america kills its soldiers

america kills its soldiers November 11, 2009

As we have explored on this blog often, the american high holy days of Memorial Day and Veterans Day commemorate the “service” of u.s. soldiers by “defending” the borders and integrity of the nation-state, often doing so by “sacrificing” their lives. What is left unsaid is the necessity of the death of soldiers for the life of the nation. The united states thrives on the sacralized death of its soldiers, as Carolyn Marvin and David Ingel and others have argued. To borrow a tactic from the Catholic Right, the death of u.s. soldiers is literally a sacrament for most u.s. citizens.

But the u.s. kills its soldiers in more ways than on the battlefield. To even become soldiers, the u.s. government and military institutions must kill soldiers spiritually, literally attempting to dehumanize them such that it becomes possible and even necessary to kill other human beings, a willingness that, by nature, does not come easily for human beings. The literature on this process of the dehumanization of soldiers is vast, including such analysts as Lt. Dave Grossman (who is no pacifist), Gwynne Dyer, and Chris Hedges. Hedges, and to some extent Dyer, are the only ones to touch on the spiritual dimension of these processes. In an essay of mine currently under revision for publication, I explore further the spiritual dimension of this process as one of discipleship that kills the soldier spiritually and anthropologically in order that he or she becomes willing to kill others before he or she “sacrifices” him or herself by being killed in turn. Of course, the goal of soldiers is not to die but to kill. But as Marvin and Ingle argue, a war without u.s. casualties is often regarded on some level as an unsuccessful war.

We see explicitly the effects of military training on the soldier in countless ways, and I have tried to blog here and there about instances that make it into the (usually alternative) media. Here is yet another: the assault of a Greek Orthodox priest in Tampa by a Marine reservist who mistook him for a Muslim. One of the most extreme recent examples is, of course, the case of the D.C. sniper, John Allen Muhammad, who was murdered by the state of Virginia the day before Veterans Day. It is well known that Muhammad was a veteran suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. So despite surface appearances, Muhammad was not merely executed by the state of Virginia, but was slowly murdered by the u.s. government and by u.s.american society over time and in multifaceted ways.

All of this considered, it seems clear that — whether in battle, in military spiritual formation, or in the death chamber — U.S.America, Holy Mother State as Dorothy Day often called it, kills its soldiers one way or another. On this high “holy” day of Veterans Day, let us subvert the dynamics of this and other state holidays by praying and recommitting ourselves to work for an end to war and an end to all preparation for war, including the many ways america murders its soliders.

______
UPDATE: A more complete report on the assault of the Orthodox priest is here. I’m surprised no one has commented on the story. Actually, no I’m not.


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  • alexsees

    You can’t even manage a ‘thank you’ to the soldiers who have volunteered their lives to protect your country? Forget Vietnam and Iraq if you want to. What about those who served in World War II? Are they not deserving of at least SOME gratitude from you?

    • Perhaps they are deserving of gratitude on some level, but that is not the issue I’m writing about. In fact I do not consider this to be a post against soldiers in any way. It is a post about the reality they experience, a reality that is largely hidden from view on these holy days, covered over by sentimentalist rhetoric. It is against u.s. policies and u.s. cultural characteristics that dehumanize soldiers. What better day to talk about this than Veterans Day? u.s. veterans deserve better.

  • David Nickol

    Michael,

    I can’t support everything you say, but I have been thinking some harsh thoughts about military psychiatrists (and maybe even other doctors) in the aftermath of the Fort Hood incident. In a case of justifiable war, it is of course good and noble to help heal the physical and mental wounds of solders who have gone into battle. But if the war is not clearly justifiable, military psychiatrists are part of the system that sends men off to battle, damages them, and then (if they are not killed or if they don’t commit suicide) tries to patch them back together when they get home, perhaps even for the sake of sending them back into battle.

