mandag 12. august 2013

the dog days are over


Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-1893.jpg



lørdag 3. august 2013

My bucket list

Things I want to do/achieve in life, in no specific order:


1. To love and be loved in return

2. Learn to speak Portuguese

3. See the Chinese Wall

4. See the Victoria Falls, or Angels Falls

5. Get a job that I am passionate about

6. Go to Paris with someone I love

7. Bungee jump (preferably in New Zealand)

8. See Austalia

9. Learn to surf

fredag 2. august 2013

An Investigation of Ideology and the Psychological Effects of War

©Martine Hagen Fjellanger
my bachelor paper in English 252
16 May 2013
University of Bergen

An Investigation of Ideology and the Psychological Effects of War
based on the novel The Things They Carried, the documentary Hearts and Minds, and the Abu Ghraib case.

The words we chose to describe phenomena and situations in the world, is a matter of language. Bennett and Royle describe ideology as the attempt to establish a “dominant” idea of a topic (200). In the military, a certain ideology is used to indoctrinate soldiers. This ideology teaches soldiers to follow orders given by their superiors. In warfare, soldiers depend on being integrated in a group in order to survive. A particular group-mentality may arise from being welded together under hardships such as war. The mental strains that warfare brings may disturb the soldiers’ sense of individuality and morality.

A part of being morally conscious is to be able to empathize with others. It is psychologically easier for a soldier to inflict pain if he avoids empathizing with the enemy. Therefore, soldiers tend to dehumanize their counterparts in warfare to avoid guilt. Why have American soldiers who dehumanize enemies of war become somewhat of a phenomenon? Is there something distinctly “American” about warfare?

Doris Lessing once said: “It is sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war – not the idea of it, but the fighting itself” and that this is true, “even for those people whose experiences in war were terrible, and which ruined their lives” (Bennett and Royle 309). Is it true that some people simply take delight in the violence of war? Or can this inclination to violence be explained from a psychological point of view?

Sigmund Freud tries to explain human aggression. He believes that human beings’ need for civilization conflicts with our need to express instinctual aggression. Under normal circumstances, we usually suppress the latter urge in order to live peacefully and morally. In the society of warfare, however, the rules of civilization are different. Due to the atrocities of war, our sense of morality is reduced. Thus allows our primitive instincts to take over which may result in amoral behavior.

As people, when we view the horrific images of war we are overcome with feelings of both sickness and intrigue. Is there something about the human psyche that can explain why we feel excited at the same time as we feel nauseated when we see images of war?

Hearts and Minds is a 1974 documentary film about Vietnam, directed by Peter Davis. The film’s main agenda is for America to withdraw their military forces from Vietnam as soon as possible. Like Hearts and Minds, the 1990 novel The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, also concerns the Vietnam War. O’Brien writes a semi-biographical novel on how the war affects him and the characters in his platoon. Both the works include accounts of soldiers who act aggressively and amorally. A prime example or soldiers who crossed an ethical line is found in Seymour Hersh’s article Torture at Abu Ghraib. The article deals with the revelations surrounding the 2004 “Taguba Report,” which contained pictures of American guards that tortured war prisoners.

My goal is to explain how these three works can be seen from an ideological point of view. Secondly, I will look at the soldiers’ psychological response to the strains of war. In which way is guilt manifested in the soldiers’ minds? And why does this feeling often culminate into aggressive behavior? And why do people enjoy watching images of war? By posing these questions I plan to further explore the impact of ideology on soldier’s treatment of civilians and prisoners of war.

My discussion will be based on the textbook Literature, Criticism and Theory by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle; applying theories from the chapters “Ideology,” and “War.” I will concentrate on Sigmund Freud’s theory about human aggression. Lastly, I will include points from Susan Sontag’s article “In Plato’s Cave.”

Davis, The Director of Hearts and Minds, draws a picture of American politicians as being paranoid and deceptive when they speak about the Communist threat in Indochina. Clips of politicians who manipulate language to influence the public’s attitude are shown, like Ronald Reagan claiming that: “Communism is on the march.” Next, Harry Truman can declare that: “Our vision of progress is not limited to our own country. We extend it to all the peoples of the world.” Lynden B. Johnson’s strategy was to incite American ideals into the South Vietnamese population by winning over their “hearts” and “minds” to the American ideology. We also have a preacher who insists: “That is religious, and God cares!” And then there is the belligerent high school football coach who gives a pep-talk to his players about “Winning the big game.”

