Why do Wars Produce My Lai's and Haditha's
By Moin Rahman
On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company, a unit of the Americal Division’s 11
Light Infantry Brigadesystematically murdered over 400 civilians in an undefended village in Quang Ngai Province in theRepublic of Vietnam. This came to be known as the My Lai massacre.
On November 19, 2005, Kilo Company, a unit of the First Marines, third battalion killed 24 civilians inHaditha when their convoy was hit by an IED instantly killing a fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. MiguelTerrazas. This incident is now referred as Iraq’s My Lai.
Both these incidents, similar in scope (guerilla warfare) but different in magnitude, have traumatized thenation’s psyche.It has now become routine for leaders, who commit a nation to war and its soldiers to battle, to squarelyblame the few bad apples when atrocities, such as Haditha or My Lai, are brought to light. In fact, there ismore to this than the eye can see and the mind can grapple.
The savage nature of war and the adrenalin fueled psychology of the warrior in combat combine to form alethal symbiosis, a tsunami of violence, which can maim both men and their minds. This phenomenon ispoorly understood, particularly by civilian leaders who have never been in combat.Consider the warrior who is sent into battle. From the time he enters the service, he is taught how to killand he is desensitized to his own death. He learns that scores on the battlefield are kept in body countsand kill ratios. Physically he is hardened and psychologically he is primed to go for the kill.
The journalist and ex-marine Philip Caputo
posited “that war, by its nature, can arouse apsychopathic violence in men of seemingly normal impulses.” In the heat of combat, and in thequest to survive, the warrior’s perception of the world is altered unconsciously, which influenceshis behavior without his knowledge or explicit intent.
Why does this happen?
When faced with danger, humans and animals are emotionally aroused. Emotional arousal is anadaptation – a mechanism put forth by evolution – to prop up the primordial urge to sustain lifewhen exposed to life threatening situations
. Emotional arousal enables an organism makelifesaving decisions – effortlessly, automatically and quickly – whether to fight, flee or freeze.As time is of essence in these types of situations, the premium is on action and not deliberation.In these fleeting moments, emotion saves lives by reprioritizing thoughts and actions – it moveslife sustaining actions to the top and downgrades non-life sustaining activities to the bottom.Although emotion saves lives, it has its downside, too: Intense emotional arousal impairscognition. For instance, the brain may lose the capacity to recall the laws of land warfare and theGeneva conventions. Furthermore, danger induced emotion biases subsequent cognition
. Thisbiased cognition known as autovigilance
makes humans see threats in everything andeverywhere, right after being exposed to danger, in their immediate environment. In otherwords, chances of survival are enhanced by the mechanism that operates on the principle that it