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Coincidentally….

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I got an email from Dale Gervais, who is a film conservator with Library and Archives Canada. Dale has been working for years with the World War II films of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit. The title of my book caught his eye, because “Combat Camera” is the name given to military photo units in Canada, the US, and the UK. I’ve shamelessly lifted that name for a title because it has a nice ring, and because my working title sucked.

Dale sent me links to two sites dedicated to those old Canadian army newsreels and the men who created them, which are well worth checking out. There will be a screening of select Canadian army newsreels at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa on November 10th. I’ll be in Waterloo reading that day (I think), but if you’re in the Ottawa area, you should check it out.

Categories: film, war

Return of the conquering hero

May 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Maisonneuve has a great piece on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, now online, which makes a handy counterpoint to the Globe & Mail‘s recent story on Cockrell House, a shelter for traumatized veterans who find themselves unable to cope.

The Globe story stumbles right at the get-go:

The Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan is set to wind down next year and as battle-scarred soldiers come home, some will find that home in the streets.

Except that, because Canadian soldiers rotate in and out of Afghanistan on a regular basis, there will be no sudden return of “battle-scarred” soldiers; they’ve been coming and going for years. The predicted increase in the number of homeless veterans would occur regardless of whether Canada pulled out. It takes time to break down, lose your family, lose your career, and lose your house. The peak effects of any deployment, be it to Bosnia, Rwanda, or Afghanistan, arrive years after the fact.

But the Globe recycles that same old cliche: thousands of troops arrive home from the wars, emotionally scarred and unable to function, then fall through the cracks and take off into the bush to find peace. Never does the article point out that these casualties are a very small percentage of the whole. Instead, it fuels the common stereotype of the returning soldier: everyone is a casualty, unable to cope, half off his rocker.

It’s true that no one can return from such experiences unchanged. And returning soldiers all tend to report the same reactions: anger, frustration, alienation; a sense that no one understands, or indeed can understand, what they’ve been through. But the fact is that 70 – 80 percent of those soldiers never exhibit PTSD, and that the severity of PTSD symptoms in the rest is variable. Neither is every ex-soldier who ends up on the streets a PTSD case.

Why do only one in five develop PTSD? Nobody really knows. And here, despite all efforts to eliminate the stigma of cowardice or failure attached to soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, etc., we still continually fail. Witness Joel Elliott’s unfortunate phrase in Maisonneuve:

A devoted soldier, Dallaire became a symbol around the world of what can happen when you bear witness to events you don’t have the psychological capacity to absorb.

Rather than a lack of courage, we now look to limited “psychological capacity” to explain why one soldier is debilitated by his memories, while the next is not. The fault isn’t Elliott’s; everyone stumbles here. The language we choose always ends up implying that something is lacking. Just as the military, in Elliott’s piece, proves culturally unable to accept PTSD, we’re unable to attempt an explanation without tripping over the assumptions that lie under our words.

Categories: PTSD, war

“War” is not “law” spelled backwards

April 13, 2010 Leave a comment

LIFE magazine, May 22, 1944: Natalie Nickerson writes a thank you note to her boyfriend for his gift of a Japanese soldier's skull.

My editor, John Metcalf, recently sent me a piece by Denis Johnson on the war in Liberia, a subject my novel touches on only briefly.

The electricity went off in Monrovia. The water stopped running. The food ran out. The civil war turned nauseatingly murderous. An atmosphere of happy horror dominated the hours as Taylor’s men, dressed in looted wedding gowns and shower caps, battled with the army for the mansion. The shower caps were for the rain. The wedding dresses were without explanation. Meanwhile, Johnson’s troops, wearing red berets and women’s hairpieces liberated from the wigmakers, raced through the streets in hot-wired Mercedes Benzes, spraying bullets.

What is it that gives some wars, such as those in Sierra Leone and Liberia, this sense of “happy horror?” What makes them so utterly bug-eyed insane?

An evolutionary psychologist might propose that elaborate displays of frightening behaviour—running around in wedding dresses and shower caps, like lunatics—are a human equivalent to the Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) puffing out its gill covers and erecting its fins: a means by which we hope to intimidate our opponents and therefore avoid combat.

So then running around in wedding dresses and shower caps while firing AK-47s in the air would be natural human behaviour, in contrast to the “civilized” practices of Western warfare, with its laws and rules and its Geneva Conventions, its double standards for the treatment of officers and men—a form of warfare that ultimately comes down to launching cruise missiles from beyond the horizon while deriding the cowardice of an enemy who quite sensibly hides in his bunkers rather than coming out to be converted to hamburger.

It’s an attractive idea, but not a very good one, because humans are not naturally equipped with assault rifles, the better to perforate their neighbours at ranges up to 300 metres. Go to the downtown streets to observe humans in their natural habitat, equipped only with their natural weapons—hands and feet—and you will see much posturing and intimidation, much puffing out of chests, and the occasional fight, but you will never see wedding dresses, shower caps, strings of human teeth worn as necklaces, or limbs hacked off with machetes purely pour encourager les autres.

Besides, another evolutionary psychologist might chide the first that murder is observed in higher primates, and that war, including killings, is seen between troops of chimpanzees. We do not always avoid conflict.

