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Jim Peron: Atrocities And The Mentality Of War

Atrocities And The Mentality Of War

by Jim Peron

There are times that the world is a horrific place. And we've witnessed two events that can turn the biggest optimist about the human condition into a pessimist. One was the abuse of Iraqi prisoners filmed and photographed by gleeful US military personnel. The other was the monstrous beheading on film, of Nicholas Berg, a US civilian who went to Iraq because he wanted to help a developing country.

The people of the United States seem in shock over the revelations of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Why?

Such abuse is the inevitable result of war. War requires the dehumanising of others. When you recognise the humanity of another person it's hard to kill them and war requires that you kill. When you send troops out to kill the enemy you must desensitise them to the human qualities of the people they are fighting.

It is one reason that war must always be the last resort and why it must be tightly controlled when it does happen. It is easy to lose one's moral compass during conflict. Yet it is precisely at such times that one needs that compass the most. But the nature of war is such that during conflictmany people advocate throwing away that compass because of real or imagined threats.

Lunatics who advocate dropping nuclear weapons to inflict maximum civilian damage in Muslim nations are an example of people who have thrown out the moral compass altogether. Oddly the people who do it aremost likely to proclaim themselves morally superior to everyone else. That leads to the fanaticism that was behind the beheading of Berg.

Those who did this monstrous deed exhibited the worst face of humanity. To wave the man's head in the air while proclaiming "God is Great" shows the mindset of the fundamentalist.

The fundamentalist is someone always at war with his fellow human beings. He hates this world and prefers either the "next world" or some imaginedutopia. He feels that he is endowed with some superior morality. Like the soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib the fundamentalist needs to dehumanise his "enemies". One trait of the fundamentalist is that he always has enemies. He needs them. He thrives on them. And if they don't actually exist he will invent them.

Soldiers are taught to kill. And they are taught not to see the "enemy" as human. In military training films you'll see soldiers charging dummies that are nothing more than big sacks of cloth in a human form. The purpose is to desensitise the soldier to ramming a bayonet into a human form. Slowly and consistently the soldier learns to ignore the human nature of his opponent.

So too the fundamentalist. Read the literature of such groups. And I don't care if they are Islamic fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists or Christian fundamentalists. Hell, there are even secular fundamentalists who exhibit the same hateful traits.

Every bigot I've ever meet justifies their bigotry on the basis of some superior sense of moral virtue which they claim to possess. Every one of them tries to deny the humanity of the people they hate. The Nazi calls Jews "kikes", the anti globalist Leftist calls businessmen "exploiters". People cease being people when hate is involved. They are "niggers", "faggots", "vermin", "terrorists", "pigs", "scum", "maggots" or a host of other degrading terms.

Why degrading terms? For the same reason that soldiers bayonet a sack of cloth before moving on to killing people. This process of dehumanising others allows you throw away that moral compass. It justifies doing anything to destroy, maim, kill, or harm your "enemy". You can't wage war easily on people when you see them as human beings.

The process of war making and the fundamentalist mentality are very similar. Both inevitably lead to the abandoning of all human decency.

I think that what has particular shocked the American people is that many of them believed the lies of the Bush Administration. When you know you are going to war you know that the "enemy" will be seen as less than human and you know that means they will inevitably be treated as less than human. But Bush sold the public a bill of goods. He told them this was to "liberate the Iraqi people" from oppression.

In their hearts and minds many Americans did not see this as a war in the classic sense of the term. For them it was a liberation of oppressed people. So they didn't expect this sort of thing to happen. But such abuses, and far worse, have happened in every war that I can think of. And such atrocities have been perpetrated by virtually all those participating. That's one cost of war and one reason why war is rarely a good idea.

- Jim Peron is the executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values.

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