The newly-leaked video showing the unprovoked killing of twelve people in Baghdad reminded me of an old theme. Namely, that of individuals, organisations and the responsibility of action.
I remember Henry Rollins (in one of his spoken word shows) justifying his visits to the ‘boys overseas’ with something like: “…there’s nothing wrong with the military itself–they’re just doing what they’re told…the leaders are the real criminals…”
Now, as this seems to be very easy to agree with, initially, I happened to travel to Viet Nam only few months later.
And lo! A photograph of grinning marines holding the heads of decapitated Vietnamese villagers reminded me of Henry’s words, “nothing wrong with the military…” Sure. I couln’t help but think of the role of the organisation and its culture while they were ‘helping’ the Vietnamese. This was especially evident after seeing the text behind the photo, scribbled by a soldier having witnessed the atrocity, lamenting “what this f*@#ing army does to the minds of normal boys”.
Similarly, in the recent video provided by Wikileaks, the soldiers comment their work with a charming phrase, only to chuckle about running over a body with a tank just a while later:
“Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards.”…”Nice.”
A similar argument to Henry’s is heard quite often, only the context changes: concentration camp guards (they were following orders), informers (they were worried about the nation’s survival during the cold war), Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo torture cases perhaps serving as the relevant recent examples. Although my personal experience of military is very limited (I have not participated in any of the ‘humanitarian military interventions’), I still think I have some insight of the functioning of such ‘firms’. During my year in the compulsory national service, I most probably experienced the most sexist, racist, nationalistic and (surprise, surprise) militaristic organisation in this country. What else should one expect from an institution run by half-wits and built on the foundation of mythico-eternal enmity?
Now, as the so-called Western democracies take great pains in demonising the Taleban and whichever movement comes between them and their strategic interests, isn’t it interesting that sexist slavery still exist in our very own societies? And, as a corollary, is it a surprise that organisations like these, having gone ‘abroad’ on pretexts lingering criminal insanity, also carry on the gravest injustices, defined by their very own propaganda?
This post neither solves the problem of agency and structure in social theory (and I’m not even sure if it is the right question), nor the role of culture and individual will in organisational behaviour. What it hopefully does, is it shows that what we do we end up doing. In other words, killers look for something to kill. Their best intentions and articulated mission statements only serve as rationalisations for the atrocities that have to be retrospectively justified.