Sanitizing an Authoritarian Situation

According to a just released Army study of 1,767 troops, almost half of US soldiers surveyed said that they should be able to use torture to gather information about insurgents and to save the lives of fellow soldiers. More than half said that they would not report a team member for mistreating civilians or for destroying property unnecessarily. “Less than half of Soldiers and Marines believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect,” the authors of the study report. Around ten percent of soldiers said they had mistreated civilians. These attitudes are contrary to Army rules, not to mention international law, which forbid torture and require the humane treatment of civilians and prisoners.

The capitalist propaganda machine is focusing on the question of training in battlefield ethics, as if further instruction in the value of basic moral conduct can change the mind and behavior of men involved in the nasty business of war and occupation, men who sought a job where the primary task is to kill and maim people and destroy property. In learning how to carry out this task, military training and the battlefield experience stirs and reinforces authoritarian attitudes in men who were, in many cases, drawn to the job by their already-existing sadistic leanings, attitudes learned by living in a capitalist-patriarchal-racist society, a society in which the weak and different are despised and abused, the aggressive and dispassionate are glorified, and violence is taught as a legitimate means for resolving conflict. The problems of brutalization, torture, and vandalism are inherent in the fascist state of mind that inegalitarian and militarist society and organizations amplify and produce. Indeed, the United States is a country in which even leading liberal intellectuals, such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, can contend that torture is acceptable and still enjoy their status as authorities in moral matters and civil liberties discourse.

Furthermore, what the state defines as inappropriate behavior legitimates much of the horror of war that state actors assert is appropriate. Condemning the intentional brutalization of civilians and prisoners of war at the hands of individual soldiers whitewashes the intentional brutalization of human beings that occurs under the direction of military commanders and their civilian counterparts. If the US military bombs an apartment building in which civilians are living because there is an “insurgent” or “terrorist” present, an act the state considers appropriate, it is still perpetrating a deeply immoral act. Deft at doublespeak, the military propagandists rationalize the killing and maiming of innocent bystanders, along with the destruction of property and the environment, as “collateral damage,” necessary because there was a “target of opportunity” to be “neutralized” in a “surgical strike” using “smart munitions.” (When off camera, collateral damage is “bug splat.”) As terrible as it is that soldiers use morally-neutralizing language when justifying their own indecent acts, the government uses such language to redefine its immoral actions as morally-upright conduct.

It should shock you that your government labels civilians defending their homeland from invasion and occupation as “irregulars” and “terrorists”; hides the deportation and transfer of prisoners to countries not burdened by international law for the purpose of torturing them under the legalism of “rendition”; puts prisoners of war outside international conventions by labeling them “illegal combatants”; soft sells torture as “interrogation techniques and methods”; permits the bombing of civilians and shooting of journalists, women and children in “free fire zones”; describes the killing of human beings as “neutralizing,” “taking down,” and “taking out” the enemy, as “servicing the target” and “shaping the battlefield,” sometimes requiring “softening the target” to allow for easy “insertion” of military personnel; characterizes unprovoked war — that is, war of aggression — as “pre-emptive action”; describes mercenaries as “security contractors”; and redefines the means by which “collateral damage” is produced — bombs and missiles — as “ordnance.”

All this is the doublespeak of the authoritarian. Accepting and adopting this language — euphemisms designed to clean up the messiness of mass murder and the destruction of land and infrastructure — will change your cognitive stance towards the crimes of war and occupation. Internalizing the doublespeak will make you cold and callus. 

Michel Foucault once wrote, “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” This particular society we live in — the United States of America — is fascist in certain of its elements. The complex strategical situation of fascism is one that depends fundamentally on an authoritarian state of mind. Fascism is the “strategic adversary,” Foucault argues; “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

We must struggle against the authoritarianism all around us. But we must also struggle against the authoritarianism inside each of us. We cannot stand for the cleansing of the language of war and occupation. We must refuse to allow corporate propagandists to separate out bad soldiers from the bad venture that employs them.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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