At the end of the long opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan,” American troops gun down German soldiers who have attempted to surrender. The Germans had earlier in the long scene (depicting the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach) killed hundreds of the American GIs as they began their assault.
I watched that movie with my father, a World War II vet who had been a battalion surgeon in the D-Day operation and who devoted his entire professional life to saving, not taking, lives. He was not at all chagrined at seeing the Americans kill the surrendering Germans. In fact, he chuckled when I questioned his sense of it.
“Perfectly understandable,” he said.
And, of course, it was, if human nature is the gauge for such actions.
Human nature is complex, as if you didn’t know. The same being who can love passionately can also kill wantonly, and often for “perfectly understandable,” even justifiable reasons.
But the wanton side of the species usually lies dormant, at least in those who conform their behavior to what might be considered the societal norm. But that wanton side can and will express itself when pressed by circumstances, or put another way, everyone has a breaking point, and that breaking point had been reached by the GIs who succeeded in overtaking the Germans’ encampment in the D-Day assault.
Sam Peckinpah brilliantly captured that side of human nature in his 1971 film, “Straw Dogs,” in which a meek and unassuming husband (Dustin Hoffman) discovers superhuman strength in defending his home from invading townsfolk intent on raping his wife (Susan George) and pillaging his home. In the climactic scene, Hoffman’s character, previously a timid and mild-mannered mathematician, embodies human savagery in killing the invading village brutes.
Both films present otherwise barbaric acts as acceptable reactions to events thrust upon the individuals. The GIs in Spielberg’s film and Hoffman’s character in Peckinpah’s are no less human in acting as they do, even though we (meaning the rest of humanity) would condemn those same acts in different circumstances.
War is such an event, as the recent news of the four marines who urinated on dead Taliban fighters more than amply reveals. The marines were doing nothing more, indeed, considerably less, than Spielberg’s GIs were depicted as doing.
They were expressing their unrestrained rage in a ritualistic exaltation of victory not dissimilar to Achilles’ desecration of Hector’s corpse in Homer’s “The Iliad.” The insult, there to the defeated Trojans, and in Afghanistan to the enemy Taliban, was fully intended and no doubt fully felt.
Of course, the fiction of the Greeks’ war with the Trojans is one matter, while the United States’ counter-insurgency against the Taliban in Afghanistan is quite another. And it is that aspect of the perils of war that makes the marines’ urination desecration especially noteworthy. Stated bluntly, the reaction of the Afghan populace to the news is not likely to be favorable. As counter-insurgency, the marines’ actions probably violated just a few of the rules in the “book.”
U.S. military and administration officials were quick to condemn the marines, who are now facing criminal charges. A full-fledged investigation into broader leadership issues within the command structure is also underway, but we all know how that will end. (A mid-level commander will get slapped on the wrist, and everyone else up the chain of command will be exonerated. Duh.)
Have we seen this movie before? Yes, we have, all too frequently, and not just courtesy of Hollywood. This scene has been replayed countless times as young men (principally, but not exclusively; recall Lynndie England’s active participation in the Abu Ghraib torture of Iraqi prisoners) have engaged in wanton acts of barbarity or worse in the heat of battle.
The My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam during that war is the classic example. There, a battalion of U.S. Army forces, led by a Second Lieutenant (William Calley) executed an entire village of wholly innocent South Vietnamese civilians. The action, in which as many as 26 U.S. soldiers were involved (all members of the “Charlie Company” that Calley commanded), was brought to light by three members of the company who tried to protect the villagers from the onslaught.
Calley was eventually convicted of 22 counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison. But he only served three and a half years under “house arrest” before he filed a successful habeas corpus petition (claiming his trial had been prejudiced by pre-trial publicity) and was released.
As with Abu Ghraib, superior officers in Calley’s chain of command were initially investigated before being exonerated of wrong-doing. The same result will occur in this latest incident. It is almost certain that no one ordered or even encouraged these marines to do what they did. It’s also almost certain that behind closed doors, senior NCOs are saying something very similar to what my father said when watching that scene in “Saving Private Ryan”: “Perfectly understandable.”
And so it is. War is a lever that can unleash the worst instincts in the human species. That it does so as rarely as it seemingly does is more a product of keeping a tight lid on what really goes on than on superhuman exemplary behavior.
But the real issue that needs to be explored is the decision to send troops into battle in the first place. It is that initial decision, which can only be made by a nation’s leaders, that sets in motion the subsequent circumstances that lead to a My Lai or an Abu Ghraib or the marines relieving themselves on the bodies of their vanquished foes.
The decision-making calculus needs to include something akin to Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn warning, issued to then-President Bush in the prelude to the Bush-Cheney decision to invade Iraq back in 2003. “If you break it, you’ll own it,” Powell is reported to have counseled his commander-in-chief.
Predictably, he did break it, because “breaking it” in war is as inevitable as the scene of wanton murder was in the Spielberg film. It’s a side of human nature and is “perfectly understandable.”