The terminology these leaders use invokes fear in mind of the public, as well as promoting America as the guardian angel. A clear frame is construed: “Communists are evil, but worry not; America will save the day!” We almost get a feeling of America “as a city upon a hill” from these quotes: it is as if America has been chosen to improve life in Vietnam; whether requested or not. This kind of propaganda can be considered as American imperialism, which is an ideology that includes political oppression.

Much like Reagan, Hoover and Truman use ideology in their anti-Communist statements; Davis also uses propaganda techniques to prove his point. By showing paranoid politicians and patriotic priests that believe that God only cares about America, Davis criticizes the pro-war movement at the same time as he mocks the American stereotype.

One of the critical aspects of Hearts and Minds is that it has a completely one-sided perspective. Even though Davis chooses to focus on the issue from an anti-war perspective, the documentary is not one-sided when it comes to its subjects. Hearts and Minds succeeds in showing the war from both sides – the American and the Vietnamese. This is a refreshing attribution to past American media related to the Vietnam War. In order to achieve impact and influence, Davis focuses on individuals’ stories, and in this way he effectively appeals to our emotions.

A series of highly critical actions committed by the American soldiers in Vietnam are displayed. These atrocities include physical violence, burning down huts, and not to mention the iconic clip of naked children running out of a cloud of napalm. Individual responses from Vietnamese victims involve heartrending accounts of grieving relatives who describe how their loved ones were killed by American bombs. Davis’ criticism of U.S involvement is reinforces by also including Vietnamese testimonies. He succeeds in appealing to our emotions by focusing on individuals. Not all the Vietnamese characters are poor victims, however. We also meet political and religious figures, who agree with Davis about keeping U.S military forces out of Indochina.

Interestingly, none of the atrocities committed by the Communist regime are accounted for in the documentary. This factor contributes to the imbalance of the film. For instance, we are not informed that that children, women and elderly were used as suicide bombers in the south. North Vietnamese aggression is conveniently left out of the picture; in fact, they are almost portrayed benevolently. Davis’ lack of focus on this side of the penny is not accidental. He goes above and beyond to urge America to retrieve their forces from Vietnam.

Davis manipulates the politicians’ speeches by editing them in a way that makes them come off as pretentious and paranoid. Speeches that are taken out of context may result in a misleading impression. An example of this can be when General William Westmoreland who claims that the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Perhaps what he really was referring to was the forced suicide bombings that took place in the south? Nonetheless, Westmoreland continues to patronize Vietnam when he says that Vietnam reminded him of a child. This attitude actually states: “We know what is best for you.” Westmoreland’s remarks reeks of American imperialism.

Lieutenant George Coker is a veteran who considers himself a patriot. The authoritarianism in his statements almost matches a “Hitler-Jugend” mentality. His lack of empathy is evident when he reminisces about how he would find deep satisfaction in going out to kill, then having coffee. At one point, he tells school children that: “If it wasn’t for the people, Vietnam was very pretty.” He says that he would do it all over again if asked to, because he knows his country is right. In his mind, the North Vietnamese are simply insects that need to be exterminated.

Coker is not the only American soldier who comes off as brainless, war-loving and unsympathetic in the documentary. The marine core’s uniforms have “KILL” written on their backs. A soldier talks about his experience: “It felt good. They were the enemy. I wanted to kill some gooks. It had nothing to do with politics.”

Davis’ technique is effective: the audience’s response is disbelief and shame. Who are these ignorant people who apparently enjoy killing? At the same time, we find it hard to look away. We are curious about who these extreme people are, who so frankly admit to being excited about killing. As the receivers of images of war our experience is ambivalent: one the one hand, we are appalled; on the other hand, we are secretly fascinated.

