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Jan 29 2013

Anything to take away their humanity

One thing in that interview with Nick Turse

On how the military trained U.S. troops to dehumanize the Vietnamese

“The idea was that the Vietnamese, they weren’t really people. They were subhuman, mere ‘gooks’ who could be killed or abused at will and, you know, veterans I talked to told me that from the moment they got into basic training they were told, ‘Never call them Vietnamese. Call them gooks or dinks, slopes, slants, rice-eaters.’ Anything to take away their humanity, to dehumanize them and make it easy to see any Vietnamese — all Vietnamese — as the enemy.”

Oh really? That’s very interesting.

I always knew that went on, of course, but I’m not sure I knew it was part of the training. I did know it was part of the training in World War I, and that dehumanization has always been part of military training – but I must not have known that in the Vietnam war recruits were actually told never to call them Vietnamese, because hearing it startled me.

So the words you call people matter, then? They make a difference? They’re important enough to include as part of basic training during a war? Certain kinds of words can take away the humanity of a set of people, and make it easy to see them as the enemy?

Well imagine that.

I thought that was all wrong. I thought that was a delusion of the crazy feminists. Well, maybe crazy feminists were in charge of military training during the Vietnam War. Yeah that must be it.

 

33 comments

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  1. 1
    jenniferphillips

    Oh, come on. “Gook” or “dink” are completely different from “cunt” or “bitch” because some woman I know uses those latter terms. Or something.

    Sigh. Cue the outraged bleating: “Ophelia thinks she is so important, she’s likening herself to Viet Nam!”

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    I know. I’m very well aware this will be another “that fucking attention whore thinks it’s all about her, special snowflake, waaaambulance, shoes, grblflx.”

  3. 3
    glodson

    In a sick way, I get what they were trying to do in Vietnam. They needed a soldier to be able to kill a human being, and I understand that part of the training is to help remove some of our mental blocks that make us seriously consider our actions when we have to kill another person. It is sickening, but we are talking about the business of war, which is always sickening. The wholesale slaughter of other people should be looked like that.

    But the part I find chilling is that people do use these methods on others outside that purpose. Othering people, dehumanizing people, is just bad. All around. The removal of humanity makes it so much easier to apply the abuse. I can’t say that everyone who engages in this behavior intends to do so, but what does their intent matter if the effect is the dehumanization? I guess I understand just a little better how people can send these vile threats to others so easily.

  4. 4
    wesuilmo

    As someone who went to basic training in 1969 and was a Basic Training company commander at Ft. Leonard Wood in 1971, I can say it was never part of any training I recieved or any that I oversaw. I heard the terms used but if I had ever heard any one of my DIs use them in that context, I would have had their nuts in vice.

    I do know organizations where I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened but I think it overstates the case to say it was the general practice.

  5. 5
    Alverant

    I wonder if it was done in WWII to the germans or if such behavior was restricted to non-whites.

  6. 6
    Nathaniel Frein

    Glodson,

    I think that it’s justifiable and workable in a total war like WWII or WWI.

    But since Vietnam and onward we’ve been fighting counterinsurgencies. We’ve been using our military more like a police force. A police officer may have to take a life to save another, but the mentality is different.

    But instead of training our soldiers to be more like police, we’re training our police to be more like soldiers…

  7. 7
    Nathaniel Frein

    @Alverant

    Yes. The “Krauts” were demonized. Most depictions of Germans in WWII propaganda were remarkably ape-like.

    That’s not to say that it was done to the same degree as it was done to the Japanese.

  8. 8
    Simon

    Nah, that is just “hurt feelings”.

  9. 9
    smhll

    I also heard this on NPR and thought it was very valuable to bring up when discussing active forms of marginalization.

  10. 10
    Your Name's not Bruce?

    I recall from Gwynne Dyer’s book/documentary series “War” that (US?) studies after WWII indicated that a surprisingly low percentage of soldiers in combat actually shot at the enemy and that as a result training was changed to increase this percentage. Dyer also noted how women were denigrated and othered in order to instill proper “masculine” attitudes and unit cohesion among young men in basic training. I have no idea how this would be translated to training women for combat.

  11. 11
    hjhornbeck

    One of my first forays into hater space was Hoggle’s blog. The first article I brought up used some terminology I didn’t recognize, so I clicked through to a glossary and found the definition:

    “baboons – general denizens of the baboon board, freefromthoughtblogs, skepchick and related sites who specialise in confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, strategic misuse of information and organising lynch mobs.”

    Textbook dehumanization. It’s still one of the most frightening things I’ve ever encountered, on my occasional forays to see what our most vocal opposition is up to.

