First, Do No Harm

Medical interventions alway carry risks.  So do other types of
interventions, such as those carried out in the name of national
security.  Just as physicians must not let their enthusiasm
for healing carry them into the realm of medical misadventure, we, as a
country, must exercise prudence and restraint in the application of
force.  We must be cautious about allowing our collective
might to be used in ways that defy that prudence and restraint.

Let us not forget, that in the interest of promoting national security,
we need to protect ourselves not only from external threats, but also
from threats arising among our own people, and our own government.


From Bob Hebert's Times Select editorial, href="">A
Vietnam Lesson, Unlearned

This is the sort of thing that happens when the
military is run by power-hungry amateurs who lack the maturity and the
sense of history to temper their arrogance.

I suspect that the founding fathers had some degree of wisdom, when
they decided to have the military commander-in-chief be a civilian.
 But this is one of the consequences they couldn't have

According to federal prosecutors, an Army private and
several comrades attacked an Iraqi family last March, raping and
killing a young woman after executing her parents and her younger
sister in their home. The men disguised themselves for the attack and
worked as a team, the prosecutors said. Iraqi leaders are in an uproar,
as are American officials in and out of the military.

That's from Benedict Carey's recent NYT article, href="">When
the Personality Disorder Wears Camouflage
 I'm not arguing that the founding fathers could not have
anticipated the atrocities; surely, such things happened in the 1700's,
too.  What they could not have anticipated is the way it would
come about.  From Herbert's essay:

It was already known that the Army had become more
reluctant to release soldiers who were seriously out of shape, or
pregnant, or abusing alcohol or drugs.

The pressure to put somebody — anybody — in uniform
also led to the lowering of standards for admission to the junior
officer ranks.

We've been told that some quantity of "Collateral damage" is inevitable
in war.  I can even accept that, although it rankles me to do
so; I can accept it under the conditions that nobody is being
deceitful, or negligent.  

For example, there was an incident in Bosnia, when an A-10 "Warthog"
attacked a civilian convoy.  We were told that, due to the
risk of surface-to-air missiles, the plane was flying above 10,000
feet.  From that height, the civilian convoy looked like a
military formation.  

We'll have to await the results of the investigation to know what
really happened in Iraq.  Even then, it is likely that we
never will have the full truth.  

Perhaps it is somewhat speculative to say that the lowering of
standards has led to the inclusion of soldiers with personality factors
that would predispose them to commit atrocities.  

According to a href="">Southern
Poverty Law Center href="">report,
(also covered in the href=""
rel="tag">Washington Post

Ten years after Pentagon leaders toughened policies
on extremist activities by active duty personnel -- a move that came in
the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing by decorated Gulf War combat
veteran Timothy McVeigh and the murder of a black couple by members of
a skinhead gang in the elite 82nd Airborne Division -- large numbers of
neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists continue to infiltrate the ranks of
the world's best-trained, best-equipped fighting force. Military
recruiters and base commanders, under intense pressure from the war in
Iraq to fill the ranks, often look the other way.

Neo-Nazis "stretch across all branches of service, they are linking up
across the branches once they're inside, and they are hard-core,"
Department of Defense gang detective Scott Barfield told the
Intelligence Report. "We've got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad," he
added. "That's a problem."

The SPLC has a href="">timeline
illustrating instances of extremism in the military.  It
appears that the government has made efforts in the past to eliminate
the problem.  I do not mean to fault them for lack of effort.
 Rather, my point is this: it is a lot harder to keep the
military in top professional form, when the forces are stretched too
thin, fighting an unnecessary war.  

If military recruiters are knowingly bending the rules, and military
officers are knowingly or negligently allowing unfit members to serve,
and if such deceit and/or negligence led to the atrocities in Iraq,
then this was not mere collateral damage.  It was criminal, and
the culpability goes right to the top of the chain of command

There are a lot of "ifs" in the preceding paragraph, and we need to be
prudent, not jump to conclusions.  But given the fact that the
US military is under civilian control, it is necessary that we
civilians keep an eye on what is happening.  The fact is, we
are responsible fro what is going on over there.  

