In my discussion of The Assassination of Richard Nixon, I mentioned that the negative indirect consequences of subjecting young people to the military experience gets suspiciously little attention. “When you so strip people of their humanity that you turn them into the sort of things that can kill strangers on order, of course it’s going to fuck up a lot of them in ways you might not intend or desire. You can’t do that to a person and think it’s some temporary thing, that it has no consequences. Whether it be in the form of homicide or suicide or voting for Republicans or whatever, a lot of those people will do destructive and terrible things down the road as a result of that abuse.”
By coincidence, very soon after watching that movie, I watched The Ground Truth, which is a documentary that makes that very point.
The film examines the experiences of American military personnel who serve in Iraq. First is the hard sell, misleading recruitment tactics that are especially effective when used on young people who are poor and have few prospects in life. (It doesn’t take much at that age to manipulate people. As one veteran remarks, you know that the Marines have cool uniforms and that chicks dig them, and for him that was plenty.)
Next is basic training, where hatred and a disposition for hair-trigger violence are instilled through a coordinated system of brain washing that would put any fundamentalist madrassah to shame. No political correctness allowed here, as recruits shout vicious chants dehumanizing whole races and ethnicities with the ugliest of epithets, and celebrate the slaughter of women and children. (The former I knew, the latter surprised me a little. Maybe they would claim the references to women and children are ironic or something, but it’s certainly chilling to hear a veteran reciting one of the chants from memory.)
Then is the actual time in Iraq itself, where due to the nature of a guerrilla war, there is no time and no place a soldier can be confident that he’s safe, that he’s outside the war zone. And as a predictable result of this constant stress, and the horrific training they’ve received, there is a strong tendency for soldiers to err on the side of shooting first and asking questions later.
Finally there is the aftermath, the veterans’ lives back home after their last tour in Iraq, where these killing machines are expected to revert back to whatever values and behavioral dispositions are most conducive to survival and success in the civilian world. Some must live with the loss of a limb, blindness or other permanent physical damage, and almost all must live with the mild to severe adverse psychological consequences of what they’ve experienced. (I have a fair amount of experience with people trying to re-enter society after lengthy periods of incarceration, and there are a lot of similarities to what we see in this film.)
Though maybe not quite as bad as a health insurance company, the military makes a concerted effort to avoid providing medical assistance—especially for psychological issues—whenever it can. Interviewed veterans mention with disgust (this would be funny if it weren’t so offensive) that they are offered a choice when their final tour is up—they can stay in Iraq and receive psychological treatment if they declare they need it, or they can go home. Of course almost everyone chooses to go home, thus admitting, in the military’s eyes, that they’re fine.
Some of the combat photos and the video clips and photos of dead and wounded civilians and such are powerful, but what are especially compelling are the interviews with veterans and their loved ones. Those interviews make up the bulk of the film, and as a result this is one of the most gripping of the documentaries I’ve written about so far. I was especially drawn in—and sickened—for the first half hour or so. Beyond that I kind of reached my maximum of outrage, and the film felt a little repetitious in hammering home its message. It continued to hold my interest, but not as well as earlier.
But I have great admiration for these veterans who are willing to speak out in criticism of the military system of which they were a part. No doubt they are reviled in some circles for their disloyalty, but whatever value loyalty has in this context is not absolute.
I’m impressed not only by their courage in defying conventional values by taking the stands they have, but also by the fact that they are consistently articulate, humane, humble, and insightful. That would be impressive regardless, but when you consider that the all-volunteer military slants heavily toward the poor, the less educated, and those with lower IQs, and you consider the brutalizing training and combat experiences these men have had—as described in this very movie—it’s remarkable. They have overcome a great deal to be able to do what they’re doing.
That’s not to say they were psychologically undamaged by their experiences. They hold it together and speak very well for the camera, but as they describe, they do not always hold it together so well. The experiences they relate include road rage type incidents, suicidal tendencies, paranoid panic attacks, and more. One veteran calmly describes a bar brawl where he put a loaded gun to a man’s head and pulled the trigger, only to have the gun jam.
Now, obviously this is a one-sided documentary. It’s not like it’s presenting all points of view on all sides of its issues. It’s highlighting certain of the human costs of militarism, and presenting only interviews, clips and photos that support the notion that those costs are exceedingly high.
It’s easy to think up devil’s advocate objections. Yes it’s terrible to see veterans missing legs, missing hands, severely scarred about the face, etc., but wouldn’t even more of them be coming home damaged like that if the military didn’t have a “when in doubt, kill it” policy toward civilians who might or might not be guerrillas?
Do you really want a military that isn’t full of efficient killers unburdened by conscience? This is a dangerous world, and surely our adversaries and potential adversaries aren’t going to soften the training of their combatants so as not to brutalize them. In a fight between people who hesitate to pull the trigger, who remain conscious of the humanity of their adversaries, of how their families will be affected by their loss, of how they themselves will be affected by knowing they took a human life, and people who kill without any qualms, who fight as dirty as they need to to win, whom would you bet on?
If it’s wrong to trick people into volunteering for the military by using slick sales techniques and downplaying the lethal risks of military service, what is the preferred alternative? A draft? Recruitment that is scrupulously honest, with massively higher pay or benefits to keep it roughly equally as attractive to potential recruits as it is now? Recruitment that is scrupulously honest with no other changes, such that the military has vastly fewer members?
Maybe one of these, or some other, is indeed preferable to how things are done now, but certainly they all have major drawbacks of their own that would have to be addressed.
But the very fact that it’s possible to come up with these—and many other—opposing points is an important reason I don’t find the one-sidedness of this documentary all that objectionable. That is, we already know the “common sense” arguments for a strong, aggressive military not forced to fight with “one hand tied behind its back,” because those arguments are ubiquitous in the culture.
I don’t have a problem with a documentary that responds to that by saying “OK, but let’s also consider the costs of that approach,” without rehashing all the arguments on both sides. It’s filling in a gap in the public discourse, presenting a point of view that is grossly underrepresented in all but the most liberal circles.
I would hope that even if people ultimately decide invading Iraq or having a huge standing army or whatever is worth the costs, they’ll want to be very aware of all those costs so that that decision is an informed one.
Because this isn’t a video game. You don’t just push a button to go to war. You also have to change a sizable number of people psychologically in ways that will permanently damage many of them, put them in harm’s way, and then deal with releasing the surviving trained killers back into your own society. (Not to mention the distortions to the economy and all the other direct and indirect consequences of an aggressive military policy that are not covered in this movie.)
Perhaps it’s worth it, because not doing those things will have even more dire consequences. But at least be honest that you’re doing these things.
Or not. Maybe in saying that, I’m ignoring the fact that you just have to kick the analysis up another level. If all the death and destruction and horror of war, including the damage to the soldiers themselves discussed in this movie, can potentially be justified as a necessary evil because the alternative is even worse, then why not just add to that list lying about or denying or minimizing the death and destruction and horror of war? If defending ourselves from enemies who are out to destroy us can sometimes require mass killings and the dehumanization of our own soldiers, might it also sometimes require lying about these same things?
The Ground Truth is largely in line with my own thinking on these matters, and while I can anticipate much of what would be said in opposition to it, ultimately I agree with few if any of those opposition points.
Plus I think it’s well done as a movie. Giving over so much of the movie to veterans who are able and willing to speak thoughtfully, honestly, and critically about their experiences is very much the right approach.
A lot more people should see this film than ever will.