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.