    It also seems to me that humans simply were not made to go into battle. In the case of an unjustified war, psychiatrists are not so much healers as enablers. The only really effective medicine under the circumstances would be preventive — don’t send men into battle.

    Another though: We tend to be much more sympathetic to soldiers with physical wounds than to those with psychological ones. We don’t expect soldiers who lose their arms and legs to grow them back. But we seem to be impatient and unforgiving when someone suffers psychological wounds that are too severe to heal.

    And what’s with this?

    There are 200,000 homeless veterans on any one day, up to 400,000 during any year; 97% of the homeless veterans (194,000) are male, and 3% (6,000) female on any one day. These are the VA’s best estimates. No one is really counting. 56% (112,000) are African American or Hispanic.

    Of these 45% (86,000) suffer from mental illness and (with considerable overlap) 73% (146,000) suffer from alcohol and substance abuse.

  • Magdalena

    Ah I wondered if there would be a post for Veteran’s Day or Armistice Day as they call it elsewhere. The fact that this holiday is celebrated on multiple continents should suggest that American culture and policies in particular are not quite the right target to be aiming at. The guilt lies with the enemy of all nations, those named “legion, for we are many.”

    In my community we also honored the sacrifices of our firemen who died in the line of duty. Perhaps that serves as a better example to illustrate how and why American society (like all societies) needs sacrifice. The fact that men exist who will go into a burning building to save others, even at the cost of their lives, is part of the glue that all communities need. Sacrament, from sacrare, to consecrate. Is laying down your life for your friend a sacralizing event? I would say so. Most soldiers killed in battle do NOT die to save the lives of their comrades, however.

    An important distinction is that Veteran’s Day is meant to honor living Veterans, while Memorial Day references our war dead. So today is technically supposed to be about saluting a period of time spent in public service and not a meditation on dying for your community a la the Funeral Oration.

  • David – I think military chaplains are enablers as well.

    Ah I wondered if there would be a post for Veteran’s Day or Armistice Day as they call it elsewhere. The fact that this holiday is celebrated on multiple continents should suggest that American culture and policies in particular are not quite the right target to be aiming at.

    U.S. Veterans Day is NOT celebrated throughout the world. Analogous holidays are celebrated. Canada’s Remembrance Day is quite different, for example.

    An important distinction is that Veteran’s Day is meant to honor living Veterans, while Memorial Day references our war dead.

    This is a great example of my point above. In Canada, Remembrance Day is about both. And it functions in a different way than the u.s. version. Not that I embrace Canada’s military holidays, but I think you need to recognize distinctions.

    The guilt lies with the enemy of all nations, those named “legion, for we are many.”

    This seems to me a gross spiritualization of concrete human guilt. Would you want to shift the blame of abortion simply onto Satan as well?

    Is laying down your life for your friend a sacralizing event? I would say so.

    Not always, and certainly not in all contexts.

    Most soldiers killed in battle do NOT die to save the lives of their comrades, however.

    This is NOT what the research is showing. Nor is it what my veteran friends and family tell me.

    While all of these points are interesting, they are kind of peripheral to my point about the deliberate dehumanization of soldiers in the u.s.. Let us keep the focus there as David has done if you wish to comment, rather than simply engaging in reactive, uncritical defense of u.s. mythology and practice. (Of course there are and always have been similar practices in other nations throughout history. But it is the entire complex that interests me, which is unique: the interaction of u.s. culture, politics, religion, mythology, and without a doubt racism, etc.

  • Colin Gormley

    [Pointless statement deleted. – MI]

    Training is not dehumanizing. It is to teach soldiers to react to a high stress situation without having to think.

  • Training is not dehumanizing. It is to teach soldiers to react to a high stress situation without having to think.

    “Teach[ing] soldiers to react to a high stress situation without having to think” is PRECISELY what is dehumanizing. I should not have to explain this, but the fact that we are ethical creatures is a major part of what makes us human.

