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August 19, 2006


This is an important part of the job of [senior] people. They're failing, at least with regard to the guy who turned in the Abu Ghraib folks, and probably others. It's an awful thing.

And that awful failure has happened before:

declassified records [of an Army task force that monitored war crimes investigations in Viet Nam] show that while the Army was working energetically to discredit Herbert [a whistleblower about torture], military investigators were uncovering torture and mistreatment that went well beyond what he had described.

The abuses were not made public, and few of the wrongdoers were punished.

Tufts' agents found that military interrogators in the 173rd Airborne repeatedly beat prisoners, tortured them with electric shocks and forced water down their throats to simulate the sensation of drowning, the records show.

Soldiers in one unit told investigators that their captain approved of such methods and was sometimes present during torture sessions.

The commander of the Army Criminal Investigation Division gathered material to discredit the whistleblower.

The commander of the Army Criminal Investigation Division gathered material to discredit the whistleblower.

While the President and the Secretary of Defense joined in the cover-up efforts with the "few bad apples" nonsense.

Andrew: And I think we can also agree that's why we shouldn't even wander into the gray area. Once you open that door, people will continue to push; it's boiling the frog, if you will.

Of course. But - and since Phil hasn't yet joined this thread this far, I think this applies to all military organization - I don't think there's any way to stop a military organization wandering into the gray area - the only thing possible is for (following Hilzoy's comment to me above) civilian control over the military forcing civilian discipline on military crimes. Civilian authorities need to be able to investigate the military, overriding all military authority, which appears to be naturally inclined to running cover-ups.

In the Bush administration we have an (unusual, I like to think) example of a US administration openly endorsing torture in and out of the military, so you have top down corruption - the civilian authority at the top isn't about to order any investigation of the crimes and coverups committed in the military when a full investigation will lead right back to them.

Military investigations of military crimes commonly (in my experience) clear the soldiers who committed the crime because they understand why the soldier did it: they sympathize with the soldier, rather than with the soldier's victim.

Fixing link: (in my experience)

"Military investigations of military crimes commonly (in my experience) clear the soldiers who committed the crime because they understand why the soldier did it: they sympathize with the soldier, rather than with the soldier's victim."

Right on, Jes. The millitary is far too often allowed to be its own judge.

Since I am a pacifist, I think this is a sad thread. People don't appreciate how much of our society which is defended not by violence, but by trust, trust that could be easily be betrayed, but somehow isn't. And instead of figuring out why this works, people have this deep seated idea that violence will work better...

To state my position, I don't think the soldiers, fictional or real, appreciate that the vast majority of problems that could cause our societies to fall are already handled by complex systems of trust, accountability and interdependency, often without even the threat of violence. They don't see the tremendous power of peaceful interaction, because they take all its fruits for granted. If they weren't there, they would never have believed it possible.

To take an example, if I told any sixteenth-century authority figure that in my society today, accused people show up willingly at their trials, accept them, and serve very mild sentences completely without public humiliation or disembowelment, I imagine he wouldn't have believed it. Perhaps he'd made a speech not unlike Andrew's, that someone need to do these dirty jobs of society, and you don't get much gratitude, that people don't know how much worse off they'd been without them and so on.

When we have dealt with huge, complex problems of trust and power in peaceful ways, why should now, all of a sudden, be the point where we've come as far as it's possible, the rest can't be solved by peaceful means? If we devoted even a fraction of the economic resources, and if our "defenders" could be half as brave without guns as they are with, what would the world look like?


thanks for this. some follow-ups, if I may:

"There are several reasons for this. The first is, as dmbeaster pointed out, practical. People dislike the idea of their body being dragged naked through the streets a la Mogadishu."

sure, but the military life involves lots of things that people dislike--getting shot at, crapping in your pants, losing limbs, etc. It has become part of the military culture that you cope with that stuff and take it in stride. But the superstitious obsession with dead bodies has not been addressed in the same way.

"The knowledge that their buddies will risk life and limb to get to them if they are wounded or killed helps convince soldiers to go into battle in the first place."

Okay--wounded is clearly a different thing.

"It is also a matter of honor and professionalism, I believe."

right, obviously: that's what I'm asking about. Why has *this* custom become the one selected for by honor and professionalism, rather than some *other* custom? In the Navy, it is a matter of honor and professionalism that dead bodies are dumped overboard with a wreath on the waves. Surely you're not saying that the Navy is less honorable or less professional? (Or at least not on this account....)

"Those are our comrades, dead or alive. We do not leave their bodies on the field of battle as trophies for our enemies."

