Ph.D. Octopus

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War and dehumanization

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An altogether too-serious post by Wiz

Like every other sentient being I was horrified by the leaked video-tape of American helicopters murdering Iraqi journalists and civilians. Most of what is relevant to be said about it already has.

What struck me, though, was the way that every commentator who showed the video prefaced it with some version of the same declaimer: These videos are “disturbing” said Amy Goodman, the videos are “gruesome and difficult even for the most hardened person to watch” said Glenn Greenwald, and they are “extraordinarily graphic,” said Dylan Ratigan.

But one of the most disturbing aspects of that video—to me at least—was its very lack of graphicness. It is what this video doesn’t show—and what the gunners and pilots in the air couldn’t see—that is most revealing.

You can’t hear the bullets hitting human flesh, can’t smell the blood and human debris, you can’t hear the wailing of the dying, can’t feel the heat and sweat, can’t see the eyes of someone whose life is flickering out, or hear the frantic cry of the wounded children. The truly gut-wrenching feeling comes more from the fact that you need to keep reminding yourself, against your own initial perceptions, that these are real people, that this isn’t an action movie, that someone who lived and laughed and loved like you was just wiped out in a second. Instead they appear as digital blobs, fuzzy and impersonal.

What is relevant here, of course, is how the technological apparatus, the video camera, the little numbers scrolling on the screen, the army jargon, the distance and elevation inherent in the helicopter’s position… how it all functions to remove both us the viewers, but worse, the shooters and pilots from the raw humanity of the situation, to prevent us from experiencing what are the normal human reactions to suffering and death.

In this, the comment by Julian Assange, who released the videos, was most pertinent: “’Their desire was simply to kill,’ he said. “Their desire was to get high scores on that computer game.’” And that is exactly what this video felt like. A video game. This was more true than, perhaps Assange even realized. The Army has long recruited and trained soldiers using video games, and it is of course likely that the soldiers themselves, like most of us, have played role-player type video games in which shooting at random digital images.

Its dehumanization by digitalization, by technological separation. Combined with a pretty extensive de facto policy of dehumanization by traditional forms of racism, nationalism, and, xenophobia, it creates a toxic mix. The blame here, obviously, goes high up. Put any person through elaborate systems, both technological and environmental, designed to dehumanize the enemy and this is what you’ll get.

But, of course, as Glenn reminds us, all of this just underscores the fact that they hate us for our freedom.

wotty adds: Thank you Wiz. You’ve helped me understand why I too felt like I sometimes had to remind myself these were real people, “with loves, and hates, and passions just like mine.” Disturbingly, the Times this morning has a disreputable little piece, relying upon “experts” to basically explain away the killings, relying in part on the video game defense, and the suggestion that, in the “heat of combat” we would all likely have done the same thing. Now, I can see myself mistaking a telephoto lens for an RPG, but I have a harder time seeing myself shooting up a van posing zero offensive threat arriving to pick up the wounded. I mean, callousness is one thing, but the wanton, gleeful mowing down of civilians is quite another, as is the soldiers’ child-like impatience to get the green-light to open fire on more people. That said, it’s clear, as Greenwald and others have pointed out, that these killings were no “aberration” (aberration being a comforting and much over-used designation), but rather, like Abu Ghraib, standard operating procedure. Along with the distancing effect of technology, that, it seems to be, is the real lesson of the video.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 8, 2010 at 08:29

Posted in Iraq War, mortality

One Response

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  1. Hi,
    I was very interested in this article and would like to cite it in a paper. I would like information to cite you-or is it just “Wiz”?


    May 5, 2010 at 10:09

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