Training for war

“Military planners operate on the basis of military expediency, and individual soldiers are trained to operate on the basis of unquestioning obedience to their military superiors…In the realm of copybook distinctions it may be a simple matter to divide the bombing of a city into separate acts of willed destruction of a war production plant and unwilled (though fully known and foreseen) destruction of thousands of innocent noncombatants. But it demands too much to believe that the man who loosed the bombs availed himself of such convenient moral schizophrenia—or that he saw any need for doing so. Our intensive military-training programs are designed to free men from the necessity of making such calculations by establishing in them as nearly automatic systems of stimulus-response patterns as possible. As far as the victims of his acts are concerned, our bomber friend had been rigorously trained to think of them either as purely expendable units or in terms of hatred or fear-inducing stereotypes which makes those victims fully deserving of their fate…

The military-training program is crucial here, in that it may be seen as a set of social controls designed to subject the individual trainee to a process of systematic depersonalization in the interest of increased military efficiency. The self-image of the morally responsible person vanishes and is replaced by a new orientation, in which the individual sees himself as an agent of destructive force completely responsive to the decisions and directives of his military superiors. This new “self-image”—and the awareness that his enemy counterpart has undergone the same change—makes it possible for him to assume the role of professional killer and to perform acts which, under other circumstances, he would have found unthinkable. How else could he bridge the gap between the friendly repairman and the soldier spraying fiery death upon his screaming victims, between the playful collegian and the aviator lowering a blanket of death upon a flame-rimmed city? Certainly not by coldly rational calculations of good and evil effects. The secret lies in conditioning and not in conviction. The depersonalized agent sees no alternative; like Pilate, he washes his hands of all responsibility, leaving that to those who made the decisions and issued the orders. It also helps if he can be conditioned to regard the objects of his kill as similarly depersonalized agents—as the abstraction he knows simply as “enemy”—not as men with bodies that bleed and burn, with families and friends to mourn them, with loves and hopes and fears like his own. Once this level of conditioning is achieved, all things are possible. Men will follow orders to “take no prisoners”; or, having already taken them, to “deliver them to Paris, and be back in ten minutes.” It becomes possible for them to liquidate innocent hostages in reprisal for a guerilla raid without suffering too many troubling qualms of conscience. In a very real sense, atrocities are the hallmark of the perfectly accomplished military-training program, for they represent the ultimate of obedience to military discipline.

Fortunately, the “ideal” is rarely achieved, despite the total mobilizing of psychological talent and resources. But it is achieved often enough—or, even when the finished product falls short of that ideal, the partial success is sufficient—to justify firm theological condemnation of that violation of God’s proudest creation which such depersonalization and dehumanization represent.

A very specific example, which again is in no sense hypothetical, may be in order here. A few years ago, a network radio program devoted a Sunday to on-the-scene interviews at one of the nation’s basic training centers. One such interview featured the instructor charged with the task of training the young recruits in the use of the bayonet. He complained that he encountered a great deal of resistance from the trainees, who were naturally repelled by the idea of plunging this weapon into the vitals of a living human being. But he had solved his pedagogical problem in a rather ingenious fashion. Experience had shown that this initial resistance faded away if the men were induced to imitate the roars and snarls of wild beasts as they charged the training dummy. To conclude the interview, a microphone was attached to the dummy so that the listening public might be entertained by the sound of the recruits as they growled and ripped away at their mock victim. This, one assumes, is the much-praised “making of men” that only recently was recommended by one of our leading bishops as the solution to the problem of juvenile delinquency. Perhaps the use of this technique [for solving the juvenile delinquency problem] is not widespread. But, widespread or not, this “making of men into beast” is thoroughly in keeping with the demands of modern war.”

Dr. Gordon Zahn, from his book War, Conscience, and Dissent


Artist starves dog?

Recently there’s been a big deal all over the intarwebs about an artist who allegedly starved a dog to death as part of an exhibition, and is supposedly going to re-create the spectacle at another exhibit. The artist in question is Guillermo Vargas, also known as “Habacuc”, and as one might imagine petitions abound DEMANDING!!!! that people take action to put pressure on the event to nix the new exhibit (for example, here). The artist has recently acknowledged that he has received death threats.

I do not wish to defend the attempt to re-create the exhibit, I don’t know enough about that to comment intelligently, but I can say for sure that what happened earlier with the dog has not been reported accurately. Vargas did not starve the dog, the dog was in a state of starvation when he found it. The gallery has reported that the dog was fed outside of the exhibit, which was only open 3 hours a day.

The artist has gone on record saying his intent was to show that people would ignore the animal unless something was specifically done to call their attention to him, and that in effect what they were doing was saving his life and bringing the plight of animals on the street to people in a public forum. The dog was not being starved, it was already starved and they fed it. The dog was untied except for the 3 hours the exhibit was open. Vargas said that the piece meant to test the public and that none of the exhibition’s visitors intervened to help the animal. Furthermore, it was reported that the dog escaped while the exhibit was still ongoing, so no one really knows what happened to the dog. It is apparently not the case that Vargas killed it or starved it to death, and in fact had the dog not escaped it is likely that it would have ended up in better shape than it was in when it was discovered.

The ethics of using any living creature as part of an artistic exhibit are debatable, as are the ethics of intentionally recreating the spectacle, but it is patently not true that the artist killed or starved to death an animal, and to the contrary it appears that his intent was to promote awareness of human cruelty to animals by neglecting them. Because of that, I find it doubtful that he would intentionally commit cruel acts towards another dog.

Perhaps one good thing that could come out of this is that, regardless of how the artist is publicly portrayed, people might become more aware of animal rights issues and the plight of stray and feral animals in urban areas. That would be a cause worth getting involved in.

Story from The Guardian

Jesus Manifesto writing contest

How can Pentecost provoke our imaginations in the 21st century? Jesus Manifesto wants you to submit an original article exploring this theme. Cash prizes of $50 for each individual category plus a larger prize for the best overall article will be awarded. See Jesus Manifesto for more details.

A postmodern paraphrase of Philippians 2:5-11

The Incarnation is the mad story of the undeconstructible God who did not consider undeconstructibility as something to be grasped, nor did he despise deconstructibility, but rather taking the “human, all too human form” of a servant, he humbled himself to the point of inhabiting the very deconstructible structures of human law and culture—even to the point of suffering death at the hands of these institutions. But he did so not with a view to eviscerating the deconstructible, but rather to rightly ordering it such that the contingent, particularity of this deconstructible creation might reach its proper telos. — James K.A. Smith, What Jesus Did: The Incarnation as a More Radical Hermeneutic

Early morning, April 4, a shot rings out in the Memphis sky…

As you’re probably aware, on this day 40 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Fewer people are aware of this speech he gave 41 years ago, today.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

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