Guardian : Voices from war

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Voices from war

Veterans who served in Iraq can offer insights into the psychological impact of waging war - but leave us wondering if abuses are inevitable

Leila Nathoo | March 19, 2008

Last weekend a historic event occurred near Washington DC, when the Iraq Veterans Against the War group held its event, "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan - eyewitness accounts from the occupations". The four-day conference brought together veterans from across the US to speak about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as the original Winter Soldiers of 1971 told their stories about what they had witnessed in Vietnam.

Today's veterans spoke candidly about the treatment of civilians, insurgents and detainees. "The Iraqi people ... they were 'hajjis' ... We were the law, there was no one else above us," said Iraq veteran Hart Viges. Another, Mike Totten, agreed: "We were told, the hajji are an obstacle - do not let them get in our way". Some offered solemn admissions of their own racism and complicity in humiliation, abuse and killing. This self-criticism actually makes such soldier testimony more powerful, as young American patriots speaking candidly have far more impact than nameless, foreign victims of abuse, trying to make their voices heard.

These testimonies are invaluable, in part because they confirm the brutality of warfare, as well as allowing the soldiers to relieve the burden of their experiences and re-establish their humanity. But the crucial purpose of soldier testimony is to provide a unique perspective on abuses in war. Soldiers bridge the divide between the military establishment, who isolate individual perpetrators as "bad apples", and human rights advocates who speak up for victims. Listening to the voices of soldiers refocuses attention on the context in which abuse is carried out and the institutional details that facilitate its occurrence.

After all, wars require soldiers to fight them. Wars are inherently violent, and involve one human being killing another, albeit sometimes indirectly. Racism and dehumanisation of the enemy - who is not easily identifiable in an era of unconventional, urban warfare - is a strategy which enables soldiers to kill. According to Viges, "once you really open your eyes and see them as a human being on the same level as you ... you can't go to war with them, you can't pull the trigger ... you can't occupy a foreign land, it's impossible. So you have to dehumanise. That's war."

And this dehumanisation begins within the military itself. Scott Camil, a Vietnam veteran and pioneer of the original Winter Soldier project, says of his training in the US Marines: "You're a maggot, you're a piece of shit ... you are nothing, you are really nothing. They talk about your mom, they talk about your girlfriend. They push every button they can because they are breaking you down so they can build you up."

Another Iraq veteran, Bryan Casler, argued that when a soldier's comrades are harmed in fighting, everything changes: "Once you start seeing your buddies killed ... you're going to be ruthless." Moreover, in modern warfare, soldiers are killed by faceless devices placed by unseen hands, which compounded the sense of injustice: "What happens is you see your buddies going down, and you don't have anyone to get for it, and the first opportunity you get to take it out on someone, they're fucked."

All the veterans emphasised that "moral slippery slopes have to go from top to bottom", and that if their superiors did not condone abusive behaviour, then they did nothing to stop it. There was also the sense that because of their loyalty to their colleagues, soldiers were willing to suppress or censor their own views. Jason Hurd, who served as a medic in Baghdad, admits that no one wanted to be the soldier who "screwed over your buddy who was trying to watch your back and take care of you, and so nothing gets said."

Little wonder that there is silence surrounding abusive behaviour by members of the military, if we consider that soldiers are dehumanised themselves as a requirement to fulfil their duty during war. Hurd says: "I would not even deal with it. If I started thinking about all these things and all the moral repercussions, I would go into a deep depression."

This almost leaves us with a pessimistic view that so long as there is war, there will be soldiers who are trained and treated to behave that way, in order to enable them to fight. Is "humane war" a contradiction in terms?

Even if we do not accept pacifism as a solution to abuse, we should appreciate that soldiers, in revealing their own humanity through documenting their thoughts and experiences, give us an unparalleled insight into the absence of humanity during war.