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    wesuilmo @ 4 – thanks, that’s good to know. Good to have a corrective and good that it wasn’t universal.

    It seems a very odd idea, really, since the war wasn’t against the Vietnamese people as a whole. But according to Turse the goal became simply a high body count, and then there were quotas…Just baaaad management.

  13. 13
    Argle Bargle

    wesuilmo #4

    As someone who went to basic training in 1969 and was a Basic Training company commander at Ft. Leonard Wood in 1971, I can say it was never part of any training I recieved or any that I oversaw.

    That’s my experience. When I went to boot camp in Ft. Campbell, KY in 1968 I was never taught that. When I got to Vietnam later that year the Vietnamese were often called “slopes”, “gooks” or “dinks” but just as often called “Vietnamese.” Whoever said it was part of training was likely talking out of their rectum.

  14. 14
    glodson

    @ 6

    Well, I expect the soldiers be trained to kill. And while I see here that this wasn’t an across the board policy, but maybe the experiences of some in basic training, which is good, it still remains that our government treated it as war. But it something different when we see our police force being treated like soldiers. That’s a scary thought.

  15. 15
    jose

    Wow I didn’t imagine it would be so blatant.

    Jerry Coyne recently wrote about how people aren’t really aware of the extent of anti semitism, and he described being called “dirty jew” and “yid” and so on. The principle is the same in so many contexts. It’s definitely easier to abuse people if you undermine their humanity first.

  16. 16
    Zed

    The use of “the military” as a general term here is bothersome to me, as from what I’ve read of the Vietnam war, the attitudes and tactics of the Marines and the Army were very different. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that this kind of thing was very common in the Army units in Vietnam, but I would be surprised to find out that it extended to the Marines, who were actually trying to run a counterinsurgency campaign focused on protection of local villages instead of a traditional war of attrition.

  17. 17
    jenniferphillips

    I’m grateful for those of you who commented with your own experiences with degrees of ‘othering’ circa the Vietnam era, but even if it isn’t blatantly racist, it seems a common training tactic to homogenize the enemy–to give them a common name and appearance– in a more subtle form of dehumanization. During the Vietnam (and maybe even Korean) conflicts, the collective enemy was ‘Charlie’. During my military experience in the mid ’80s, when US-USSR tensions were high, our foe was personified as ‘Ivan’*. Absent whatever diversity training might have come to pass in the ensuing decades, post-Gulf War troops may have been shooting at targets named “Abdul” or similar. It’s not as egregious as ‘gook’ et al, but it’s still a thing.

    *years later, I met a guy from Russia who had been in the Russian Army at the same time I’d served in the USAR. I told him about the ‘Ivan’ thing and asked if the Russian Army training had done something similar–had they called their firing range targets “Wayne” or something identifiably American? He looked at me like I was nuts and said, emphatically, no.

  18. 18
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Training or not, this is a baked-in idea, and assholes will even attempt to quote Sun-Tzu at you in its defense. Even when done to people who we are supposed to be making allies with and defending.

    I’ve gone around with this multiple times just regarding incidents which made it to the public over the course of the US’s last two large military adventures.

  19. 19
    keresthanatos...I am my Evil Twin

    You don’t need any training to dehumanize the enemy. Just look at the results of the Milgram experiment.

  20. 20
    Simon

    …or drone warfare where kills are referred to as “bugsplats”.

  21. 21
    Francisco Bacopa

    I wonder if it was done in WWII to the germans or if such behavior was restricted to non-whites.

    Mostly restricted to the Japanese. Read John Dower’s War Without Mercy for examples. The Japanese were not quite the “no retreat, no surrender” force our propaganda would have us believe to this day. However, Japan was very poor at training their troops what to do if they were captured because on some level they believed that capture or surrender should never happen. So they had little training in how to resist interrogation. Many Japanese captives broke easily and started working for the US.

    As for the Vietnam vets posting here, I think the bulk of the dehumanization happened once you got close to being “in the shit”, not at boot camp.

    And it’s not just about shooting people. What do you do if you are in direct physical combat? The LINE “Linear infighting neural-override engagement” emphasized overcoming the inhibition to harm. It is so effective at killing that the Marine instituted MC-MAP, which emphasizes subduing and capture.

    But back to the original point. Dehumanization makes violence easier. That was the whole point of segregation. Black people have cooties and we could catch them if we drink from the same fountain. They are ritually unclean. They can’t even take a shit where we shit. Their turds are magically more impure than ours. In the Old Testament women are impure. Some people believe that shit to this day. There was some rabbi who wouldn’t shake a woman’s hand when he was on a TV panel because she wouldn’t tell him whether she was on her period or not.