Perhaps wedding dresses, war paint, or, indeed, body armour and ballistic eyewear function as disguises, masks that allow us to step outside the boundaries of normal, civilized behaviour to commit unthinkable acts.

Or perhaps technologically advanced warfare is just bug-eyed crazy. Perhaps it’s simply that once you uncork the bottle and let the devil out, it’s hard to wedge him back in there.

The laws of war, then, start to seem like nothing more than an attempt to put a leash on the devil. Yet, as LIFE magazine’s 1944 photo above shows, the devil proves difficult to control. And we have to ask, then, if the laws of war aren’t themselves a ridiculous fiction we’ve invented to fool ourselves into thinking that the whole exercise can be civilized—if we might not be better off admitting that it can’t.

Categories: war

Confirmation bias in Baghdad

April 6, 2010 7 comments

By now, everyone has seen the Wikileaks video showing an American helicopter crew deliberately targeting civilians and journalists, and is aghast at their callous and bloodthirsty behaviour.

Except this is not what the video actually shows.

What the video actually shows is how confirmation bias leads to disastrous decisions, and the dehumanizing effect of fighting at long range through television cameras. It shows what happens when we fight wars with modern technology.

And at another level, the video—or the reaction to it—shows how framing and context shape our understanding of what we’re seeing, and how happily we allow ourselves to be manipulated, as long as we’re allowed to believe what we want to believe.

The problem with this video is that it encourages us to see what we see and hear as the whole truth—it encourages us to believe that the camera is authoritative. But it is not the whole truth: we see the action only from the perspective of one camera, and only for the time that camera is active. We don’t know what’s going on outside the frame, or what happened before the recording begins. The full transcript helps, but it’s confusing, because we don’t know who or where the various callsigns are.

The first event on the video is a target handoff. An observer (Hotel Two-Six?) passes a target he has identified (“target 15″) to another helicopter, presumably Crazyhorse One-Eight. In the transcript, target fifteen is initially identified as “a guy with a weapon.”

The gunner slews the camera about fifty degrees to the left to pick up the designated target, and zooms in. He’s looking for a weapon, because he’s been told this is a guy with a weapon, and this is probably why he initially identifies what appear to be camera bags as slung weapons (starting at 3:14).

But moments later, he also sees real weapons, as he shifts the camera to a group of four men following the photographers. Three of these men (starting at 3:38) are unmistakably carrying weapons. At 3:45, one of them turns, and it is clear that he’s carrying an RPG.

And the next thing he sees is a long cylinder being aimed around the corner of the building. The gunner is looking for weapons; he sees an RPG. And the last thing he sees, as the wall obscures his view, is the man with the RPG raising and aiming it.

At this point, we hear “we had a guy shooting, and now he’s behind the building.”

“He was, uh, right in front of the Brad.”

So this is not an attack on unarmed civilians and journalists, as a torrent of self-righteous protest insists. It’s an attack on a group of armed men, accompanied by two journalists, after the helicopter gunner misidentified a long telephoto lens, protruding from behind a wall, as the business end of an RPG. And the gunner saw an RPG, instead of a camera, because he had been told his target was armed, and because he had already seen a real RPG on the scene. That lens was aimed at an American vehicle, the Bradley IFV.

When the helicopter clears the buildings, the crew already has permission to engage and have already made the decision to open fire. In the few seconds before they do, they don’t consider what the group of men are now doing. They are just watching for a clear shot.

In the gunner’s place, you would likely have made the same decisions. If you saw this video without first being told that two photographers were killed, if you could only watch it once, if you didn’t have the ability to freeze it, and if you had to make the decision to fire, you would likely make the same decision.

And you would likely have had the same cockpit conversation: look at those dead bastards. Because to you, the guy who was aiming an RPG at a Bradley is a bastard, and now he’s dead, and that’s a good thing.

What about the van? It comes down to whether you think you’re seeing unarmed civilians picking up a wounded man, or a group of insurgents picking up a wounded comrade. With no weapons in evidence, you might err on the side of caution.

Or you might prejudge the situation, assume they were insurgents, assume they’d be picking up the weapons, and you might open fire. That would depend on whether you saw what you expected to see, or what was actually there.

We want to be angry at someone, and the helicopter crew is the obvious target. But the helicopter crew is only doing what normal people do when they’re put into that situation. Instead, we should direct our anger at the men who put them there—at the “goofy child president” who launched that war, and the people who helped him to do that. Because this video demonstrates clearly just how easily confirmation bias can get non-combatants killed, and just what happens to bystanders in an urban fight. This video shows why war is not acceptable.

So I support Wikileaks; it’s important to bring these things out into the open. But I will also say that their video is deliberately manipulative.

They frame it with an introduction that encourages us to see the video in a certain way. They run radio noises, but no chatter, under that introduction, giving the impression that nothing was happening up until the first transmission we hear. And they highlight the journalists, but do not highlight the AKs and the RPG that were on the scene.

They lead us to see what they want us to see, and we see it. And we loudly complain about what we see, and puff ourselves up with self-righteous indignation.

And this is how I know, gentle reader, that in the gunner’s place, you would have made the same decision: because just like that gunner, you see only what you expect to see.

Categories: ill-considered rants, war
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