Challenging the Justification of Killing

One who exults in the killing of men will never have his way in the empire.
— Laozi ((Lao Tzu, Book 1: Section 31,” The Tao Te Ching, Translated by D.C. Lau (1963).))

Information Clearing House has a video clip from a CNN Presents segment entitled “Fit To Kill.” The video clip features the slaying of a wounded Iraqi lying prostrate on the ground “next to his gun.” It is hard to discern any weapon near the man in the video; nevertheless, he was incapacitated and the marines kept firing at him. ((“Take No Prisoners: Another proud moment in U.S. Military History,” Information Clearing House, 11 December 2003. )) Next a bullet rips into the doomed man’s body; it heaves one final time; the neck snaps back and flips forward, and his body slumps deathly limp. Whoops of merriment are plainly audible from the killers.

It used to be that morality decreed that one should “never hit a man when he’s down.” The inescapable conclusion is either that this morality is no longer in effect or that these killers are behaving immorally.

The killer of the wounded Iraqi is Sergeant Anthony Riddle. Interviewed by CNN correspondent Candy Crowley afterward, Mr. Riddle comes across as giddy. Whether this is due to nerves or not is difficult to distinguish. His words, however, ring falsely of bravado: “Like, man, you guys are dead now, you know. But it was a good feeling.”

Shooting a man when he is sprawled face-down on the ground is cowardice and a war crime. Feeling good about it is a sinister revelation about the inner workings of the killer.

“When the battle is over and you are still standing, the adrenaline rush is huge,” chimes Ms. Crowley preferring to focus on the biochemistry of the kill.

Mr. Riddle’s response is ill-concealed glee. Says he: “I mean, afterwards you’re like, hell, yeah, that was awesome. Let’s do it again.”

The show is opened by host Aaron Brown who will pull a volte-face. Previously Mr. Brown, who admitted to network censorship of the news, said that CNN wouldn’t show images of casualties that cross the line into pornography. Jeremy Scahill of Democracy Now! countered that “there is no such thing as a ‘tasteful civilian casualty,’ that term shouldn’t even be in the realm of journalism.” ((Democracy Now! “CNN’s Aaron Brown: On the Network’s Coverage of the Anti-war Movement, Media’s Sanitization of the Iraq War and Why This is an Inappropriate Time for Reporters to ask Questions About War,” Dissident Voice, 5 April 2003.))

Mr. Brown introduces the segment: “Machine guns fire and shell explode, so many die. Numbers for the world to see.”

What once were living humans have been reduced to “numbers.” What Mr. Brown doesn’t mention is that these numbers are not tabulated by the invaders. General Tommy Franks adamantly stated: “We don’t do body counts.”

Then comes a surprisingly candid admission by Mr. Brown and a change-of-heart: “But what we don’t see, what we don’t talk about honestly when it comes to war, is the actual act of killing. That is taboo — a taboo that we break now.” CNN went one step further than depicting a dead human; the actual killing is shown with a backdrop of cheering marines. According to Mr. Brown’s earlier stance then: the creating of pornography for CNN.

Mr. Brown’s statement is selectively true. The American viewers are not permitted to see American bodies and neither are they permitted to see the coffins of the American dead. Even the commander-in-chief, in a break with presidential tradition, won’t allow himself near the war dead.

It is a pornography exploiting only the enemy. The enemy without name, just a number. No Americans are depicted being slain.

The Burden of Killing

The program seems unperturbed by the plight of the Iraqis and their being killed. The concern is not on the killed but rather the unfortunate killers and how they will cope with having taken human lives.

The show gives viewers a chance to gauge for themselves the valor of the fighters by their own words. One Vietnam veteran, using the pseudonym Bob MacGowan, likened killing to “a hunting thrill. I won’t say kind of a sexual sense to — it’s a jazzy thing, you know.”

Private Charles Sheehan-Miles confessed “I shot and killed without thinking about it, without taking a moment’s reflection of whether or not I was doing the right thing. And then — even for a fraction of a time, I felt good about it.”

Ms. Crowley, to her benefit, does take a stab at the roots of the lackadaisical attitudes to killing. She points to the infamous facility in Fort Benning, Georgia, which most people still refer to by its former incarnation as the School of the Americas. It is otherwise known as the ‘School of Assassins‘ since it trained many of the terrorists loose in Latin America and Southeast Asia today.

After training, many of the would-be fighters are, in Ms. Crowley’s words, “often eager.”

