July 30, 2010

"What I Learned from the Army": Killology

What I learned from the army about language and dehumanization

It's hard to get people to shoot other people when they aren't in imminent danger. People have the unfortunate habit of seeing other people as fellow humans. They hesitate, they start questioning the ethics of what they are doing. It eats them up and ruins them for battle.

We do two things in basic training to compensate for that. We work on instincts, training people to shoot faster and view their targets as a video game or a measure of our own skill, rather than personalizing them. Silhouettes pop up and down so fast, and they look like people but they are paper with aiming circles printed on them. We start categorizing our targets as not fully human. Colonel Grossman is somewhat of an expert on that [http://www.killology.com].

The other thing we do in basic, in military culture in general, but it's very specifically started in basic training, is we use language to normalize the dehumanization of others and assert our own supremacy. We use slurs against whoever is the enemy de jour, and we do this because normalizing their characterization as lesser than fully human, based on their group identity, is an important step in making violence against them more acceptable.

Haji, the word when it's owned by the people who truly own it, it's nothing offensive. It's people on a pilgrimage. But we use it in the army do identify them as The Other. Commanders understand the importance of Othering the enemy. When Mattis said "It's fun to shoot some people," that wasn't an accident. It's part of normalizing the enjoyment of violence because the people committing that violence need to believe it's normal, in order to stay sane while doing it.

He went on to add: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil,” Mattis said. “You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

That's a great statement if you know your men are going to be killing Afghan civilians in the course of their normal business. It uses language to mark them as different because they are muslim, and it marks them as Lesser Than Real Men. They don't have any manhood, so they are lesser than fully human, in the default (male) sense.

It's genius, really, because he can claim it's about defending women even as he's upholding and appealing to male supremacy.

And it's genius because it shows he understands dehumanizing language as a sort of gateway drug to violence without remorse.

(Thanks, noamnety!)

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