Again, I realize that that is what you *do* do, i.e. you are giving me a good description of your current practice. But I was looking for a justification or explanation of why such a costly practice is still tolerated, when it gets more people killed and interferes with mission efficiency.

Customs in war change. You might as well quote a Dragoon officer saying "we could never wear camo and crouch on the ground; wearing scarlet and standing up in a line is part of our honor and our profession, it is what we do!" I'm sure they felt very strongly about that, too, and I'm sure that fighting otherwise struck them as dishonorable and unimaginable.

Except, as it turns out, times change, and counterproductive superstitions can't be tolerated. So you learn to crouch and wear camo, and that becomes the new badge of a new honor and a new professionalism.

"It is difficult enough to tell the parents or spouse of a soldier that their husband/son is never coming back. I can't imagine trying to explain that we can't even give them anything to bury."

Imagine it. The Navy has done it for centuries.

I realize that these are touchy issues. But it's a touchy thing when guys in your squad are killed because the whole squad was slowed down by lugging corpses, or when you lose two more helicopters going back to try to collect corpses from the first downed helicopter. (Again, if there's critical intel or equipment on the first one that can't fall into enemy hands, then that's a different rationale for going back. To my mind, it's a rationale for blasting the wreck to smithereens. But it's a different issue. Mine is just about the waste of going back for corpses.)

OT: Another http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/20/AR2006082000660.html>story from America's Tropical Gulag Paradise. Everytime I hear either the President or the Secretary of State use the phrase 'bring to justice' to describe our conduct of the WOT, I think of these guys. Or whenever some Administration apologist goes on about 'captured on the battlefield.'

If you think Hamdan was unsettling, wait til the Supreme Court gets Boumedienne.

Civilian authorities need to be able to investigate the military, overriding all military authority, which appears to be naturally inclined to running cover-ups.

I think this sort of thing is a problem not just with the military -- you see the same thing in the internal investigations of police departments, in doctors' oversight bodies, and surely in many other areas where a professional body is tasked with policing its own.

The downside of overriding the internal authority is that the "laity" are generally not as knowledgeable about the profession and are thus less able to judge a situation fairly. So there would still be bad judgments, but they'd tend to go the other direction instead, with people being held responsible for consequences that resulted from reasonable or even desirable actions.

Not to say that it's a bad idea, just that there are trade-offs.

kid bitzer: Okay--wounded is clearly a different thing.

And I think myself that if there's even a chance that someone may still be alive, that's in itself a reason to bring the body back.

(Slightly OT: According to what I have read of Classical Greek tradition, the losers in a battle would formally acknowledge their defeat by asking to be allowed to dispose of the bodies of their dead.)

It's one of the few things that appears to be universally human - that may be one of the true signs of sentience - the need to respectfully dispose of the bodies of the dead.


again, wounded or chance of being alive, I have no quarrel with. But sometimes dead is dead, beyond a doubt (and rather more often on the battlefield than in the peacetime hospital, I suspect).

Ancient Greek attitudes displayed the same mix of respect and disrespect that we see nowadays. Achilles shocked the conscience of Greeks, Trojans, and Olympians by mistreating Hector's corpse--the fact that they were shocked is one data point, the fact that he did it is an equally significant one. (It's all fiction, of course, but also as close to Scripture as ancient Greece had). Archilochus had to remind his 7th century friends that "it is not a noble thing to exult over the bodies of dead men". Socrates in the Republic decries the practice of mistreating corpses, not so much because it is intrinsically vile, as because it betrays a deep confusion "to regard the body as your enemy, when the enemy himself has flitted away, leaving behind only the instrument with which he fought" (part of where I'm coming from). Repeatedly what we see is the attempt to uphold a norm of decency against a background temptation to treat the bodies of enemies with savagery.

I'm afraid what is "universally human" is a concern with dead bodies and an awareness that others are concerned with them, too--which leads sometimes to respectful treatment of them, and sometimes to intentional desecration of them.

I think the policy of not bargaining for hostages often makes sense when dealing with terrorists--they're less likely to take them if they know it won't get a rise out of you. So too, if enemies know you just don't think it a matter of any concern what happens to some protoplasm, they won't get the same thrill out of dragging it through the streets. The contemporary military attitude towards corpses means giving the enemy hostages with every death, and empowering them to change your behavior in stupid ways. Real courage, I would think (as would Socrates), involves caring no more about the spent body of a comrade than about a pair of boots left behind. The man isn't there any more. The instrument did its job. Why turn it into a weapon the enemy can use against you?

