Friday, March 04, 2005

The Friday Morning Book Club

Expending my energy on what's turning into a really tedious post about Wittgenstein, science, and sin (don't ask), I'm trying to figure out how to drop a plug for an interesting article in the current "Harper's."

So here goes...

Someone asked once that I post a list of readings, maybe things piled on my nightstand. Unfortunately, that tends to be stuff like the collected short stories of John Updike, or my third attempt to read Swann's Way (great new translation available, BTW), or such like. But there are some good books out there, which have little or nothing to do with religion, and a great deal to do with the current national and international situation. Such as:

War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges. Worth it for the title alone, Hedges' book is an excellent examination of the forces that drive us to war, from a purely experiential point of view (that is, it's neither a philosophical tome nor a psychological examination).

Theater of War, by Lewis Lapham. Now out, Amazon tells me, in an updated paperback edition. An excellent analysis of what happened to national policy after 9/11.

In the Presence of Fear, by Wendell Berry. Three essays in response to 9/11, published as a small book, these essays are also available in Berry's larger collection, Citizenship Papers.

As for the current "Harper's" article: it is an examination of the problem the military is having with AWOL soldiers. It seems the problem has been on the rise over the last few years, and is getting worse. But the heart of the story is not in the statistics, it's in the people. One of the AWOL soldiers chronicled in this article is a young man from a very liberal/progressive upbringing, who decides to put his idealistic money where his physical body is, and enlist in the military. How, he reasons in all adolescent earnestness, can we expect the military to improve if people like him don't join it? And he soon finds out: because the military has no use for people like him. All the military cares about, is training people to kill, not to reason or be compassionate. This would seem like an obvious conclusion, but what truly interested me was the insight into modern military training.

It seems studies were done that convinced the military that, going back at least to the Civil War, the problem of training soldiers was, they were not trained to kill. The fear of death in battle, contrary to Stephen Crane's portrayal, was not enough to motivate any more than about 30% of the soldiers in battle (the numbers may be a bit off; I don't have the magazine with me as I write). The inhibition against killing other people was simply that strong. Comradeship, shared experiences in basic training, the idea of "kill or be killed," it turns out, simply weren't strong enough to override the civilized prohibition against killing strangers. However, the military learned from this, and by Vietnam the "kill rate" (i.e., the basic willingness of the soldier to pull the trigger) was up to 95%. What happened?

Training. The military basically trains soldiers to kill. All the denigration of the enemy, the dehumanizing of the opponent, is combined with a psychic assault in training that is designed to destroy the personality you came in with, and replace it with one that will kill without compunction, without reservation, and without remorse. And it works, too. It works very well, in fact, with a seeming contradiction: an strong alpha male who is happy to take orders. But that description tends to fit teenage boys to a "T." Anxious to establish themselves as strong individuals, they are equally anxious to "fit in." But those who can't take that kind of personality reconstruction, want out; and they want out badly.

In short, it is a fascinating insight not only into a military recruitment problem (you want to see the side of military recruitment Michael Moore never even hinted at, read this article), but into "modern" military training. If you have any hope that American culture will soon rise above it's inherent violence and bloodthirstiness well...abandon all hope, ye who read this article.

But still, if you know the truth, it will set you free. Free, at least, from illusions about the world you are living in.

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