By Michael A. Carey
Michael A. Carey is a graduate of Brigham Young University, a veteran of the Iraq war and a pilot in the Rhode Island National Guard. He is a first-year student at Harvard Law School.
I spent just over three months at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait during my last active duty deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Toward the end of my tour I made my way over to the Kuwaiti side of the base to buy some souvenirs. I caught a ride on a van and found a seat near the back. After going through the security checkpoint that separated the living quarters from the rest of the base, the driver looked back and asked where everyone was headed.
“I’m going to the Kuwaiti Store,” I replied, referring to a little shop that sold cheap trinkets and pirated CDs. A few moments later, a thoughtful airman sitting in the seat next to me looked in my direction. “Thanks for calling it the Kuwaiti Store,” he said. That was the end of our conversation, but I knew precisely what he meant. No one ever called that little shop the “Kuwaiti Store”; the troops almost universally referred it as the “Hajji Store”. I had never consciously decided not to use the term “Hajji,” but it always seemed too much like saying “nigger” or “Jap” for me to be comfortable. I was surprised that another airman had consciously thought about the term, and that he would thank a total stranger for avoiding it.
Since then I have become more conscious of its use and meaning. As the Abu Ghraib whistleblower Aidan Delgado explains, “‘Hajji’ is the… new ethnic slur for Arabs and Muslims… The Arabic word refers to one who has gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is used in the military with the same connotation as ‘Gook,’ ‘Charlie,’ or the n-word. Official Army documents now use it in reference to Iraqis or Arabs.” Delgado has been an outspoken critic of racism in the military, claiming that the dehumanization of Arabs has contributed to countless atrocities that he witnessed during his time in Iraq, including the scandalous behavior at Abu Ghraib.
But is there an argument to be made in favor of racism? Perhaps there is a difference between internal racism, such as that between blacks and whites in America, and external racism, which is used during war to identify and villainize an enemy. Perhaps dehumanizing the enemy is an integral part of military cohesiveness and effectiveness.
The military historian S.L.A. Marshall made the amazing claim that only fifteen to twenty-five percent of soldiers in combat actually fire weapons. He based his assertion on interviews conducted during the Second World War with troops on the European front. Although his numbers have been criticized and are generally considered unreliable, it seems plausible that people are not always eager to kill each other. Is racial stereotyping a necessary tool for conditioning troops to be more aggressive? Or is it more likely to result in the kind of breakdown in discipline that leads to tragedies like the My Lai Massacre or Abu Ghraib?
There is no simple answer to these questions, and the highly sensitive nature of the issue makes gathering reliable data a difficult challenge. But since thoughtful analysis can help us to frame the problem, I propose that three points be considered.
First, both sympathy and dehumanization take place within a mental framework governed by natural instincts and abilities. Second, the military is an exceptionally professional organization and the primary purpose of military training is not to teach people how to kill but to manage violence with strict discipline. Third, the effects of racially stereotyping the enemy will largely depend on the nature of each mission.
The first step in understanding the nature of racism is to accept that all human beings have the capacity for both sympathy and hostility. These emotions are natural responses to a person’s environment, not neutral states of being. They are the result of thousands of generations of evolution in a world in which both reactions are occasionally useful. The challenge of determining with whom we ought to cooperate and with whom we ought to compete is not an easy one from the standpoint of computational complexity. No system of artificial intelligence in the world is capable of making reasonable decisions in this regard. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that the mind would be eager to take computational shortcuts in deciding which response is appropriate.
In the book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker argues that the human brain has highly evolved modules that make it well suited for carrying out specific tasks. Far from being a blank slate, the mind is composed of many highly specialized information processors. Evolutionary forces guide the development of these functions, so processes that increase the likelihood of survival and replication are continually being reinforced. Our ability to recognize and sympathize with others is one of these specialized functions.
Of course, the idea that sympathy and antipathy might depend on our genes is troubling. It seems antithetical to the principle of equality, but Pinker explains that strong evolutionary forces make us more likely to feel sympathetic towards some people than others. The obvious example is that we are most likely to feel sympathetic towards our relatives.