(And, incidentally, when my father died a few years ago, I went out of my way to go to the funeral home and embrace his corpse. It meant something to me at the time, and still does. I would have been sorry to be deprived of that opportunity. But in the scale of things, would I have wanted a living person, say one of my brothers, to be killed in addition to my father, in order for me to have that experience? Clearly that would be ridiculous. And yet that's what the current culture in the ground-based military does.)

Surprised that this has not been brought up.

From A Farewell to Arms(1932)

[Gino] "Have you ever noticed the difference [food] makes in the way you think?"

"Yes," I said. "It can't win a war but it can lose one."

"We won't talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain."

I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene besides the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us sometimes, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot. He was born one. He left with Peduzzi in the car to go back to Gorizia.

There is no honor in raping and burning a young girl, with your own hands or a bomb.

Jes, for you the story I linked at 8:55 is not OT. There's some EU action on this, and so a polity of which you are a member is taking positions and making decisions.

Charley - yes, I've been following that story since January 2002: it was at that time the most blatant example of kidnapping by the US that had been made public.

Neither Bosnia nor Algeria are members of the EU, though Bosnia at least has been on the road to membership since last year. I confess, though, I wasn't aware of any current action by an EU nation or by EU authorities to support the Bosnian government's attempt to retrieve the six kidnap victims.

I enjoyed the original post two days ago, and the comments that followed. I do think that Andrew tends toward being more didactic than I like but that's ok.

But early this afternoon, after several further updates to this post, I, who read through RSS, suddenly find this post has been updated, yet again, two days or more after the original and after over 100 comments.

At some point an old post needs to be abandoned and then supplanted with a new post with the appropriate attributions made to the comments that have caused the changes in the content. After over a hundred comments, it becomes extremely confusing when you're trying to correlate what you're seeing as a several-fold updated post with comments that are seeing the original post.

I think it's wonderful that the original author is taking into account the feedback he's getting. But you don't respond by rewriting the post. You stop rewriting the post (except for well-defined updates) after the first hour or so after having posted.

No disrespect intended, because I do enjoy Andrew's writing. Just a thought.


I'm not sure what you're referring to. I don't recall making any updates to the post, although I may be forgetting. What has changed since the original post?

Good post, not that I completely agree with it.

On the subject of illegal orders, for me part of the problem is that some orders might be immoral, but whether or not they are illegal I don't know. For instance, there was an Air Force officer Donald Dawson who refused to drop bombs on Cambodian villages. Shawcross talks about this in his book "Sideshow". The case was on its way to the Supreme Court, which might have had to determine whether the bombing of Cambodia was legal or not, but the government decided to give Dawson conscientious objector status instead. So the legal issue was never settled.

It seems to me that hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of lives could have been saved if most Air Force pilots had been like Donald Dawson, questioning their orders to drop bombs where it was likely that many or most of the casualties would be those of civilians. Israel also has a tradition of producing dissidents in its armed forces, most recently in the just-finished Lebanon War. But these people are obviously a minority.

I'm not sure I'd have the moral courage to do this if I were in the military. (I also don't know that I'd have the plain old physical courage needed to be a good soldier, so if I were ever to be any sort of hero, it'll be the kind that doesn't require one to be courageous.) But it might be better for us all if the military were full of Donald Dawsons, people unwilling to drop bombs on villages. But then, I wonder how many people like that would choose to make the military their career?

This is an argument for the draft--not one I'd make with much conviction, and one that's easy for me, since I'm old enough to be exempt. But maybe there is something to be said for making everyone serve in the military. On alternate days of the week my more libertarian side would be horrified at what I just said.


Bloglines, the RSS feed reader that I use, claims the last update was this morning Monday at 11:51am. As to what has changed, I cannot say. I am fine with relying on your word that the article hasn't been updated, and therefore apologize.

RSS feed readers do have their presentation problems but a spontaneous failure of a date stamp on an update is a problem I haven't noticed.

To take an example, if I told any sixteenth-century authority figure that in my society today, accused people show up willingly at their trials, accept them, and serve very mild sentences completely without public humiliation or disembowelment, I imagine he wouldn't have believed it.

They do not do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so because, if they do not, eventually a couple of nice men in blue clothing with firearms and handcuffs on their belts will appear at their door with something called a bench warrant.

If we devoted even a fraction of the economic resources, and if our "defenders" could be half as brave without guns as they are with, what would the world look like?

It would speak largely German and Japanese, and there wouldn't be any Jews, that's what.

