“Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (3)

Last time, I continued with my review of “Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer. The authors were illustrating the idea that:

“The only thing that counted was how people thought of you in the here and now…the unit was the entire world…what they thought was right, was right and what they thought was wrong, was wrong.”

They used the My Lai massacre of 1968 as their example of how group behaviour can turn apparently decent young men into madmen and war criminals :

A subsequent chapter makes reference to the violence of our own time, 2010 to be precise. It discusses a movie which was released onto WikiLeaks. The film shows the indiscriminate killing of more than a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. These victims of violence included two Reuters news staff.

The whole sorry tale is told by Wikipedia on this page here. You can view the video on this page here.  There is a shorter version of some 18 minutes and the full version at around 40 minutes.

According to WikiLeaks:

“The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-sight, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.”

I found three stills to look at, although the content is such that I have decided that I could not not display them. The first was entitled:

“The men try to cover as the first rounds of shots hit them from the Apache helicopter” :

The second still shows how “one man falls to the ground”:

And the third still shows how “Namir Noor-Eldeen runs for his life. ”

I really would recommend that you follow the link and watch the film, perhaps the shorter version. Alternatively, the Wikipedia page does have one or two stills to look at.

This film does not show an incident in the fog of war, as the full version lasts around forty minutes. The footage concerns a number of Iraqi men, including some who were armed and who were standing where insurgents earlier that day had shot at an American vehicle. Among the group were two Iraqi reporters working for Reuters.

The group of American military personnel  seem so quickly to transform events into some kind of appalling video game. Their opinion of events is exactly the same as that witnessed by Michael Bernhardt at My Lai. It was that same idea, namely that with groups of soldiers in war:

“What they thought was right, was right, and what they thought was wrong, was wrong.”

So, everybody in the group in Iraq is OK with “it’s a guy with a weapon”

which becomes firstly:

“I have individuals with weapons”

and then “he’s got an RPG.”  (Rocket Propelled Grenade)

and then “Yeah we had a guy shoot”

at 02.49 “Let’s shoot”

at 02.50 “Light ‘em all up”,

at 02.52, “Come on, fire”

at 02.57, “Keep shooting, keep shooting”

at 02.59, “Keep shooting”

at 03.02, “Keep shooting”

at 03.10, “All right, we just engaged all eight individuals”

at 03.23 “All right, hahaha, I shot ‘em”.

That was topped off at 04.31 with “oh yeah, look at those dead bastards”.

At 04.36 and 04.44 it was “Nice….”

At 04.47 it was“ Good shot”

And at 04.48 with “Thank you”.

The last still shows how “The helicopter pilot inspects the pile of dead bodies. ”

These men see the world with their own group vision. Observations and comments which have only been made once and by just one person are soon confirmed by the entire group, and indeed are quickly developed by other people within the group. Thus a single weapon soon becomes a number of individuals with weapons. A number of individuals with weapons are soon transformed into a Rocket Propelled Grenade. And then an individual, is seen to shoot. This imaginary event gives the group the justification they crave to open fire. And then they can kill what were, in actual fact, merely passers-by. Now though, they have become combattants.

Neitzel and Welzer call this phenomenon “a dynamic of violence” or “group thinking”. At the end:

“everything is crystal clear. the targets are dead, order has been restored, the delivery truck was an enemy vehicle, the would be rescuers in it were further terrorists”

More specifically, the authors explain how:

“The behaviour of those defined as “enemies” confirms the truth of that designation.”

The only characteristic of “target persons” that counts is that they pose a threat. Any indication to that effect provides sufficient reason to kill.

So, by that thinking, babies may carry hand grenades, children can be partisans and women can be insurgents.

This had already been put forward by Berndt Greitel, writing about the Vietnam conflict who said:

“Anybody who tried to flee was automatically an enemy who should be shot.”

The attempt to escape merely confirmed the group’s suspicions that an individual was a Vietcong.

Taken to its extreme, we finish up with the much repeated idea that “Whoever we said was a Vietcong was a Vietcong.”

But not everybody could have been a combattant. The US 9th Infantry Division killed a total of 10,899 people, but only found 748 weapons during their searches.

And even those figures may be suspect as some GIs apparently placed Soviet weapons in villages so that they could come back to find them on a later occasion.

Next time, the tapes made by the Germans at Trent Park, and, believe it or not, a genuine RAF joke. Well, the first half of it, at least.





Filed under Aviation, Criminology, History, Politics

20 responses to ““Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (3)

  1. Do the authors consider that these perpetrators were all soldiers – i.e. not civilians who had not been prepared to kill?

