William Tecumseh Sherman told us that “war is hell” during the Civil War. Ron Perlman’s been telling us that “war never changes” since 1997. Luckily for me I live in a place and time where I wasn’t forced to find out for myself, but through Black Mirror we can get a look at the ouroboric nature of conditioning average people to become soldiers ready for combat.
“Men Against Fire”
Koinange “Stripe” (Malachi Kirby) is stationed with an unnamed military outfit overseas, trained and ready to cleanse this land of “roaches”, violent monstrosities that emerged from the aftermath of a biological attack. During a raid with his battle buddy Raiman “Ray”, Stripe kills two roaches but is attacked with a improvised flashlight in the process.
Though the double kill makes him the star of Medina’s unit, Stripe struggles to deal with his glitching MASS, a neural implant that connects him to other soldiers and feeds him combat information. Medina notices his behavior and sends him to Arquette, the resident psychologist. Arquette explains that the new feeling that comes from killing can affecting him in untold ways, but his MASS is fine and functioning. After congratulating him for his kills, Arquette schedules vivid pleasant dreams for Stripe as a reward. Stripe tries to enjoy another nightly visit with his dream girl, but the glitching continues, interrupting his sleep.
Following a tip to a roach nest, Medina’s unit is ambushed and she dies as a result. Taking command, Ray drags Stripe along to get revenge, but he’s fighting blind when his MASS shuts down. While clearing the nest Ray attempts to execute a group of cowering people. Stripe manages to stop her from killing them all and is shot in the process. He manages to drive Caterina and a small boy, the only survivors, to the Humvee that brought him and takes them to the forest where he passes out from blood loss. When he comes to, Caterina has taken care of him in a bunker, and she explains that the flashlight had disrupted his MASS, forcing him to see roaches as they are, as people. As Stripe tries to process this, Ray descends into the bunker, executes Caterina and the boy, then takes him prisoner.
Arquette visits Stripe’s cell and apologizes for his oversight and explains how roaches had infected his MASS with a virus, interrupting his ability to perform. Since Stripe isn’t entirely to blame for his insubordination, Arquette offers him the option to be incarcerated indefinitely or have his MASS reset, erasing his memory of the past few days, just like when it was first installed. Crippled at the realization of what he’d done, Stripe agrees to have his memory erased and the MASS reset.
Flown back to the states, Stripe returns to his warm home where the woman of his dreams waits for him, but outside of MASS filters he stands alone at the foot of a dilapidated house.
“Men Against Fire” is in reference to Brigadier General Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall most notable work as a journalist in 1947, Men Against Fire, which examined the level of combat participation among soldiers in the Army during World War 2. The statistics Arquette rattles off, the anecdotes of soldiers not firing their weapons is taken directly from Marshall’s research. Though Marshall’s methodology for gathering data has been criticized for being unscientific, his experience in combat and interviewing survivors of battles, which has been corroborated by other veterans and journalists, informed the book’s thesis, which is that war is a most unnatural thing. This makes MASS a handy tool to have around. If you want humans to do something that their nature may not permit, changing what they see might make it permissible.
Roaches see one another as internally displaced people trying to stay one step ahead of the military hunting them. Stripe and Ray saw violent monsters out to kill them. Painting enemies as monsters is a classic wartime practice that reinforcing their state as “the other” to assist the war effort, and all manner of media was used to made this kind of propaganda effective. Armies get to take this a step further with the development of their own lexicon. “Roaches”–a term that echoes Arquette’s opinion that the “enemy” is subhuman, making me wonder if it was coded into MASS–makes an appearance in fairly recent history. The Hutus referred to the Tutsis as roaches in propaganda speeches that eventually led to the Rwandan genocide.
Regardless of the word chosen, if a group of people can be dehumanized in the eyes of belligerents, any action that would otherwise be frowned upon can be rationalized and encouraged. And you don’t even have to go to a war zone to see that it can work on anyone so long as they’re receptive to the message. MASS makes that a little simpler, but Stripe and Ray came with original programming that made the transition to combat easier than it should’ve been.
Generation Kill, written by Evan Wright, chronicled his time as an embedded journalist with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United State Marine Corps (USMC) during the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it’s been regularly recommended by Marine commanders to their officers because of how well Wright captured “the reality of war”. Wright’s discerning observations led him to realize that this generation of soldiers was unique. While World War 2 has received some help in terms of crafting a neat narrative thanks in part to the speed at which news traveled. Things changed during the Vietnam War when audio and video reached the west nightly, showcasing violence and destruction like never before. Wright noted that this was the story “of a generation of Americans that were innocent and they lost that innocence in the jungles of South-East Asia.” Decades later and we’re in the late ’80s and ’90s, and the Generation Kill soldier is the first in history to be “raised by television, Hollywood movies, video games, internet porn. That stuff was available to them from a very young age, and that’s sort of how they were acculturated into society.”
