intelligence officers and politicians in Iraq and Washington who wanted information so badly that they have allowed or ordered the torture, humiliation and concentration camp imprisonment of thousands of Arab men and boys in Iraq and elsewhere since 9/11. Nor have I seen charges of cruelty and sadism, by means of an unprovoked war against a people innocent of any wrongdoing to the US, leveled against the US president, vice president, secretary of defense by any of the current hand-wringers.

When I was fifteen my friend and I went to our after-school hangout. At the soda counter two GIs in uniform with nearly shaved heads were sprawled. They looked about eighteen. They struck up a conversation with us and asked if we’d like to see pictures of Viet Nam. One of them pulled two kodak photographs from his shirt pocket and handed them to me. I thought I would see some Vietnamese countryside. The first picture was of a man, Vietnamese, lying on his back on a dirt road in a pale green landscape. A lit cigarette was stuffed in his mouth, painted on him, in blood or something red: WE GOT YOUR ASS. The second picture taken from a different angle showed the entire top of his head missing. I was speechless, weak. My friend and I yelled: “How could you do this?” The soldiers were nervous, laughing, angry: “That’s what they do to us.”

That day I saw what war does to everyone who comes in contact with it. Boys barely men with blank eyes and faces like masks, full of mockery, anger, horror, fear, cruelty, and the anguish of the mad and barbarous killing our leaders were inflicting on innocent people on the other side of the world. And the fear, anger, and cruelty spread and carried like contagion.

I have sometime wondered what became of those two boys. What of their memories? Are they abusers? Addicts? Dead? Healed?

In Viet Nam civilians were killed–hundreds of thousands indiscriminately, in carpet bombings, whole villages massacred by US military. No Vietnamese child, woman, man, was safe from the fury and terror of US weapons. According to former US Senator Bob Kerrey, when he served in Viet Nam special forces there “were instructed not to take prisoners.” Such a “breakdown” in the “civilizing” effect of officers on soldiers’ behavior was no breakdown, but part of a plan made in Washington for winning the war by deliberately using terror and indiscriminate killing–as if war isn’t always terror enough even when played by the “rules.” If US soldiers’ minds were laid waste, if the worst aspects of their make-up were thus freed from the constraints of civilized behavior in trying to carry out Washington’s master plan, they were expendable after all, “collateral damage,” so much human flotsam, unimportant, necessary “sacrifices” for the “war effort.”

What Washington refuses to see is its own face reflected back in each act of barbarism committed by its soldiers–while utterly denying its responsibility for the destruction of so many lives and psyches, both foreign and domestic, in its aggressive actions through the years.

The soldiers at Abu Ghraib have said they were following orders to “soften up” prisoners for interrogation by military intelligence. We are rightly shocked by their perverse execution of such orders. If only we were as shocked by the orders themselves, and by the killing of innocent people in an unprovoked war. Then we might demand the removal of those leaders who perpetrated this war, and not be content with a scapegoat offering up of those they sent to do their dirty work.

LUCIA DAILEY is a poet and writer living in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Howard Zinn called her first novel, Mine Seed, documenting the violent labor struggles in the anthracite coal fields: “a powerful story…something extraordinary in literature.” She is currently at work on a book set in World War One.