Soldiers acting as part of Operation Pranoo Verbena in order to disrupt Taliban operations in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, March 16, 2012. (Photo: MATEUS_27:24&25)
Since 9/11, the war on terror and the campaign for homeland security have increasingly mimicked the tactics of the enemies they sought to crush. Violence and punishment as both a media spectacle and a bone-crushing reality have become prominent and influential forces shaping American society. As the boundaries between “the realms of war and civil life have collapsed,” social relations and the public services needed to make them viable have been increasingly privatized and militarized.(1) The logic of profitability works its magic in channeling the public funding of warfare and organized violence into universities, market-based service providers and deregulated contractors. The metaphysics of war and associated forms of violence now creep into every aspect of American society.
As the preferred “instrument of statecraft,”(2) war and its intensifying production of violence cross borders, time, space and places. Seemingly without any measure of self-restraint, state-sponsored violence flows and regroups, contaminating both foreign and domestic policies. One consequence of the permanent warfare state is evident in the public revelations concerning a number of war crimes committed recently by US government forces. These include the indiscriminate killings of Afghan civilians by US drone aircraft; the barbaric murder of Afghan children and peasant farmers by American infantrymen infamously labeled as “the kill team”;(3) disclosures concerning four American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters; and the recent uncovering of photographs showing “more than a dozen soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team, along with some Afghan security forces, posing with the severed hands and legs of Taliban attackers in Zabul Province in 2010.”(4) And, shocking even for those acquainted with standard military combat, there is the case of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who “walked off a small combat outpost in Kandahar province and slaughtered 17 villagers, most of them women and children and later walked back to his base and turned himself in.”(5) Mind-numbing violence, war crimes and indiscriminate military attacks on civilians on the part of the US government are far from new, of course, and date back to infamous acts such as the air attacks on civilians in Dresden along with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.(6) Military spokespersons are typically quick to remind the American public that such practices are part of the price one pays for combat and are endemic to war itself.
The history of atrocities committed by the United States in the name of war need not be repeated here, but some of these incidents have doubled in on themselves and fueled public outrage against the violence of war.(7) One of the most famous was the My Lai massacre, which played a crucial role in mobilizing anti-war protests against the Vietnam War. Even dubious appeals to national defense and honor can provide no excuse for mass killings of civilians, rapes and other acts of destruction that completely lack any justifiable military objective. Not only does the alleged normative violence of war disguise the moral cowardice of the warmongers, it also demonizes the enemy and dehumanizes soldiers. It is this brutalizing psychology of desensitization, emotional hardness and the freezing of moral responsibility that is particularly crucial to understand, because it grows out of a formative culture in which war, violence and the dehumanization of others becomes routine, commonplace and removed from any sense of ethical accountability.