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Trained to kill

Posted: April 6, 2011 - 8:42pm

war crime

that which violates

international laws of war

as if laws are effective

in wartime

— from the poem “War–the concise version” by Rachel Bentham

In a case that attracted national attention, 22-year-old Jeremy Morlock of Wasilla pleaded guilty to participating in the cold-blooded murder of three unarmed civilians while deployed in Afghanistan. Before he was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his war crime, prosecuting attorney Capt. Andre Leblanc defended the U.S. Army’s honor. “We don’t do this” he said. “This is not how we’re trained.” If it wasn’t the Army that turned Morlock into a murderer, who did?

Freelance journalist Mark Boal examined the case in a lengthy investigative report for Rolling Stone magazine. He argues “Morlock was the kind of bad-news kid whom the Army might have passed on” if there hadn’t been a significant troop shortage when he enlisted. Boal’s speculation was based on reports that as a teenager Morlock often got drunk and into fights, and was once charged with leaving the scene of a serious car accident.

Should Morlock’s problems have disqualified him from serving his country? According to Army regulations, persons with “questionable moral character” are unfit for duty. But were his youthful infractions that far beyond those experienced by other high school boys? And isn’t it true that many people have become responsible adults after overcoming serious mistakes made during their teenage years?

Furthermore, military service is often considered the best medicine for kids like Morlock. Their transformation from boys to men begins in basic training where they’re taught to conform to a rigid set of values while developing a high standard of discipline. Unfortunately, they are also trained to kill.

To begin to understand this part of their intensive conditioning we have to flash back to the work of General S.L.A. Marshall, the Army’s chief combat historian during World War II. In Men Against Fire, a book published after the war, he made the astonishing claim 75 percent of soldiers in combat never fired their personal weapons with the intent to kill the enemy. Marshall wrote “the average individual still has such an inner resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not take life if it is possible to turn away from that decision.”

The documentary film “Soldiers of Conscience” offers insights into the military’s response to Marshall’s conclusion. Made with official permission of the U.S. Army, Maj. Pete Kilmer explains the objective of a technique known as reflexive fire. The training teaches soldiers to instinctively fire two rounds into a target within seconds. Once mastered, they can effectively overcome the resistance that prevented so many from pulling the trigger in combat. But Kilmer adds the “price for that is they’re not thinking through the great moral decision of killing another human being.”

Reflexive firing alone can’t account for Morlock’s loss of moral sense — it didn’t happen in the heat of battle. His platoon sought opportunities to kill unarmed “hajis,” the derogatory name for Muslims commonly used by American troops. And another way soldiers learn to kill without hesitation is racial dehumanization.

Despite denials by the military, many veterans claim basic training emphasizes dehumanization. Because it’s easier to kill a person perceived as being less than human, soldiers are encouraged to believe their enemy is a lower form of life instead of a worthy human adversary. But such thinking fosters such deep hatred that it can readily grow to include civilians from the demonized culture.

None of this is an excuse for the murder of innocents. And it would be grossly unjust to project the bad deeds of a few onto the rest of America’s troops. But just as some soldiers from the battlefield evolve into conscientious objectors, it seems reflexive fire and dehumanization can pull others down into the hell of the morally dead.

No one can predict what the psychological impact will be on a soldier who takes his basic training into live combat. Thus it’s reasonable to believe Jeremy Morlock had a chance to become a normal, responsible adult until he was trained by the Army to kill. He then lost his soul while serving our nation in a lawless enterprise we call war.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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