combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2006

Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war

Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]

The Kiss of Judas
Torture as a Perversion of the Sacrament of Human Touch

prohibition slash through circled
word yes Ideally, this column would be prefaced by an inverted Nike swoosh trademark – having affixed to it the stark and direct slogan: JUST DON'T DO IT.

This installment of Bugle and Bell attempts to address the role, if any, of systematic torture within the carrying out of military missions – whether broad or narrow in scope. It is not intended to pass eternal judgment on individuals who may have performed torture or acquiesced in its implementation. However, this discussion will not merely seek judgment regarding the policy of intentionally causing pain to a fellow human being; it will assume judgment – whether the reader is in agreement or not.

Talking about torture is like talking about abortion. You either "see it," or you don't. You can cite authorities, weave arguments, wave the flag and/or the Cross (or Crescent or Star of David or yin/yang symbol or what-have-you), and talk about cause and effect. But, ultimately (and this is an ultimate issue), it transcends legalistic conventions – Geneva or otherwise. It is about who you are and who you intend to be, whether in a society or as an individual.

A friend and fellow graduate student of the writer volunteered to be a medic while serving with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era. He did not see the members of the combat arms branches as being morally lesser than himself; he simply wanted to help people in a fashion in which he could see some immediate results. He was willing to risk his own safety to reach out and touch and, hopefully, aid in the healing of fellow soldiers who were wounded. Ultimately, he was sent overseas to the combat zone where he looked forward to his role as Doc.

To his horror, he was assigned to long-range reconnaissance patrols where he was expected to not only minister to the health needs of his fellow soldiers, but also, to keep alive as long as possible those enemy soldiers and sympathizers captured by the patrols, and tortured for information before being killed in cold blood. This medic's orders were to revive the victims of torture in the hopes of extracting yet more information – information that would ostensibly result in the more successful performance of American and South Vietnamese missions, and the subsequent saving of friendly lives. He ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown and, perhaps to his credit, is internally scarred to this day.

Marine Major Don Thieme has presented the same dilemma in a present-day and more scholarly context. In his commentary, "Don't Surrender the Moral High Ground" in the February 2006 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's journal, Proceedings, he includes the following comments.

"No one who has ever been shot at , felt the surge of adrenaline, the rush of fear, and the jubilation of survival can second-guess the actions of a man who makes a split-second decision to take or grant life. But once a man raises his hands, surrenders, and is taken into custody, he is a noncombatant. He gets treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, the Law of Armed Conflict, and common sense – the same way you would want your brother or fellow Marine treated.

"We cannot dehumanize our enemies as they dehumanize us, their fellow Muslims, their countrymen, and their women. To assume the position of übermensch is to plunge head first down the slippery Faustian slope that stops at Auschwitz, Cambodia, the Balkans, and Rwanda. To dehumanize and demonize our enemies changes nothing in their core character, while ceding them the victory of their vitriol as we become the very beasts of their propaganda. They lose nothing, we lose everything."

Torture and other rough treatment is sometimes rationalized by euphemisms such as You can't make omelets without cracking a few eggs. However, that is just as logical as the euphemism which is sometimes used as a justification for statutory rape, preying upon underage sexual partners – who are allegedly Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed.

There is a sexual connotation to the use of torture. That is not to say that the torturer – who may be reluctantly following orders from a superior whose position allows him to keep his hands clean – gets some kinky thrill out of hurting other people. Not necessarily. However, sexual activity – in the appropriate context, one of the most divine applications of human touch – entails empathy with the other; likewise, the application of torture entails some degree of empathy with he or she who is being tortured. One can imagine pleasure in another in the application of it, and one can visualize pain in another in the application of it. It is not necessarily that we must guard so much against our possible insensitivity when we are in a survival mode; we must guard against a sensitivity that becomes misdirected – or that becomes so intense, in combat's microcosm of emotions (even good emotions), that sensitivity short-circuits from overload and becomes spiritually purblind.

It has been said that, generally, the greatest weakness of an individual is not the opposite of his greatest strength – but is, rather, an over-extension of his greatest strength. Like cancer, it metastasizes. The weakness is a perversion of that which normally represents strength or health. The same may be said about the strengths and weaknesses of a society.

Just Say NO graphic

Those of us who are blessed with living in America are enabled and encouraged to maintain and amplify our youthful optimism. All things are possible. We can smell the flowers and enjoy the moment en route to our lofty goals. Our automobiles – if we choose for them to be so – can be not only pragmatic tools for transportation but, as well, venues for fashion and fun. Our entire culture may be said to be a sport utility vehicle.

The perpetual projection and celebration of youthfulness may be said to hold weariness and jadedness and moral surrender at bay. Idealism is, well, the ideal. However, most of us – if we look back at our own individual childhood – will recall that not everything about the early stages of growing up was material worthy of nostalgia.

