Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature

I imagine that most people who read this blog have already seen by now the Wikileaks video of a US attack helicopter crew massacring Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists. If you haven't, here it is: not work-safe, not human-safe. It's pretty disturbing, but since your tax dollars paid for it if you're an American or Briton or citizen of other members of the Coalition of the Willing, you should see it.

As I begin writing this post, the video has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube alone. There's been some good discussion, notably by Glenn Greenwald at, John Caruso at The Distant Ocean, and this piece at Counterpunch by Alexander Cockburn. (Greenwald was smeared by the libblogger Oliver Willis, whose commenters took him apart while he whined and lied and generally followed the canons of mainstream political discourse in the US nowadays. That's what's wrong with mainstream political discourse in the US nowadays, of course.) World media have covered the case while US corporate media have done their best to brush it aside; again, no surprise.

One reason I haven't written about it before, though, is that while it's disturbing and awful and criminal, it doesn't strike me as news, or even particularly disturbing and awful and criminal. Compare the more recent atrocity in Afghanistan, where American special forces soldiers murdered several Afghan civilians (including two pregnant women and a teenaged girl) and then tried to cover it up, or American terrorist warlord Barack Obama's announcement that he has the right to order the murder of American citizens on his own executive authority.

Like any other aggressive state, the US has directed its soldiers to do such things throughout its history, yet even some leftists are professing themselves shocked! shocked! to learn that there's massacring going on here. ("Your body count, Sergeant." "Thank you.") Professing shock over the 2007 massacre buys into the line that defenders of such violence will push: that this was an aberration, the work of a few bad apples, not the fault of the United States of America, which is not a perfect country but its virtues outweigh its defects.

I'm more troubled by liberals and leftists who are demonizing the helicopter crew and other military killers, and who even accuse others of justifying the atrocity. This commenter (DavidByron at April 9, 2010 01:56 p.m. -- sorry, no permalink) in this thread, for example:
I find the number of comments trying to pretend that soldiers are nice people really pretty depressing.
What do these monsters have to do to convince you all? They'd all cut their own mother's head off and spit down the neck for giggles. They are merciless killers and they enjoy their work.
You all need to get real about that.
This is exactly what apologists for US violence have said about our enemies, be they Red Indians, Viet Cong, or Islamofascists. Because they are like that, the US can't afford to be Mr. Nice Guy. What measures DavidByron hoped to justify against Iraq veterans, I don't know; maybe, like another commenter (eatbees at April 7, 2010 05:34 AM), he believes "we shouldn't bring them home. We should give them a phony war to fight in which half of them are the Blue Team and half of them are the Red Team, and they can take out their fantasies on each other." Their fantasies?

Now, I don't "pretend that soldiers are nice people"; that's irrelevant. As I wrote in a comment in that same thread, invaders cannot invoke self-defense. Suppose you're a Mafia hood, and your boss tells you to break into someone's house. The resident pulls a gun on you; you kill them. You can't plead self-defense. The American invaders of Iraq are in a similar position, morally if not legally. Even if someone on the ground in this video had weapons (as apologists for the massacre claim, following the Army's propaganda), the Americans were not acting in self-defense, even pre-emptive self-defense: they were invaders and murderers.

That's not to say that they're "pure human shit to begin with", as another commenter (the pair at April 7, 2010 06:43 PM) declared. The Mafioso I just invented might be a nice guy, good to his buddies, respectful to his superiors, kind to his Mom, a regular at Mass and confession. All that is irrelevant when he breaks into your house and, confronted by you and your shotgun, blows you away.
The glee the helicopter crew exhibit as they kill people is distasteful, of course, but I doubt that Iraqi insurgents (or Vietnamese resistance forces, or American Indian warriors at the Little Big Horn) are coolly dispassionate as they kill American soldiers or other Iraqis. John Caruso (April 9, 2010 at 3:01 PM) asked another commenter, "Are you really saying you'd choose to keep that policy in place as long as it was carried out by nicer soldiers? It's a false dichotomy, but assuming it actually did hold I most definitely would choose to 'lose the policy but keep the murderous thugs' (keep them here in this country, that is, rather than massacring civilians in Iraq and elsewhere)."

When you invade and occupy a country, the people there are going to shoot at you, put bombs by the roads to blow you up, and so on. They will do this no matter how many candy bars your soldiers give to their kids, how many sick children they give medical treatment, how many freeze-dried meals they give to people whose homes they've blown up. (Speaking of medical treatment for children, there were two children in the van the copter crew destroyed; their father was among the people killed. Headquarters overruled taking them to a US military hospital, and ordered them sent to an Iraqi hospital. The outcome is reported here.) And even the "nicest" soldiers will stop being so nice in the face of being shot at and blown up. The only right invaders have is to leave.

But the American invaders aren't going to leave. And while I sympathize with unemployed, under-educated working-class kids who join the military with an eye to improving their career options, since 2003 no one can enlist without knowing that they are likely to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill innocent people. No matter how they feel before they enlist, they are entering a meat grinder that will teach them to treat other people as things -- not their fellow soldiers, of course, but gooks, dinks, hajis. One of the more interesting points raised in Alexander Cockburn's Counterpunch article, when he quoted a "retired U.S. Army man," who wrote,
The damage this incident and its video evidence will do is immense … it will irrefutably confirm for many that large chunk of anti-American propaganda which insists the American flyers are just playing computer shoot-em-up games using real flesh and blood as a proxy for the digital figures they usually slaughter only in the arcades.
How much is simulator training responsible for the disconnection from reality demonstrated in this incident? The crew was detached from reality …
It ain't propaganda if it's true. If you train your soldiers with hypercharged video games, which is what simulators are -- advanced versions of the video games (often with military themes) that kids have been raised on since early childhood -- and then put them into engagement using video equipment that resembles a video game, then of course they'll be "detached." Simulators are probably very effective in overcoming the normal human inhibition about killing other human beings; those who've read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game may recognize the pattern. (Even a bigot like Card has written some good books.) But that's what armies are for: to kill people and blow shit up.
That is why Cockburn's retired Army source is wrong when he continues, "How [is] the Army … producing crews that, having the potential for such incompetence, cannot detect it among themselves. If anyone in that crew had paused and asked if the action being taken was correct, surely it would have been aborted … The Army has to find out why." The crew was not incompetent; if you've seen the video, you know that they checked their actions every step of the way with headquarters. They were doing what they were expected and supposed to do: to kill hajis. They are part of an occupying army in a country that wants them out, one way or another. That's why the original Army investigation exonerated the killers, as Cockburn wrote:
Reuters, which by that time had already had four employees killed in Iraq by the U.S. military (ultimately, to date, eight), demanded an investigation, which the Army says it undertook but found no breach of its Rules of Engagement by the pilots or U.S. Army intelligence.
This massacre was not a failure, but a success. It was bad public relations, to be sure, but the entire US presence in Iraq is bad public relations. Incidents like this one are not a bug of the military system -- they're a feature.