by Barry Yourgrau

War, it can just bring out the worst in people...

On Monday 22-year-old Army PFC Jesse Spielman pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, arson, and "wrongfully touching a corpse" (a gruesomely suggestive phrase heretofore unknown to me). Also "drinking." Court-martial on more serious charges awaits.

All this relating to the horrific rape and murder of teenage Iraqi girl and her family last spring.

Not the stuff to win hearts and minds. No, not a good guys M.O.

There was also the recent journal dispatch online at TNR by an American GI in Iraq, who describes himself and his buddies as behaving, well, very badly — insulting and harassing a disfigured young woman at base (like Neil LaBute pigs in fatigues); going around wearing a piece of a dead child's skull as a wig; running over dogs for kicks.

The right-wing media attack force — and is there anyone more despicable on military matters then Fox's smiley Bill Kristol? But to be fair various military bloggers wrote as well — immediately got all up in arms (you might say). How could such despicable doings be presented just in a semi-introspective journal entry, as opposed filed as a misconduct report? Outrageous, a slander of our young valiants over there on the front line of the War on Terror, "fighting courageously (wrote Bill Kristol) in a just cause ... our best and bravest, fighting for all of us against a brutal enemy in a difficult and frustrating war." (Ah..."difficult" and frustrating," that's a way to put it)

Not to be flip, exceedingly flip about terrible things (civilians behaving badly?)...but excuse me? That very excellent commentator Digby wrote a tremendously powerful piece on this Behaving Badly uproar, asking in a nutshell: Have you never read — way back in junior high even — about the appalling bestial realities of what war really does to people? Classic books like, say, All Quiet on the Western Front?

Do you think it's all John Wayne Jr. over in Iraq, despite a few stinky apples? All gritty everyday gutty "professionals" — the "future leaders of this country" (Bill Kristol) — doing a hellacious gutty job?

I recall that during the heady carnival on TV at the invasion's kickoff, the one somber note I heard from every military color commentator on TV was: "We don't want this to turn into an urban guerilla combat scenario."

Because among other things, like big bulky armies losing advantage, urban guerilla fighting ratchets up the hell factor. Hell tends to bring out the ugly side of humans. Especially youthful humans with catastrophically high-powered weapons, and death metal roaring in their earphones and Grand Theft Auto on their screens and not much local language to speak of and asymmetric enemies lurking anywhere using barbarism and treachery, who could be anyone old or young. In desert/swamp-like conditions.

Those TV generals' cautionary warning sounds awful "quaint" now (as the Attorney General might say), doesn't it, years into the middle of what we're in? This is not the war we wargamed, as one live-combat general admitted early in the going.

I read a book that overwhelmed me when it came out less than a year after 9/11. It's called War is A Force that Gives Us Meaning. It is a meditation-cum-memoir by Chris Hedges, the ex-longtime war correspondent for The New York Times. "War correspondent," meaning in Hedges' case someone who has experienced combat from Guatemala to Kosovo to the Gulf War, where Hedges was captured and held by Saddam's soldiers. As opposed to, say, Bill Kristol, who's experience of warfare is restricted to his blithe and bloody war-mongering on Fox and in the pages of the Rupert Murdoch-owned magazine he edits.

For what it's worth, Hedges, who studied at theological seminary, does not call himself a pacifist. (I guess this assurance is obligatory if one is going to speak negatively of war as an activity). There are alas times, admits Hedges, when resorting to war is necessary. Intervening in Kosovo, for instance. But war he regards as something akin to chemotherapy — a sometimes needed, terrible poison.

Not a cheery tonic for the national spirit.

Not a marketing device to sell a Congressional majority. Or drive up an imperial punk's poll numbers.

Something grave, hell-like, and potentially deranging for everyone.

Hedges provides this larger perspective about soldiers going astray:

"Killing unleashes within us dark undercurrents that see us desecrate and whip ourselves into greater orgies of destruction. The dead, treated with respect in peacetime, are abused in wartime. They become pieces of performance art. Corpses were impaled in Bosnia on the side of barns, decapitated, or draped like discarded clothing over fences..."