The Kill Mentality

The military attitude implanted on the psyche of the enlisted is exemplified by the recent jog of a phalanx of “75 soldiers singing, shouting and screaming” at six in the morning in the New Mexico desert. Jesuit priest John Dear, a staunch opponent of the invasion of Iraq, was awakened by their chants of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” and “Swing your guns from left to right; we can kill those guys all night.” The shouting reached a crescendo an hour later when the troops-in-training reached the front of Mr. Dear’s home next to the church. Egged on by their commanders the troops continued to scream “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

The oft-arrested dissident priest had the derring-do to stride out amongst the troops in the street and invoke the teachings of Commander-in-Chief George Bush’s favorite philosopher. Calling upon a higher authority he bellowed “In the name of God, I order all of you to stop this nonsense, and not to go to Iraq. I want all of you to quit the military, disobey your orders to kill, and not to kill anyone. I do not want you to get killed. I want you to practice the love and nonviolence of Jesus. God does not bless war. God does not want you to kill so Bush and Cheney can get more oil. God does not support war. Stop all this and go home.” ((John Dear, “The soldiers at my front door,” Straight Goods, 14 December 2003.))

The troops were presented with a moral challenge. They had a choice. To unquestioningly kill is not only intellectually bereft but depraved.

Seeking Justification — Kill ‘Them’ First

There are attempts at justification, usually along the lines of do it to them before they do it to you. The moral refrain of “treat others how you wish to be treated” has gone out the window. One unnamed soldier reasons, “It makes you want it. It makes you want to be able to do it. It makes you want to be able to just kill — kill the enemy. Because they were willing to do the same thing to you.”

Mr. Riddle in a more lucid moment acknowledges the humanity of the enemy: “You know that you killed them, and you take their life. And I know as me having a little daughter at home and a wife at home, that guy probably had a daughter or some kid or a wife at home, waiting for him. And he’s not returning that night.”

It is true that the soldiers are psychologically conditioned to kill and desensitized to it. This is a form of psychological warfare that the service(wo)men choose to accept or are forced to submit to.

World War II veteran Phil Piazza relates an anecdote from his training: “I remember when we trained with the various commandos, they took and filled a sheep’s bladder with blood. And you had to bayonet that thing and let — and the blood would come out all over you, and you had to stay with that stench of the blood on you. And that, believe me, will instill the killer instinct.”

Ms. Crowley opines “War is no place for wimps. The failure of one comes at the expense of all.”

It is curious as to what constitutes wimpiness for Ms. Crowley. Is the hesitancy to kill wimpiness? Is it not the failure to refuse an immoral command that is wimpiness? Who were the wimps at My Lai? The men who lost their minds and committed atrocities against defenseless civilians or the American threesome who sought to halt the barbarity? Heroism is when the one or few have the moral conviction to oppose the majority when they are perceived to be in the wrong.

Youth and Animalism

Gulf War veteran Charles Sheehan-Miles recalls the vagaries of youth: “Going to gunnery with a tank, for example, was an incredibly fun experience. It was exciting. Everybody had a good time. It was like a high impact sport, only you’re firing $25,000 rounds down range.”

“You’re preparing for battle. You’re preparing to kill people. But, at least in my case, as a 19-, 20-year-old, the connection wasn’t necessarily there.”

Youthful exuberance is another reason given for the killing. Yes, there is evidence for this. Does this excuse the behavior though? No, it merely offers an explanation. When male youth gather together there is a tendency to bond aggressively as happens in sports. Sports do have the adjunct function of serving as a fertile training ground in the inculcation of the warrior mentality. Noam Chomsky sees competitive sports as an institution to “build up irrational attitudes of submission to authority.”

Acting as a group allows individual members to diffuse responsibility for group dynamics. Humans in a group often exhibit a ‘pack mentality.’

Says Ms. Crowley, “Some experts say military training is a natural fit with the innate patterns of human behavior. Many people acting together will do things none of them would do alone.”

These “innate patterns of human behavior” might better be depicted as animalistic behavior. Pertinent examples are the hunting behaviors of wolves and hyenas or the warring among the bone-wielding apes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ms. Crowley immediately contradicts herself and acknowledges the predominant animalism of fighting units. “Within the pack, a kind of natural order emerges mirroring the primitive instincts of dominance and submission.”

Hiding behind his alias, Mr. MacGowan who admits to the cowardly act of shooting a man in the back, rambles on about the animalism of war. Of course, this animalism is an atavistic characteristic of the enemy. From his lofty evolutionary perch Mr. MacGowan theorizes, “You go through a progression, a stepwise regression, and sort of like, well, that’s an enemy of my country. Those people — they’re trying to kill me. They’re subhuman. They’re animals. They’re going to rape our women and kill our children. Save our children. They’re in the way. Kill them.”

Imagine that: “They’re in the way. Kill them.” If this attitude prevailed in the pedestrian ways of the world then chaos would reign. One wonders how the term wimpiness applies to one wielding such anonymity. Obviously Mr. MacGowan is still affected by his ordeals in war. His paranoia of “them” defiling “our” women and children is pure fantasy. MacGowan’s statement ignores the myriad accounts of the US fighters raping, pillaging, torturing, and killing unarmed civilians — elderly and children alike. This is not ancient military history; there are myriad reports of this ongoing in Iraq.

