Evidently, Blackwater, the now infamous private
security company whose hired guns, working for the State Department, mowed down
at least 17 Iraqis in a Baghdad square recently, wants to soften its image.
(I wonder why?) The New
York Times' Paul von Zielbauer just reported that the company has redesigned
its logo. Once, according to him, it was "a bear's paw print in a red crosshairs,
under lettering that looks to have been ripped from a fifth of Jim Beam" on
a "menacing" black field. Like Daniel Boone, the company was evidently selling
its ability to put "big game" in the crosshairs of its gun sights in countries
like Iraq and Afghanistan. Now,
subtly transformed, the logo is on a white background; the bear's paw more modest
looking; and the crosshairs of that sniper's rifle have simply disappeared.
Maybe it will prove a tad late for Blackwater to take its rep out of the Wild
West and into the mild and corporate, but it's certainly never too late to try.
Americans (if not Iraqis) are a forgiving people, who believe in the second
chance. While Blackwater sends in the marketing guys to humanize itself, it
looks as if the U.S. military may be moving in another direction when it comes
to big-game hunting, as Nick Turse, on the Tomdispatch
military beat, reports today. Tom
Targeting Iraqis as "Big Game"
By Nick Turse
Earlier this month, news of the military's use
of Human Terrain Teams U.S. combat units operating in Afghanistan and
Iraq that contain anthropologists and other social scientists who have traded
in their academic robes for body armor hit the front
page of the New York Times. While the incorporation of academic
experts into combat units has raised ire in some scholarly
circles, their use as "cultural advisers" to aid the war effort has been
greeted by the military as "a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations"
and in the media as an example of increased cultural sensitivity as well as
evidence of a new Pentagon willingness to think outside the box.
But the university is only one of a number of areas where an overstretched
military, involved in two losing wars, is in a desperate search for new ideas.
And humanizing allies and enemies alike has only been one part of the process.
Dehumanizing them has been the other. At a recent conference
on urban warfare in Washington, D.C., James Lasswell, a retired Marine Corps
colonel who now heads the Office of Science and Technology at the Marine Corps
Warfighting Laboratory, opened an interesting window into this side of things.
He noted that, as part of an instruction course named "Combat Hunter," the Marines
have brought in "big-game hunters" to school their snipers in the better use
of "optics." According to a September 2007 article by Grace Jean in National
Defense magazine, "[T]he lab conducted a war game with Marines, African
game hunters and inner city police officers to search for ways to improve training."
The program included a 15-minute CD titled "Every Marine a Hunter."
Earlier this year, according to an article by Kimberly Johnson of the Marine
Corps Times, Col. Clarke Lethin, chief of staff of the I Marine Expeditionary
Force (I MEF) a unit based in Camp Pendleton, California that took part
in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and will be returning
there soon indicated that its commanders "believe that if we create
a mentality in our Marines that they are hunters and they take on some of
those skills, then we'll be able to increase our combat effectiveness." The
article included this curious add-on: "The Corps hopes to tap into skills
certain Marines may already have learned growing up in rural hunting areas
and in urban areas, such as inner cities, said Col. Clarke Lethin, I MEF's
chief of staff." Outraged by the statement, one Sgt. Ramsey K. Gregory wrote
to the publication asking, "Just what was meant by that comment about the
inner city? I hope to God that he's not saying that people from the inner
cities are experts in killing each other and that we all just walk around
While the colonel's language defended
by some did seem to suggest that inner-city dwellers lived in an urban
jungle of gun-toting hunters of other humans, none of the letters, pro or
con, considered quite a different part of the Colonel's equation: the implicit
comparison of enemies in urban warfare, today largely Iraqis and Afghans,
to animals that are hunted and killed as quarry. As Lethin had unabashedly
noted, "We identified a need to ensure our Marines were being the hunters…
Hunting is more than just the shooting. It's finding your game."
That military men might indulge in this sort of description was perhaps
less than surprising, given the degree to which "hunting" the enemy has been
on the lips of America's commander-in-chief. George W. Bush has, on many occasions,
invoked the image: "We're hunting them down, one at a time" he likes to say
of, for instance, al-Qaeda terrorists, or "we're smoking them out," as he
in November 2001.
In fact, the President needed no big-game hunters to coach him on his optics
or anything else. He's talked incessantly of hunting humans in speeches
to American troops, at photo
ops with foreign leaders, at family
fundraisers, even in the midst of remarks
Nor is there anything new about Americans treating racial and ethnic enemies
as the equivalent of animals to be abused or killed. In his memoir of the Vietnam
War, Dispatches, acclaimed combat correspondent Michael Herr, for example,
recalled a young soldier from the Army's 1st Infantry Division who admitted,
"Well, you know what we do to animals…. kill 'em and hurt 'em and beat on 'em….
Sh*t, we don't treat the Dinks [Vietnamese] no different than that." Another
veteran, quoted elsewhere remembered, "As soon as I hit boot camp…. they tried
to change your total personality…. Right away they told us not to call them
Vietnamese. Call them gooks, dinks…. They were like animals, or something other
than human…. They told us they're not to be treated with any type of mercy…"
Today, the slurs of the Vietnam era have been replaced
by "haji" and "raghead," while the big-game hunters and the language that goes
with killing animals have added to the atmosphere of dehumanization.
That program of instruction is, however, just one recent example of an undercurrent
within the military's institutional culture that implicitly reduces people
to animals. It's not just in the language of everyday anger and dismissal
by soldiers in a strange land where danger is everywhere and it's difficult
to tell friend from foe. It's lodged right in the institutional language,
if you care to notice. Last month, a piece in the Washington
Post, for example, drew much media
attention when it came to light that U.S. Army snipers from the "painted
demons" platoon of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry
Division allegedly took part in "a classified program of 'baiting' their targets"
to lure insurgents within their sniper scopes.
"Basically, we would put an item [like a spool of wire or ammunition] out
there and watch it," said Capt. Matthew P. Didier, the leader of the elite
sniper platoon in a sworn statement. "If someone found the item, picked it
up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as
I saw this as a sign they would use the item against U.S. Forces." While there
has been much subsequent discussion about the ethics and legality of such
a program, nobody seemed to take note of the hunting language involved. After
all, when you "bait" a trap (or a hook), it's to lure an animal (or fish)
in for the kill. But "bait" for a human?
While the use of anthropologists and other social scientists has made headlines,
the utilization of "big-game hunters" as troop trainers for the "urban jungles"
of Iraq has been essentially ignored. Programs stressing cultural sensitivity
may be covered, but treating Iraqis scavenging in a weapon-strewn war zone
as the equivalent of elephants, water buffalo, or other prized trophies of
great white hunters has gone largely unexamined in any meaningful way.
From the commander-in-chief to low-ranking snipers, a language of dehumanization
that includes the idea of hunting humans as if they were animals has crept
into our world unnoticed and unnoted in the mainstream media. Perhaps a
few linguistics professors or other social scientists might like to step into
the breach and offer their views on the subject unless, of course, they've
already been mustered into those Human Terrain Teams.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com.
He has written for the Los
Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, GOOD
magazine, the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch.com. His first
book, The Complex,
an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, is due out
in the American Empire Project
series by Metropolitan Books in 2008. His new website NickTurse.com
(up only in rudimentary form) will fully launch in the coming months.
Copyright 2007 Nick Turse