Do me a favor and count up for me the number of extant officially-pacifist societies.

I'm not a pacifist, Phil, but Harald's point, which you chose to miss, is that societies used to be run in far more brutal ways than we've found to be necessary in recent years. Yeah, we still torture people, but several centuries ago this was just taken for granted.
Harald is suggesting that just as people centuries ago apparently couldn't imagine running a society without torture (and slavery), we might be blind to what else is possible.

His argument for pacifism doesn't convince me, but people a few centuries ago probably thought the criminal element or the lower orders (same thing, I suppose) would run wild if they eased up on the thumbscrew and the rack.

I don't think Phil missed the point at all. Fewer people would show up for their trials 'voluntarily' if the police weren't so good at tracking people down.

But Harald's point is interesting in another way. He is completely right that much of modern society is built on trust. The interesting thing about his point in the current context is that terrorists attack that trust and use that trust to succeed in further attacks on that trust.

I'm all for soldiers defending their country and their citizenry.

The US Army, on the other hand, has spent an awful lot of time in numerous cases of going out and killing people in other countries who are not a threat to US security.

I like immune systems. That doesn't mean that I should listen to people praising lupus as somehow "necessary" or "desirable".

Sebastian, terrorists indeed betray society's trust, but so do all criminals, (and quite a few formally law abiding people, too), and nonetheless society handles it in a way - at least it's not collapsing. I fail to see what's different with terrorism.

Also, I assure you that if you really wanted, it wouldn't be too hard to hide from the norwegian police. And while they do show up on your door eventually if you don't show up for your trial, they are rarely armed, they need special permission from the police departement for that...

Donald Johnson, this isn't the argument that should convince you. I do indeed believe that a society can function without using violence at all - I don't see why now, all of a sudden, our democratic institutions can't be improved anymore in that direction. People who've said that in the past were wrong; and even today you can just compare societies diffeent policies on this issue and see that there's great room for improvement.
The point is, this isn't just a matter of convenience. Whether it works or not is an open question, but sometimes we have a duty to do the right thing even if we don't know what will happen. This is one of those cases.

I tend to agree with Donald. If we think about the symmetrical conflicts of the recent past (and to list them, we have UK/Argentina, Iran/Iraq, 1st Gulf War, Balkans (maybe), and the current conflict) it's clear that they are not an ongoing trend, but a form of nation versus nation disagreements that is disappearing. This is not to wholeheartedly argue that we can simply get rid of our various militaries, but that there is a trend here and one is not viewing the world thru rose colored glasses to think that it might continue. Just recently, a Russian patrol boat shot on a Japanese fishing boat that may or may not have been poaching crabs, killing one of the fishermen and taking the other three into custody. Yet the thought of some sort of military face off never was raised as a possibility.

This is not to suggest that the various hot spots (a quick list, Cyprus, Middle East, India/Pakistan, Taiwan, Korean Peninsula, the Spratleys?) couldn't, because of miscalculations, erupt. But they would erupt because the presence of armed forces, where as the Southern Kurils/Northern Territories are not, regardless of how harsh the rhetoric gets turned up.

Sebastian is right that the 'trust' (I prefer to think of it as interconnectedness) is what terrorists attack, however, I am finding myself increasingly skeptical that terrorists can truly cause widespread damage. I used to be very concerned about how terrorists could cause massive economic dislocations by attacking infrastructure that would not necessarily cause huge loss of life, but huge economic dislocation. However, I now think that is a very unlikely prospect because it's pretty clear that those who want to martyr themselves want to do it in a spectacular way, so choosing a target that would cause huge economic dislocation but not huge loss of life would not be acceptable.

Gotta say, I've never quite understood why "A Few Good Men" has the reputation it does, because it's got plot holes large enough to fit an amphibious landing craft, and most of those center on the famous the Col. Jessup character. Forget the speech -- consider the way the guy behaves to every subordinate fellow officer: He mocks his XO in front of a junior officer. He looks on serenely while LT jg Tom Cruise character flagrantly disrespects his immediate superior, a Lt Cdr. After all these violations of Supervision 101, we're supposed to believe that he's got the political savvy to be specially tapped for a prestigious Washington assignment. And to top it all off, this supposedly canny, ruthless guy blows his cool and undoes his career after a couple of minutes of pointed questions from Cruise, a naif, a lawyer half his age. It just doesn't add up.


I am of the belief that Jessup's belittling of both Markinson and Demi Moore's character are intended to show off Jessup's flaws. And Jessup's confession at the end seemed in keeping with his character; he's an arrogant ass who thinks that his way is the only way, and he dislikes having to hide from the consequences of what he considers an unfortunate command decision.


