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Manliness in Iraq

Michael Yon calls it professionalism, but this is how General Petraeus articulates it in a letter to those under his command:

We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. We are engaged in combat, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly, and we must be violent at times. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect.

Discussions - 18 Comments

None of which epitomizes "warriors." I think he meant to say "soldiers," which tend to beat the living crap out of warriors (nearly) every time. This was the lesson of Sparta, and then Rome, and finally the lesson of modern warfare. The real question is, are soldiers the right answer for asymmetric warfare?

A Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan in my class wrote about the stress of being in a military situation wherein the apparent civilian you are faced with might actually be an enemy intent on your death. Even an innocent, a child, might be an inadvertent suicide bomber. What he said was that it was not so much a problem that you might die if you did not recognize the threat, but that others might die if you guessed wrongly. You could stand the risk to yourself, but carrying the burden of the risk to others was horrible.


The presumption was that you would treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. However, doing so carried that element of risk, because those people could not really be trusted. They could not be expected to treat you with similar "dignity and respect" if they were not truly noncombatants. When you made a mistake, an honest mistake, the guilt you carried afterward was crushing. The error could either have meant harm to your soldiers or harm to civilians, depending on HOW you were wrong. Not one of his friends whom he had interviewed for his paper seemed to have any less a burden of guilt if the error had been against a civilian. To do something right in a given situation in military terms might be wrong in other terms. You had to live with what had happened, and that was not ever easy.


He wrote in another paper about the difference between manliness in war and manliness at home - transitioning from being a warrior to being a man again. He didn't use the word, "manliness," but I understood what he was saying as that. It was beautiful and terrible to help him work out how to express these things in his writing.

I suggest that all read THE SOUL OF BATTLE, written by Professor Victor Davis Hanson. Specifically, parts II and III, dealing with General Sherman and General Patton.

Now this is an interesting post. If one were to keep abreast of Iraq War II only by reading this blog, he/she would likely be at a loss for why Petraeus would have felt any need to send out such a letter. There's hardly been anything here at NLT that even mentioned Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Guantanamo, etc., except perhaps to note what a smashing success they've somehow been (effective tools in fighting terror) or that it's all just much liberal ado about nothing, "no 'there' there," etc. There was not even the briefest burst of outrage when the undeniably popular conservative Rush Limbaugh brushed off Abu Ghraib as little more than frat-like hijinks and some guys "blowing off steam." All of this has been ignored, dismissed or thoroughly miniaturized.

If American forces have, from the start, taken only the highest, most exemplary path of righteous civility and noble ("professional/manly") wartime conduct, then why on Earth would such a letter as that sent out by Petraeus even be thought as necessary? Haven't the few bad apples already been sorted out?

For your loyal readers that have shut off "The Filter" so effectively that they've managed to avoid the recent story of a no-doubt liberally-biased Pentagon survey of military ethics on the battlefield, I offer this cringe-inducing dose of reality. It would suggest that it may be time to recalculate the number of bad apples who may be compromising the "coalition" barrel:

"In a survey of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, fewer than half of marines and a little more than half of soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian."

"10 percent reported personally abusing Iraqi civilians"

"Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect."

It appears that some of the soldiers have taken the Bush Administration's wink-and-nudge approach to the torture issue and run with it.

Craig, I don't think that veteran I mention above would argue with the essential truth of your article.

"Lieutenant Colonel Scott Fazekas, a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman, said officials were looking closely at the ethics results, taken from a questionnaire survey of 1,320 soldiers and 447 marines." so the survey is not large, but as I say, I doubt that my student, or any Marine, soldier or corpsman I know would argue the essential facts.


"I don't want to, for a minute, second-guess the behavior of any person in the military - look at the kind of moral dilemma you are putting people in," Christopher Preble of the libertarian Cato Institute think tank said. "There's a real tension between using too much force, which generally means using force to protect yourself, and using too little and therefore exposing yourself to greater risk." That is a point I was touching on above. This is not about the Bush Administration, it is about war. Also, might we say that some 10 percent of the young civilian American male population might have moral and ethical problems? I would. To find that represented in the military would not be any surprise.

"Also, might we say that some 10 percent of the young civilian American male population might have moral and ethical problems? I would. To find that represented in the military would not be any surprise."