Seamus Heaney describes this phenomenon is what as our “civilized-outrage” (Bennett and Royle 308). An explanation to the term is offered by Sigmund Freud, who attempts to explain amoral behavior in warfare. Freud argues that human beings are driven by the “pleasure principle” – a need to satisfy our primitive instincts. His theory suggests that aggressiveness is really but a natural instinct that lies within every human being (Bennett and Royle 308). In our everyday lives, he claims, we suppress this sense in order to obtain our civilization. In warfare, the sense of morality and civilization is reduced, which permits our aggression to be unleashed.

Freud believes that the human psyche is divided into three parts: the “id”, the “ego” and the “super-ego.” The id carries the instinctual drives, and the super-ego controls our sense of morality, whereas the ego mediates between the two latter constructions (Bennett and Royle 130). Freud believes that our advance in civilization means a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt (Freud 327).

Most people have a high notion of civilization. In a normal setting, we would feel very conflicted if ordered to kill. A part of us – our sense of civilization – would reject the thought of killing another person. This core value prevents us from unleashing our aggression on the man in the street and enables us to have a functional society. But according to Freud, to suppress this aggression means that you always induce guilt on yourself-a process he refers to as self-tormenting. In warfare, this norm is distracted. There is a different reality in warfare which permits one to overstep the regular borders of civilization. The sense of civilization must be forsaken in order to survive. Consequently, a soldier will fill this space with amoral comportment. So when we hear about soldiers who insert CBS logos in dead Vietnamese people’s eyeballs; we are not necessarily dealing with evil people. The soldier’s behavior can be explained as the fruits of careful training and indoctrination enforced by the military system. The military teaches soldiers to dehumanize the enemy. Propaganda changes the way they think about the enemy.

Former pilot Captain Randy Floyd can be considered as Coker’s opposite in the documentary. He dropped bombs during the war. When interviewed for the documentary, he is guilt-ridden, and says: “I never saw the people. It was very clean, you know. I was doing a job. The results never really dawned on me.” Meanwhile, he admits that having the power to operate such great machinery had a thrilling effect. Most likely, it was easier to kill the enemy from the distance of an aircraft, because he did not have to face the targets. The further away something is; the less real it seems.

Floyd is a perfect example the typical process a soldier in war goes through: first, he is thought to fear the Communists by the media. As a pilot in the war, he sees the enemy as a faceless crowd instead of as individuals. It is easier to violate others when being physically separated from them. Floyd confesses that he gets a kick out of the violence. Dehumanization and amorality go together. Then, after the war, his sense of morality returns with a blow, and he is forced to face his actions. He struggles with remorse and now seeks redemption for his sins.

You may wonder why Floyd gets excited about dropping bombs over innocent people. Freud would argue that it is Floyd’s “id” that is coming alive. Freud divides the human psyche into three parts, namely the id, the ego and the super-ego. The id carries the instinctual drives, and the super-ego controls our sense of morality, whereas the ego mediates between the two latter constructions (Bennett and Royle 130). Freud believes that our advance in civilization means a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt (Bennett and Royle 308). He claims that we consequently turn our aggression inwards, which results in a feeling of guilt.

In other words, when we see images of war, we are in a way relieved of the aggression which we normally suppress. In addition, as opposed to the soldier, we are not forced kill other human beings, and are therefore not afflicted with moral dilemmas. Seeing that we have a natural inclination to aggressiveness and savagery, images of war triggers our curiosity and we secretly enjoy watching them.

O’Brien wrote The Things They Carried 20 years after the Vietnam War ended. Before going to Vietnam, the narrator considered himself to be politically liberal and opposed to American involvement. However, when he was drafted he felt that he was expected to go to war by the community. Society’s peer pressure overpowered his own moral instincts; and in fear of shame and embarrassment, he ends up fighting in war he does not believe in. The peer pressure O’Brien refers to originates from the propaganda fed to the public during the Cold War. He feels guilty for betraying his own beliefs by going to the war.
Like the narrator, a number of soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam were torn apart morally. The doubt many Americans had about their country’s presence in Vietnam is symbolized the novel. A soldier named Kiowa expresses his concern about the platoon’s presence in an abandoned church (113). It does not feel right to him to intrude a sacred place for the people they are fighting.

