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Myth of moral superiority

May 28, 2004

Why should the incidents of violence against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib amaze anybody? War is hell, as most people would agree, and it turns people into savages. Nobody is immune to becoming brutalised by war.


However, in the case of the Americans, through adroit use of Hollywood images, everyone has been led to believe that their average soldier is a sweet and gentle innocent forced into battle against evil foes. He offers candy to children in conquered territories.


This goes well with the American myth of moral uprightness, which, in reality, is more about moralising, alas, than morality. It holds that the country enters into warfare as a reluctant combatant, pulled into World War II only because of those evil incarnate Japanese and Germans. The American GI is supposed to be a down-home, aw-shucks kind of country boy, unlike the fanatical Japanese of Bridge on the River Kwai or the stock Nazi/SS creep of countless World War II movies.


This concept of American innocence arises from a kind of imperial omphalos, which emphasises an alleged special role that the Christian God has assigned to America, and in particular to white Americans. At its ugliest, it resulted in the concept of 'manifest destiny' under which they brutally eradicated -- wiped out like vermin -- the Native Americans of the northern plains. The massacre a few decades ago at Wounded Knee was but the latest atrocity committed against Native Americans.


The enthusiastic adoption of slavery, with the fulsome support of the Southern church hierarchy, is another facet of the same thing. Today, the 'Vulcans' surrounding George Bush use the same exclusionary logic in more sophisticated ways: 'American power and ideals are on the whole, a force for good in the world.'


During World War II, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans as potential enemy aliens was another expression of this white paranoia. German-Americans were not rounded up and put into internment camps. Interestingly enough, white Germany was spared the atomic bomb, yellow Japan was not.


Regarding concentration camps, have you heard of Manzanar and Tule Lake (California), Gila and Poston (Arizona), Minidoka (Idaho), Heart Mountain (Wyoming), Granada (Colorado), Topaz (Utah), Rohwer and Jerome (Arkansas)? Thanks to reader Arvind, these are some of the concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were jailed. Then from the Vietnam War: the incident at My Lai. An army contingent under Lieutenant William Calley exterminated an innocent peasant village full of unarmed civilians.


'On March 16, 1968 the angry and frustrated men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division entered the village of My Lai. "This is what you've been waiting for -- search and destroy -- and you've got it," said their superior officers. A short time later the killing began,' according to the PBS documentary.


There have been reports of American atrocities in the Korean War as well, of fleeing villagers shot from aircraft. Then there is the persistent opposition of the United States to the International Court of Justice. They insist that they will not have their military men and women subjected to the authority of foreign courts trying war crimes.


This can be read in one of two ways, neither of which is particularly flattering. One is arrogance that Americans are above the laws ordinary people are subject to. The second is that the US Army is afraid of skeletons in its closet tumbling out.


The Abu Ghraib prison camp incident is one such skeleton. If evidence were needed, here is evidence to show that the average American soldier is no more gentle, decent, or democratic than the average soldier of any other nation. In fact, I sympathise with the poor grunt thrown into battle in hostile territory, where death lurks behind every door, in every child's hands. Any youngster, semi-educated, scared, scarcely out of his teens, in such circumstances is likely to become a brute. American teens are no different.


Given all this baggage, it is hardly surprising that incidents of torture took place. Worse was the 'turkey shoot' after Gulf War I, when retreating, defeated Iraqi troops were  massacred from the air by triumphant American cowboys: this was an egregious violation of the Geneva Convention as well.


The entire setup at Guantanamo Bay is also a twilight world of semi-legality. The prisoners there have been treated as stateless persons, not prisoners or war. It is interesting that Americans caught in Afghanistan such as John Walker Lindh were tried in normal US courts, not in military courts. Thus the Americans are making a distinction between their citizens and others, even if they were both Al Qaeda.


This brings up one area of US discrimination: citizens are treated better than others. The other area is the issue of race, religion and nationality. Remember the treatment meted out to poor old Khem Singh. No white Christian priest -- and many have been involved in child molestation -- has been given a 27-year sentence; certainly not when the defendant is 72 years old.