Maybe so. But of course there are some rather crucial differences between young American civilians and young American soldiers- access to extremely lethal military hardware being chief among them. And then there's the rather inconvenient fact that when the American soldier with moral/ethical problems commits some heinous crime, it doesn't just harm the victim's family or community, but quite probably the entire Muslim world.

My point is this: The stakes are much, much higher in Iraq and Afghanistan than they are here. Those young men and women, whether they accept/know it or not, not only fight for but represent their country. When they parade prisoners around in women's underwear or rape and murder teenage girls, they do massive, irreparable damage- something that a US-based psycho couldn't accomplish. The price for having 10% of our troops being "bad apples" is just way too high.

I think the young men on America's streets who are capable of doing vile things do just as much societal and personal harm. However, if it sounded like I was excusing the behavior of that 10%, then I am sorry. I grieve over and would not excuse the evil men do. It's just that such evil seems always to be with us and to attach it to soldiers as if it were not a universal and apparently eternal problem strikes me as unreasonable.


Yes, I see that there is that margin of "worse" in that the military personnel overseas represent us, the U.S., in the eyes of the world. But if we ascribe the evil of the few in a nation to that nation as a whole, that is simply a logical error.


The U.S. punished the perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib abuses. Do you question that those who rape and murder teen-aged girls will not be brought to justice by the relevant JAG Corps, if the U.S. possibly can identify them?

Craig, the things happening in Iraq ALWAYS happen during wars, but now thanks to the Information Age we hear about all the little things. I'm not condoning the bad, in some cases deplorable and evil, actions of the American military, but I think we are, in fact, showing a historical amount of restraint and the Abu Ghraibs have been the exception. What I don't understand is why guys like you want to keep harping on these instances. It seems every time something like this happens your crowd goes "Aha! I told you so!" But what exactly have you told us? Perhaps you could elaborate more on why you feel the problems you pointed out are significant. Isn't it significant that our prisoner abuses include stripping and photographing, while the jihadis' prisoner abuses include torture, death, and mutilation?

Come on, Andrew...you know the answer. Trollboy is anti-American, like his fellow Leftist trolls. Winning isn't on his agenda...losing is the only thing the Left can work with. Actually winning would reinforce American power and prestige, and we can't have that, now can we?

You waste your time responding to him.

dain, you're an insufferable jerk. It's funny that you tell Andrew that he's wasting his time responding to "Trollboy," when it's obvious that your comment is really more for Craig than it is for Andrew.

It must be nice to be able to see the world in such stark contrast, a place inhabited only by do-gooders and evil-doers. According to your primitive world-view, those who aren't all in favor of the crap that went on at Abu Ghraib must hate America and hope that it somehow "loses" (though I can't even imagine what that would mean- that OBL would become our leader? That'd we all be forced to convert to Islam? Gee, we'd better start fighting even harder so that doesn't happen!)

First, I must note how curious it is that Kate interpreted the Pentagon numbers thusly: "might we say that some 10 percent of the young civilian American male population might have moral and ethical problems? I would. To find that represented in the military would not be any surprise." (emphasis mine)

Allow me to highlight once again these numbers from the Pentagon survey:


"Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect."

Just to be conservatively charitable, let's tack on an extra 10% to each of those figures. That would mean that 57% of soldiers and still fewer than half (!!) of the Marines feel that NONCOMBATANTS should be treated with dignity and respect. Can someone explain to me how that is manly, professional, or even remotely excusable? Does this attitude not constitute some kind of moral/ethical problem, Kate? How did this get (once again) miniaturized into 10%?

In my sadly nuanced appraisal of what U.S. troops are engaging in in Iraq and Afghanistan, I've long presumed it was a very mixed bag. Surely, there are some who try to stay as close as possible to the moral high ground of passing out candy & coloring books to the kids and only firing on those who are clearly hostile, lest they harm an Iraqi deserving of the American gifts of freedom and free enterprise. But I also had my doubts that atrocities were only being committed by some low-ranking troops that I could count on two hands. Yet, I find these numbers in the survey pretty surprising. Even an "America-hater" like myself (it's so absurd a smear I'm gonna have a little fun with it) finds them hard to wrap my head around. No, this isn't "Aha! I told ya so!" Rather, this is "Say it isn't so!" territory that we're in here. These numbers do not reflect the idea that (after the WMDs were found and confiscated/destroyed) our mission there was to liberate the Iraqis and help them stabilize their budding democracy. These numbers indicate that civilians are seen as the enemy as much as anyone else, not worth considering.