A requisite of basic morality is what applies to to the other equally applies to ‘us.’

Trained to do

Ms. Crowley offers the specious exculpatory rationale that the fighters “had done what they trained to do. They were fit to kill. Now all they had to do was live with it.”

In other words, even if the actions were egregious the soldiers are exonerated because of their training? Perhaps they were not of right mind due to conditioning imposed through their conditions of training?

Were the trainees unaware of what was taking place during training? If aware, then it can be surmised that they chose to undergo the training.

The same “trained to do” rationale is valid for abusive individuals raised in families where abuse was commonplace. Treatment is obviously the requirement here.

Equally one could make the same argument for actions while under the influence of mind-altering substances. This, however, ignores cases where an individual willingly chose to consume substances that influence mind and behavior. Surely the responsibility lies at the moment the choice was made to allow oneself to enter an altered state.

Why does Ms. Crowley not investigate the training further? Is the mere fact that such training exists enough to justify it? Why shouldn’t training emphasize methods based on peaceful means?

Obeying conscience

Despite the conditioning of the fighters, there is always an opportunity to grasp back one’s humanity and bestow that same dignity upon the enemy. Ms. Crowley describes how Mr. Miles won a commendation for valor, for rescuing a wounded soldier in battle without feelings of valor or joy.

“It was so easy to pull the trigger and kill people,” said Mr. Miles. “Yes, I was afraid of what would happen. I was afraid of what it would do to me. What kind of person I would become.”

He left the military as a conscientious objector with an honorable discharge. Obeying one’s moral conscience is honorable. This is not to state that there are not those on the battlefield fighting out of a sense of honor and courage. At least they can attempt to justify their actions.

It also serves to indicate that the military is not a monolith. Individual members can speak to their conscience. One of the replies to Mr. Riddle’s videotaped slaying was from First Sergeant Perry D. Jefferies who found the matter to be: “Disgusting.”

The Search for Romantic War

The program wraps up with an analysis of the advice German WWII Panzer commander Erwin Rommel gave to his troops, which Mr. Brown sums up as: “In the absence of orders go find something, and kill it.” Mr. Brown considers this as “Not exactly the romantic notion of duty and honor and country.”

What is rather remarkable is that someone would search for romanticism in war.

Nevertheless, taboo-breaker Mr. Brown agrees with the unromantic advice of Mr. Rommel: “But in war that kind of bluntness can keep people alive. It’s what brings them home. And now thousands of troops in Iraq are doing just that. And thousands more are scheduled to come back over the next nine months. Many, most will be proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

The returning troops can take pride in having found something and killed it? This is an absurd notion that deserves rebuttal. Indeed the notion of pride itself is a concept that bears scrutinization. It is hoped that the quality of modesty would triumph over pride.

Can a human being justifiably take pride in killing other human beings? What is the morality of this? Do the ends justify the means?

Now that the despotic Saddam Hussein has been ignominiously captured the casus belli given for aggressing Iraq is still wanting. Can a nation retain its sense of morality when it keeps switching war pretexts after the original pretexts are demonstrated to be false or outright lies? There can be no justifiable pride in the capture of the despot no matter how despicable he is, when his apprehension was at the cost of hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqi lives, the humiliation of those still alive, the imposition of penury, the wiping out of the Iraqi economic base, the looting of their history and natural resources, the selling of their industry, undermining international law, and the list goes on. One alternative war aim was achieved — namely, regime change. The dictatorship of Mr. Hussein has been replaced with the dictatorship of Mr. Bush’s representative Paul Bremer. The other pledges of Iraqi freedoms and democracy are but broken promises unchallenged in the US corporate media.

Socialist scholars foresaw that capitalism’s apex would be expressed as imperialism. US hyper- imperialism has now perched the nation on a precipice where no nation has gone before in history. US constitutional framer James Madison forewarned of the dangers war poses to a nation. The caution sounded by him rings ever so cogently today:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended. Its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war . . and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. ((James Madison, “The Most Dreaded Enemy of Liberty,” Freedom Daily, August 1993.))

Mr. Bush and his neoconservative cabal have not heeded the venerated wisdom of the so-called Founding Fathers. The US sits on a record deficit, with a burgeoning gap in the distribution of wealth, rampant corporate chicanery, a citizenry whose charter rights are in abeyance, and its vaunted war machine is troubled by indigent guerrillas in its zones of occupation.

The path of perpetual war is proving a harrowing one. As long as the root causes of terrorism are undealt with, US terrorism will only sow the seeds of future terrorism. Mr. Bush’s philosophy is not of Jesus. A different path must be ventured to save the world from the scourge of violence.

A 90-year-old man in Dubai offered this wisdom: “War is the violent rejection of words in favor of weapons. It eliminates debate and negotiation by offering only death and submission. War is the tool of weak men to make themselves appear strong.”

The US awaits a true strong leader, one who can oppose war.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.