Pile of Skulls

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

The boy is in his bed crying because there’s a monster in the room. Dad walks in, snaps on the light . . .

This is the setup for Joe Dator’s macabre, punch-in-the-nose-funny cartoon in a recent New Yorker. “See,” says Dad as he points to the wall, “there’s no monster in the corner — it’s just a pile of old skulls.”

Why, for God’s sake, did I think of this cartoon when I read about the newly released Global Terrorism Index? Could it be that our childhood monsters — whom grownups call terrorists these days — are being manipulated for political purposes?

This first-of-its-kind index, based on data collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START (which is headquartered at the University of Maryland), and published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, indicates that terrorist incidents across the globe have increased pretty much every year since 9/11 and the onset of the “war on terror.”

“In the decade since 9/11,” according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, “fatalities from terrorist attacks have increased by 195 percent, incidents by 460 percent and injuries by 224 percent.” The three countries suffering by far the largest number of such attacks, are — surprise, surprise — Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the countries we’ve invaded or quasi-invaded.

In other words, this insane war is truly nothing less than a war to promote terror — which was my term for the war from the start.

If we allow this data to suck all the humor out of Dator’s cartoon, what we’re left with is the grim reality of geopolitics: self-created monsters (which of course turn real) and a pile of skulls. The skulls represent the damage, collateral and otherwise, that we, the militarized First World nations, do in pursuit of our interests and our monsters.

And of course, as Common Dreams points out, the definition of terrorism employed in the index is excruciatingly narrow: “illegal” use of force or violence by non-state actors to achieve a given end. Shock-and-awe bombing doesn’t count, even though the entirety of its purpose is to terrorize a whole nation; assassination by drone doesn’t count, even though armed drone surveillance paralyzes the normal social life of whole regions; and all the other overt and covert actions of state, from preemptive invasion to secretly orchestrated coup to the toxic and radioactive pollution of modern, high-tech, “legitimate” warfare don’t count as terrorism, even though they disseminate terror in every direction.

I return to the documented reality that none of these efforts achieve their stated aim, any more than the “war on drugs” has accomplished anything except to exponentially expand the scope of the international drug problem.

But our wars do generate an endless supply of enemies (actual human beings who have a grievance against us) and monsters (imagined human beings who want only to commit evil against us). Thus, while the Global Terrorism Index documents the former, no one much, besides cartoonists, pays attention to the latter, unless you count soldiers and returning vets — often diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, i.e., a mental illness — who are committing suicide at astonishing rates.

A couple months ago I wrote about the concept of “moral injury,” which is a new, larger way of looking at PTSD, not as a mental illness but as the natural consequence of participating in the killing of human beings on command — of violating a hardwired sense of human empathy.

Most of us lack a capacity to kill. Dave Grossman, a psychologist and former Army Ranger, notes in his 1995 book On Killing that for most of human history, up to World War II, the actual killing in combat was done by as little as 20 percent of the participants. Seventy-five or 80 percent of the soldiers fired over the heads of the enemy or didn’t fire at all. This was not a known phenomenon until studies revealed it during World War II. During Vietnam, according to Grossman, changes in the training of soldiers — the use of person-shaped rather than bull’s-eye targets, intense dehumanization of the enemy and glorification of killing — managed to reduce the non-firing rate in combat to a mere 5 percent. The cost was an enormous surge in psychological trauma among returning vets.

Stripped of the military context in which they did what they did, they were left alone with their consciences — with the terrifying awareness that they had killed people. The pain of this was often intensified, for Vietnam and all subsequent vets, by a loss of belief in the validity of the war itself, for the simple reason that the wars were hellishly unnecessary.

To my mind, one of the most important implications of the breakthrough idea that conscience-wracked vets are dealing not with a “disorder” but with a moral injury, is that their condition is not isolated and individual but society-wide. Going to war is a collective decision and the consequences of doing so must also be borne collectively. But collectively we remain in denial, crying that there are monsters in the bedroom.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.