The Nerve to Break Ranks

The story of Adam Winfield, the 22-year-old Army specialist now charged with the murder of an innocent Afghan civilian, is the latest illustration of the sickening culture of impunity cultivated by the U.S. military. When Winfield’s commanding officer diverted himself by blowing a harmless farmer to bits and directing his troops to open fire on noncombatants, the young soldier tried to blow the whistle, turning to a hotline set up for troops before getting the run-around from higher-ups who threw up their hands at his concerns.

Needless to say, the Army insulated the barbarism in Winfield’s unit from all accountability, allowing two more unnecessary slayings prior to taking any action. In his timeless rebuke of the deference we give the state, Etienne de la Boetie taught that “[f]reedom from servitude comes not from violent action, but from the refusal to serve. Tyrants,” he said, “fall when the people withdraw their support.” The state is successful in its masquerade of moral legitimacy only because of our obedience, because, whether realizing it or not, almost everyone stands at the ready to salute without question to its authority.

The composition of the military, its members paying unconditional obeisance to mindless hierarchical controls, provides an instructive microcosm of all statism. Like the larger system of violence from whence it derives, the military relies on an arbitrary, dictatorial chain of command, a process through which orders take on the impression of validity. For the hierarchy to function — to prevent it caving in on itself from its own madness — the actions of its agents must be based on the source that dictates them rather than on a critical process of thought. If soldiers even perfunctorily scrutinized their orders, if they reflected on their grounds for but a moment, the whole system would be exposed for its psychotic unreason and would crumble like the feeble foundation it rests on.

The state is no different, fostering a habitual, reflex inclination to obey, and it is this eradication of the individual conscience that enables horrors like those going on in Afghanistan right now. It is in this way that the psychology of statism, the particular mindset that it both engenders and depends on, dehumanizes to some degree every life that it interferes with.

By reducing human beings to cogs within a centrally steered machine, the state sets in place the best possible environment for thoughtless violence and wastefulness. When a soldier murders an unarmed civilian, acting under the aegis of the U.S. military, there is the impression that the military, as an abstract entity distinct from the people who make it up, committed the killing. Upon being fingered for any kind of misconduct, the ineludible excuse is some version of the superior orders defense, that the soldier is just a tool of the general, the general of the political leader, and so on ad finitum. The state’s hierarchical, bureaucratic arrangements also render individuals’ actions impersonal, so that when some people steal it is just the state taxing, and when some people kill it is just “national defense.”

It is a foundational irony of the state that its existence, the compounding of scores of individual crimes, is less susceptible to objection or attack than one man’s petty crime. “[I]n the big lie,” wrote Hitler, “there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie … .” Like Bradley Manning, Adam Winfield engaged in the behavior that is most intolerable to the state, worse even than open acts of violent rebellion; their actions are inestimably more dangerous to state power because, instead of countering arbitrary violence with more of its kind, they lay bare its ugly countenance for our observation, undermining its careful façade.

As in Vietnam and in every previous war, the degenerative process begins with one’s inner moral compass and culminates in the destruction of other lives. The armed forces and the state more generally are about taking orders through a chain of command, through a latticework of interlocking threats that operate to intimidate and silence. All top-down institutions function in such a way, and they demand “yes men,” men without compunction, not men who will break ranks to reveal the truth.

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