In Iraq, it is clear that Arabs, even though white, are considered sub-human by the average American soldier. Throw in Islam, are Iraqis are considered doubly inferior by the GIs.


Finally, the US media has not exactly covered itself in glory in this whole episode. It has been shown tellingly in Chomsky and Herman's Manufacturing Consent  how mainstream US media is hand in glove with the foreign policy needs of the US government of the day.


CBS is alleged to have sat on video footage of the Iraq abuse: this is a failure on the part of the media. But it is true that once the issue leaked out, the US media has kept it in the limelight.


Why is all this of interest to Indians and Indian Americans? One reason is that Indian armed forces sometimes deal with hostile populations as well. Despite propaganda from the usual anti-national suspects, which paints the Indian army's anti-terrorist operations in the worst possible terms, it is clear that the Indian armed forces are carrying out their duties in a responsible manner. When even the mightiest military power on earth is unable to act honorably, the Indian forces need to be lauded for their restraint.


Out of self-interest, Indian Americans also need to ask themselves if their position on the fringes of American society could be under threat. A broadside recently by an unreconstructed racist bigot named Pius Kamau in the Denver Post was an eye-opener. This Kenyan-American doctor attacked Hindus and Hinduism in terms that would immediately be rejected as unparliamentary if used against any other group, but a major newspaper thought such calumny against this group is perfectly acceptable. 


Closely following on the Washington Post's attack on Hindus ('Wrath Over a Hindu God: US Scholars' Writings Draw Threats From Faithful,' April 10, 2004), this is a disturbing trend. Possibly as a result of continuous propaganda by Marxists, a recent report said, startlingly, that Hindus are now considered by Americans to be the most dangerous and violent religious group after Muslims! As to how this might affect Indian Americans in future, your guess is as good as mine.


Regarding the longer-term impact on India, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that an American 'peace-keeping force' will land up one day in Kashmir, or even in the Northeast (shades of East Timor?) if American-backed terrorists there get enough mileage. In any case, if the projections of increased economic power for India come true, there will be concomitant military power as well; this will inevitably lead to conflict with the US.


The conflict already exists. A recent book, Russia in Space: The failed frontier? alleges that Americans went to great lengths to try to deny India its space launch vehicle. The entire bizarre 'Maldivian woman spy' episode, which cost two good ISRO scientists, Nambi Narayan and Sasikumar their careers, was allegedly a CIA sting intended to keep the Russian cryogenic engine out of India's hands.


No, they really don't want India to have a nuke or a delivery mechanism. If the Seventh Fleet were to steam into the Bay of Bengal, they'd prefer not to have to worry about an Agni 3 dropping in on them. Or for their matter, on Iraq or Saudi Arabia: Americans like Arab oil too much.


Under these circumstances, it behooves India to keep a very close on watch on both the American talk and the American walk. But it would also be very appropriate for India to keep its opinions to itself and keep its big mouth shut. This Iraq thing is somebody else's war, and India should keep entirely out of it.


comments welcome at

Rajeev Srinivasan

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Number of User Comments: 43

Sub: Hey look, Iam so sweet, I admit Iam bad. Please beat me Sir.

This is exactly what all the Hindu masses seem to be shouting. All this, when they are not even ready to know about their roots. ...

Posted by darkangel

Sub: rajeev is right

It is heartening to c such articles in rediff, a article in right perspective and right time.

Posted by ravi

Sub: Myth of Moral Superiority

Dear Mr. Srinivasan: I would appreciate it if you would stop attacking Christianity and any other religion for that matter. Christianity was introduced into India ...

Posted by Ved Vedamanikam

Sub: bad...

US media is hand in glove with the foreign policy needs of the US government of the day, while Indian English media is very insensitive ...

Posted by Kiran B

Sub: What Kamau said and what Rajeev distorts

It is not just, Kamau. I am born in an South indian upper caste family. Many of my family members were harassed, tortured by Siv ...

Posted by Janarddan


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