(in which Berman ponders how we teach men to kill and in which his pot-smoking friend “Doris” gets busted)
I never saw Nathan Thibodeau’s parents again, but his story haunted me for a long time after we did the special. I had hoped his journal would be a window into the part of his soul that could go out and kill—for his country, his family, or whatever. In the end, it really didn’t do that. If anything, he admitted that killing anything—but especially people—bothered him a lot. Sure, the first part of the book, when he went into the Army, had lots of patriotic language in it. As his mother said on the show, he was a good man, a good person. And he was a good American who wanted to do his duty for those he loved and the country he loved. But he was also the guy who thanked the animals he killed for letting him have their meat. Maybe he was just too soft-hearted to be a really good soldier.
Maybe the Army murder, suicide, and PTSD rates would drop if they found a way to screen out people like Nathan Thibodeau before he got to the battlefield. But I’m guessing they never would have cut Nathan. He was a model soldier, ready and willing to fight, a guy who really believed in those Army values he learned in basic training.
I also had to think about the stuff the Vietnam vet’s widow had to say. I’d never heard of Penny Coleman before that night, but I did a little digging online and found some of her writing. She wrote a book called Flashback, all about PTSD and what it does to soldiers, what it and war did to her G.I. She tells some pretty good stories. They’re not pleasant but they help you see inside the Army and how it tries to do what the military shrink talked about that night on the show.
Penny Coleman thinks human beings are not born to be violent toward each other. She says that’s the biggest challenge the Army has when it gets its hands on a recruit. What they want to turn them into is a person who can kill at the drop of a hat, and not be slowed down by some natural instinct. I guess the shrinks would use the term “reflexive killers.”
I thought that was interesting. It reminded me of the Huns. Remember old Motun? His whole deal was getting his men trained to shoot at whatever he told them to—his favorite horse, his wife, his neighbor, his father—without having a second thought about it. Motun did it by making it clear to his men that they’d suffer if they didn’t kill on command. We don’t do it quite like that today, but the Army has its ways. If you think about it, the new method isn’t much more civilized than the ones the Huns used.
The stuff Penny Coleman wrote about made me think I understood this Army business better. She said it’s not enough to inspire recruits to want to go out and die for their country. The Army actually reaches inside their heads and teaches them to despise anything that isn’t the military, even those they’re supposedly heading off to fight for. She wrote down a couple of the little chants her husband and his fellow recruits learned to sing in basic. Imagine someone in your family reciting this stuff as they jog along in formation: You used to be my beauty queen, now I love my M-16. Or this one: Shell the town and kill the people, drop napalm in the square. Do it on a Sunday morning, while they’re on their way to prayer. Aim your missiles at the school house, see the teacher ring the bell, see the children’s smiling faces, as their schoolhouse burns to hell. Or how about this one: Throw some candy to the children, wait till they all gather round, then you take your M-16 now, and mow the little fuckers down.
Nathan Thibodeau didn’t write anything like that in his journal, but it seems like he would have learned chants like that. And that made me think about who came up with that stuff—the drill instructors, the military officers, the shrinks? I really can’t imagine sitting down and writing something like that and then making other human beings chant it until it becomes part of them. But I also can’t imagine being one of Attila’s soldiers conditioned to simply kill whoever he’s told to kill, especially if I’m not naturally programmed that way by human evolution.
I had to ask myself who’s ultimately responsible for all of this? Obviously, I’m not the only person on earth thinking about such things. I found a letter to a national magazine from a guy who works with Iraq and Afghanistan vets, and he was protesting an article by the journalist Chris Hedges in which Hedges accused American soldiers of using indiscriminate, lethal force against civilians over there. The guy from the vets’ organization said anyone who wants to understand how our soldiers end up doing such awful things should take a good look at the politicians who send them to war. Penny Coleman said the same thing. She said the way we treat our soldiers, what we turn them into, what we order them to do, is a serious indictment of the way our military and political leaders view the world.
When I read that, and remembered the stuff about Motun and Attila, I had to wonder if it’s ever been any different. Soldiers don’t decide where they’re going to fight or even if they need to. Somebody else does that—people who manage to get themselves into positions of power where they can order the rest of us around. Maybe that’s where the problem lies, with whoever decides what Nathan Thibodeau’s duty will be—the military officers and politicians who get their heads together and decide who they want to fight and where. And then convince good people, ordinary people like Nathan, that they need to go out and kill somebody they’ve never met, that it’s an honorable thing to do.
I know all the stuff about preserving our freedoms and our way of life, all that war-is-hell-but sometimes-you-just-have-to-do-it stuff, but it’s hard to believe that kind of argument arose from my ancestors or any other common people anywhere in the world. Going to war didn’t do a damn thing for Nathan Thibodeau, or for the soldiers and civilians he killed in Iraq. Sending my mom to Washington to help drop the atom bomb sure as hell didn’t do much for her. I mean, if you think about it, who do these guys think they are, ordering all the peons of the world to go out and kill for them?
I really wanted to blame the millennia of death and destruction on the powerful, wherever they ruled. I didn’t want it to be the weapons inventors or the troops sent to kill and be killed in our name. But I figured I needed some better evidence, which meant heading back to the books. And that, of course, made me think of Doris. I planned to cruise by the smoke shop in Old Town on Saturday morning. But that didn’t work out so well.
We were doing the late show on Friday night and had just gotten to the story of a countywide drug bust the local drug task force had pulled off that morning. I read the opening line on camera from the prompter, then looked down at my script when the video rolled and I could see it in the little monitor built into the desktop. I always looked down during voice-over stories to be sure the pictures we were showing people matched the words I was reading.
As I read the copy I kept looking at the video, and was surprised to see a familiar face. In fact, more than a familiar face, I saw a familiar shirt and boots, too. Walking across the screen into the county jail was my friend Doris. Most of the other suspects raised their shackled hands to hide their faces from the TV cameras, but not Doris. He shuffled along with his head held high. And when he got really close to my station’s camera—I’m sure he could see our logo on the side of it—I swear he held his hands up to the side of his head like he was holding a telephone and mouthed the words, “Come see me” straight into the lens.
I don’t fluff a lot when I’m reading on the air, but I stumbled at that point. It was obvious to me that he was talking to me, but no one else knew that. When we hit the next break, my co-anchor made a few comments about the druggies we’d just shown people. She said they were obviously a bunch of losers, especially that goofball who talked into the camera. As I had on so many topics over the years, I just sort of grunted and said, Maybe so.