"Once again the strange need by humans to display human corpses as trophies."

And :

"Here we see the mutilation of the dead that has been part of military behavior since there were men at arms. If you kill your enemy his body becomes your trophy, your possession, and this has been a fundamental part of warfare since before the Philistines beheaded Saul."

I'll refrain from quoting more (there's much more), because it's hairy stuff, and needs to be read in context.

Of course I'm not maintaining that what Hedges writes is the snapshot of conduct in Iraq. I'm saying: These are the dark forces and currents in the midst of which, everyday, people in warfare must operate.

Hedges cites author Lawrence Leshan, whose book The Psychology of War differentiates between "mythic reality" and "sensory reality" in wartime.

Sensory reality means when you trust your own lying eyes.

"But in mythic war (writes Hedges), we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to reality. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects—eventually in the form of corpses."

Wars that lose their mythic stature, adds Hedges, are doomed to failure....

John Wayne, that ageless icon of righteous American might, that imperturbable, likeable tough guy Yank from the celluloid Iwo Jimas (eat your heart out, Fred Thompson) never served in World War II, though many of his fellow stars enlisted. (He has other priorities, shall we say?)

And that famous cowboy walk of the Dude's was a carefully crafted concoction that actually required him to point his toes in his boots. Like a ballerina, sort of.

From John Wayne All American by Randy W. Roberts and James Stuart Olson:

"Wayne particularly disliked the way his walk looked on screen. Fix [Paul Fix, wayne's informal acting teacher] told him to point his toes into the ground as he walked, an action that made his shoulders and hips swing in a distinctive manner. The walk, Harry Carey Jr. later said, was not unlike Marilyn Monroe's...."

Whenever the American troops do come home from Iraq, I believe they will be very alienated, most of them; angry and vengeful about the lying and false mythologizing that sent them there. Very angry and very vengeful.

I nominate Bill Kristol and his buddies to go speak to them.

What Iraqi regular folks would have to say, and do, to Kristol I will leave to history's imagination.

But I'll close with a quotation from a piece Wallace Shawn wrote in early 2003, pre-invasion. I had never been much of a Shawn fan, he somehow got on my nerves (I don't know how else to put it). But his writing about Iraq and Bush changed my attitude entirely.

"The love of killing is inside each one of us, and we can never be sure that it won't come out. We have to be grateful if it doesn't come out. In fact, it is utterly wrong for me to imagine that Bush is violent and I am not, that Bush is cruel and I am not. I am potentially just as much of a killer as he is, and I need the help of all the sages and poets and musicians and saints to guide me onto a better path, and I can only hope that the circumstances of my life will continue to be ones that help me to stay on that path."

Then Shawn continues:

"But we can't deny that Bush and his men, for whatever reason, are under the sway of the less peaceful side of their natures. From the first days after the World Trade Center fell, you could see in their faces that, however scary it might be to be holding the jobs they held, however heavy the responsibility might be for steering the ship of state in such troubled times, they in fact were loving it. Those faces glowed. You could see that special look that people always have when they've just been seized by that most purposeless of all things, a sense of purpose. This, combined with a lust for blood, makes for particularly dangerous leaders, so totally driven by their desire for violence that they're almost incapable of hearing anyone else's pleas for compromise or for peace."

Thanks to, where this piece first appeared on my new blog Brain Flakes.

Originally by Barry Yourgrau from The Smirking Chimp - News And Commentary from the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy on August 2, 2007, 4:41pm

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  • Tom Usher

    About Tom Usher

    Employment: 2008 - present, website developer and writer. 2015 - present, insurance broker. Education: Arizona State University, Bachelor of Science in Political Science. City University of Seattle, graduate studies in Public Administration. Volunteerism: 2007 - present, president of the Real Liberal Christian Church and Christian Commons Project.
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