On Males, Technology, and Mass Murder

Kenneth Junior French, Dean Allen Mellberg, Robert S. Flores, Nidal Malik Hasan, Wade Michael Page, Aaron Alexis, Ivan Lopez, and Micah Xavier Johnson. All these men have served in the US military, most of them deployed in overseas wars. They were also mass murderers. Aside from sharing a legacy of having been trained to kill only to turn this violence against life “back home,” these men represent the interstitial space between full-blown killer and contained civilian. The actions of these men who eventually lost control, bring up many questions for those of us whom they men were ostensibly trained to protect. You know, the part about “our freedoms,” “our liberties.” The problem today with all the mass shootings occurring in the US, is that nobody is joining the dots between young men who are trained to be killing machines and the moment when that “machine” goes on the fritz. In order to understand why men kill in the degrees that they do around the planet, we must begin to ask ourselves why so many males are groomed from birth to be violent and why we feign surprise when they actually live up to their training.

Since 2001 various western countries involved in the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) have seen skyrocketing cases of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a condition which only came into medical recognition in the 1970s with the return of US veterans returning home from the Vietnam War and was witnessed in the UK among veterans returning from the Gulf War, twenty-five years ago. And the names to describe the trauma these soldiers were experiencing varied from Gulf War Syndrome, to Gulf War Illness, to PTSD. Various theories have been given as to why soldiers returning from combat situations would be affected psychologically but the more obvious explanations are still yet to be formally addressed by medical practitioners much less everyone in civil society.

Journalist Sebastian Junger gives some inside into male violence and explains why veterans miss war in his TED talk in 2014 wherein he notes how the charge of adrenaline for soldiers in the military creates a environment where soldiers are in continuous brotherhood with the rest. Specifically referring to Restrepo (Afghanistan) Junger notes that the soldiers not only learned to like combat and after their deployment was over, many missed it. In an interview with Helen Walters, Junger elaborates over the emotions of the solder in combat focussing on love: “If you’re willing to die for someone, it’s clearly a form of love, and it’s the core reason that men miss war — and many of them really, really do miss it.” While Junger interprets this “missing” of combat to be a missing of brotherhood, which certainly makes sense given the bonds created in such compacted work details, there is another facet which I feel Junger leaves out and that is how killing becomes part of the self. And we cannot plausibly divorce the social grooming to be violent and the military training to be violent from the reality of how this very violence when brought home from overseas has a likelihood to detonate in one way or another.

In the US alone, veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan face homelessness at alarming rates with 2013 alone bearing an estimated 48,000 veterans left homeless, many having great difficulty getting home loans (even VA loans) and others returning to find that they have no recent credit history. And while homelessness is one problem, unemployment is another devastating reality that leaves many of these soldiers (mostly males) who have been in active combat without a means for survival. When subjectivity has been linked to military service, a tightly-woven brotherhood, and to killing—even in its cruel and uncomfortable revelations to and about the self—it is a truism that male identity remains inextricably linked to violence.

Yet, the sort of violence that is not often elaborated in mass media in relation to war is how many of these soldiers have, since 1991, become alienated from the real world and the reality behind the violence they enact upon others in this new age of technological warfare. The reality is that the targeted killings that some soldiers perform in Afghanistan from a control room in Nevada is detached from reality and far more like a video game than real life. And the consequences for these men psychologically is daunting. Many spend years having to come to grips with the reality of violence, not just the cyber-stage of violence which many of them have been handed. As Michael Haas reflects: “You start to do these psychological gymnastics to make it easier to do what you have to do – they deserved it, they chose their side. You had to kill part of your conscience to keep doing your job every day – and ignore those voices telling you this wasn’t right.”

In “Support Our Tropes II: Or, Why in Cyburbia There Are a Lot of Cowboys,” Avital Ronell analyses this sterilised space of the battlefield:

[T]he cyborg soldier, located in command and control systems, exercises on the fields of denial. Intentional reality eliminates the body as organic, finite, damageable, eviscerable, castratable, crushable entity, thereby closing the orifices and stemming leakage and excrement. We are not very far from Deleuze and Guattari’s BWO: the body-without-organs. Orificial shutdown and excremental control help explain why the Gulf War was conducted under the compulsive sign of cleanliness: on the American side of language usage, this was a clean war, a clean-up job accomplished according to the moral, political, and military evaluations that were represented. (1992, 75)

Ronell analyses the soldier who is part of the simultaneous destruction of life and erasure of death, his own body serving to bridge life with death. The war machinery of the first Gulf War still holds today as the GWOT is very much a media war which sets out to deny death by removing body parts, blood, and all traces of the other’s humanity. This is a propaganda war of the greatest proportions whereby technology is the means to eliminating somatic realism and the horrors of death in the name of progress. Meanwhile toxic forms of masculinity abound and come back home to haunt the cultural scene which first created the mass murderer.

And when a combatant returns home, has no way of sustaining himself, and is alienated from obtaining work in a far less violent profession, it is no wonder that some of these men crack. After all, should we really be surprised that males groomed to be aggressive and violent, end up being aggressive and violent in later life, even if the objects of their violence is us?

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com