Friday, 27 July 2007

NEWSFLASH: Ordinary Men Trained to Kill Occasionally Behave in Ways We Consider Inappropriate When I read Scott Thomas' "Shock Troops," it didn't ring inauthentic. I've taught the memoirs and novels of Vietnam veterans and what Thomas described was tame in comparison. So imagine my surprise when I learned that the right had gone apoplectic over Thomas' comparatively sedate column. He hadn't document the violation of fundamental human rights, nor had he spoken of atrocities committed by American troops. All he'd communicated was the lengths some soldiers will go to remain sane in the heat of war. From our perspective, the private who wore part of a human skull under his helmet is almost inhuman. From his perspective—i.e. from the perspective of someone who wakes up every morning knowing the odds of him ending someone else's life are comparable to those someone else will end his—his disrespect for the dead commingles with the profound disrespect for Death instilled in those who kill in our name. Their reluctance to revere our monuments to life is what makes them effective killers; moreover, it is what allows them to return home thoroughly disconnected from the monsters they had to become to kill. If they went to war strong Christian men, they'd be horrified by what they did on a minute-by-minute basis. Who among them could imagine sitting on their porch, spotting movement along a fence and, without thinking, firing indiscriminately? One-in-a-million? One-in-ten-million? Point being, the vast majority of our troops are not sociopaths: they are trained killers, and they kill within a context, and they laugh at death, and they are irreverent. They laugh at what would sicken us because they do what would sicken us. They are not horrible people. They are who we have made them. They are who we need them to be. So please, Mrs. Malkin, stop with the sanctimonious bullshit. You've been to Iraq. You know these men suffer. Spare them your feigned outrage. They're trying to cope. Permit them their poor taste. Permit them to thumb their nose at the mean deaths they bring by flipping their finger at the mean death they fear. Dan, stop tarring The New Republic for allowing a soldier to tell what happens in a combat zone. Whatever you say about him, grant him the courage of his convictions—he is no armchair liberal, and even if he were, deployed as he is, he has learned quickly and rudely the lessons of war. His humor belongs to the soldier, to the gallows; respect it for being won hard, and at a price well beyond the means of our outrage. Jeff, he may be an "antiwar opportunist," but that doesn't mean he's not a soldier. That doesn't mean he wouldn't lay down his life for the men he fights beside. Say what you will about the intentions of men who go to war—I've known more I care to count at this point—who they become when they get there changes them forever. They don't become flag-waving patriots, nor do they embrace the casus bellum unthinkingly; but they do feel...
More on the Mendacity of Scott Thomas Beauchamp The comments to my previous post chug along, and like them, The Once and Future Literary Journalism Instructor Within keeps returning to the issue of what can and cannot be verified. You see, he spent terminable office hours wrangling with students over what sounds like a very simple question: What do you know and what can you prove? There are ways to incorporate what you know but can't prove into an article. Why would a journalist do that? Because sometimes what someone knows is important even if it can't be proven. For instance, it may well be that Beauchamp can't prove what he wrote in "Shock Troops" about the private who wears a skull under his helmet. It may well be, as an anonymous soldier writes to The Weekly Standard, that [T]he [Army Combat Helmet] does not have a gap between the helmet and the liner, only pads. It would have been impossible for him to have placed and human skull, of any size, between his helmet and his head. You’ll note, though, that Beauchamp says “[t]he private wore the skull for the rest of the day and night,” i.e. on his head, without his helmet. You can tell because it sets up the contrast in the next sentence: “[e]ven on a mission, he put his helmet over the skull.” No one would refute that a person can place a piece of skull on the crown of his head and walk around with it, so as the verifiable part of the story, Beauchamp is in the clear. Furthermore, no one would refute that a person can’t see what someone else has on under his or her helmet. In the next sentence, Beauchamp relates that “[the private] observed that he was grateful his hair had just been cut.” In other words, the private is talking about wearing the fragment under his helmet. Whether he actually is is another matter entirely from him saying he is. It may well be that Beauchamp was more concerned with the private's desire to have others believe he's wearing the skull beneath his helmet than with whether he actually is wearing it. This isn't to say—as someone will say I say it means momentarily—that the truth doesn't matter. It does. Think of it this way: In my podcast, I admitted to lying about the existence of toys I didn't own. I claimed to have a Hasbro Death Star in my attic. I didn't. That I wanted people to think I did says something about it me. I was upset when I wasn't invited to play Star Wars with my friends because all I had was a X-wing and two Ewoks; which means I was aware, albeit dimly, of the influence of class on the constitution of social groups. The lies of the toddler may tell you some truths about the man. Lies can signify. Desires are meaningful. Which is only to say, sometimes you take people at their word even if you don't believe them, because...

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