O’Brien gives many examples of soldiers who struggle with guiltiness. The story about a young girl is the only survivor of an annihilated village demonstrates this. She is dancing by herself, which causes Azar to ponder why. Henry Dobbins replies that it does not matter why (129). Dobbins does not bother to try and understand the girl’s mindset. He keeps her at an emotional distance so that she remains a spectacle, and not a human.
Dave Jensen makes O’Brien shake a dead Vietnamese man’s hand (215). O’Brien describes the ceremony as “more than mockery.” Jensen asks if it is “too real” for O’Brien. However, Jensen is actually making the situation less real by having a lively “conversation” with the dead man. Dobbins does not wish to empathize with the girl because then he can carry on without feeling too guilty for killing her family. He dehumanizes the girl. Jensen turns to humor in order to remove himself from the realness of the situation. Both Dobbins and Jensen simply use distancing tactics in order to cope with atrocities.

Whereas the nucleus of Hearts and Minds lies in the political aspect of the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried focuses on the soldier’s psychological experience. In the first chapter of the novel the physical inventory the soldiers carry are described. But we soon come to realize that their emotional baggage is ultimately their heaviest burden. A key word in the novel is guilt. The feeling of guilt follows these young men from the minute they are drafted, through the war and it continues to haunt them throughout their lives. Shame, embarrassment and guilt are feelings intertwined in the soldier’s experience.
There are several examples of how these sentiments are manifested in the characters of the novel. Each character has their proper way of dealing with guilt.

Cross, the platoon leader, deals with the pressure by distracting himself with thinking about Martha, a girl he is in love with. When Ted Lavender gets killed, Cross is convinced it is his fault for not paying attention. He blames himself and feels shameful (16). Nonetheless, his grief is mostly devoted to Martha, who he realizes does not return his love. His strange response shows how war can transform soldiers to become cynical. Later, Cross blames himself for having decided to camp in a “shitfield”, which subsequently lead to Kiowa being devoured by the mud. Cross deals with his guilt by composing a letter to Kiowa’s father in his mind. He struggles with which approach he should take in the letter. He wants to convey the truth about Kiowa’s death, but realizes that he is clueless. There is no one to blame for his meaningless death.

In turn, O’Brien also assumes the responsibility of Kiowa’s death: he turned on his flashlight to show Kiowa a picture, which consequently led the enemy to bomb them and Kiowa being sucked under the mud. With him in the mud, Kiowa took the only picture of O’Brien’s girlfriend. O’Brien’s response to Kiowa’s death is also peculiar: he is especially concerned with recovering Kiowa’s corpse in order to retrieve his precious picture. This goes to show that soldiers often struggled to find perspective when faced with traumatizing events; perhaps due to their young age and immaturity.

In “The Man I Killed” (118) we learn how the narrator experiences killing a Vietnamese man. O’Brien creates an imaginative life story for the deceased. Instead of dealing with his own feelings of guilt, he chooses to focus on the man’s physical characteristics. He imagines the dead as his doppelganger, which contradicts the idea of keeping an emotional distance to the enemy. He torments himself by doing so. “The Man I Killed” marks the beginning of O’Brien’s loss of innocence.

Starting out, O’Brien considers himself an educated and thoughtful person, but during his time in Vietnam he feels “something shift inside” (188). After he is shot in the buttocks and Jorgenson fails to treat him efficiently, O’Brien grows both resentful and revengeful. He is traumatized by the event and the experience changes him: “I’d turn mean inside” (…) “Even a little cruel at times” (190). He understands that he is capable of evil and he longs to inflict pain on his wrongdoer. O’Brien asks Azar to aid him in punishing Jorgenson (192). The two of them end up scaring Jorgenson a great deal in a prank. O’Brien writes: “There was a coldness inside me. I wasn’t myself. I felt hollow and dangerous” (197). He wanted to stop himself, “but right and wrong were somewhere else” (198). O’Brien admits that even he, a peaceful intellectual, turned cruel under the trials of war.

Perhaps the shift that O’Brien describes is not a transformation, but merely an exposure of a side of him that was there all along; or in the words of Freud: a side that had previously been oppressed by his need for civilization. In warfare, civilization or moral is not existent. However, O’Brien is able to retrieve his sense of civilization by writing about the war, which is therapeutic for him.