    • Yes, they were all soldiers or members of the air force. Basically, they were in their helicopters and presumably had gone to look at the place “where insurgents earlier that day had shot at an American vehicle” (although judging by subsequent events, I would think that even that original episode must be in doubt). The helicopter crews, four men in total, then talked themselves into the dreadful events that followed.

      • To me that is the fundamental flaw in the conclusion that all people are capable of similar actions

      • Well, I suppose the book is called “Soldaten” and perhaps I’ve used the word “people” more imprecisely than I should have done. I think that what the two authors are saying is that once anybody is in a group of individuals who are all in the military, then, whoever they are, they are more or less capable of anything, any atrocity, as long as the group approve it.
        Presumably many individuals would never volunteer for the armed forces so the situation wouldn’t arise. A further complication that I don’t think they have necessarily taken on board is whether conscripted people are as capable of atrocities as the volunteers. The Wehrmacht were largely conscipts however, and they certainly “put in a good shift” in that area.

      • Thanks very much for this elaboration, John. You have given the perspective with which I would agree. Again the Wehrmacht were products of their specific culture.

  2. Chris Waller

    It makes depressing reading. During the ten thousand years of what we rather risibly call human civilisation we seem only to have used our intellect to create ever more imaginative methods of mutual destruction – from the jawbone of an ass to the H-bomb. The classification ‘homo sapiens’ seems something of a misnomer.

    • As the authors say, “There is a vast gap between what people believe about their moral standards and their actual behaviour”. Mankind is extremely violent and many people have “Be violent” as their first response when they meet others who have done nothing more than be different from them.
      I’m always puzzled by how some groups are known to have been extremely violent yet we tend to forget it all because they managed one or two important inventions or steps forward. For me the best example would be the Romans who had gladiators, millions of slaves, people eaten alive in the arena and so on. But a couple of aqueducts and they’re forgiven!

  3. What’s disturbing is how little it takes for we humans to give into our violent instincts.

  4. Absolutely. For many years now, here in England, we have been troubled by football (soccer) hooligans who were quite prepared to commit serious violence if somebody they encountered didn’t support their team. The trick for one group was to ask the person they’d met for the correct time. Depending on the accent (in this case, Welsh or not) you could be in real trouble. Apparently, in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, it was enough to ask somebody their name. If they were called William, Robbie or Ian they were probably Protestant. If they said Declan, Seamus or Conor, they were Catholic. What happened next depended on the religion of the person asking the question.
    Those are just two examples of the first reaction of many people to strangers. Violence, and that is just so depressing!

  5. It’s certainly grim reading John. I always think instances have to be kept in a context, often too many ‘reports’ especially in the media are taken out of context and twisted to meet a desired end. That aside, the group of US personnel were clearly ‘enjoying’ their job and not questioning the validity of the ‘target’ they were shooting. Peer pressure is a very strong and powerful tool, and I agree that once in that situation, it is extremely difficult to resist, whatever you think is right or wrong. Once the deed is carried out, it is then all too easy to become that person yourself.

    • I don’t think that any of the examples quoted have been excessively manipulated by the authors. The US government fought tooth and nail to oppose publicity about both My Lai and this Wikileaks story. For me, that is always the measure of whether a story is true or not.
      I would agree with you about peer pressure. Not many people are capable of opting out of whatever piece of behaviour the group have decided to carry out.

      • My sister once used the same technique in a school project. Whilst writing about the Vietnam war she took a photo and used it to show a child cowering from bombs. In fact she was cowering from a landing helicopter but it had been cropped accordingly!

      • I asked my Dad once how he coped with bombing women and children in Germany. He said that he just had to forget they were there. It’s interesting to note though that he became a junior school teacher after the war…..and so did a lot of Bomber Command personnel.

      • The ideal person to do so I’d say!

  6. Some enjoy physical destruction and then there are those who destroy others through mental violence. Tragedy.

    • We seem nowadays to see lots and lots of plays on TV that involve horrible male bullies using mental violence to torment their wives. Whichever abuse it is though, it must be a terrible thing in a relationship.

      • Yes. We read that during lockdown, domestic violence increased a lot. I cannot imagine the atmosphere in such houses. There will be no peace of mind.

      • Jeff Tupholme

        Unfortunately more than ever our most popular culture is rooted in violence – superhero films, murder detectives, boxing matches, drill music, shoot-em-up video games, royal events with legions of soldiers, even humiliating game/reality shows. In my view we need to reduce the perception across society in general that force or violence is necessary or appropriate, in this day and age.

      • I could not agree with you more.Jeff. I have been convinced for quite a while that this outbreak of knife crime is down to young boys who do not even understand the permanency of death.
        It will be interesting to see whether this fishing dispute is settled without violence. I wouldn’t bet too much on it!

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