Thursday, October 21, 2010

Colonel Williams and violence in the military

The Canadian military is scrambling to separate itself from convicted killer Colonel Williams. This is the latest attempt to hide the reality of military training and the results it produces on soldiers and civilians--from Somalia, to Iraq, to Afghanistan.

     The Canadian military claim to have no idea how one of their rising stars, Russel Williams, who has been in the military since 1987 and climbed the ranks to colonel, could have been guilty of stalking, sexual assaulting, confiing, torturing and killing women. But the military is sure it's not their problem. According to  Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps, chief of air staff:
“What could we have done differently? I’m not sure we’re going to get answers to that. There are no answers yet... This individual was a man of tremendous capacities. I still can’t reconcile the two individuals we’ve seen, the professional we knew and the criminal who is in prison now....We haven’t found one thing that needs to be changed yet...There’s nothing wrong with the uniform, there is something wrong with the individual who was in the uniform...We feel this was an aberration."
     These statements show a willful ignorance of military training and its intended results.

     Canada’s General Rick Hillier famously put to bed the notion that the Canadian military is for peacekeeping when he proclaimed, “We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people”. But it's a real testament to our true human nature that people are not born with this "ability". Instead it needs to be hammered into people with rigorous training, consciously aimed at desensitizing people to human suffering.
     In Michael Moore's book Will They Ever Trust Us Again (a collection of letters he's received from soldiers and their families), someone who’s brother was to be deployed to Iraq, described the process of desensitization:
“He is being trained to run over children who stand in the way of the conveys because they could be potential threats. Kids like his own, kids who may just want to get food. He’s at Fort Dix practicing, knocking over cardboard cutouts.”
Despite this intense training many people still can't bring themselves to go along with violence. Jeremy Hinzman, the first war resister to come to Canada, went AWOL after his experiences in boot camp showed him how the military turns people into killers:
“We were marching around chanting songs like, ‘Train to kill. Kill we will.,’ Or during bayonet training they’d ask, ‘What makes the grass grow?,’ and we’d say ‘Blood, blood, bright red blood.’“When we would thrust [the bayonet] the drill sergeant would yell that, and we’d have to scream back. People would actually get hoarse yelling this crap. I could never really get into that stuff. Some people ate it up because I think there is an opportunity in groups to kind of let go of your inhibitions and do wanton things... We’d sing cadences as we ran about going through villages and killing babies and stuff. It’s all presented, at least on the surface, as, ‘Oh, it’s just in humor, and no one’s around listening to it,’ but I think that really does put that mindset in a soldier that they’re killers.”
     With such "training" its no wonder brutal acts like those committed by Williams have been a regular feature of US and Canadian intervention overseas, not an aberration. In 1993 Canadian soldiers savagely tortured to death a Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, and like Colonel Williams took “trophy photos”. Then too, the military "didn't find one thing that needed to be changed". They tried to cover up the killing, recently dropped charges against the killer, and promoted the commanding colonel to general.
     The same stories have emerged from Iraq. In 2004 "trophy photos" of torture and sexual violence emerged from Abu Ghraib. In 2005 US marines went house to house in Haditha killing 24 civilians including children as young as one year of age. In 2009 Obama blocked the publication of a large number of photos, including of rape and torture, of prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This year the Pentagon is scrambling to contain the information released by wikileaks, including a video of a massacre of civilians.

     This institutionalized violence, deliberately created and directed towards a racialized "other" to justify war and occupation, inevitably spills over onto fellow troops and civilians. Within the first year of the war in Afghanistan, military wives at Fort Bragg reported high rates of domestic abuse, including 4 killings. Last year the BBC published an article about the sexual violence female soldiers face. They reported studies by the US Department of Veteran Affairs that found 30% of military women are raped while serving, 71% are sexually assaulted, and 90% are sexually harassed. This includes Army specialist Chantelle Henneberry, who served a year in Iraq:
"I was the only female in the platoon of 50 ot 60 men. I also the youngest, 17. Because I was the only female, men would forget in front of me and say these terrible derogatory things about women all the time. I had to hear these things every day. I'd have to say 'Hey!' Then they'd look at me, all surprised, and say, 'Oh we don't mean you'. One of the guys I thought was my friend tried to rape me. Two of my sergeants wouldn't stop making passes at me... During my first few months in Iraq, my sergeant assaulted and harassed me so much I couldn't take it any more. So I decided to report him. But when I turned him in, they said, 'The one common factor in all these problems is you. Don't see this as a punishment, but we're going to have you transferred.' Then that same sergeant was promoted right away. I didn't get my promotion for six months... I was fresh meat to the hungry men there.I was less scared of the mortar rounds that came in every day than I was of the men who shared my food."
US war resister Skylar James is seeking sanctuary in Canada  because she fears for her own safety as a lesbian in the military.