    As John Kavanaugh writes: “Because the very impulse to be ethical affirms the personal reality from which ethics springs — because the very placement of an ethical act is, of its essence, a ‘yes’ to personal dignity—one cannot be faithful to the moral universe in doing any act that in itself negates personhood in oneself or another. Fidelity to human personhood, the affirmation of the intrinsic value of persons and adherence to the truth of personal moral dignity, requires that we never reduce a human person to the condition of being a nonperson, that we not negate the personhood of ourselves and others, that we not treat a person as a mere thing or object. . . . To be willing to kill a human person is to be willing to kill the foundation of ethics itself. It is to disengage oneself from the moral universe” (Who Count as Persons?: Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing [Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2001], p. 119).

  • Navy Vet

    michael,

    Once more into the breach, but I feel that this is not your best effort, perhaps you are under the weather.

    Some of your basic assumptions seem to be lacking in general consensus. For example,

    “It is well known that Muhammad was a veteran suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. So despite surface appearances, Muhammad was not merely executed by the state of Virginia, but was slowly murdered by the u.s. government and by u.s.american society over time and in multifaceted ways.”

    Well known by whom? Gulf War Syndrome is usually headaches, fatigue, rashes, etc. How does that apply to a religiously motivated murderer? Did his trial and execution taken place for religious purposes in a religious court? I do not remember that happening. Muhammad’s status as a veteran really had nothing to do with his crimes or punishment. If you read his rantings, he placed his motivations on a somewhat different cause, i.e. jihad.

    “What is left unsaid is the necessity of the death of soldiers for the life of the nation. The united states thrives on the sacralized death of its soldiers, as Carolyn Marvin and David Ingel and others have argued. To borrow a tactic from the Catholic Right, the death of u.s. soldiers is literally a sacrament for most u.s. citizens.”

    I fundamentally disagree with this concept. The U.S. would be delighted not to have to see any more death of soldiers. Let us take a simple stark contrast to the suicide bomber. If the U.S. thought so highly of self-sacrifice and death, why have they never used this rather common tactic? Death is not needed for the life of a democracy, only for the police state. Without the threat of death, many states from Cuba to North Korea to any number of African states would collapse, but certainly not the U.S.

    I certainly do not agree with all the places that U.S. forces have been sent and still remain, but to argue that the U.S. military has not clearly freed more people from ruthless tyranny is silly and demeans those who reflexively loathe the U.S.

    Your turn….

    • Navy Vet —

      1) I am indeed under the weather. Far under. But I stand by the things I wrote. I would appreciate your prayers for a quick recovery.

      2) If you doubt that u.s. citizens sacralize the deaths of soldiers, look no further than the posts of this man.

      3) That’s all I can manage right now. I sincerely hope you had a pleasant day.

  • Navy Vet

    michael,

    I will keep your health in my prayers and hope for your speedy recovery.

    I would like to make a comparison of the sacrifice of Abraham with the U.S. serviceman. God stopped Abraham before he could kill Isaac, but wanted to see that Abraham did not hold back even his beloved son. In a similar vein, no soldier is asked to die for the US, only to be prepared to make the sacrifice. We usually do not count as heroes those who die by accident or in training, even though we honor their sacrifice. Whether or not a veteran is killed is not the issue, it is the willingness to sign the ultimate check, not knowing what amount will be written in the amount box.

    This may be “inside baseball” for some, but a debate in the military right now is the awarding of the Medal of Honor only to dead men. Does the big brass want to avoid having a living hero that could be lionized and become a political lightning rod? Or what is the real reason that no living men have received it since Vietnam? This is a problem since Iraq/Afghan is clearly the largest military action to not have any living recipients of the Medal of Honor. And it is not a partisan issue either, since it predates the current administration.

    I would appreciate the effort if you could expand your comment on the sacralization of death by Mr. McClarey. I always try to be very cautious about interpreting the meanings that other draw from blogs and articles. And I have an inkling that you and I might look at things from a slightly different base of attitude and experience, so I do not want to misinterpret your ideas and react inappropriately.

