They Don’t Seem Human Any More

I’ve never served in the military. So this one invites a slagging off for that alone, but I still can’t help but feel it’s worth thinking about.

A recent post on the Facebook hellsite attracted a commenter who made a racist remark about the Middle East. When challenged, of course he fell back on the usual bollocks about how [sneer]political correctness[/sneer] is taking over and how we’re such a gutless society now, full of thin-skinned snowflake liberals, that we can’t take a joke, et cetera ad nauseam.

Putting aside the objective fact that racism invariably comes from fear, and that “political correctness” is in many cases people with principles standing up for those principles (which to me seems like the opposite of gutlessness but whatever), one aspect of this particular case caught my attention.

The commenter in question, early in the exchange, asserted that military people would “get it”.

This sparked a couple of thoughts.

At face value it seems to have been a fairly transparent attempt to use veteran status as a general defence against criticism. The forum in question is one with a comparatively high degree of reverence for military personnel and culture, and that’s… fine. Whatever spins up your FTL drive, I say. I’m only a peripheral member in that forum in any case and, as a mostly-pacifist-unless-violence-is-absolutely-absolutely-the-only-option, I guess even more so.

The idea, I presume, is that this reference was intended to draw on the camaraderie of shared military experience to A) garner support from those who have had that experience, and B) shame into silence those who have not. “You can’t criticise me because I put my life on the line for you.”

“We use words like honor; code; loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way.”

— Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson); ‘A Few Good Men’ (1992)

Now despite appearances, I wouldn’t argue there isn’t some weight to this argument. It is certainly true that those who stand up to defend us, whether that’s from a hostile human enemy in the case of warriors defending civilian populations, from crime and violence in the case of police officers, or from implacable natural enemies like fire or disease, will develop a culture that enables them to face the often-traumatic situations they deal with. They will, almost without exception, learn what we might call ‘dark humour’ as an essential defence mechanism that will keep them going and keep them sane while they’re handling things most of us will, largely thanks to them, never have to endure. They will joke about things that would induce horror in most of us, and if those jokes find their way into the public awareness — if, for example, a paramedic is overheard making a careless remark to another — we will feel distaste, revulsion. We will be offended, even appalled at their callousness. That’s a natural response because we don’t have to deal with the shit they deal with. As Colonel Jessop implies in the full version of his diatribe above, we enjoy the luxury of being able to criticise him, precisely because we’re benefiting from what he and his soldiers do.

(By the way, at the risk of spoilers for a twenty-seven-year-old film holy shit how can it possibly be that long, Jessop was indisputably the bad guy in A Few Good Men – the reason he was such a damn fine bad guy, why he was so utterly compelling as a ‘villain’, was because you can see his reasoning. His thinking makes sense, he’s probably perfectly right up to a certain point, and you can see why he thinks he’s right. He just took it a step too far. The best bad guys are the ones you can imagine yourself being if things had been just a little different for you.)

It’s always been the way of war that the enemy are given contemptuous names and treated with contempt. ‘Fritz’. ‘The Hun’. ‘The Bosch’. ‘Jerries’. ‘Gooks’. ‘Argies’. There are countless examples, and no doubt this was the same in the ancient world. I’ve no doubt the armies of the past had similarly dismissive terms for the people they were facing in war. And the case for this makes sense – again, to a point. It’s easier to kill someone if you dehumanise them first. (I said it made sense, as in it was internally logical, not that I agreed with it – but we’ll come to this in a minute.) If it’s your job to kill someone, then it helps you do that if you make them the subject of your contempt and the butt of your jokes. That way they don’t seem human any more. They’re not like you. They don’t have names, and families and hobbies and hopes for peacetime and the desire to live. They’re just ‘the bad guys’. Easy kills.

But.

Perhaps, the pacifist says in the face of hundreds of thousands of years of human combat experience, this is the wrong way to think about this.

Why not respect your enemy?

Not just his combat capability, although every serious military commentator I’ve ever heard or read has stressed the importance of not underestimating an opponent – and that’s good advice. But why not respect your enemy’s humanity? His (or her, but, you know) human dignity? His identity? His name? His family? His hopes for peacetime and his desire to live? Why not keep all those things in your mind when you go into battle? Why not hold those things as sacred when you raise your weapon and line up a shot? Because it’ll stop you firing? Will it? Why are you there? Are you there to defend someone or something against this person? Will he kill that someone or destroy that something if you don’t fire? Isn’t defending that someone, or that something, worth the price of killing that man, destroying his family, ending his hopes? If it is, then fire. If not, why are you there?

Perhaps these are questions best put to the politicians who order wars and the generals who manage them, than to the soldiers who are after all “just following orders”. But modern armies hold that “just following orders” is no defence to wrongdoing, and so it shouldn’t be – so even the front-line warrior has to make these decisions. If your cause is right, if your actions are justified, then you can respect the man in your sights and still destroy him. You might not enjoy it. It might traumatise you. Haunt you. But that’s the price, isn’t it? Isn’t that what earns you the respect of us hapless civilians?

Let’s assume that this practice, of dehumanising our military opponents, isn’t going to change any time soon. There are plenty of people who will argue in all seriousness that it would reduce our military’s combat effectiveness to have to assess the target’s human dignity before we pull the trigger – and perhaps it would. It is still a fact that we civilians owe our warriors – and all of those who, as the saying goes, run in so that we can run out – a huge debt of gratitude. We owe them our respect for what they do (though that does not mean accepting that everything they’re ordered to do is morally right overall). But there is a counterpoint. They are working to defend our society. That means defending its values. And if our values include a general rejection of racial hatred, then that is what they’re fighting for. Sure, you can fight for something without necessarily feeling an affinity with it. I for one believe in defending human rights, equity and dignity, but I don’t really like humans, as a rule. There’s no rule says I have to. And there’s no rule says you, as a defender of your society, have to share in its values yourself. You can think of that rejection of racial hatred as “political correctness” if it suits you. But you have to be willing to fight for that society’s values — otherwise why are you there? And I’d argue that fighting for those values means publicly upholding them within that society, as well as killing people from outside it. You’re entitled to have your dark humour and share it with your brothers and sisters in arms (literal and metaphorical) – the gods know, you need it. And sometimes we hapless civs might overhear it and then it’s our responsibility to temper our reaction and accept that we weren’t supposed to hear it. I think we can probably do that.

But if you come into public forums and share your dark humour there, in public, then people are going to challenge you. And, especially, if you come into a public forum promoting the dehumanisation and vilification of peoples you or your comrades have faced in conflict, with language that might have been customary — arguably even functional — in a theatre of war, then however much it might grate on you, you’re undermining the protection you were supposedly providing in the first place. Maybe not militarily, maybe not directly, but in terms of social cohesion and our freedom as a society to stand for the values we believe in as a society.

Colonel Jessop was wrong, in the end, because in his devotion to the ideals of “honor; code; loyalty” — all perfectly constructive, and necessary, in the context of the work he and his soldiers do — he forgot, or learned to ignore, the reason he was doing the work in the first place.

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