Ordinary Men

I forced myself to sit through the recently released–contrary to the wishes of the Pentagon–video of a U.S. helicopter gunning down a handful of Iraqi civilians in 2007.  It’s pretty gruesome and disturbing (“Ha ha I hit him,” “Look at those dead bastards,” “Well, it’s their fault for bringing kids to a battle [in reference to two kids riding in a car attempting to remove the wounded who were shot]”), but probably should be required viewing for, well, everyone – though, in particular, American voters.

As usual, my initial response was some unfocused outrage, aimlessly diffused through angry and thoughtless postings on facebook and twitter.  Even more typically, though, a few more hours of reflection blurs the categories of good and evil and leaves me simply puzzled about what it is that allows two soldiers to calmly gun down twelve un-threatening civilians and then laugh about it before, during, and after.

I always feel guilty about bringing my academic training in to try to make sense of tragedy–it sometimes feel like theory can do nothing more than cheapen reality–but since that is how I make sense of this often inexplicable world, I’ll do it anyway.  And while it is perilous to compare anything to the Nazis, there is a long-running debate in sociology about the way ordinary Germans participated in the Holocaust that I can’t help but think is interesting in this context.

One side of the debate is articulated by Daniel Goldhagen, who in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners argues that the vast majority of Germans were enthusiastic and proactive killers of Jews because of deeply internalized anti-Semitism embedded in German culture.  The other perspective comes from Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which instead emphasizes the importance of context; the way otherwise normal people can be tipped into violence by certain situations and certain pressures.  While Browning has no illusions about the right and wrong of what Germans did, his book does talk about the “grey zone” in which decisions like these take place, a “murky world of mixed motives, conflicting emotions and priorities, reluctant choices, and self-serving opportunism and accommodation wedded to self-deception and denial, a world that is all too human and all too universal.”

Browning often gets criticized for being an apologist – for, in a sense, being weak on Nazi foot soldiers by placing some blame on environment and contingency.  I felt the appeal of this kind of criticism today: I wanted to blame those killings of Iraqi civilians on jingoism and militarism, on stupid testosterone-crazed twenty-two year olds fed a diet of video-games and Republican vitriol who went to the Middle East to shoot A-rabs.  But then I realize how, just as killers de-humanize victims, we ourselves de-humanize the killers, when we build up walls of difference between us and them that give us the comfort of knowing “Well, I’m not like them – and so I would never do that.”

I think back to the eight year old who spent his afternoons re-enacting the civil war in the backyard, or the ten year old who watched World War II clips on the History Channel for hours on end, or the fourteen year old who spent hours shooting virtual terrorists on a computer screen and I realize that, with just a few random twists and different choices, I could be sitting in a cock-pit.  And, in that context, would I pull the trigger?  The very fact that I am human is, at moments, positively terrifying, because those twenty-somethings in the cockpit really are just like me.

– – – – –

Jukebox: Propagandhi – Ordinary People Do Fucked Up Things When Fucked Up Things Become Ordinary

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