I'm sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. From a pure logic standpoint, perhaps it would make more sense to leave bodies behind. But that goes against not just military culture, but our cultural standards as a group. There may be some cultures that don't venerate the body even after whatever animates it is gone, but not many. So to change how we operate would require us not only to fight military culture and tradition, but to fight our own cultural history. I'm not sure how successful we'd be at that.

interesting point, but isn't the last flaw inherent in every courtroom drama? The bad guy is always manuvered into some situation where he blows his cool. How often does that really happen? (Ken Lay notwithstanding)


no sweat--responses are strictly gravy (i.e., a non-obligatory bonus, in case "gravy" is unclear).

Yeah, fair enough that it would be an uphill job. What is striking, though, is how often military culture *has* managed to buck the larger civilian culture and create a radically new set of traditions and values.

We could focus on some we like (racial integration) and some we don't like (lowering the psychological barrier to killing people), but my real point is that it is interesting how much the military culture manages to create its own codes and customs. And often the driving force is simple efficiency.

Anyhow--thanks for your responses.

"in case "gravy" is unclear"

I certainly hope your gravy is unclear. If not, you need to add more cornstarch.

How often does that really happen?

Often enough to try for it. Really.

I don't agree with sglover at all -- I think there are Jessups all over the place in industry, and would guess that there are plenty in the military as well. Failure at Supervision 101 rarely gets anyone fired, imo.

@Andrew: So how do you account for the naval tradition?

Andrew, I can perfectly understand wanting to get the bodies back - and believe that where someone may still be alive, that's a valid reason for rescue even if the probabilities are against it.

What I do find morally objectionable is killing people in order to "rescue" dead bodies: that's something that for me is worth people risking their lives for (however illogical), but absolutely not worth killing for.

To take this away from war, a mountain rescue team or a lifeboat crew - volunteers, usually - will risk their lives to bring people back even if the odds are they're dead: will keep searching even if they're almost certainly dead: will go to considerable effort and risk even just to bring a body back. And that is heroism. But idea that they should kill the living for the sake of rescuing a dead body - that's not heroic: that's monstrous.


The Navy is interring its fallen, not leaving them behind to be dragged through the streets. During both the First and Second World Wars, U.S. Soldiers were buried in graves in Europe rather than bringing them home. But the bodies were not left for the enemy, as a rule.


Er...we're killing enemy soldiers. That's kind of what we do during war. The intent is not to go slaughter some random civilians to get the bodies back, but to kill or drive off any enemy forces in the area to allow your people to recover their fallen.

Andrew: Er...we're killing enemy soldiers. That's kind of what we do during war. The intent is not to go slaughter some random civilians to get the bodies back, but to kill or drive off any enemy forces in the area to allow your people to recover their fallen.

The point I was trying to make was: even though it is within the laws of war that all soldiers are legitimate targets of the enemy until captured or surrendered - that does not mean simply saying "Whatever happens to a soldier, that's war".

Presumably you agree, otherwise you would shrug off anything that happens to the dead bodies of soldiers: they were legitimate targets, they were killed, that's war, leave them lie. If it doesn't matter that soldiers are killed in war, because that's what war is, then it doesn't matter what happens to their dead bodies after they're killed; that's what war is. You seem to be trying to argue that obtaining possession of a dead soldier is worth killing for: I feel that just adds a final touch of monstrosity to a situation that is already sufficiently monstrous.

We disagree: I wasn't expecting to agree, just to convey my opinion.



"My attitude is: Sorry, Colonel, you'll just have to make time, and answer our questions whether you have the inclination to or not. "


You are right basically, but the burden is on you to understand the explanation as it is given and take it on its own terms. You are not a customer in this transaction, who can expect the soldier to cater to your needs, unless that is how you want to be perceived, rahter than as an equal and fellow citizen.

"Been getting all Medieval lately, and am reminded of the White Company in 14th century Italy."


Mercenaries are not soldiers any more than prostitutes are wives.

"You say that the military does not want to create sociopaths, but I contend that the military - and members of the military - spend a lot of time doing things they don't want to. They have to recruit someone. You follow the orders you have; recruiting standards and procedures are orders, as are quotas. If the standards and procedures intended to weed out sociopaths are changed so that quotas can be met, you follow the new orders. "


Orders cannot supercede reality, and the reality is that you cannot make a functioning miltary organization out of sociopaths. From one very limited perspective, the perspective that sees only the killing, it may look sociopathic. The same perspective would judge a pet dog the same way though. But the reality is that a military organization is effective at killing only because it is effective at fostering cooperation and selflessness within itself. Sociopaths can't do it. You might as well give an order to go out and recuit kindergarten teachers for all the good it would do.