But how do we know who our relatives are? We are not born with an innate knowledge of everyone who is in our family. Rather, the brain has a highly developed system for learning how to recognize faces at an early age, and our genes have programmed us to associate kinship with the kinds of features we see most often in our formative years. These features trigger feelings of sympathy. The essential point is that humans are capable of sympathy, but that sympathy is conditional upon certain triggers.
The same efficiency calculations and behavioral triggers give us the capacity to discriminate between people whom we judge worthy of sympathy and people whom we judge untrustworthy. Racism is not necessarily an unnatural perversion that obstructs an innate human tendency to love everyone. Rather, it is one product of an instinctual need humans have to limit the group of people to whom we show sympathy. Some of our instincts motivate us to relate to others, but others suppress this impulse so that we know when to conserve our resources.
From personal experience, I understand that I am more likely to feel sympathetic to those who are physically and culturally similar to me. Studies confirm that people have greater difficulty distinguishing between people from another race. A face that we recognize generates more brain activity, and this increased stimulation makes us likely to view people of our own race as more “human.” Cultural similarities may not affect the same areas of the brain, but they certainly contribute to stronger feelings of association with and understanding of those with whom we share a common background.
Ultimately, sympathy and hostility are largely determined by our ability to recognize and understand others. This ability is a product of the evolution of the brain, which was guided by forces that tended to economize our identification with others. Thus, when we are engaged in a conflict with members of a different race and an unfamiliar culture, we will tend to feel relative distance and hostility rather than recognize them as fellow human beings.
The interplay between sympathy and hostility in war is illustrated by anecdotes that recount how soldiers react when they suddenly become aware of an enemy’s humanity. A friend who served as an Army officer in Iraq once told me how he was called to investigate the shooting of an Iraqi who had tried to pass a checkpoint without identifying himself. My friend was irritated with the soldier who pulled the trigger, but he was overcome by a sense of overwhelming disgust only after he approached the dead Iraqi and saw that his face and body were those of a young boy.
George Orwell writes about a similar change of heart in his essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War”:
…a man presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top off the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting him. …I did not shoot partly because of the detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.
The decision to shoot or not to shoot is influenced by a number of instinctual calculations and tradeoffs between sympathy, contempt, fear, honor, and habit. Pinker points out that one of the greatest determinants of whether a warrior takes an aggressive stance is whether he believes his side will win. But there are many other reasons why soldiers might choose “fight” over “flight.” One important factor is military training, which disciplines soldiers to trust some instincts and suppress others.
It would be a wild misconception to believe that the primary goal of military training is to make violent killers out of passive civilians. In his authoritative book The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington explained that one characteristic of a truly professional soldier is a reluctance to engage in war. Soldiers act on commands that originate from civilian leadership. Sometimes this involves killing. Sometimes it involves refraining from killing. A soldier must have a technical mastery of the implements of war, but discipline is the primary value of a military organization.
Most of the men I know in the Air Force have political views about war and personal views about the enemy. But neither of these is the primary factor in determining their behavior. Soldiers and airmen take pride in accomplishing a mission not just because they believe in its worthiness or out of hatred for the enemy, but because it is their job to accomplish missions.
Since racism can cause difficulties in maintaining discipline, the Army currently makes an effort to combat anti-Arab stereotyping by requiring many of its troops to undergo “cultural sensitivity” training. In my experience, racial stereotyping was not a part of the official policies of the Air Force either, although lower level officers would sometimes make humorous references to “Hajji” tactics or shortcomings in everyday briefings. I never heard anything comparable to the colorful language General Patton used in his famous speech to the Third Army before the start of Operation Overlord in World War II: “We’re going to murder those lousy Hun cocksuckers by the bushel-fucking-basket. War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours.”
Military training also aims to instill in each soldier a sense of loyalty and unit cohesion. It attempts to engage the instinctual capacity for sympathy and to limit it to within the boundaries of well-defined organizational units. A potential result is that soldiers will feel less sympathy towards people who are far removed from the military structure. Military enemies are furthest removed of all, so the process can reinforce pre-existing hostility. In general, an implicit objective of military training is to harness a soldier’s capacity for both sympathy and hostility. Whether or not racial stereotyping helps or hinders this objective depends largely on how closely the gradations of organizational structure correspond to racial differences.
