Many of us will have read American psychiatrist and author Morgan Scott Peck’s best-selling 1978 book ‘The Road Less Travelled’, and for quite a few of us, it will even have perhaps been life-changing.
His later book ‘People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil’ (1983) also provides much food for thought, whether or not you agree with some of his conclusions.
In Chapter Six, he closely examines the My Lai massacre, the mass murder of six hundred unarmed South Vietnamese civilians by US troops in 1968 during the Vietnam War, “one of the largest publicised massacres of civilians by US forces in the 20th century.” Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated as were children as young as 12.
Scott Peck significantly titles the chapter ‘My Lai: An Examination of Group Evil’. He documents the war crime, something he was well-equipped to do, as in 1972, he was chairman of a committee of psychiatrists appointed by the Army Surgeon General, at the request of the US Army Chief of Staff, to make recommendations for ‘research that might shed light on the psychological causes of My Lai, so as to help prevent such atrocities in the future.’ However, the research the committee proposed was rejected on the grounds that it might prove embarrassing to the administration, and that ‘further embarrassment was not desirable at that time.’
Peck asks: “How is it that approximately five hundred men, the majority of whom were undoubtedly not evil as individuals, could all have participated in an act as monstrously evil as that at My Lai?”
His professional observation is that human groups behave
“at a level that is more primitive and immature than one might expect”, that is
to say, “from a psychological standpoint, less than the sum of their parts.” He
acknowledges that the reasons for this are complex, but points to the phenomenon
of ‘specialisation’ which dissipates the responsibility for an action, what he
calls the “fragmentation
I was reminded of this when reading about the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International Fair (DSEI), “the world’s biggest arms fair”, held in London recently, incidentally for the second time since Saudi Arabia and the UAE began bombing Yemen.
In case you were wondering what catchphrases the
marketing division of an arms manufacturing firm would employ to peddle their deadly
wares, here’s one: ‘Strike with creativity’. It’s the slogan of the firm
Raytheon, which manufactures its Paveway laser-guided bombs in the US and
Fragments of Paveway (such an innocuous name!) bombs have been found in the wreckage of markets, schools and hospitals all over Yemen. As veteran journalist Arron Reza Merat was told in an interview, “Body parts were on trees and rocks and people tried to collect as many of them as possible;….The remaining parts were eaten by dogs.”
Merat attempted to speak to the Raytheon salesman at the fair about the sickening carnage caused by Paveway, but was stonewalled with corporate-speak: “We rely on the government to make assessments.”
When Merat pressed him further on how he felt about his company’s involvement in the deaths of civilians in Yemen, the salesman irritably replied: “I can tell you I certainly didn’t kill anybody”, before beating a hasty retreat behind a door marked ‘Staff only’.
This is exactly the point Scott Peck makes in ‘People of the Lie’: “Whenever the roles of individuals within a group become specialised, it becomes both possible and easy for the individual to pass the moral buck to some other part of the group. In this way, not only does the individual forsake his conscience but the conscience of the group as a whole can become so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent.”
Peck describes how the My Lai cover-up was a “gigantic group lie”. He continues: “Lying is simultaneously one of the symptoms and one of the causes of evil, one of the blossoms and one of the roots.” It is the reason he titled his book ‘People of the Lie’.
Chapter Six also has a whole subheading, ‘The large specialty group: the Military’.
He writes: “In a time of sustained peace the military man is disregarded – at best considered by his country as a necessary evil, and more often as a rather pathetic parasite on the body politic. In time of war, however, he suddenly becomes needed again, filling a role not only regarded as useful but absolutely essential by his society. The drudge becomes the hero.
The state of war is therefore not only psychologically satisfying to a career soldier but economically rewarding as well. In peacetime, promotions are frozen and deadwood is weeded out…. He must wait, unrecognised and forsaken, until wartime, when responsibilities suddenly and dramatically increase. Promotions are rapid. Salary increases, benefits, and bonuses pour in. Medals mount up. It is inevitable, then, that the ordinary career military man, unconsciously if not consciously, desires – longs for –war.”
It would certainly explain the “perpetual state of war” Peck’s country the USA has been in for decades. Barring a few years after World War Two, the US (whether its citizens are aware of this or not) has been in a constant state of war in some or other part of the world, simultaneously or sequentially, under different guises: Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the proxy anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, with misadventures and/or regime-topplingall over Latin America, and the more recent so-called ‘War on Terror’, still on, all over the Middle East and parts of Africa. And this doesn’t take into account pre-WW II US military action overseas, eg the Philippines, Mexico, or internally against the native indigenous people and the Black population of North America.
American scholar, historian and political activist Noam Chomsky lists all of these in graphic detail in his writing. He even goes so far as to say: “If the Nuremberg laws were applied (the same kind of crimes for which people were hanged in Nuremberg), then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”
The term “military-industrial complex” was probably coined by President Dwight D Eisenhower. He said this in the context of warning the American public of the “thirst to profit from warfare through weapon production”, and that if not regulated enough it could lead to the “grave” expansion of the armaments industry. He feared that the military-industrial complex could lead to a state of perpetual war as the big armament industry will continue to profit from warfare.
Merat spoke to another salesman at the arms fair, this time from BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms company (their marketing slogan? “Advantage where it counts”). “It’s not our problem after we sell it. I didn’t pull the trigger.”
The arms fair even had surreal, banal ‘games’, such as ‘Guess the number of bullets in a jar’, with £50 Marks and Spencer vouchers for ‘lucky winners’.
Up to a hundred thousand civilians are already dead in
the senseless war in Yemen alone. No, no-one pulled the trigger.But the arms