     Sexual violence within the military is not confined to the US military in Iraq. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed Russel Williams is "unique case. The Canadian Forces are the victim here, as are the direct victims of these terrible events." But before she became the first Canadian female soldier killed in Afghanistan, Nichola Goddard wrote a letter home about the treatment of female soldiers in her camp: "there were 6 rapes in the camp last week, so we have to work out an escort at night." Russel Williams is only unique because the military have refused to look elsewhwere. Whereas Goddard herself knew of 6 cases of sexual assault in one week, the Canadian Forces admits to only one conviction for sexual assault over the past 6 years.
     The impact that the deliberate creation and coverup of violence has on our own soldiers is a microcosm of what's inflicted on the people of Afghanistan.  Hiller justified the barbaric war in Afghanistan by claiming the soldiers were killing "detestable murderers and scumbags". Harper prorogued Parliament rather than allow public scrutiny of torture, and dismissed Williams as unique despite the experiences of troops on the ground. The words and actions of Harper and Hiller, the top of the chain of command, show that Colonel Williams is not an aberration but a product of militarism.
     Everyone opposed to what Colonel Williams was turned into should support two campaigns of the Canadian peace movement: letting US Iraq War resisters stay, and ending the war in Afghanistan.


  1. Now you're starting to save me work by writing the post I was planning to write! Great stuff, and so important. Thank you for including military sexual violence as part of the picture.

  2. Fantastic post! I was gonna write it too but you did it better. Thanks.

  3. I agree with L-Girl and alterwords. Well done!

  4. i'm not entirely convinced of the connection. yes, there are certainly problems with brutality in the military and yes williams was a military man who's just been outed as a violent criminal. but that's where the connection ends. first, williams never actually fought in combat - the vast majority of his career was spent on canadian soil, performing bureaucratic and logistics operations. second, although the author points to numerous cases of military violence on bases overseas, there is no argument made that the officers in question come back to canada and become serial rapists. i just can't wrap my head around the idea that somehow william's air force training led to him becoming a cross-dressing sexual assaulter with a panty fetish. third, williams' psychological problems run deeper than the time he spent in the military. read this if you want to know a bit more about his early life:

    i will reiterate that i agree with your point that military violence is indeed an ignored problem - the cases you point to of gang rapes in somalia and female officers needing escort on military bases is incredibly sad. but i just don't see the connection between those cases and colonel russell williams.

  5. Thanks for your comments Randi.

    I agree it's important to avoid reductionism. Obviously Williams' life is more than the military and he can't be reduced to his profession. But I don't think he can be completely separated from the military. This decontextualization also made people wonder how Lynndie England could have tortured in Abu Ghraib, how decorated soldier Timothy McVeigh could have blown people up in Oklahoma, how Sergent John Allen Mohammad could have become the Washington sniper. Each of these people had their own stories, but did the military play no role in their development?

    The media have refused to even raise this question, and have provided a cover for militarism by reducing Williams to a fetish. As others have pointed out (, it was his predatory behaviour not his fetish that led him to commit his crimes, and I think the military plays some role in this.

    What I can't wrap my head around is the idea that someone could spend more than 20 years in the military--an institution who's role is "to be able to kill people", which achieves this task through rigorous desensitization to human suffering, which refuses to investigate widespread sexual assault on its own members, and which covers up widespread atrocities (see the recent wikileaks documents)--and could in no way be affected by his environment.

    We can't do anything about Williams' personal psychology, but we can do something about the war: end it.