‘This Is Not Who We Are’: Contradictory Expectations in the US Military

Aaron Belkin on the contradictory nature of US Army ‘warrior identities’, and what its implications are.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta invoked a familiar theme in responding to photographs of U.S. service members posing alongside body parts of Afghan militants when he asserted that, ‘This is not who we are.’ In March, when an American soldier was accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said exactly the same thing. And, more than a century ago, in 1902, Secretary of War Elihu Root reacted to accusations of torture among U.S. troops in the Philippines in a similar manner.

American officials often use the same formula to dismiss accounts of military atrocities, attributing misconduct to rogue service members – ‘rotten apples’ – rather than anything fundamental about the troops or the armed forces. While the military does not avowedly embrace cruelty, and while most service members follow the rules most of the time, a more plausible, if radioactive, explanation for the consistency of stories about misconduct is that U.S. troops sometimes engage in brutal, sadistic behavior because of how they are trained. Official disclaimers notwithstanding, cruelty is a part of ‘who we are.’

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because brutalisation is fundamental to military indoctrination. During training, the armed forces transform civilians into warriors by recapitulating a master/slave dynamic in which recruits may be brutalised by other service members. For example, I discovered in research for my new book, Bring Me Men, that male-male rape is common in the military. As one former Service Academy professor told me, male students at the Academy where she taught raped each other ‘all of the time.’ The survey data and documents that I obtained through leaks as well as the Freedom of Information Act confirmed that she was not exaggerating. And rape is one of many types of brutality that service members inflict upon each other.

In this sense, American warrior identities are contradictory, in that service members are expected to be civilised and barbaric, dominant and subordinate, rapist and rape victim. They are told to be paragons of virtue, and we express shock when they misbehave. But in both formal and informal settings, savagery is sometimes rewarded as a central element of warrior masculinity. Hence the so-called ‘birthday beat-down,’ in which service members celebrate a peer’s birthday by raping him.

Layers of contradictory expectations are no accident. They confuse the troops, erase their individuality and turn them, in the words of one scholar who studied indoctrination in the U.S. Marines, into ‘a tool, a blind instrument to enforce another’s aims and purposes.’ At the same time, the rage that service members internalise during training can be transferred to the enemy ‘other’ who may be designated as subhuman and deserving of death.

Is brutalisation necessary for training warriors? Perhaps.

But it is particularly problematic when civilians fail to understand and acknowledge the process. The issue is not that the public ignores stories about military atrocities, but that when it comes to the nobility of the troops, there is almost no counter-narrative in popular discourse. Few Americans thought twice when President Obama concluded this year’s State of the Union address with a lengthy appeal to civilians to become more like service members, in particular the SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden.

The President’s plea was patriotic to be sure, but when the public glorifies the troops uncritically, this helps sanitise militarism more broadly. If Americans want to have honest conversations about war and peace, we need to start by owning up to what it means to be a warrior in the U.S. armed forces, both the good and the bad.

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