The Admonition Against Murder
Danny Chen was a soldier in the US Army until he allegedly committed suicide this past October while on guard duty in Afghanistan. Eight of Chen’s fellow soldiers are now facing courts- martial in Afghanistan for exposing Chen to extreme forms of physical and emotional harassment that allegedly led to Private Chen’s taking his life with a single bullet. Charges against the 8 soldiers range from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter. A thorough treatment of the case can be seen at Democracy Now (http://www.democracynow.org/2012/1/9/death_of_private_danny_chen_military). Much, if not all, of the harassment and abuse that Chen suffered was related to his background as a Chinese-American. Much of the so-called hazing was horrific! No one in a command position intervened to stop the harassment in Danny’s case!
Not long after the revelations of Danny Chen’s case, came the YouTube video of four US Marines urinating on the dead bodies of enemy fighters in Afghanistan. While the video caused an uproar with some viewers, according to The New York Times “some military blogs have filled with reader comments supporting the Marines in the video” (“Reprehensible Behavior Is a Risk of Combat, Experts Say,” January 13, 2012).
Michael Newton, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School, commented on the incident in The Times article: “…international laws of war and the American code of military justice are intended to instill discipline in troops and set boundaries for what is acceptable in combat.”
In the same article, Alex Lemons, a Marine and veteran of the Iraqi war observes that “American troops…who either urinated on insurgent bodies or manipulated them for photographs, like putting them in ridiculous poses,” could be “disgusting,” but “cathartic.” The latter turns the importance of international and military law on its head!
The Times article discusses the desecrating of human bodies in war from a historical and literary perspective with a reference to The Iliad, “when Achilles drags Hector’s lifeless body behind his chariot before the eyes of a shocked and despairing Troy.”
Perhaps the urinating incident in Afghanistan is what those of us far removed from the battlefield get with the use of embedded reporters as has been the case in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If a reporter wants to go along, then he or she will get along. It just may be, however, that the international rules of war and military justice are routinely cast aside in war, regardless of whether or not a member of the media is present. Some veterans will readily admit that these rules and guidelines for behavior in war are ignored by most.
I arrived at Fort Gordon, Georgia in October of 1969 for basic training in the Army. I was a member of the National Guard and had just begun the six-month training cycle required of all Reservists and members of the National Guard. The vast majority of drill sergeants in the unit I was assigned to were Vietnam veterans. The unit to which I was assigned for training was integrated with Guard and Reserve units from around the country along with a sprinkling of draftees. Most members of the Reserves and Guard sought protection from the military draft during the Vietnam War.
From the very beginning of basic training, with its modest demands on physical stamina, one Reservist from Brooklyn, New York stood out among the group. He was obviously ill-prepared for the physical demands of basic training. He was immediately singled out by the drill sergeants and made to appear as both a fool and incompetent because of the lack of physical prowess. The harassment was unrelenting and took place during marches, and during the physical exercises that took place on the grounds at the back of the barracks. When the company was not taking part in activities that required physical exertion, the soldier from Brooklyn was further harassed by drill sergeants. Belittlement in front of the entire company of soldiers and name calling were routine. It is inconceivable that both the lieutenant who was in charge of the company, or the company commander, were unaware of what was going on on a daily basis within a few feet of the company headquarters.
Basic training took about 2 months to complete. While the rest of the company planned to return home for the holidays, the soldier from Brooklyn now looked forward to repeating the entire basic training cycle in a special training brigade when the rest of the company returned to Georgia for advanced individual training.
All of these years later, what impresses me is how other soldiers reacted to the Brooklyn soldier’s torment at the hands of drill sergeants. Some would walk over to where he stood near his barracks and offer him support and solace. Others, afraid of being “tainted” by associating with the soldier, stayed clear of him and remained silent. I think many just wanted to get out of basic training and go home. No moral or ethical issues clouded or troubled their minds. Of all of the distressing sights I remember from these particular incidents regarding the soldier, was when he broke down and cried in front of others from the company. That was wrenching to see and must have been traumatic in the extreme for him! It is not a great leap of the imagination to fathom how dehumanizing the enemy to the status of “Charlie” or Gook,” as was the custom during the Vietnam War, could lead to the horrors of Vietnam or the experiences of the soldier from Brooklyn.
Every religion carries with it the admonition not to kill. (The admonition not to kill is also especially strong within the humanist tradition.) Military training and war attempt to squelch that rule by relying on the young and impressionable and covering its objectives with the wide brushstroke of patriotism. The latter works the same with all nations. In John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden, the reader is introduced to the proposition that even in the “wilderness,” that we as a species are relegated to, we still have the choice to act morally when we are confronted with the age-old conflict of Cain and Abel.
Over four decades later I met a veteran who had just completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan as part of the Army. He seemed fairly well adjusted until the topic of killing as it related to The Ten Commandments came up during a discussion. (The veteran brought the issue up.) He volunteered information spontaneously. In that regard, he spoke of how difficult it was to reconcile the admonition against killing that he had learned as a child with what he had been taught in the military and with what he had encountered while on active duty. This moral repulsion against killing is perhaps as old as humanity. The guilt associated with taking a life is “hardwired” into our psyches. War does not change that reality. A short time later we had another informal conversation. He spoke about how difficult it was for him to adjust to civilian life after experiencing battle and how he had sought and received help at the Veterans Administration with the issues of his psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although the incidents I recall here are very different, the fact that military very often places a far-reaching range of stressors on the individual hardly needs amplification. The results can often be deadly, as allegedly was the case with Danny Chen. They can be life altering as they were and are in the cases of the soldier from Brooklyn of so long ago and the soldier I met recently who had returned from battle in Afghanistan. And they can be reprehensible as is the YouTube video from Afghanistan! Whether a person was drafted, as was often the case during the Vietnam War, or joined out of a sense of patriotism or duty, as is often the case for a war such as in Afghanistan, the consequences of military service can extend far beyond the battlefield and lodge themselves in the human mind for a lifetime, both for the soldier and for those deemed the enemy by the nation.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.