The cruelty of youth is the dark side of its undercurrents. Novels like Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) and King's Carrie (1973) remind us of what it was like to either be the outsider on the playground or to be caught up in the "lynch mob" mentality of the cool and popular kids consolidating their power base.

People are tortured or mistreated – whether in military situations or otherwise – and not only for the purpose of gaining information useful to one's cause. People are cruel to other people because it is perceived to be fun. The excesses at the Abu Ghraib prison have been compared, by its apologists, to being a harmless fraternity prank. However, the pranks of college fraternities and sororities – such as the infamous pig parties where a prize is given to the insider who locates and brings the ugliest date – are by no means all innocent and light-hearted.

The military is the servant of its civilian culture. The politicians tell the military whom to fight and whom to ally with and whom to tread water with. However, if the military is to live up to its own high standards – and the military is almost a religion with its rituals, its vestments, its commandments, its taboos, its asceticism, its legendary saintly holders of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and its emphasis on character – while it must still be aware of the tendencies and pressures of the larger society that it serves. And, where the tendencies and pressures of that society are detrimental to its mission and to its humanitarianism, the military needs to employ some sort of preventative maintenance in order to maintain and protect its ideals.

That is not to say that the military should set political policy. That is to say that, if the military can exercise combined action programs in Vietnam and Afghanistan to identify with the local culture, where it perceive the winning of hearts and minds as being at least as valuable as the winning of terrain, it can be a positive force in the broad cultures of America. The U.S. Marine Corps sponsors John Philip Sousa Awards to recognize laud-worthy bandsmen in public high schools. How might the armed services or individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coastguardsmen, or Marines take steps to reduce the vicarious cruelty in our youth-on-a-pedestal society?

Our society makes a lot of money on vicarious cruelty. Television programs like American Idol and Donald Trump's The Apprentice and Martha Stewart's wannabe imitations make much of not only showcasing the strong and talented but, also, of humiliating the weak and untalented. The current trial of Sadaam Hussein is simply the pot calling the kettle black; to be sure, he is guilty of monstrous crimes against humanity, but our subsequent public bear-baiting is only one or two moral steps above the grisly videotapes released by terrorists in possession of hostages. Look at the tabloids while in the line at the grocery store; are not vicarious cruelty and voyeurism rampant weaknesses in our fun society? Look at the electronic games being marketed en masse – even if they, tongue-in-cheek, purport to be patriotic and to extol military operations. Vicarious cruelty is the creed of the couch potatoes.

When the military teaches a recruit to fire a rifle correctly, it is a lot easier to teach a recruit who has never handled a rifle than it is to teach a recruit who has previously learned to fire a rifle improperly – that is, not in the military fashion that he will need to know if he is to effectively function whenever he may possibly find himself in a combat situation where he is not only the hunter but the hunted. Likewise, it is a lot easier to teach a recruit to kick ass – only if that adversarial ass is not helpless and is capable of kicking first and/or kicking back – if the society of vicarious cruelty has not previously taught him to take no prisoners. Unfortunately, there is a lot of the "take no prisoners" mentality evident on our civilian world's highways and expressways; put a couch potato behind a steering wheel and you get the mouse that roared – road rage.

Basic training itself can border on mistreatment. There is a fine line between reproducing the stress and exhaustion which a man must be able to surmount in combat – and exercising a sadism toward recruits which only teaches the survivors to treat others likewise. The training of Army Rangers and of Navy Seals can be said to be torturous in many ways, but, unlike a prisoner-of-war, a candidate for one of these elite assignments can drop out from the hurtful training at any time if he chooses to do so.

There are times when we need to be hard on ourselves. But there are more times – even in the military – when we need to be gentle with ourselves. Otherwise, we will indeed do unto others as we would have others do unto us. If we want our ass consistently kicked, we can only assume that others will want their ass to be consistently kicked (and that is indeed what some people want, but they are neither normal nor extraordinary).

Look into the services of a good massage therapist or chiropractor. Exchange hugs with your loved ones. Eat strawberry cheesecake. Try the local cuisine. Even combatants need occasional R and R if they are to be effective – and to be fully alive. Don't wait to be assigned lifeseize the day. Oo-rah!

Does life sometimes consist of choosing the lesser of two evils? Yes. Is it ever necessary to choose the application of torture? Let's hope not.

slashed circle prohibition symbol

It is well known what happens to the bee if it uses its stinger. However, that is just another euphemism. With regard to the problem of torture, you ultimately just have to see it. And, seeing it, you have to rise above the society's addiction to vicarious cruelty and be a professional human being. That is the synthesis of being the ultimate elitist and just being one of the people.

Be a professional human being. And leave the torture and self-torture to the unprofessional human beings.

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

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