  22. 22
    Marcus Ranum

    since the war wasn’t against the Vietnamese people as a whole. But according to Turse the goal became simply a high body count, and then there were quotas…Just baaaad management.

    Actually, it was a war against the people, and it was terroristic. You can’t call it anything else – the original idea was for “graduated bombing” until the North Vietnamese came to the negotiating table. The bombing began and quickly ratcheted up as the Vietnamese didn’t fulfill the military’s prediction that a whiff of high explosive would cause them to – what? Well, simply enough: to return to the negotiating table and negotiate their own enslavement. Words fail.

    For the soldiers going in, it was essential to dehumanize the Vietnamese but well before the soldiers went in, the Vietnamese had been subjected to area bombing. Other than it being a war crime, what is more dehumanizing than having more bombs dropped on you than were dropped in WWII, with no effective way of responding? Bomber pilots are trained to treat the delivery of high explosives onto targets as something unemotional and impersonal, but it’s a one-way transaction. It may be unemotional and impersonal for them but for the people who are watching their world get blown apart around them, it’s the real thing indeed. The craziest part of all of this is that the militarist mind-set is so corrupt that they then seem to expect to win the battle for “hearts and minds” of the people they just victimized with high explosive. Can you imagine anything more fucking nuts than that?

    From a standpoint of the Vietnam war, I highly recommend Halberstam’s “The Best and Brightest” or if you’re a fan of documentary, “The Fog Of War” which is interviews with Robert S MacNamara. If you watch Fog of War and haven’t studied Mr MacNamara, it’s important to understand that he’s an incredibly facile liar who has spent decades convincing himself of his rightness. Be forewarned and do your research.

    If you’re interested in the question of dehumanizing and destruction regarding WWII I highly recommend A. C. Graylings “Among the Dead Cities” which is beautifully and humanely written and stoutly critical of the area bombing campaigns.

    And, as another note – US Bomber Command literally bombed North Korea back to the stone age after the cease-fire stopped the ground engagements. Every target was “serviced” – the entire country was flattened. Oddly, they still don’t like us! There’s something wrong with those people.

  23. 23
    Marcus Ranum

    A friend of mine was a sniper/artillery observer in two tours in Vietnam. He told me that they regularly called 155mm artillery down on villages and recorded all the casualties as NVA. That’s pretty much the same deal as the US is pulling now with the drone assassinations: everyone who gets killed was an insurgent. Why? Because they wouldn’t have been killed if they weren’t insurgents, so they must have been. And anyone who shows up at a funeral for an insurgent, or who rushes to try to help injured victims of a first strike, is a legitimate target for a follow-up strike because only an insurgent would run to try to help an insurgent that had just been blown up, and only an insurgent would attend an insurgent’s burial. Even if the insurgent is a 13 year year old girl.

    The shift to body-counts when the Vietnam war switched over to a war of attrition immediately caused every body that anyone counted to be an NVA/VC body. My buddy said that they’d flatten a village with 60 people in it – women, kids, and old men, and chalk them all up as VC. After all, the kids were going to grow up the be VC, the women were probably VC (since the VC had female troops) and the old folks were probably VC cadre. Tears were pouring down his face when he told me this and he said something I’ll never forget: “if they’re keeping body counts but not reporting the age and sex of the bodies, then you know they’re just killing anything that moves. That’s another important way of dehumanizing the victim: you de-age them, de-gender them. A 12 year-old child is just another body once the high explosive is done with it, but it’s not really just another body.

  24. 24
    Marcus Ranum

    would be surprised to find out that it extended to the Marines, who were actually trying to run a counterinsurgency campaign focused on protection of local villages instead of a traditional war of attrition.

    [Citation needed] My recollection is that the Marines went in under false pretenses – initially they did the show-landing and had the great big clusterfuck beach party (because charging up beaches is what Marines do!) but they were immediately in the war of attrition. Forward bases like Khe Sahn were not about protecting local villages; it was force projection as a lure. The first landings at Da Nang were to protect the american airbases that were being used to drop high explosive on villages. Strange way of protecting them.

  25. 25
    theoreticalgrrrl

    @Your Name’s not Bruce?
    “Dyer also noted how women were denigrated and othered in order to instill proper “masculine” attitudes and unit cohesion among young men in basic training. I have no idea how this would be translated to training women for combat.”

    There is a great documentary, The Invisible War, about the rampant sexual assault of women in the U.S. military. Not by the ‘enemy’ but by their own brothers in arms. According to the film, a female soldier in combat zones is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.

    There’s a review of the film in Slant Magazine:
    http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/the-invisible-war/6349
    “…while The Invisible War concentrates on the horrific assaults themselves, it also fixes its gaze on the heinous cover-ups perpetrated by military establishment bigwigs—a process that involves not just ignoring accusations of abuse, but blaming and censuring those who make such claims public in the first place.

