Inuring Ourselves to Violence

Among Marlantes’ aims in What It Is Like to Go to War is to reflect on how we become inured to violence. (My previous posts on his extraordinary book are here and here.) Our inurement has made it increasingly easy for Americans to accept our government and military-industrial complex’s  constant and enthusiastic engagement in wars, whether it’s the absurd and tragic war on drugs waged against our own citizens (as well as against citizens of other countries), or the mislabeled war on terror, or the series of actual wars we’ve been waging since World War II—from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In this post and the next I want to share part of Marlantes’ diagnosis of the problem. Later we’ll see how he thinks we can begin overcoming the “short-circuiting of compassion” that inurement to violence produces.

I had an insight into inurement one day when I came off the train in Calcutta during a business trip and was faced with a beautiful little girl who had had both of her hands cut off to enhance her ability to beg. A cup was tied around her neck. I could hardly move. The world lurched. I stuffed something into the cup and stumbled out of the train station in horror. Yet the local people walked by her with seeming indifference. We in the United States react to violence the way the citizens of Calcutta react to such scenes of cruel poverty. We have identical nervous systems. Calcuttans are as bombarded by images of cruel poverty as Americans are bombarded by images of violence. Althought we often criticize them for their indifference we are actually responding in the same way. To our shame, however, the Indians aren’t inventing the poverty for purposes of entertainment.

Getting used to the extremes of violence in combat is just another level up from our everyday training. The circuitry is all in place, having been wired long years before. All that’s happening is an increase in voltage. The problem, however, is that the voltage has been steadily and rapidly increasing in all of the entertainment fields. From the first shock of performers destroying their guitars onstage to the common and daily sadomasochistic fare of MTV and the like; from the stabbing in the shower of Psycho (1960), where we saw virtually nothing but a shadow, to the Roman-circus savagery of what is lightly stamped PG today, our psychic wiring is getting sized upward for higher and higher voltages. The score was roughly 100,000 to 127 in the first Gulf war and we loved it. Of course for Gulf I the reasons for going to war, to repulse an invasion and brutal bullying of an ally and friend, made it easier to get self-righteous. Self-righteousness is one of the best ways invented to fall into the rapture of violence: witness the terrorists who are waging holy war and taking “justified revenge.”

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