An Honest Account

How can one defend the indefensible?

Or explain to someone who cannot or will not understand the circumstances which might drive a normally decent human being to throw a puppy off a cliff.

In March 2008 Lance Corporal David Motari USMC was the subject of a You-Tube video showing him tossing a screaming puppy over a cliff while on patrol in Iraq. The video went viral and there were a slew of responses, newspaper & TV articles expressing their outrage and righteous indignation that members of the United States Military could be guilty of such a callous act of barbarism.

I could write about how this event was gleefully fixated on by many journalists as being a cheap way of selling copy, or the empty vessels who delighted in the opportunity to get some attention by wrapping themselves in the flag of animal rights outrage. But instead I’m going to try and explain to readers unfamiliar with the military how the majority of soldiers (who had served on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan) were probably not at all surprised by what they saw.

What Motari did was a terrible act of brutality – let’s get that straight to begin with, I have never and I hope I would never do anything like that to an animal, but when I saw it on You-Tube I didn’t feel outraged or surprised, if anything I felt pity for Motari and how I knew he would be castigated by a public who’d never be able to understand why anyone could do something so cruel and find it amusing.

Before I went to Afghanistan I would have been just as outraged as the rest of them, I imagine that most Americans were confused and hurt over the issue; that someone who was supposed to be representing the best values of their nation could be so heartless. After my service it elicited little more than a shrug.

I’m not saying Motari was the victim here, but what I am saying is that he has been judged by people who will never be able to understand the circumstances that could drive a person to do such a thing, or create a microcosm of society in which this kind of behaviour could become commonplace.

The truth is that soldiers in war become desensitized to suffering and (by some normal standards at least) that makes animals out them. While I was in Sangin I remember hearing a story that someone in my company had taken a mouse and placed it in an empty mortar-bomb carrier filled with water. Unable to crawl up the sides it had trodden water for a full half hour before slipping beneath the surface, then realising it was about to die it had swum to the top with a renewed burst of vigour that lasted a few more minutes, this was repeated a several times, after a full forty minutes had elapsed the mouse finally drowned.

Now I still sometimes wonder how my former colleagues could have sat and watched that incident; whether they contemplated the dying mouse in silence or cheered each effort to hold onto its life. How men whom I counted as brothers, who I’d have risked my life for and who I know would have risked their lives for me could be capable of such sick and twisted behaviour – but I know the answer; once you get so bored and pissed off with your immediate situation – what some people have referred to as “your reality,” then behaviour and attitudes that would have been inconceivable before become accepted.

I like to think that if I’d witnessed this event then I’d have stopped it, but I’ll never know. In the midst of violence and death such things become trivial, your values are changed and your priorities are altered. When you see people being blown apart and are surrounded by enemies who want to kill you it takes the edge off your sympathy, things that might have elicited an emotional response before are overlooked and unfortunately animal cruelty comes so far down in the list of things that you have ceased to care about that it barely registers.

Earlier in my career as a peacetime soldier I remember a colleague telling a group about his service in Iraq, during which, as a sniper he’d been encouraged to shoot the stray dogs near their base because they would set off the motion sensors that could warn of a covert enemy approach (or whatever – truthfully I’ve forgotten, but there was a genuine military reason for this). He’d boasted about the number that he’d killed and my disgust and contempt for him was complete. However now that I’ve been on operations myself, although I still condemn this kind of behaviour, I can at least understand it.

During the time I spent in the besieged compound at Sangin, one of my friends, a man who I’d known for four years and gone through training with was injured. It wasn’t life threatening, but he screamed all afternoon and well into the evening (as burn victims do), it was one of the most awful noises imaginable and none of us could get away from it or shut it out while we were waiting for a helicopter to pick him up. Myself and my friends became so desensitized to the sound of his screams that we began joking about it, laughing that he was being thoroughly inconsiderate in ruining our meal-time with his din.

When I told a civilian friend about this after I returned home he was shocked at my heartlessness, he just couldn’t understand how anyone would find anything to laugh about in such a situation.

