Because we as humans are conflicted creatures who are prone to excessive violence and excessive compassion, it's in that vein that today's blog may seem the obverse of yesterday's.
What I'm getting at are a couple of stories that have been in the news, but have been somewhat submerged in the daily headlines. The first story is about the attacks on Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers in Haditha in November, and the second is about riots in Afghanistan following an a U.S. military vehicle that hit another vehicle and killed 5 Afghan occupants. After U.S. soldiers were attacked by an Afghan mob, they opened fire on the crowd and killed 14.
For those who aren't news junkies, these stories have been reported "in brief" in many television newscasts for the last few nights. You might have missed them, or saw them but wondered "why isn't this getting more coverage?" I don't want to digress too much from my main point, but story coverage has to do with timing. These stories broke on (or near) the Memorial Day weekend, and any news director who wants a nice, quite weekend with the family will not-so-subtly schedule stories like these deep into the newscast when people are tuning away. There's more to news programming than this, but I'll save that for a separate post.
Here's what I wanted to write about…
Politics is, at a very basic level, our socially constructed way of avoiding bloody conflict. By sublimating our more large-scale violent urges into the political realm– where they are tempered through to agreed upon laws — we are able to go peacefully about out daily lives with a rough consensus on how our society ought to be governed.
Conflict, on the other hand, is the absence of the political and the ascension of a more beast-like behavior that seems to be encoded in our species. We've all seen/experienced this kind of behavior. Playground fights…wanting to kill the driver in front of you for driving like a moron…WWF…and, of course, war.
After the Haditha story broke, the NY Times had a story on Camp Pendleton (a Marine town of the 1st order) and their reaction to the news that U.S. soldiers killed Iraqi civilians. Most in the town were quite naturally defensive. The responses fell along the lines of: "Our soldiers must have had a good reason to kill." "They must have had orders from their commanding officers to do what they did." "They are in a war where people are trying to kill them and they were defending themselves." I can understand their reasoning because they are viewing this incident through a lens of defending "politics."
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it constantly frames "our soldiers" as acting in a political mindset. When that happens, such reasoning immunizes U.S. soldiers from their atrocities of war and elevates their behavior above "the other" (i.e., Iraqis) with a thick gloss of moralism (i.e., good vs bad).
Sure, there are investigations into these incidents, and some heads will roll, but it's part of the process of constantly demonstrating that "we" are more civilized than "them."
The beastly nature of conflict, however, is a powerful reminder that what we call civilization is a tenuous thing where moralism quickly evaporates when the dogs of war are unleashed.