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Thoughts regarding ‘bravery’ in modern warfare

Within our society, we have developed the custom of labeling suicide bombers as cowards. Though he was not the first to use the term, then-President George W. Bush quickly labeled the Sept. 11 hijackers as cowards, and we repeatedly hear from our generals that those who kill American troops with improvised explosive devices are cowards. This seems odd to me.

I’m thinking about this in the context of modern warfare. The Associated Press (Asif Shahzad and Kimberly Dozier) reported recently that death by U.S. drones has grown to record frequency, with 50 people killed in Pakistan in 12 strikes during the first two weeks of September. I don’t know where the pilot-operators of these particular 12 drones were based, and it’s probably irrelevant, but, as I understand it, they could be based in Virginia or California, or, theoretically, even Minnesota — essentially playing video games, except that the death and destruction are real.

A little over 200 years ago, we had red-uniformed Brits fighting buckskinned colonials who hid behind trees. Now we have burka-wearing terrorists with explosives strapped to their chests fighting American servicemen, and servicewomen, some of whom are working eight-hour shifts at computer terminals before dinner with the spouse. If the Taliban are cowards, they are cowards in the tradition of Revolutionary soldiers who refused to stand in formation as an army of the day was expected to do.

I do not criticize modern American warriors for choosing the close-to-home computer terminal over a tent and a Humvee on the Afghan-Pakistan border — I’d make the same choice in a flash. But does it really make sense to describe our warriors as brave and our enemies, people apparently eager to give their lives for what they believe in, as “cowards?”

What difference does it make what we call them, you ask.

The consequences of mislabeling
It matters because mislabeling leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstanding leads to underestimating. And throughout history, underestimating one’s enemies has led to many a shocking defeat.

The rational response to Sept. 11 attack would have been twofold:

1. Let’s find out who did this and then go get them; and

2. Let’s figure out why they did this so we can prevent such events in the future.

We did neither. We tentatively pursued the first task, but got distracted by old grudges with Iraq, who we knew, even then, had nothing to do with Sept 11.

George W. Bush addressed the second task by telling us that these were people “who hate freedom.” This, of course, is preposterous; they hated us because of something they perceive that we had done to make their lives miserable. I do not suggest that we needed then, or need now to apologize for others’ misperceptions, but we need to start by understanding these perceptions.

Instead, we label our enemies as cowards, as crazy, as freedom-haters, and we kill them with drones piloted from air-conditioned offices. This is not the solution to terrorism.

John Trepp recently retired after 30 years as the executive director of Tasks Unlimited, which provides recovery services for people with severe and persistent mental illnesses.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/05/2010 - 10:26 am.

    What you describe as the more useful response to September 11, 2001, is the response universally used by functional families and organizations everywhere: When a problem becomes apparent, you deal with the immediate symptoms of the problem or crisis as effectively as possible, you then seek to discover why this became a problem, and finally, you seek to CHANGE THE SYSTEM, through redesigning policies and procedures, through better education of those who lacked sufficient information to avoid the problem, through appropriate counseling of those whose dysfunctions may have caused the problem (evidenced by repeated, similar problems), through reassigning roles so that assigned roles more closely match the natural abilities of the people in those roles, and through more diligent, helpful, and wiser management of the members of that family or institution.

    But there is another, far less functional, far more destructive approach to problems, which although emotionally satisfying to a certain group of folks, NEVER works to the benefit of any family or organization.

    This approach, often dubbed the “beating and blaming” approach, is an epidemic in authoritarian (usually right wing) families and nations.

    In this case, when a problem arises the first order of business is to identify the ONE PERSON who is to be blamed (rightly or wrongly) for the problem. Then blame is heaped on that person’s head and that person is severely, even abusively, punished all in the effort to teach that person “never to do that again.”

    This approach can even seem to work in that the person who has been blamed and/or beaten will, for the time being, seem completely unable to be the person they were when the problem arose (in the case of children this often takes the form of quiet, careful, overly-mature behavior at an early age).

    Of course what such severe punishment actually does is wound the person involved so that all the aspects of their personality that were being displayed and utilized when the problem arose are shut away in a protected place within their psyche.

    Thereafter, unless they are helped to find healing in appropriate ways, they will, for the rest of their lives, demonstrate a scripted behavior whenever they can’t avoid a circumstance similar to the one in which the first crisis arose.

    The nature of that scripted behavior is that the person, without thought, reason, or control, trots out exactly who they were and what they were doing including the level of maturity (or lack thereof) that they had when those aspects of their personality were locked away.

    Thus does this type of “beating and blaming” authoritarian family render their members less and less capable of dealing with life and more and more likely to repeat the same errors endlessly.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/05/2010 - 10:26 am.

    Beating and blaming families NEVER solve problems, in fact, the same problems and dysfunctions tend to be repeated down through the generations as each set of parents plays out the scripts programmed into them by their own dysfunctional parents, thereby programming their own children with the same dysfunctions and creating in them the same scripts.

    Of course having substantial pieces of your personality missing has other effects, chief of which is that bumping up against situations where a healthy person would demonstrate that aspect of human personality to which you no longer have access causes you discomfort, pain, anger, even rage. (A common example is found in people who, upon looking at even the most blamelessly poor and destitute feel, not empathy nor compassion, but anger and rage at those people for existing in the first place.)

    When those who have been raised in this type of family (well-documented by those who knew the family in which George W. Bush was raised, for instance) encounter a crisis, they see, not a problem to be solved and therefore seek, not to design new policies and procedures to prevent future similar problems, but seek, instead after an individual or group who can be blamed and severely punished for causing that problem.

    On the international stage, the results of such an approach are every bit as destructive as they are within any family or organization, with the effect of programming into individuals and even entire nations difficult-to-control scripts which will create exactly the types of recurrences we most hoped to avoid.

    In other words, our response to the events of September 11th, 2001, since they were dysfunctionally created by people in response to those people’s own unacknowledged dysfunctions have programmed our enemies with even more dysfunctions than they already had (considering how many of them were raised from an early age in very abusive residential schools run by the Wahabi sect of Islam – such abuse being unique to the Wahabis and not universal in Islam by any means).

    By our dysfunctional responses to those tragic events and by our politicians’ acquiescence to the demands to continue that style of response on the part of the most dysfunctional and psychologically unhealthy members of our society and the media in order to avoid their dysfunctional anger and feed them what they SO want to hear, we have programmed segments of the rest of the population of the world to do everything in the power to REPEAT those events or similar events, because they seek to blame and punish us for THEIR problems, just as we seek to blame and punish them for OUR problems and nobody seems to be seeking to actually solve those problems and create new systems in which such problems are less likely to occur.

    The REAL demonstration of courage in our current environment would be to lay out the truth that a large minority of our population do, in fact, demonstrate very serious psychological dysfunctions which, if they remain unaddressed will likely result in the death of our society. These people, like the alcoholics we understand so much more adequately, do not need us to feed their dysfunctions by telling them what they want to hear (akin to buying them the booze that will keep them happy). We need to encourage them, as strongly and lovingly as possible to GET HELP!

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