"Do those of you with military training disagree? Are soldiers given any kind of training to help them distinguish legal from illegal orders? Anything about "how to know if you've been ordered to commit a war crime, and what to do about it"? Posted by: Doctor Science
Military training is all about removing sensibilities toward the nasty. You have a giant bureaucracy of dysfunctionality. "

Jimbo is in error. Military training is much more concerned with technical skills and acculturation to cooperation with absolute strangers (That is the real purpose of the rank structure, so that you can immediately obey odrders from a perfect stranger a momnet after the leader you know drops dead with a bullet in his head or whatever.)The miltary hardly needs to remove sesniblities toward the nasty; after all these are American civilians we are talking about and no one has to teach the Columbine Generation anything about random slaughter.

Harald Korneliussen said:

"People don't appreciate how much of our society which is defended not by violence, but by trust, trust that could be easily be betrayed, but somehow isn't. "

Three things - one is that it is indeed sad. That's the world. Second is that a system of trust that obtains within a society is one thing, and relations between socieites is something completely different. If your name reflects Norwegian nationality, then I can understand your confusion on this point, because Europeans tend to think of their small states as separate countries and separate societies. They have not really been separate societies since at least the Renaissance at the latest. Europe shares a mass of convention, treaty law and common manners that do not apply outside it, and calling this common heritage "international" only confuses the conversation. Third thing - even within a society with a high level of ambient trust, there is alawys the iron fist of the government inside the velvet glove you see. Try talking smack anbout Muslims or Islam in Norway and see how free your speech is.

One thing that sems to have been left out of the discussion on Guantanamo is the extent to which it is not a reflection on some inherent essence of the miltary, but is in fact a perversion forced on it by its CIVILIAN masters, who have been left basically unchallenged in any meaningful; by the broad masses of supposedly peaceful, upstanding and gentle civilians in society.

Jim: the burden is on you to understand the explanation as it is given and take it on its own terms. You are not a customer in this transaction, who can expect the soldier to cater to your needs

My comment was written, as I'd thought the context made clear, as if I were the officer in the film asking the questions.

In the passage Andrew quoted, Jessup does not offer anything that could be described as an explanation; instead, he asserts that no one not in his exact situation, service member or civilian, has the right to question his actions or demand an explanation. This is simply not so, or there would be no such thing as internal military investigations or courts martial.

One thing that sems to have been left out of the discussion on Guantanamo is the extent to which it is not a reflection on some inherent essence of the miltary, but is in fact a perversion forced on it by its CIVILIAN masters, who have been left basically unchallenged in any meaningful; by the broad masses of supposedly peaceful, upstanding and gentle civilians in society.

That might be true for discussion of Guantanamo in this post, which Andrew wrote not to talk about Guantanamo but to explain his point of view on the military's approach to motivating and training its members to kill.

But it most emphatically is not true of the great majority of discussion of Guantanamo and related situations on this blog.

I share the view that the torture and abusive treatment of detainees that has occurred since September 2001 are the direct result of policies set by the civilians at the highest levels of government. I also agree that those officials have been insufficiently challenged on this policy by other elected officials and the broad masses of the public. But I cannot agree that they "have not been challenged in any meaningful [way]".


Mercenaries are not soldiers any more than prostitutes are wives.

Umm, huh? This seems off to me, particularly as the word soldier derives from the Latin solidus, a reference to the coin used to pay them. Mercenaries may not be the same as soldiers in a standing national army, but they are soldiers by virtually any definition.

to which it is not a reflection on some inherent essence of the miltary, but is in fact a perversion forced on it by its CIVILIAN masters

This is an excellent point, but if we were to take it to its logical conclusion, we would have to accept that the military is like a loaded gun and we shouldn't presume that any sort of inherent nobility of the military should prevent it from being shot at the wrong person (or country). Way earlier, both the Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese army were mentioned. One thing about the Wehrmacht, when the task of the final solution fell to ordinary conscriptees affiliated with the Einsatzgruppen, many of them balked, a fact alluded to in Himmler's infamous Poznan speech. Thus, a system was created which would separate the Jewish victims, dehumanize them and basically have them provide the labor that was the engine of their extermination. Admittedly, the situation was different in the Eastern front, where Nazi racial theory on the subhumanness of the Slavs along with the conditions there encouraged more brutality on both sides, but I'd suggest that the Wehrmacht was not very different from any of the allied armies.

