Forgive the haste with which this is written. I am tired, and sad, and disgusted.
George Zimmerman and Robert Bales have secured themselves a place in history the same way many men do, by taking the lives of other human beings in ways that force us to rationalize furiously. Women do, too, infrequently, but not the same way men do. We are socialized to seek out the opportunity to kill other humans as part of this culture’s probative masculinity.
That this desire to kill is inculcated into men as part of their socialization (much of which is now accomplished with television, movies, and games) is the first thing that has to be rationalized away, because before men actually learn to do it (kill), they see killing as a form of redemptive violence that is enfolded in masculine actualization – always done in the name of a higher good of some kind (with the added bonus of that ‘special’ status, the killer-male mystique). We have all been trained by this story convention. That is why we so valorize the military, the police, and the vigilante.
When the story goes awry, when villagers are massacred without an operations order, or a black teen-aged young man is stalked and shot through the heart by a suburban gunslinger (who is not the police), we seek any other explanation except the one that says, “men are encouraged to want to kill.” We seek medical explanations for soldiers, with post-traumatic stress disorder as the first line of defense. Zimmerman is a tougher proposition, but we will medicalize his acts soon enough; because the dominant white culture still does not want to recognize that if Trayvon Martin had been white, he would never have been considered “suspicious”; and he would be alive today. Zimmerman is not allowed to do that; racial profiling is the purview of police.
On NPR, March 20th, there were two military medical men – one a psychiatrist, and one the former Surgeon General of the Army – who spent half an hour with a soft-balling host, discussing how difficult wars are. Not how wrong they are, how morally bankrupt they are, how atrocity-producing they are, but how difficult. For people who might do a Robert Bales. Might it have been head injuries? Might is have been post-traumatic stress disorder? Might Bales have slipped through the military vetting process with a pre-existing psychiatric condition?
During bayonet training – which all recruits endure during basic training in the Army – trainees are directed to shout out the word, “KILL!” It is a response to the question, put loudly to the whole training company by the principle instructor: “What is the spirit of the bayonet?” Trainees: “KILL!” With each thrust, parry, and butt-stroke of the bayonet and rifle, the trainees shout, “KILL!” So if there is a combination (rather like a martial arts kata) of thrust, withdraw, butt stroke, slash, and back to the ready, each move is accompanied by the word, in sequence, “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!”
When I was running the Bayonet Assault Course for West Point plebes back in 1986, we added a bit of verbosity.
INSTRUCTOR: What is the spirit of the bayonet?
CADETS: To Kill!
INSTRUCTOR: What do you want to see?
CADETS: Blood! Blood! Blood makes the grass grow!”
The former medical Generals on NPR failed to take note of this training, or the hours spent on the range firing at human-shaped silhouettes, or the marching cadences that say things like, “Ambush is killing, and killing is fun!”
Nor did they bring up anything about dehumanization; about people becoming gooks, dinks, hooches, hajjis, japs, krauts, skinnies, and so on. When I was in Grenada for the invasion there, the all-white SEAL teams that were trapped for 36 hours just chose the old stand-by for their enemies, calling the siege a “nigger shoot.” Like “turkey shoot,” get it?
They didn’t bring this up, because this dehumanization (in order to make it okay to kill) is not part of that “higher good” story that is pumped like sunshine up our collective ass. They were on the radio for damage control, which is what they did in the military. That OTHER who is stripped of his or her essential humanity, allowing him or her to be killed with impunity, is not a member of the Wazir family (of whom Bales apparently killed eleven members) or Trayvon Martin. They are simply “hajji” or “nigger.”
If the victim is female, she is simply “bitch.”
The retired military medical men mentioned nothing of this relation that can be drawn between the history of war and the history of lynching and the history of rape.
Head injuries. PTSD. Sleep deprivation. Malaria pills.
The most common causes of PTSD in the US are catastrophic accidents and rape; but I seldom see anyone in the media reaching for these as explanations for why someone has suddenly decided to do murder… unless they are former military. It is a special exception clause for them.
The other thing they didn’t mention was the myth of frontier masculinity. The mythos of Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone – an ideological reflection of empire-building. Cowboys and Indians. The brave and civilized man who sets aside the day-to-day, and takes on the threatening, dark forces outside the gates. This is re-enacted again and again in our cultural productions – especially the male war and revenge fantasies. Imperial Male become synonymous with a special fetish – the gun.
One veteran called into the NPR program and almost queered their pitch. He said that he knew a lot of guys who weren’t twisted by their war experience. A lot of his buddies, he pointed out, stated before they ever deployed that their goal was to kill someone – anyone. The suggestion was that they might be mentally ill, and they should have been screened out. But my experience in the Army was exactly the same, and it wasn’t the minority that stated they wanted to kill people. It was the majority. Men, at any rate. White men in particular. Everyone wanted to be Davy Crockett. Audie Murphy. John Wayne.
It was agreed that better screening is needed.
George Zimmerman didn’t have a war, so he had to construct his probative act inside the mini-civilization of his gated community. A black teenager was the dark “other” chosen for the trophy.
The problem with a lot of military men is they get a pass on their first murder(s), sometimes even awards. When it is not the redemptive violence so favored by film makers, and they discover that the best way to kill is with the least resistance possible, they accept the fact that they are not expected to kill in self-defense… that the enemy is a whole people, then they accept that they might as well just kill them whenever they can get away with it. This is far more common than most people who haven’t experienced so-called “combat” realize. Bales just got drunk (as the story goes) and didn’t plan well enough to get away with it.
He had some liquor and decided to kill a few hajjis. That’s what men do in war. Big deal. “What the fuck is everyone trippin’ about?” (I have heard this in similar circumstances. “We just went to the ville and ripped off a mamason. Who gives a fuck?”)
The reason we can’t ignore these incidents, yet we can ignore the drone killings, Fallujah, cops killing unarmed black men, is because this society has become completely morally incoherent. We are a rotten culture, a dominator-male culture, adrift in an ethical cesspool of deracinated self-centeredness, programmed superficiality, and gratuitous violence.
We don’t want to believe it. That’s why these con artist Generals on NPR can get away with their prevarications. They are reinforcing our denial. They simply can’t say that their wars are moral abominations, that their wars are cause and effect in American gun culture embedded in our more general acquisitive and individualistic corruption, riding a stale narrative of frontier masculinity.
We are a Nietzchean nightmare.