There are a number of reasons that the Army leadership currently shies away from the kind of language employed by General Patton. Today the media have unprecedented access to armed forces and the nation is far more sensitive to the political implications of military affairs. But even more important is the difference between Patton’s mission and that of the military today. In a defensive war, or a war between two armies in mutually foreign territory (such as North Africa or France in WWII), the risks associated with dehumanizing the enemy using racial stereotypes are much lower than they are in an occupation.
When an army assumes the role of an occupying force, it is counterproductive to rely on imperfect impulses like racial stereotyping to motivate its troops. It is critical to be able to distinguish between the enemy and the local population. Racial stereotyping makes it difficult to make such distinctions and undermines any effort to “win the hearts and minds” of the locals. In his classic work on military ethics, Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer made the argument that when an occupying force loses the ability to distinguish between the enemy and the local population there is no justification for continuing the fight. The ability to recognize the enemy is an indispensible part of the greater scheme of compartmentalized sympathy and hostility that is a necessary part of military discipline.
The situation currently faced by coalition troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom has a number of elements that make racial stereotyping particularly unhelpful. For example, most of the neighboring countries are American allies and it makes little military sense to harbor racial animus toward Kuwaitis or Saudis. Many troops are unable to distinguish between various ethnic groups in the area such as Arabs, Kurds, Persians, and Turkoman. Within each ethnic group there are different religious divisions such as Shiite, Sunni, Druze, and Christian, and within each ethnic and religious group there are various tribes and political factions that assume a whole spectrum of attitudes toward the West in general and the occupying forces in particular. Additionally, individuals within a given tribe or faction do not necessarily share the same attitudes as the rest of their group and there are Americans of Middle Eastern descent both in the civilian population and in the military.
Since the troops are in contact with a great number of people with different combinations of racial, religious, political and military associations on a day to day basis, it is critical that they discriminate based on better indicators than physical appearance, language, or national origin. The insurgent fighters do not often mark themselves with any obvious sign, so recognizing them is a monumental task that has not yet been solved. Conversely, some who are caught up in prisons such as Abu Ghraib or those who have a history of participation in the Baath Party are not necessarily associated with an enemy faction. Even treating identified enemies with disrespect can have a negative impact. Thus, racial stereotyping can be particularly harmful when military forces find themselves in a long-term conflict with local insurgents.
For the military to operate in a disciplined manner, it must harness the capacity of its troops for sympathy and hostility and direct these instincts in a way that will help it fulfill its objectives. To the extent that we associate sympathy with solidarity, and hostility with dehumanization, the military will want to encourage soldiers to identify with their unit and dehumanize their enemy. However, given the diversity of our nation’s troops and the kinds of missions that modern armies are likely to conduct—peacekeeping, nation building and occupation—racial stereotyping is not likely to be an effective way to fulfill our goals.
Inasmuch as we are naturally more capable of recognizing and identifying with people who look similar to us and behave like us, racial stereotyping presents a challenge to military discipline. The challenge is not a new one, but it now exists on a greater scale than ever before.
It is therefore essential to the development of a professional army that is capable of achieving its current objectives that we actively combat racism, and anti-Arab sentiment in particular. Although discipline has always been necessary, the requirements of military discipline have not always been in such direct conflict with the human tendency to rely on racial stereotypes. Thus, programs that have worked in the past are likely to be insufficient to address the problem. Our military leaders ought to take into account the methods that have already been successful in the desegregation of black and white units, as well as those that have been used to achieve the integration of women and the suppression of sexual harassment. But the problem of anti-Arab racism is a new one that poses distinct challenges and will require a concerted and creative effort if real progress is to be made.
 Quoted in Rockwell, Paul. “New Revelations about Racism in the Military: Reservist Witnesses War Crimes.” In Motion Magazine 2 Apr. 2005.
 Marshall, S.L.A. Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1947.
 Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton & Co., 1999. 272, 431.
 Phelps, Elizabeth A. “Faces and Races in the Brain.” Nature Neuroscience 4.8 (2001): 775-6.
 Orwell, George. “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” New Road 1943.
 Pinker, 515.
 Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1957.
 German, Susan. Staff Sgt. in the U.S. Army. “Cultural Sensitivity Makes a Difference,” DefendAmerica News 19 Oct. 2004.
 Patton, George S. Jr. General, United States Army. Address to troops before commencement of Operation Overlord. UK, 1944.
 Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books, 1977.