    Hope you are feeling better soon.

    John 15:13

    • Navy Vet – 1) I think your interpretation of the Abraham story is a dangerous one. That said, I am not against the idea of sacrifice, not even against the sacrifice of one’s self in the most radical cruciform way. But we cannot merely use this christological language with reference to soldiers as if the soldier’s willingness to sacrifice other human lives is not the very point of soldiering. Christ’s sacrifice looks radically dissimilar from that of the u.s. soldier. We need to include in our talk of “sacrifice” that which makes the Christian notion of sacrifice different from the merely human social dynamics of sacrifice.

      2) I’m not sure what kind of further explanation you need for how I read McClarey.

  • Zak

    [Deleted. – MI]

    Regarding the substance of your post, I think there is a tendency in the United States to treat the military with a thoughtless respect (in the sense that people do it instinctively). I think the reason for that is that it is an example of service and sacrifice (typically with more than a little selflessness) and people are often blind both to other less visible examples and unreflective about the degree of the sacrifice involved in going to war (because of its dehumanizing effects, its pressure on families and individuals, and the questioning that comes up about why about you’re fighting.

    I don’t think the solution or proper response to that is to act as if soldiers aren’t worth honoring; it’s to live lives of sacrifice ourselves. Some, like Dorothy Day, may do both.

    I think you’re wrong when you say a war without U.S. casualties is viewed as unsuccessful – that claim wasn’t made after Kosovo – rather, the claim was that by attempting to avoid U.S. casualties, we relied upon air attacks that made Serbian civilian casualties more likely.

  • I don’t think the solution or proper response to that is to act as if soldiers aren’t worth honoring;

    u.s. soldiers are worth honoring as human beings, but not necessarily as soldiers. We absolutely MUST do the former. I think we should honor them more than we do, more than simply saying we do, which is what Veterans Day seems to be all about. I precisely intended to honor u.s. soldiers as human beings in this post. Doing so absolutely REQUIRES us to be honest about military reality rather than ignoring it.

    …it’s to live lives of sacrifice ourselves.

    Of course we are to do this.

    Some, like Dorothy Day, may do both.

    I think we should do both: 1) live lives of Christian sacrifice and 2) point to FALSE notions of sacrifice, such as the dehumanization that is at the CORE of u.s. military training and culture.

    What we need, I think, is a u.s. liberation theology toward liberation from militarization which dehumanizes soldiers and encourages other forms of dehumanization.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    It’s the very purpose of the military to dehumanize people. Siryessir. I’d be in the brigs on day one, gross insubordination due to laughing at the whole bullshit once the first idiot yelled at me in that laughable tone/jargon. But ooo the shiny uniforms…until they’re torn to shreds and blood-soaked. Oorah! Hooah!

    Americans are drilled from early on to revere “our brave men and women in uniform” (Does this include UPS ?). There hasn’t been a flag-oath in Austria since Hitler. The idea of country is idiotic to begin with, arbitrary lines drawn in blood. Is that pledge of allegiance BS still done every day in school ?

    If you voluntarily join the military and die, what’s honorable about that as such ? You sign up to kill whoever the president feels like killing (curiously, it’s always “conflicts”, never wars). Contract killer, just with more pomp and circumstance. If they handed me the folded flag at a funeral I’d wipe my behind with it. To derive a sense of pride and awe from a piece of cloth is pretty sad.

    Question – how is it that self-professed Christians are more likely to join the military ? Did they think Blessed are the peacemakers referred to the gun of that name ?

    Favorite war euphemism: battle fatigue. Cause killing makes you tired.

  • Thales

    Michael,

    Do you see any place for peace-keeping? True peace-keeping by the UN for example? (I grant that many peace-keeping projects have been very muddled – I wonder which is a good example of peace-keeping. Maybe Cyprus?) For peace-keeping, isn’t weapons training, tactical maneuver training, self-defense training, etc. required? Isn’t this training what you’re calling “dehumanizing”?