I can't help but add one more point to this montage.  In order
for us to exercise out responsibility, we need a free press.
 That is, we need journalists who are not href="">intimidated
by the government.

More like this

Someone named Greg Scott, writing at the famously misnamed Intellectual Conservative site, is up in arms about a New York Times report about the increasing number of neo-nazis and skinhead racists in the US military. That article was based on a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which cited…
Here's STACLU's latest exercise in irrationality, a post titled NY Times Paints US Military as a Bunch of Racists. The post is written by Ian from Expose the Left, but all he really does is expose his own lack of reasoning skills. He's up in arms about this article in the NY Times, which points out…
Who are these people, and what are they doing?  They are Democratic congresspersons, sheepishly "caving in".  Not only did they cave on the timeline for withdrawal of military and mercenary forces in Iraq, they failed to heed this warning: href="…
I noticed the incidental coincidence of these two news items:   href=",1,6736477.story?coll=la-news-science">Joseph Zuska, 93; Navy doctor developed treatment for alcoholism href="…

While I appreciate your sentiments - I'm not sure I agree with you that it is caused by a lowering of the standards of admission.

It rather seems to me that giving someone a gun and tacit permission to wreak whatever havoc they deem useful will always lead to such atrocities. It also seems, from reading many accounts of both Viet Nam and Iraq / Afghanistan, that today's army is enfused with such tacit approval - as well as from reading any history book, really.

This comes from the top down and is seen in the outrageous freedom given evangelical Christian officers to characterize this as a religious war - rather than bringing criminals to justice. This is, in turn, at least partially the result of the current administration's fealty to and alignment with the Reconstructionist Christian movement. Also, we have Bush's overt calling upon his Christian god to help him set things straight with Al Qeaeda.

I suspect that under these conditions, even many non-believers would greatly enjoy the relatively unrestricted freedom to take the lives of a sub-human population at will. What greater security can one feel in life - than the power to take other lives at will and with impunity. I think they like it because we (especially males perhaps) are wired that way.

Any military that doesn't set in place strict safeguards against such atrocities will soon get its wish. Did you see the documentary last week on the anniversary of the Kent State massacre? Give anyone that power, put them in a dangerous and confusing situation, make their lives dependent upon the respect of those around them (not wanting to be seen as soft or compassionate for an enemny that despises your national values, in this case your god), and this will happen.

This inclination to have the power of life-and-death over others, and use it, is part of who we are. Either it will be rigidly controlled with the strongest moral and legal controls by officers who are acutely aware of this tendency - or it will consume those who hold that power and the nation that allows and tacitly encourages them to wield that power.

The Germans who killed six-million Jews and other "undesirables" not so long ago, became intoxicated on that same power - and it became them, just as it now becomes us.

And as with the Germans, if there is any sanity in the world, and if we hope to have any kind of better world in the future - we must recognize this deadly inclination that lies just beneath the surface - and punish those leaders who encourage it and allow it to consume us.

Unfortunately, those drunk with the power to control the lives and fortunes of others, know intuitively that wielding this power of life and death as the head of an army, distributing it as a forceful leader, a war president - is how one consolidates and vastly increases their own power.

At least now, we have the small advantage of watching these truths of human nature play out in front of our eyes so vividly every night on high-def TV. Unfortunately, I have little reason to think we will learn any more this time around than we did from the last several opportunities in my own lifetime.

By Pelican's Point (not verified) on 11 Jul 2006 #permalink

I think it would not be possible to identify any single cause for any instance of inappropriate application of power by our forces in Iraq. The lowering of standards is just one factor. You point out that human nature is a big factor, too.

After I wrote this post, I encountered a post on Shining Light in Dark Corners about the particular case of the rape of the 14-year-old girl. It turns out that the main suspect had gotten into the military on a special waiver. He had a criminal history that would have disqualified him.

I think it is important for us to look at the specifics of each case, understanding that each case of malfeasance is different, each with a unique set of causes; and at the same time, to keep in mind that there are some powerful general forces at work.