Friday, February 20, 2009

it's not light; it's not easy

It’s Friday and time for some pop psychology. My hand was forced by a piece in the NYTimes that drew me into the abyss. I remember reading about the four, execution-style killings in Iraq shortly after they happened. I think Vanity Fair or some other mag did a long piece describing what happened that night and added some background on the four soldiers involved. The verdict is in on the first soldier with three more courts-martial to follow. I’m not of the mind to debate the trials of war and the actions of players in that arena because I don’t have any experience with gunfire, killing, destruction, and that sort of misery. I do have some experience with any number of survival schools and the techniques involved: we were trained in what to expect if we became a POW. The survival training that’s managed by the AF does not – contrary to letters and stories about other services’ training – provide any type of training that would be applied if we were dealing with POWs. One thing you learn very quickly is that a lack of sleep, endless playing of loud music, yelling, screaming, and the answering of endless stupid questions will break you down almost immediately. When continued for any period of time – maybe two days? – you’ve got nothing but mush for brains and any ability you might have had to reason had started to fade away. The psychological effects could easily become permanent if you didn’t at least have some sense that there was an end in sight; without that hope, it would be unbearable.

What got me going on this subject was the testimony of Col. Charles Hoge. Here’s the excerpt from the Times article:

“In closing arguments earlier, Leahy's civilian lawyer, Frank Spinner, argued that Leahy went along with the killings because he was dazed from a lack of sleep and numb from being in a war zone for months. It was a sentiment bolstered on Thursday in testimony from Col. Charles Hoge, a doctor and director of psychology and neuroscience at the Army's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.” (italics added)

I obviously don’t know the colonel and I have no idea what his opinion might be on torture, or whatever it was that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld so loved. If an Army soldier, or soldiers, are willing to execute bound Iraqis – Iraqis released by their own superiors due to lack of any evidence of involvement in an attack – because they were “dazed from a lack of sleep and numb from being in a war zone for months”, what do you think the lack of sleep and numbness caused by being held without charge, without a trial, and tortured for five or six years might do to someone’s mental state? I don’t know if the four killed were guilty or not, but someone in that chain-of-command decided there wasn’t enough reason to hold them, and yet, at least one Sgt. decided that murder was the answer. I don’t know how many of those held and released, or still held, in Guantanamo (or other locations) are guilty or innocent. We do know that something like 500 have been released because there wasn’t enough evidence to charge them. Do we think that all 500 of those just sat around a nice comfortable holding cell while those in charge sorted out the evidence for five years? Probably not.

And so, it comes to this: we have the Army testifying that sleep deprivation and the numbness of war can lead U.S. soldiers to murder. Yet, a majority of Americans don’t think that sleep deprivation, numbness from incarceration, and fear of death is actually torture.

Let me close with this: I obviously don’t condone murdering anyone. I think that based on my survival training – and trying to extrapolate into some combat environment – these soldiers were mentally fucked up. Maybe the only way for them to express their anger or relieve their pain was to get together and decide to blow some heads off. More than the sadness of all the lives ruined, this story is far more important to me because there’s this little piece of what Col. Hoge supported in his testimony. Hoge let’s us know that there are people that see what an environment or external actions can do to another human being. Even with the knowledge out there that putting someone in a this type of situation can lead to such horrible acts; we chose to directly, and willfully, apply the same techniques to other. Unfortunately, we too often see the result of those events as something that only happens to us.


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