    ‘What’s most stunning about the anecdotes recounted by Dick’s interviewees is how alike they are, and if his film doesn’t delve quite deeply enough into the type of culture that breeds such conduct (specifically, the way in which the army projects strength as a masculine trait, thereby subconsciously disparaging female victimhood as an undesirable weakness), its spartan use of graphics and statistics conveys arguments with little grandstanding.

    “Dick’s statistics are distressing, as with the fact that few, if any, perpetrators ever serve jail time, and even when they do, they rarely get sentences that are a year or longer, which would make them felonies and place said criminals on the National Sex Offender Registry. Similar to recent Catholic Church sex scandals, the overarching portrait that emerges is one of an insular organization dedicated to protecting some (always male) of its own, and in this instance, of doing so at the expense of defiling the idealism, commitment, and sacrifice of the very brave men and women who willingly chose to join it.”

    The documentary’s website is here: http://invisiblewarmovie.com/index.cfm

  26. 26
    Bill Openthalt

    Alverant

    I wonder if it was done in WWII to the germans or if such behavior was restricted to non-whites.

    Considering other peoples as inferior has always been with us. It is enlightening to read French novels from the late 19th and early 20th century, in which Germans are often depicted in a very unfavourable light, more barbarians than civilised people. The same lack of affection can be seen in the contemporary German novels, where the Germans are the standard bearers of civilisation, with the French (and English) in the evil roles. Today, of course, Germans and French see each other in a wholly different light. And unremarkably, they both believe that the Turks do not belong in the European Union.

    This is simply human nature at work.

  27. 27
    EllenBeth Wachs

    “baboons – general denizens of the baboon board, freefromthoughtblogs, skepchick and related sites who specialise in confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, strategic misuse of information and organising lynch mobs.”

    Yes, but in an ironic twist, some of the worst offenders of perpetuating this dehumanizing upon “this side of the aisle” have actually dehumanized themselves by being so totally anonymous. Only having their pseudonym character presented to us and the world, they are one dimensional. They also have only one goal. They might as well put on the same anonymous uniforms and march in lock-step. Oh wait…

  28. 28
    Bill Openthalt

    jenniferphillips
    Your suggestion that the Soviets (not the Russians, if you’re talking about the 1980ies) did not engage in dehumanisation of the enemy is bizarre.

    You might not like your country and its policies very much, but suggesting the Soviet Union was a haven of humanism is an insult to the tens of millions of people who were tortured and killed, displaced and oppressed by the Communist regime. Compared to the Soviet Union, the USA are angelic.

  29. 29
    Georgia Sam

    I was in the Army 1967-71. Although I did not go to Vietnam (I did an extended tour in Korea), I went through basic training like everybody else. I never experienced anything like what Turse describes. Yes (I am ashamed to say), we called Asians (not just Vietnamese) “dinks,” “gooks,” “zips,” etc., but that was just garden-variety American racism on the part of the troops. I never heard any authority figure tell us to call them that.

  30. 30
    jenniferphillips

    Take it easy, Bill Openthalt. I suggested nothing of the sort. I provided one anecdote based on one conversation with one Russian (at the time of the conversation) who had served in the Soviet Armed Forces in the 80′s. This one anecdote suggested only that, in this individual’s experience, his training did not incorporate *this particular tactic* of dehumanization. I’m well aware of the larger historical picture–that wasn’t the point of my comment.

  31. 31
    Wave

    It IS disgusting, but not surprising at all.

    In war the enemy is almost always dehumanised.

    In WWII we refered to Germans as “Huns” and if anyone has every seen war posters of the Japanese with those big buck teeth and thick glasses, well….

  32. 32
    johnthedrunkard

    In Bill Mauldin’s memoir ‘The Brass Ring,’ he commented on the way that GIs failed to register political motives during WWII, and how the same phenomenon was repeated in Korea and Vietnam. At the front-line level, it seems that it was easier to hate ‘Japs’ than fascism.

    The book ‘War Without Mercy’ details how all sides generated racial supremacy and genocidal hatred to motivate the military. Japanese propaganda is astonishing it the hatred it directs toward Chinese, Koreans, French, Dutch, British and Americans.

  33. 33
    anthrosciguy

    Whoever said it was part of training was likely talking out of their rectu.

    That would include my brother then, who said that during bayonet practice in basic they were told to shout “kill the gooks!” at the top of their voices while stabbing the target dummy. You know, sometimes different people have different experiences, and it turns out that your experience was not the totality of experience. I’m glad to hear that your training didn’t include that part.

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