Video games are an indirect product of military research. The very first, Tennis for Two, was designed by scientists working on the Manhattan Project. Of course the Pentagon would realize how strong a recruitment tool games, particularly military shooters, would be to soldiers fighting since ’03. While there are studies that shut down the baseless argument that video games promote violence, what I notice, what many of us take part in when we play online, with strangers or friends, is that shooters in particular set up an atmosphere that conditions a response to immediate rewards for keeping to the parameters of a mission, which is made possible through effective groupthink.
In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (required reading by the FBI Academy and certain USMC commanders), Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, professor of psychology and founder of killology, explored what it took for soldiers to become comfortable with killing and its effect on them. He agreed with many of Marshall’s findings, and corroborated Wright’s observations on societal conditioning through media that made killing easier to accept. Grossman noted that simple things like the transition of bullseye targets to silhouettes of humans to pictures of armed men bettered the response of soldiers in combat. But arguably what interested him most was the groupthink that made certain acts acceptable and commonplace in the Army.
When Ray and Stripe troll one another for rewarding MASS wet dreams or the need to slaughter roaches, they reinforce a culture by acting as gut checks against one another to make sure they all have the nerve to keep themselves and one another safe in this dangerous environment. On Killing argues that if an act comes from a place of authority and supported by enough members in a group any behavior can become accepted as the norm and rationalized to absurd lengths. We civilians have seen this at home from police who are singled out as bad actors after civilian shooting or beating, but that narrative flies in the face of research that points to a corrosive, insular culture that reinforces bad policing through directives from those above them and encouragement from those in the same rank.
A good example of groupthink and violence in war zones are “death checks”, which Wright first reported when quoting a soldier he interviewed in ’03:
They teach us to do dead-checking when we’re clearing rooms. You put two bullets into the guy’s chest and one in the brain. But when you enter a room where guys are wounded you might not know if they’re alive or dead. So they teach us to dead-check them by pressing them in the eye with your boot, because generally a person, even if he’s faking being dead, will flinch if you poke him there. If he moves, you put a bullet in the brain. You do this to keep the momentum going when you’re flowing through a building.
In response to this revelation, Wright, said, “I thought the American military was supposed to take wounded and treat them. And this is what they’re doing in Iraq after firefights, apparently. I’ve done a number of interviews, developing this as part of a story, and so far it’s from very good sources, it looks to be true that this is the policy.” It would take four years, but during The Surge, dead-checks were confirmed in courts by soldiers who performed them in Iraq, taught to them at the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton. That year brought more cases of soldiers who killed in extreme ways, and a few years later we got more stories of infantrymen who eventually turned to executing civilians and mocking them in death. Some mutilated bodies to collect trophies.
When talking about Marshall’s research with Stripe, Arquette said, “Even in World War 2, in a firefight, only 15-20% of the men would pull the trigger. Fate of the world at stake and only 15%. Now what does that tell you? It tells me that that war would’ve been over a whole lot quicker if the military got its shit together.” This military got its shit together by developing MASS making cyborg soldiers that relies on the cybernetics to get the job done. Ghost in the Shell, The Terminator, Robocop, The Machine, and now Black Mirror–science fiction has spent a long time playing with the trope of the cyborg soldier, one that was more effective at, and more comfortable with killing any enemy put before them. All that stood in the way was that pesky human element standing in the way of mission objectives. But when drone pilots get PTSD because of bombs dropped continents away, an implant like MASS, one that essentially triggers disassociation in the soldier seems like it’s the only way to go.
Like the translator pinned to Medina’s chest, these attitudes and practices that push ordinary people to commit unspeakable acts are universal. The borderless quality of all this is driven home by American soldiers working for a possible PMC outfit in Europe, dressed like UN Peacekeepers, featuring a guy sporting a traditional Kenyan name. These conditions are already here with us, and we see the effects in soldiers who have seen combat. The Veteran’s Association has made efforts to address this after the fact, but does it do anything to stop the practices that have these effects on humans in the first place? Perpetual war in the Middle East feels like a given. Most recently we’ve been living with it for 13 years going on 14, and all indications point to more years there. With politicians building their career on conflict, and private military companies looking to replace traditional fighting forces, are we set up for a future where technology helps people put in the most difficult roles in the military or to help them do the unthinkable without consequence?
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