Saturday, March 17, 2012

Impersonal Warfare

In my last post I talked about sneering and mistrust as the natural way for a soldier to deal with the reality of his work. The vast majority of modern wars (with significant exceptions) are matters of masses of anonymous men seeking out and killing masses of other anonymous men. That, at least, is how it seems from the point of view of those who run the wars, and many of the people who prosecute those wars. This too, is a psychological defense mechanism. Wiping out a blip on a computer screen or a little green shape on the drone’s camera is such an impersonal thing, which, I firmly believe, is the real reason for the modern emphasis on super-technology in war. It is not because of the practical effectiveness (it is, on the whole, immensely impractical) but because of the psychological leverage it gives us.

Things are not so sterile for the front line soldier. Faced with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, a yelling voice, and the sensory reality of sweat and blood on the body, the front line soldier cannot hide behind computers. Instead he has to resort to a more primitive method of psychological distancing. He has to convince himself that the enemy is somehow less than he is. Anything can be used as leverage for this “othering” of the enemy. Skin color is an old favorite, but uniforms will do. Language is a solid choice, carrying as it does connotations of a whole alien culture. Specific habits of the enemy, can be subtle proof of inferiority. (Iraqis usually squat instead of sitting to answer the call of nature. Therefore we are superior to them.) Real or imagined wrongs done by the enemy to people I somehow identify with are the best leverage of all, because it provides not merely a psychological but as pseudo-moral justification for violence. It is justice, meted out by the soldier. This is also a useful handle for demonizing anyone on our side who proposes a more moderate course.

The end result, the goal and object of this process, is the othering, the de-humanization, the objectifying of the enemy, in order to make him easier to kill. Sometimes this rhetoric is at least subjectively sincere. The person spouting it really believes it. More often I suspect it is a bastardized attempt to cover up the psychological damage of hating another person. The louder the rhetoric, the more I suspect it is only skin deep. The really dangerous person is the one who believes it so completely he doesn’t feel like it needs to be explained.

This is a brief, rough sketch of a reaction to the impersonal violence of modern warfare (personal violence is something else entirely. It is the natural refuge of men who are no more than cogs (albeit willing cogs) in a machine that cares little more for them than for the people it wields them against. (This should not be understood as an indictment against impersonal government. That should be discussed separately, but after a certain point, all human government has to be impersonal. It’s part of the nature of government.)

But as I said, I believe there is another way, although it is not open to most people. I’ll get to it in another post.

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