Lucky elitist member of the educated middle class that I am, I can’t imagine joining the military to pay for college. I know that I will earn enough, later on, to pay it off. I can’t imagine joining the military at all, peacenik beneficiary of prior solidiers’ deaths that I am. I’m lucky– I’m smart, I’m self-conscious, I have parents and had teachers who were capable of imparting to me the values and drive that opened up other career options than the military. Not that the military can’t be a good choice. It’s just not mine. And I don’t want to sound like I think every soldier is a dolt– they’re not, but there is a range of intelligence, imagination, and sensitivity in the military like everywhere else. The smart folks (or those smart enough to keep out of trouble, do what they’re told, and suck up to the right people, thanks Cricket for the reminder) tend to rise. The rank and file can and does contain folks who won’t be promoted far.
What I now comprehend, however, is something I couldn’t before imagine, yet somehow knew was happening, as discussed in a recent New Yorker— the military’s wholesale failure to train and command its ground level forces at Abu Graihb, abandoning soldiers who were essentially kids, who didn’t know any better, to torture prisoners, and then to have the audacity to frame them for it. To condone it, in fact– to take advantage of these kids’ lack of training (they were not prison M.P.s) to have them wantonly violate the Geneva Conventions– because they didn’t know any better, and in some cases, probably weren’t smart enough to challenge the situation themselves. The phrase “failure of command” could hardly have more meaning. The position brings the responsibility toward one’s subordinates with it, no matter the individual morality/intelligence/capacity of those sitting in the chairs labeled colonels, generals, Commanders in Chief. To fail to comprehend or carry out the responsibility? Shocks me, though perhaps it shouldn’t.
The us versus them thing has long existed, so the Geneva Conventions exist–because at an extreme, we think it’s tolerable to torture them, if our “principles” are to survive. But to suborn our own soldiers’ principles, or the principles they’re supposed to be protecting, against their will, however late their consciousness of betrayal emerges? It’s almost as shameful as the torture of the prisoners themselves.