Norman Bowker also feels guilty for Kiowa’s death. He tries to drag Kiowa up from the mud, but has to let him go. Bowker is never able to let the death of Kiowa go. When everyday life catches up with him, he is unable to cope and he ends up hanging himself. O’Brien admits that if it had not been for his writing, he too could have ended up losing it.
Rat Kiley is another character in the novel who struggles with the traumas of war. After Curt Lemon dies, he takes his frustration out on a baby water buffalo. He shoots it in various places and the buffalo suffers a slow and agonizing death (75). Kiley’s cruel action demonstrates how many young American soldiers lost complete control in Vietnam. To be exposed to so much misery was too much to handle for many. Like Cross, Kiley writes a letter to the dead soldier’s family to relieve his pain. He never receives a letter in return. Kiley grows paranoid and believes that bugs are after him. Unable to cope with the traumas of war, the ends up shoots himself in the foot in order to be pulled out of service.

Azar is a character who deals with his guilt by acting aggressively and immaturely. He straps Lavender’s adopted puppy to a mine and detonates it (35). He is insensitive and makes fun of serious situations, such as Kiowa being swallowed by the shitfield. When Bowker recovers Kiowa’s body, the graveness of the situation finally seems to dawn on Azar. He excuses his inappropriate jokes (168) and confesses that his behavior is a coping mechanism to keep reality afar.

O’Brien’s novel demonstrates how war can change a human being. The soldiers’ common denominator is that they are all carry guilt. The narrator gives us several examples on how they try to cope: some turn to aggressive behavior, others to writing, and some go insane. The soldiers in The Things They Carried are not one-dimensional characters who love violence. If they act out, there is a reason for it. They are human beings with conscience.

The third component of my investigation is Hersh’s article Torture at Abu Ghraib. We are all familiar with the terrible pictures from the jail in Iraq: American guards are grinning and showing thumbs up while physically and sexually abusing war prisoners. The six suspected guards all deny responsibility for the abuse; claiming they were simply carrying out orders from their superiors. None of them accepts accountability, which is interesting. The guards’ senses of morality and individuality have obviously been severely reduced. The group-mentality displayed in the Abu Ghraib scandal is an example of a military ideology gone wrong. Systematic indoctrination, peer-pressure and fear are factors that contribute to why the abuse in Abu Ghraib could endure. No one said no. The guards seem to have lost their individuality and become one terrible, tyrannical body.

The Abu Ghraib scandal is unique because the maltreatments were documented with a camera lens. Why did the guards choose to take pictures? The guards’ amoral behavior has a lot to do with power. They dehumanized the prisoners when they forced them into inhumane positions and proceeded to take pictures of them; as if they were souvenirs. Susan Sontag says that when we take photographs, we also claim ownership over what is in the picture. To take pictures is to claim authority and power (8). When the guards took pictures of the prisoners they abused, they were displaying power. Sontag even goes as far as comparing photography with rape. She argues that we gain an unjustly knowledge of the people we photograph. The knowledge we gain of the people we photograph is not available to them, something Sontag thinks is amoral. The subjects are transformed into spectacles through the camera lens; into objects that can be owned. Sontag also claims that repetition of images reduces the impact and effect, and the event becomes less real.

As viewers, we are slapped in the face with the authenticity of the images in front of us. The pictures we are confronted with are so real that they actually become unreal. The human cruelty and suffering is overwhelming and beyond our capacity to grasp. We become indifferent. Sontag describes this phenomenon as a mechanism of desensitization. Much like the soldier dehumanizes the enemy; viewers desensitize what they see in order to cope. Another argument for why we may not feel very emotionally affected when we see images such as those from Abu Ghraib, is that it is harder for us to relate because we are physically removed from the abuse.

Like in Hearts and Minds, the American guards in Abu Ghraib are portrayed from one side in Hersh’s article. The reason for this is the urgency of the works. Hearts and Minds was composed in the heat of the Vietnam War. Davis’ shows the devastations of Vietnam in order to win over the public opinion. Hersh critically displays American soldiers’ presence abroad. Davis and Hersh share the same urgent goal: to withdraw American forces from the war they are in. They turn to propaganda techniques like showing vivid images of atrocities in order influence the public. It is not in their interest to show the soldier’s psychological contours the way O’Brien does. He is in contrast calm and reflective in his writing. Twenty years after the Vietnam War, O’Brien writes for therapeutic reasons.