  • Navy Vet

    Michael –

    I should have explained my Abraham and Isaac analogy more fully. I meant that the US vet is in the role of Isaac as the sacrifice with God making the decision as to whether to accept it or not, not that the US vet is Abraham making the life and death decision for someone else. For the most part, the US vet is willing to risk their own life to protect the life of others, even that of his enemy. Stories abound of soldiers holding their fire because they are not sure that all the civilians are out of a building or taking prisoners when they could clearly gun down the enemy. If the US soldier was motivated to sacrifice the enemy, the wars in Iraq and Afghan would be much, much bloodier for the enemy.

    The value of the sacrifice of Abraham was that he was willing to give up that which he loved most. Like the widow who gave only two cents, but gave from her need, not her surplus. The soldier is willing to risk their need also, not their surplus.

    For another time, I would like to discuss the concept of dehumanization. I have a feeling that some people have greatly distorted views of what military training is like. Let me promise that it is very unlike what one sees in movies and reads in the newspaper. Not everyone is subjected to the “Full Metal Jacket” experience. You might be quite shocked at some of the discussions that are held at Catholic schools across the country as to the purpose and conduct of military conflict.

    Also, I am still unclear as to your thoughts on Mr McClarey’s blog.

  • Colin Gormley

    [Pointless statement deleted. – MI]

    Actually it had a very valid point. A day where we remember those who have fallen in protection of this country and this is all Vox Nova can muster.

    Amazing how this site will just edit and drop comments altogether. Makes me wonder what else has been dropped…

    • Actually it had a very valid point. A day where we remember those who have fallen in protection of this country and this is all Vox Nova can muster.

      My post is not “the” Vox Nova statement on Veterans Day. The rest of the contributors are not responsible for what I write or what I do not write, nor am I responsible for what they write or do not write.

      Amazing how this site will just edit and drop comments altogether. Makes me wonder what else has been dropped…

      Read our comment policy. We have reserved the right to disapprove and/or edit comments for some time now.

  • Zak

    But your argument is premised on the idea that sacrifice on behalf of one’s country (at least by dying in military service) is false (at least if it’s the not-worthy-to-be-capitalized United States – maybe it’s different if it’s Canada). It’s possible that dehumanization is at the essence of military action, but you have by no means demonstrated that. I think U.S. training has for a long time looked to create killers first and foremost (cue Gerald Naus quoting Arlo Guthrie), but I think there has been a recognition throughout the military that such an approach is wrong. It requires a cultural change.

    Also, the military doesn’t “defend the borders and integrity of the nation-state.” It defends the citizens and residents of the nation-state.

  • ben

    Like Magdalena, I think the connection to Armistice Day us extremely important for Veteran’s Day. I also beleive that it is no accident that Veteran’s Day and the end of the Great War are on Martinmas.

    St. Martin of Tours is an exemplar whose life reveals the meaning of this day. In him we see a saint who put away his arms and who gave up his life as a soldier to walk with Christ.

    Therefore, Veterans Day is to give thanks to God for whatever peace we enjoy in our lives. Whatever it is, Veterans Day is not about victory. If anything, it is about finding hope in peace in the midst of the total defeat that war is for our humanity. It is also a day to pray for the survivors of war, and an expression of our hope that they continue survive their wars. More than a few soldiers are ultimately killed by their wars decades later thorugh alcoholism, drug abuse, homlessness, depression and suicide.

  • Seraphic Spouse

    Well, since the Greek Orthodox priest is terribly embarrassed by the whole thing, refuses to be interviewed and is apparently afraid the incident will bring the priesthood into disrepute, perhaps it is just as well we’re not pursuing it.

