Monday, October 29, 2007

Peggy Noonan and reality

Peggy Noonan has a theory. She thinks that people believed Scott Beauchamp because they get their facts about warfare from movies. She thinks that to read them "...was to doubt them".

I assume that this is because Peggy Noonan was a soldier, and has fought in a war zone. How else would she know?

This might come as a surprise to some, but soldiers are not trained to be nice, empathic people who display nothing but the most charming mannerisms. They are trained to kill other people, without hesitation, and with minimal remorse. They are trained to perform acts that, in any other circumstances, would be horribly evil, and they face situations that would make most of us recoil in horror.

Do I assume that any given soldier is an asshole? Of course not. But I know that being mixed up in awful situations sometimes brings out ugliness in some people. If you have to stand ready to kill, or die, for days on end, you'll maybe end up showing a side of yourself that isn't too prettty.

So, can I believe that soldiers might run over dogs in a Bradley? Yes. Not all of them, but some of them, absolutely. Can I believe that one soldier might think it's hilariously funny to put a piece of skull on top of his head? Yes... not all soldiers, not most soldiers, but the story didn't claim "all" or "most"; it claimed one.

And can I believe that soldiers might be mindlessly cruel to an injured woman? Oh yes.

Look: the situation Beauchamp described was in a mess tent. One guy spoke loudly about being upset at the presence of a terribly scarred woman, and Beauchamp started making crude jokes about her, until she ran from the scene.

No one likes to talk about this, but it's true: a lot of folks will recoil from a person who's seriously and visibly injured. It takes some getting used to; if you've seen enough injured people, you can blow it off, but if you haven't, it's natural to be a bit (or more than a bit!) freaked out... and these soldiers were under a great deal of stress already. (Some folks have argued about this, because they were only preparing to deploy; they hadn't deployed yet. Well, preparing to potentially get your ass shot off is stressful, even if no one's taken a shot at your ass as yet. It's more stressful after you've deployed; that doesn't me pre-deployment is nonstressful.)

And soldiers learn to joke about the gruesome realities that they face every day. Is it really so surprising that this gruesome humor could erupt at a bad time?

Yes, if it happened, it was awful. Well, welcome to the real world. Soldiers aren't always the nicest of people. Being nice and genteel isn't in the job description; being willing to kill strangers is.

What upsets me about people like Noonan is that they want to deny the realities of warfare, and of having a standing military. If all of Beauchamp's stories were false, or even slightly embellished, it doesn't change the reality. Soldiers are put in awful situations, and forced to do awful things, and some of that awfulness will leak out at bad times. Maybe they'll find it funny to run over a dog; hey, it's just a dog. After they've learned to laugh or go insane, a dead body, or part of one, might seem like the punchline to a particularly ugly joke. And yeah, maybe they'll occasionally lose their empathy for an injured person.

It's part of the cost... you have to take ordinary folks, and put them in awful situations, fully aware that it's going to change some of them for the worse. You have to accept that some - certainly not all, but some - of these soldiers are going to show some of the ugliest parts of human nature, because they're forced to do some of the ugliest things that a human can be asked to do. But folks like Noonan would rather deny this... and then claim that folks who understand it don't understand reality.

I guess once you delude yourself into thinking that there will be no ugliness in war, you can delude yourself about anything.

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