However, The Things They Carried can also be considered an ideological work. “It works as public propaganda through its very privateness. It works as propaganda by appearing not to” (Bennett and Royle 302). Davis’ and Hersh’s works have a shocking impact on the audience, whereas O’Brien’s effect is based on human sentiments.

So is it a coincidence that many of the stories we hear about soldiers who commit war crimes are of American nationality? I believe that any soldier, regardless of nationality, will have the same psychological response to militarist indoctrination as the soldiers I have discussed. However, I suspect that the “entitlement” many American soldiers abroad have to elevate themselves over other world citizens are connected to the history of their country. The belief in America as the “promised land” is imprinted in people’s minds from the gecko. Perhaps this feeling of inherent “sovereignty” helps explain the nationalist attitudes of Westmoreland and Coker and allowed the guards of Abu Ghraib to act as they did.

Militarist ideology teaches soldiers to obey orders and not to feel too much. The sensation of belonging to a group, like a platoon, may result in the loss of individuality. In order to kill the enemy, the soldier must suppress his sense of empathy and civilization. He needs to dehumanize the enemy in order to achieve this. This dehumanization can be explained as a coping mechanism to avoid the feeling of guilt. The inability to cope with guilt can lead to misplaced anger and antisocial behavior.

Freud makes several good arguments about human beings’ psychological response to war. He believes that humans are not inherently peaceful creatures, but that we have a natural inclination towards violence. He claims that soldiers act amorally simply because they want to inflict violence on others. War allows soldiers to unleash their aggression and rid themselves morality and guilt; which enables them to satisfy the pleasure principle.

I do not believe that soldiers’ sense of morality disappears in warfare. I think that morality is an unwavering quality that is ever present in human beings. Since guilt is a part of our moral consciousness, it simply cannot cease from soldiers. This is evident in Hearts and Minds, where Floyd and other veterans all struggle with guilt. Coker appears to have no remorse about his actions in Vietnam. Personally, I think he puts on a strong face to not show any weakness; a macho mentality he has learned through militarist ideology. Furthermore, we have seen that all the characters in The Things They Carried carry guilt and they continue to do so after the war. Militarist indoctrination probably overshadowed the guards of Abu Ghraib’s sense of morality at the time of the abuse. The need to belong to a group was stronger than their individuality. Deep down, however, I firmly believe they knew that what they were doing was morally wrong.

Guilt is very much present in the minds of all soldiers who have been to war. Seeing they are trained to not express their feelings, they try to cope with their guilt in alternative ways; like behaving aggressively.

Nonetheless, I cannot dismiss Freud’s theory completely. It is undeniable that we as people are fascinated by images of war. Sontag suggests why we are okay with watching images of war. She says that our reactions are desensitized due to being repeatedly exposed to violence through images of war in the media. As opposed to soldiers, we cannot blame the inclination to violence on trauma caused by warfare. We are neither forced to kill and are therefore not afflicted with the same moral dilemmas as soldiers are. Freud believes that we are relieved of the natural aggression we carry when we look at images of war. One could say that we enjoy observing the aggression from a distance; in a civilized way.

Soldiers are in high danger of becoming morally desensitized due to the repeated exposure to the actual brutalities of war. There is, however, a significant distinction between a desensitized soldier and a desensitized observer: a soldier without morality is much more dangerous because he has a gun.


Works cited
Torture at Abu Ghraib
Hearts and Minds youtube

Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (4th Edition). Edinburgh: Longman, 2009. Paperback.

Hearts and Minds. Dir. Peter Davis. Perf. Georges Bidault, Clark Clifford, and George Coker. Rialto Pictures, 1974. Documentary.

Hersh, Seymour M. “Torture at Abu Ghraib.” The New Yorker 10 May 2004.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York. Houghton Miffin, 1990. Paperback.
Sontag, Susan. “On Photography” In Plato’s Cave. New York: Delta, 1977.