"Perhaps you could elaborate more on why you feel the problems you pointed out are significant. Isn't it significant that our prisoner abuses include stripping and photographing, while the jihadis' prisoner abuses include torture, death, and mutilation?"

Andrew (Braun, presumably), you seem to be doing the at-least-we're-not-as-bad-as ______ dance. Yes, so far we haven't run a concentration camp in Iraq very similar to Auschwitz. Simply being less bad than an enemy that is routinely described as a supremely evil threat to civilization would hardly justify placement in the "good" column. I'm not terribly impressed by the "At least we haven't done any beheadings on video!" perspective. Further, your trivializing description of "our prisoner abuses" as being limited to "stripping and photographing" indicates to me that perhaps No Left Turns (perhaps Powerline and Michelle Malkin, too?) really has been your sole source for Iraq War news. Surely you would consider it some form of torture to be put naked in a pile with other naked prisoners, smeared with feces, have an angry guard dog held inches from your half-clothed or naked body, etc? Even if that is simply college gags for you, it seems clear enough that rape, murder ("'The American public needs to understand we're talking about rape and murder here. We're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience,' Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters") and torture ("An Iraqi whose corpse was photographed with grinning U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib died under CIA interrogation while suspended by his wrists, which had been handcuffed behind his back") have been part of our occupation. Here's more about the murders. Note that's just under 3 years ago.

As far as the troops' nonchalant attitude towards noncombatants, could that possibly be reflected in the behavior of soldiers who shot a girl's family to death while gang-raping her, then burning the girl's corpse with kerosene? How about the soldiers urinating on the dead Iraqi civilian (NONCOMBATANT) at Haditha? Andrew, are these events not significant?

Hmm..Nicolas...a new name, Mr. Troll?

Hey, KMA, buddy...and that's more of an answer than you deserve, creepface.

Craig, From your article: "About 10 percent of soldiers and Marines reported mistreating civilians or damaging property when it was not necessary. Mistreatment includes hitting or kicking a civilian." That is the percent of soldiers and Marines who said they had actually done something. The rest was about attitudes, not about actual behavior. A soldier can have a lousy attitude and be disciplined enough not to act on it. It is that ten percent who are not disciplined enough to contain themselves who are our real problem.


The problem for soldiers and Marines in relating to the civilian population and reflected in your disturbing statistics is that it is hard to tell if a civilian IS a civilian. In real terms, a terrorist can be a civilian. The enemy are not people wearing uniforms nor identifying themselves as combatants. See my second paragraph in #3. Who is a noncombatant?


I note that all of your cited articles are about crimes that have already been prosecuted. Yes, it begs the question of what else might have been done, but I note the fact because you imply that nothing is being done, when clearly these bad behaviors are prosecuted when discovered.

The study team said shorter deployments or longer intervals between deployments would give soldiers and marines a better chance "to reset mentally" before returning to combat. and, instead, tours have been extended. I hope General Petraeus' words have effect.

Again Craig, you seem to miss the point I mildly alluded to in my opening sentence. Soldiers kill people and break things; that's what they do and ours are exceptionally good at it. Anything else is a bonus. It is a testament to the character of our soldiers that they show as much restraint as they do. They are trained to kill those men, and those men try to kill them, and when we capture them we don't torture them and massacre them. We lock them up. Yes, there has been an Abu Ghraib and a Haditha, but there could be an Abu Ghraib every day and there isn't and there could be a Haditha every time one of our convoys drives through an Iraqi town but there isn't. No where in history will you find a military such as this. I think you should be proud, not worried.

I wasn't aware of all the other things you mentioned (the photos with dead bodies, etc.), but they really don't surprise me and I'm sure there are many more examples we could find. However, I don't think soldiers are meant to pass out candy and toys, and men who are trained kill might not be the nicest SOBs in the world.

Kate, you're shifting your approach with each comment. It's slippery. I presume you would agree that "moral and ethical problems" can be manifest in attitudes as well as actions. You said, in #5, that "...might we say that some 10 percent of the young civilian American male population might have moral and ethical problems? I would. To find that represented in the military would not be any surprise." Again, I would say that it's a moral and ethical problem when our troops feel that noncombatants in the Iraqi population needn't be treated with dignity and respect. Remember, the message from the Commander-in-Chief has been that we are not at war with the Iraqi people. We are there, it is said, to help them recover from the Saddam years.

