November 20, 2004

For the Benefit of Mr Fly

All over again, there's consternation over something a soldier did during a war. This time, the Kevin Sites video showing a US Marine pumping bullets into a man lying on the ground. And all over again, I'm scratching my head in wonder. Exactly what is so surprising about this?

If there's any lesson from war, it is that the men we send to fight will do some ghastly things. Rules and training and the Geneva Convention be damned: under that kind of pressure, in the filthy, brutal, nerve-wrenching conditions of war, men will definitely do ghastly things. The real surprise is that the rest of us get so surprised.

Oh yes, we all like to believe our particular countries' armies are what we call "professional". By which we apparently mean that our soldiers are uniquely well-behaved and would never indulge in atrocities, in complete contrast to the brutal half-human behaviour of our opponents' soldiers.

It's a nice little fiction to carry around, but as a once-Governor of Texas used to say, "that dog don't hunt."

In India we were roused to terrible fury by the six bodies of our soldiers Pakistan returned, mutilated, at the start of the 1999 Kargil war. A horrible crime, and it confirmed for us what we always believed about Pakistan and India: "Pakistan is venal", an otherwise mild friend told me. "Our soldiers would never do something like that."

Yet here's Sankarshan Thakur writing in Guns and Yellow Roses about his experiences reporting from the front:

[M]uch the same was happening on this side. Troops of the Naga and Jat regiments told us quite plainly they had killed a few intruders they had captured alive ... 'It was rage, just rage,' one Naga soldier said. 'They had killed many of our mates, we were angry. When we got them, we butchered them.' ... [W]hen they brought bodies of intruders back from the heights, they tied them with ropes and dragged them down. ... There was no sense of guilt or remorse there ... it was as if a fire of emotion had cleansed the act of murder.

As for the US, have you read Eugene Sledge? You should. Sledge was a Marine who fought the Japanese in WW2. After the war ended, he wrote one of the finest war memoirs in existence, With the Old Breed: not literature, but just honest writing from a decent, ordinary man; and that makes it a searing record of war. Here's one episode from it.

After a battle on Peleliu island, a Marine came up dragging what Sledge assumed was a Japanese corpse. Only, the man wasn't dead. He "had been wounded severely in the back", writes Sledge, "and couldn't move his arms." The Marine sat down with his wounded Jap. Took out his kabar, his Marine knife. Here, in full, are Sledge's own words about this incident:

The Japanese's mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim's mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer's lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier's mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, "Put the man out of his misery." All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier's brain and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.

Such was the incredible cruelty that decent men could commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue and filth that was the infantryman's war.

The lesson from all this? When men go to war, we had better expect atrocities. Peleliu, Kargil, My Lai, Falluja, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, American -- whoever, wherever, whichever the war. Decent men, whom it hardly makes sense to blame.

The real crime is not the atrocities, but war itself. Not that we will ever be rid of war; but with every man we send to fight, with every death in war, we must ask hard questions. And even more so when we invest war with those precious words: the "glory of war" and the like.

Here's Sledge again, after one more brutal battle:

I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how "gallant" it is for a man to "shed his blood for his country" and "to give his life's blood as a sacrifice," and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefitted.

The rules of war, the glory of war. Tell it to the flies.


ak said...

Wonderful post. It made me think. And, do you have Sledge's memoir? I must confess that I never saw war this way. I didn't know normal men could behave so cruelly in abnormal circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

Sunil said...

This was an excellent blog on the brutality and futility of war. I have often wondered myself why people live in their own glass houses..."our own troops would never do something horrific." This is especially so more recently, with all that talk of "precision targetting", and "minimum civillian casualties" during the war. And people lap up that talk........
They'd rather ignore blogs from the war (like this one: that tell you what's happening, and live in their own little make believe world with marines waving at smiling children.....just like they did in the recent elections :-)

Anonymous said...

Really good post. Have been working as a mental health professional in situations where people who are supposed to uphold law commit brutal acts (refugees,internally displaced populations and natural disasters). Have you read Urvashi Butalia's book (Speaking Peace: Women's Voices from Kashmir) on the plight of women in Kashmir who are victimized by both the Indian Army and Insurgents? A must read to understand another dimension of the complexity in the region and which we will continue to see, unfortunately,in many more regions of the world.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Venkat, there's much else in Sledge's book to make your stomach churn. All the more reason to get it and read it. I dug up Sledge's address after I read it and wrote to him, but he was very ill, and died soon after. (A couple of years ago).

As for Gandhi, I think there's something we don't understand enough: that he recognized and used the power of nonviolence as a weapon. In some ways I think it was more than a philosophy, it was shrewd political strategy. The half-men who like to scorn him today prefer to close their eyes to that.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sunil, don't be too hard on people who live in glass houses! All of us do, and it takes something special to get us to see our own warts. The good thing is, there are always the Sledges and others like him to bring us down to earth from time to time. Another book recommendation in this vein: "We were Soldiers Once, and Young" -- Harold Moore.

Sunrayz, Urvashi Butalia's book has been on my mental must-read list for a long time! Especially now since I've been travelling to Kashmir myself, and meeting people there. It's anything but black and white there, and yet how easily the rest of us like to see it as such. Now with your reminder, I'll make sure to get her book and read it.

Anonymous said...

Which post on that blog are you talking about?

sudeep said...

Neville Chamberlain would have been proud :-P

The Cydonian said...

Perhaps I misunderstood the tone of your post, but I wouldnt call an army as being 'professional' because it doesnt indulge in atrocities, but because it would have a legal structure which would punish/inhibit atrocities.

You are right; war is dirty business, and yes, it is naive to expect soldiers/jawans to behave civilly, but that doesn't mean we condone such acts. The professionalism of any army is often demonstrated by the manner in which it bells its cats, so to speak. Which, in turn, is to not comment on the professionalism of the American or Indian armies, but on professional armies in general.

[OT: And the real reason why I'm here :-) ] Apropos your Rediff column:

Point made and well-taken on EU-istan; been telling the same thing myself for over a year now.

Just to add one small nugget for folks to mull over: EU-istan started off first as economic community, before becoming a borderless social community.

Think about it. :-)

Nishit Rawat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nishit Rawat said...


Read some of your blog postings (this one, the one on Indian blogs, and the one on Surabhi and adoption). Must say that your writings are thought provoking.

Over the years I have struggled through dilemmas that I see a lot of others facing as well. At some level, I believe in a streak of "idealism" in every human being. Sometimes it makes me feel that its only the child in my that still wants to live in a make-believe world, and life is teaching me differently as I begin to face some harsh truths. All part of growing up, I guess. (No, I am no teenager writing here... well approaching my 30s).

Anyways, I have added your blog in my favorites. Will keep coming here