The modern, socially acceptable, politically-correct way of dealing with it, would I suppose have been for every man who was forced to listen to those screams of pain for hours on end to have cried in collective sympathy with their injured brother. But in a war you just can’t do that. In war, sometimes the only way to deal with something is to do the opposite of what society has taught us to believe is the correct or acceptable way to behave in these situations – hence soldiers will find amusement in the most grotesque things and become inured to callous acts, there is literally no other way of coping with them – unless you want to take time-out, or a day off after each traumatic experience – which would be considered perfectly acceptable, even encouraged for a civilian who had been involved in an industrial accident or seen colleagues injured and killed at work.

There is no solution to it, it is just a fact of life and as old as war itself.

There is no counselling, course or Power Point presentation that can prepare soldiers for this or prevent it. For David Motari when he found a puppy he was so bored and frustrated that he threw it over a cliff – while laughing and when it was splashed over the media he bore the full brunt of the public outrage because they couldn’t understand how anyone could become so callous. His treatment was not wrong and what he did was despicable – but it was also, I believe misunderstood. Most people will never understand it and if you’ve appreciated what I’ve been trying to convey then I think you’ll realise that that is something to be very thankful for.

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June 2, 2013 12:15 pm

On the one hand, I understand what he’s trying to say. On the other hand, you can excuse even the Rape of Nanking or any number of wartime atrocities with this – sure the crimes were that much worse, but then so was the casualty rate, and the Americans have much greater superiority in technology and firepower.

Some things just shouldn’t be made “understandable”…

June 2, 2013 12:54 pm

You miss his point. Not once does he condone it, he merely states he understands the forces and context that generates such behaviour. You can understand why Nanking happened without supporting it even an atom. People who immediately slap down the study of atrocities and unsavoury things by declaring the researcher thereby condones it by trying to find out why it happens are intellectually and frankly morally bankrupt – how else can you explain someone being confused by the difference between understanding and supporting and making them equivalent. Is a criminologist a criminal?

June 2, 2013 2:50 pm

Mmmm Arkhangelsk – I an not sure how a dead puppy compares with the Rape of Nanking !

I also wonder if its a symptom of the “easy life” of the west, that we assign such importance to animal cruelty. Personally I put the suffering of people over and above the suffering of animals every time, but that is also not a statement mean to condone puppy murder, or mice drowning. It’s just that will all the shit going on in the world, but tactically at that squaddies level, and strategic big picture, it’s simply inconsequential.

Now the interesting philosophical question; does the “media everywhere” environment mean that no act is inconsequential anymore ? How much do we train our guys to be media savvy and to realize that everything they do can be caught on camera and “go viral” in seconds ???

June 2, 2013 3:56 pm

Actually, this is one of the symptoms of what is commonly called PTSD, the desensitization to suffering. Human-wise, it is actually a mental coping mechanism to stay sane, think of it as mental triage, your mind cuts off the “softer” feeling so you can actually still function in a high stress environment.

Beautifully facinating thing, the brain and its ability to cope. There are even reports where during disaster SAR in earthquakes, the brain actually temporarily cut off VISION!!! to cope with the visual trauma of mass death.

Problem in it also lies in that there has to be a way to turn the coping mechanism off, or else returning soldiers will end up bringing rather terminal problem solving habits back home into more.. civilised climes.

June 2, 2013 7:21 pm

To be honest my experiences, in both Iraq and Afghanistan have often led me to wonder the limits that we can whiteness and participate in.

Hierarchy of needs is important, hierarchy of importance is something else, the dog I may have chinned the said individual, the mouse was just as cruel. I have dogs, I don’t have mice. Both are equally troubling and show signs of mental illness. In my honest opinion its leadership thats lacking in both, peer pressure also. Randomly killing a dog or torturing a mouse can lead to other worse decisions.

June 2, 2013 7:30 pm

Black humour is one thing, wanton cruelty is another.

There are plenty of instances of wanton cruelty in the civilian world as well, brought on by boredom and frustration with no ‘excusing’ factors of life-or-death stress. In either instance it is unacceptable and potentially more problematic for the bigger picture for the soldier to have the lapse. If unchallenged it has the potential to spiral into more serious offences and the soldier has access to automatic weapons.

I think that it is entirely right that LCpl Motari should be severely castigated for his actions (perhaps not the media circus, but then I generally take a dim view of the media circus) Especially in the light that the larger part of the campaign is to do with maintaining the public perception.

If a soldier is willing to do that to a puppy,would he, if left unchallenged, progress to doing the same to a child?