And something tells me that if the 10% figure is inaccurate, it's due to UNDERreporting by survey respondents. If you'd abused a civilian in some way, would you be eager to tell everyone about it?

"The problem for soldiers and Marines in relating to the civilian population and reflected in your disturbing statistics is that it is hard to tell if a civilian IS a civilian. In real terms, a terrorist can be a civilian. The enemy are not people wearing uniforms nor identifying themselves as combatants." I think the troops are probably capable of making some distinctions in many cases. Not every man, woman and child in Iraq - among those who haven't left, fearing their lives - is trying to destroy Iraq or kill "coalition" troops. If, indeed, we are there to help those who are not combatants or terrorists, making such distinctions is part of their job, difficult as it may be. Are we to expect a lot of them, or make excuses for appalling behavior? The survey referred to noncombatants. Surely the novel definitions of "enemy combatant" and "terrorist" have been drilled into the minds of our troops, and neither of those enemy groups is "noncombatant." Recall what you said in #7, that "if we ascribe the evil of the few in a nation to that nation as a whole, that is simply a logical error." It's not only a logical error, there's a moral component to it as well. If we're harming or killing people in Iraq (and Afghanistan) indiscriminately, we're not only failing to win hearts and minds, we're likely also making new enemies. That strikes me as not only morally problematic, but counterproductive.

Andrew, honestly I'm not surprised that you were unaware of what I linked to. You like your troops to be pure killing machines, no candy or coloring books for the kids (I know a coupla good soldiers who would be disappointed if they had those moments taken from them). But what about them helping to rebuild the country, esp. breaking things that they fixed? Or should that be some private charity? Regarding your killing machines who "might not be the nicest SOBs in the world," keep in mind that, if they aren't killed over there, they will likely come back Stateside some day. Don't accidentally cut them off in traffic!

whoops, in my last paragraph above I should've said "esp. fixing things that they broke," not vice-versa, of course.

Craig, I might have shifted my approach, but only in the interest of trying to clarify what I meant, since you seemed to misunderstand.

I began, above, reflecting on what one of my students wrote about in my composition class. He is not the only veteran of this war that I know, but is the source of my most recent conversations on this topic. He needed to write and talk about how the perspective changes, the attitude changes, from when you are there to when you come home and must conform to being a person, here. I became engaged in trying to help him sort himself out, as he couldn't seem to help talking and writing about that and I was sympathetic, having heard and read about this before.

I am trying to tell you that you are wrong about the "why" of what you say, not about the "what." Yes, there is problem, but it is a problem of the warrior, and perhaps partly of being a young man, sometimes, in some places in America. Young men, necessarily, are sent to war before they have fully worked out what it is to be a person. Then, to be a person where they are is very different in many ways from being a person in civilian life. They have to become a different kind of person to survive, and sometimes that does not go well. The point I was trying to make in #5 was that some come into the military without a good set of ethics, without a good moral foundation, I'd say partly because of how people are and partly because there is a segment of our population that seems pretty wobbly on that point in the first place. I don't care what we blame it on; broken families, TV and music, a chaotic under-class or fill in the blank. Well, it is not a matter of not caring, I just set it aside because there is nothing I can do to resolve those issues and must set the issue aside or be paralyzed with grief over the thing. The point is that the young men in our military reflect the pool of young men in America, some of whom you do not want to cut off in traffic, or else. I suggest such young men might better control themselves if they have had some military discipline. It IS speculation, but speculation based on observation of young men in the military, those being friends and acquaintances of my sons.

Andrew's central point, that to be a soldier is to have a different moral standard because your survival can depend on it, is just the horror that my veteran and other veterans of all wars, talk about. You have to set aside some portion of your humanity to get through some parts of the job. Those whose humanity is already damaged are more likely to perform horrors and those whose humanity has a better foundation are grateful for the moments when they can hand out candy bars or teddy bears or coloring books.


I am sorry I am not a better writer to be able to nail this point. It is important. The killing machines you refer to are men, who come home and try to revert to being part of society, often without much experience of that before they went to be warriors. As warriors, they do something for us that most of us would not or could not do for ourselves. In a former time, Americans loved and honored their veterans for that. To lump the dishonorable part with the honorable majority is just wrong, Craig. I know, we all know, that those who want to despise America are going to do that, but we should not. Sometimes discrimination is very much in order.

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