Were Abu Ghraib Soldiers Properly "Trained?"

There has been a rash of allegations by politicians that the reason the American soldiers committed such atrocities at Abu Ghraid and the other prisons in Iraq is because they were not properly trained.

Their mothers would vouch for the fact that, as babies, they 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 as 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 were 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, hopefully, 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, video and computer 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 easy going, 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 film, some documentaries edited for this purpose and some movies made to pass as documentaries. These films were designed to define patriotism as killing. They identified designated enemies, and then proceeded to pump the recruits with rage and hatred for these enemies, hatred sufficient to enable them to kill them.

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 films of sinister looking Arabs plotting against America; pictures of jeering, taunting Arabs reeking of testosterone and prolonged close-ups of brutal acts of violence conducted by Arabs 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, I presume, was used to immunize these young people to the fact that they will kill and maim children. This is a critical immunization for the military, because killing children woman and men 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.” The ramifications of this training are clear.

If we call the pre-military training ‘humanizing,’ then we have to call the military training ‘dehumanizing.’ The training may work for the battle ground, but doesn’t work for functioning for the rest of their lives within any society. Many, 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 the male homeless population 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.

No other species trains its young and then, when they are barely fully grown, injects them into a time capsule which strips them of everything they have learned and, in a short, efficient reconstruction process, spits them out again as efficient killers.

The soldiers in Abu Ghraib and their supervisors, the supervisors who gave these kids their orders, were in this dehumanized state of mind. That was why they were able to order and to conduct extreme sexual, mental and physical torture and human rights abuses upon their fellow human beings. Nobody in their government or 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.

The incidents at Abu Ghraib have 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 Suddam 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 well trained that they took pride their own actions to the extent that they took pictures of the atrocities they perpetuated upon prisoners, pictures which were readily passed from computer to computer.

LAURA SANTINA is the founder and executive director of The Alice Hamburg Peace Leadership Camps for middle and high school youth in Oakland and Concord, California. She can be reached at: Lindey89@aol.com