The Japanese Army is a bit harder to get a grasp on, as there was a level of brutality within the organization (and a fatalistic acceptance of sacrifice) that was easily turned on others.

As a bit of synchronicity, there is a recently done translation of Ishikawa Tatsuzo's Ikiteiru Heitai. The novel is often discussed in terms of censorship (the author, editor and publisher were tried and convicted under the promulgated censorship laws in 1930's Japan) as well as in terms of the Nanking massacre, as Ishikawa was convering those events, so the question is whether his fictionalized descriptions match or exaggerate what happened. However, as this review points out, these issues have taken attention away from the actual importance of the book as literature.

Related to the discussion about retrieving the dead, there was also this in the review

For Ishikawa’s Japanese soldiers, the dividing line between life and death is no longer stark, but ambiguous. On the night of 10 December 1937, the soldiers whom we have followed as they fight their way to Nanjing have been ordered to capture the peaks of the Purple Mountain overlooking the city. It is winter, cold everywhere, but especially cold on the heights of the mountain. While one unit remained awake: “the rest of the soldiers, embracing each other against the cold that covered the mountaintop with frost, slept soundly. They lay alongside their dead comrades, guarding the corpses as they slept. A single overcoat served to cover two men. There was neither life nor death. A dead comrade was still a comrade, and no distinctions were drawn between the living and the dead. This was not limited only to the corpses of their comrades. Since the stony ground they slept on made their heads ache, some men dragged up Chinese corpses and used their stomachs for pillows” [23].

Previously, during the march to Nanjing, Ishikawa notes that: “A certain percentage of the soldiers carried the bones of their dead comrades as they marched. None of the bones of the dead had been sent to the rear since the landing at Baimao River; all continued to advance in their comrades’ embrace. As the front moved forward, the dead multiplied, while the numbers of the living decreased. The proportion of soldiers carrying bones doubled and continued to grow. … In this way, the dead together with the surviving soldiers continued to press toward Nanjing” [24].

These two passages indicate how Ishikawa is trying to suggest a breakdown in the stark distinction between life and death. The dead sleep with the living at night, and march with them during the day. The soldiers themselves regard the bones of their dead comrades as objects that are more than dead, and themselves as less than alive.

“They did not feel any of the dread or repugnance that corpses and bones usually evoked. Rather, they felt very close to them. It was as if the bones were still alive. Or to be more exact, they perhaps felt that they were only temporarily alive and that over the course of the day they too might be transformed into bones just like these. They were perhaps merely living bones” [25].

In the world of the battle-weary soldier where the dead are more than dead and the living less than alive, there is a strange marriage between the rationalism of modernity (symbolized by the modern military structures and weapons of the Japanese army) and the mysticism of pre-modernism.

By some odd coincidence, A Few Good Men was one of the movies available on my plane, so I saw it. I thought that some of the acting was good, but that the movie as a whole seemed to portray the military/civilian divide in a very simplistic way.

On the one hand, you have Tom Cruise, who is only technically in the Navy, at least at the beginning. He doesn't take anything seriously. He has no honor. He doesn't think anything at all is more important than softball, etc. In these respects, he seems to be meant to convey something about civilian life. I find this completely bizarre, and also insulting.

On the other hand, we have the various 'real' military people, who do have honor, or so we are meant to believe. This honor is somehow connected with an idea of absolute obedience that includes going along with Code Reds, etc. It's also sufficiently malleable that Jessup can imagine he has it while not only absolutely failing to take responsibility for his actions, but also frustrating a court martial by falsifying evidence, etc. I mean: we are told that Marines have honor, and the non-retarded accused Marine clearly does, but as far as the others are concerned, I don't see much evidence of it at all. (This includes Markenson (sp?): when you're the witness who can get two men out of an undeserved guilty verdict for a capital crime, why do you disappear and then kill yourself? What's so honorable about that?)

I thought Jessup was someone who had bought into a fake idea of honor and military necessity that allowed him to do whatever he wanted without ever confronting the possibility that he might be guilty. He would probably still have been a dreadful person without the ideal of military honor to give him moral cover, but I think he might have been less bad.

But the movie's dichotomy between having no honor and having what the various Marines had struck me as unfair to honor, to civilians (who can have it), and also to m=the military, some of whose members would, I think, be more than capable of taking Jessup's pretensions apart.