    I will say, however, that it looks more like a stroke of very bad luck than a true “anti-Muslim” backlash. The Marine reservist who attacked the priest made up three separate lies to account for his actions: robbery, sexual assault and the Greek Orthodox priest shouting “Allah Akbar”. When told his captive was a priest, the man burst into tears.

    Meanwhile, the reservist is a married man who works for a company that promotes the use of testosterone and poses in beefcake photos available on gay websites. All this is rather odd.

    Of course, the priest’s misfortune is being exploited to point to a (non-existent?) backlash. And it is sadly ironic, for historically the Greeks have suffered terribly from militant Islam.

  • Berto

    Are you arguing that human beings are basically born good and non-violent and altruistic and have to be trained to behave like animals? We ARE animals. The assertion that the willingness of one human being to kill another is a “willingness that, by nature, does not come easily,” pretty much flys in the face of history and the evidence which surrounds us every day. We’re all the time killing each other. It doesn’t seem to matter the culture, the religion, the nationality…it comes terribly easily to us. You also use the word “dehumanize” without defining what it means to you to be human. I’d be interested in that definition.

  • will say, however, that it looks more like a stroke of very bad luck than a true “anti-Muslim” backlash.

    Why does it look that way to you? All evidence suggests otherwise.

    Of course, the priest’s misfortune is being exploited to point to a (non-existent?) backlash.

    Exploited by whom?

  • Are you arguing that human beings are basically born good and non-violent and altruistic and have to be trained to behave like animals?

    Humans are born into a situation of sin, including a tendency to be violent. But to kill another human being goes against our instincts. I suggest Dave Grossman’s book On Killing or Gwynne Dyer’s book War on this issue. Soldiers must be broken down such that they become capable of killing another person. Read the literature.

    We ARE animals.

    Correction: we are “animals” only when it is convenient to claim such things to justify violence.

    The assertion that the willingness of one human being to kill another is a “willingness that, by nature, does not come easily,” pretty much flys in the face of history and the evidence which surrounds us every day.

    Read the literature. You might consider questioning what you consider to be “common sense.”

    We’re all the time killing each other.

    Who is “we”? I’ve never killed anyone.

    It doesn’t seem to matter the culture, the religion, the nationality…it comes terribly easily to us.

    Not true, at least not universally.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    Michael, there are sociopaths who don’t have to be pushed a whole lot. They get disappointed when there’s no fighting going on.

    Americans are great at marketing, so it’s no wonder people have been sold on all these notions of doodie, honor, country. Get ’em while they’re young.

    A factor in addition to being drilled is that they are given a reason, a license to kill. It’s ok cause that’s “the enemy” – that it’s usually some poor sucker with no desire to be there isn’t taken into account. Hell, my grandfather and my wife’s grandfather could have killed each other. Distinctions are at the root of murder (“us” as opposed/versus “them), together with the unquestioned adoption of one’s milieu’s standards. (“I am a man/woman/black/etc so I have to act in such and such a manner”).

    Lumping people into groups/viewing them through such a filter lays the groundwork for carnage. expressing the desire to “kill myself some “Japs”, “Krauts”, “Sandn*ggers”, “Charlie” etc. is quite different and more easily to embrace than “I’m gonna kill Wolfgang Biedermann, father of three.”

  • Seraphic Spouse

    By whom?

    Well…

    Incidentally, have you come across any examples of a real Muslim being hit over the head by someone NOT a beefcake model on steriods in the past week? It is certainly possible that this may have happened. One Muslim American shopkeeper was murdered in cold blood by a seething stranger four days after 9/11.

  • Did you answer the question?

  • ben

    Michael,

    I think Seraphic Spouse is implying that you are exploiting this priest’s misfortune to point to a non-existent backlash.

    […]

    • I think Seraphic Spouse is implying that you are exploiting this priest’s misfortune to point to a non-existent backlash.

      Yes, that’s obvious. But I wanted her to say it.

      The charge is absurd. I do think that it is a quite obvious example of anti-Muslim backlash, but said nothing about it in the post.