Magazine article The Christian Century

Wartime Scripts: To View the Enemy as Subhuman and Having No Regard for Life Is a Rational Used in All Our Wars

Magazine article The Christian Century

Wartime Scripts: To View the Enemy as Subhuman and Having No Regard for Life Is a Rational Used in All Our Wars

Article excerpt

ON THE NIGHT of June 10, two men from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen fashioned makeshift ropes from knotted bed sheets, then hanged themselves in their Guantanamo Bay prison cells. Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the prison, reported the deaths and commented: "They are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

The three men accused of asymmetrical warfare were Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, from Saudi Arabia, and All Abdullah Ahmed from Yemen. Although they were never charged after being apprehended, they were still described as terrorists in a struggle between the powerful and the weak.

"Asymmetrical warfare" is a term the U.S. and antiterrorist specialists use to describe an unequal conflict. From the perspective of the strong side in asymmetrical warfare, suicide, normally understood as the response of people trapped in a desperate situation, becomes a tactic of proscribed warfare.

Colleen Graffy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, says these three men were not desperate; they were tacticians. She told the BBC: "They don't value their own lives, and they certainly don't value ours; they use suicide bombings as a tactic. Taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good PR move."

But in the view of Anthony Alessandrini, an English professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, the qualities that Admiral Harris assigns to the dead men amount to "a perverse compliment being paid by the torturer to the tortured."

If Harris's phrase "they have no regard for life" sounds familiar, it is because it is used in scripts for all our wars. In the current struggle, the term resonates with a public that is still stunned by September 11. Revenge is a strong emotion, especially when directed against people who are "not like us" in religion, race or culture.

Paul Fussell, author of Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, writes about revenge in that war: "For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese, and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so that maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese."

Tom Engelhardt, author of The End of Victory Culture, says:

The war against the Nazis was being organized as a screen narrative of "liberation" of former allies like the French or even of enemies like the Italians. …

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