Remember Cruise's last words to CPL Dawson: "You don't have to wear a patch on your sleeve to have honor." I am of the opinion that is one of the messages of the film. It made me chuckle at the time, because it reminded me of someone I knew in college who assumed that, because I was in ROTC, that I believed that only military service could produce honor or heroes. But I guess there are people who believe that.

"As the front moved forward, the dead multiplied, while the numbers of the living decreased. The proportion of soldiers carrying bones doubled and continued to grow..."

wow--that's like some nightmare graphic used to illustrate dependency ratios.

Thanks for the long quote, LJ--extremely interesting.


Interesting post. I agree with you through and through here. The nobility lies not in action but with the supplication. It is not noble in and of itself to be a soldier, but rather the handing over of your fate to others in a higher cause that is noble. To know that you very well may die as a result of choices out of your control is the height of courage. Which is why the right's rhetoric questioning the patriotism of those who oppose the current policies in Iraq is so despicable. I had thought that one of the major lessons of Vietnam was our ability to separate the decision makers from those carrying said decisions out. I guess I was wrong about that.

I am of the opinion that is one of the messages of the film.

I don't think it is, though, because (as hilzoy noted) the cathartic moments take place in a specifically military context -- not militaristic, mind, but military -- in fairly specific contradistinction to the earlier, civilian degeneracy. And note that Cruise's character doesn't return to civilian life at the end of the movie either; it's within this context that he's found what he considers to be not just his niche, IMO, but also a rightness that was absent in his earlier life.

Or maybe not; it's been a while since I've seen the movie, and maybe I'm just reading too much into it.

But I guess there are people who believe that.

I've met people like that, so yes. Although the list nowadays is usually broadened to include first-responders (specifically firemen and cops IME).

There are a number of retrospectively jarring moments in that movie, now that I think about it. Cruise being manic when he decides he's going to take on the big guys (which recalls the jumping on the couch episode), the way the Kevin Bacon character slides from 'your boys are going down' to 'I've got to arrest these other guys', the way the father-son conflict is established with Jessup praising the father and then finds out that he's dead, the line in Jessup's speech (or Nicholson's enunciation of it) about Lt. Weinberg has an antisemitic feel to it, which made me bristle at first and then wonder why it would have been put there. Still, the pacing of the film let's you skip over those things and it is only discussing it now that I think about them.


To each his own, I suppose. I saw that line as critical to the film; Dawson has lived his life according to a code: he's the honorable one in the film, and now he won't be a Marine any more. Cruise reminds him that regardless of what clothes he puts on in the morning, he is still the same person.


I didn't see anything jarring in Bacon's performance. He's clearly not happy about the case he's got to bring, as he points out when Cruise confronts him about the Code Red. When he says 'your boys are going down now,' it is said in a regretful tone, not a triumphant one, and he appends the comment with 'I can't stop that now.'

It wasn't Bacon's performance (I thought he did quite well), it was just the ability to turn on a dime. At the end, Bacon's character says 'I have to go arrest Kendrick', and Tom Cruise's character says 'Tell him I say hi' and I'm not sure how we are supposed to take that.

Interestingly, what appears to be the original screenplay has a final scene of Cruise and Demi Moore hooking up, with Cruise saying that he's going to 'stay his post'.

But these are very tiny things, probably the result of over analysis.

I had the impression that Ross (Bacon) was simply trying to do his job. The government had a case for charging Dawson and Downey, so Ross did his best to win it. When it became clear that Kendrick was guilty, Ross was prepared to do his duty and arrest him. Cruise, I thought, was just being cute, given the clear disdain he had for Kendrick.

Don't know if anyone would still notice this, but about the question of retrieving the dead, I thought this NYTimes article noted an interesting juxtaposition.

A full week after the hurricane, as the colossal forensic challenge before them came more clearly into focus, various government officials struggled with an awkward but unavoidable question: Who is going to pick up the bodies?

Federal and state officials quarreled with one another over who had responsibility for collection: The Federal Emergency Management Agency? Louisiana? The National Guard? Meanwhile, dead Americans decomposed on American soil.

“We’d ask, ‘So who’s going to pick up the bodies?’ ” Dr. Cataldie recalled. “And everybody would look at each other.”

The task finally fell to Kenyon International Emergency Services, a disaster-relief company that was eventually hired by the state. Its president, Robert Jensen, said recently that he had been taken aback by the bureaucratic dithering over such a sensitive and obvious mission.

“Civilizations are often judged by how they treat their deceased,” Mr. Jensen said. In the case of the Louisiana dead, he added, “the system failed.”

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