Deeper into the Heart of Darkness

"The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness." 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
In a time of great professional upheaval and out of control work demands, one of the few things for which I’ve been able to find time, is the odd late night read.

I just read Jim Frederick‘s “Black Hearts”. It’s a hard thing to read but something I think everyone should - even those unlike myself, who don’t have great fondness for Orwell and Conrad.

"Black Hearts" attempts to contextualize the murder of an entire Iraqi family in the village of Yusufiya on March 12, 2006. A 14-year-old girl was raped, shot to death, then burned. The murdered bodies of her 6-year-old sister and her parents were found in an adjacent room. Those guilty were American troopers of the First battalion, 502 infantry, 101 Airborne Division. Ignoring the usual clucking in the Times letters section by those who would find fault with either the scope of the treatment or those with a favorite political litmus test in mind, I found the story compelling, horrific, and frighteningly predictable. More predictable still was the way that blame was laid at the most junior levels possible while those who’s pathological leadership allowed such violence to smolder, escaped judgment and were promoted to better spread the influence of their flawed characters more broadly. Naturally we try to distance ourselves as much as we can from these kinds of acts. Try to pass such things off as one-of-kind evils of which only a few are capable. We like to think of ourselves as the good guys.

I suppose part of it is that the truth is a lot more unsettling. One may hope that this particular crime is at the most depraved extremes but most people are capable of horrific acts when circumstances fall into place. They are also capable of great acts of heroism. Both take a profound separation from the normal. Violence in one direction leads to valor; in another to monstrous acts. Character, leadership and community - all that may separate the two.
"In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him--all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate." 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I long ago decided to leave the military behind. (I saw enough early on to realize that I didn’t have any future in trying to work my way through the labyrinth. It was hard for me to take orders without some understanding of why. Maybe that’s why there are no atheists in fox holes... They were ill inclined to make me a Captain and give me a ship straight away so I lost interest quickly. I had much time to ponder these things while scraping paint, brushing away rust and painting the result.) I don’t profess to have any answers to how such things come to pass. But I have thought about this a long time.
"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
"Nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of native--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I have a theory about behavior in war. Soldiers gather strength only from the highest organizational level with whose leadership they share any measurable experience, discomforts and fears. If your company commander is visible, leads from the front and suffers pretty much the same indignities as a private, the private may have a reasonable bond to the company level and gain strength from that group of soldiers. If not, then at best a bond can grow at the platoon level. If not there, then only the immediate members of the squad provide support. The smaller the support structure, the more susceptible it is to the disenfranchisement that may lead to evil and madness. Particularly when you are walking around with enough personal firepower to single handedly defeat a Napoleonic army. And have carte blanche to bust in doors and detain the occupants.
"He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased." 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
The story of the perpetrators of this particular crime describes how they were pulled in so many directions due to an unrealistic level of troop deployment. Most of the time they didn’t even operate at the squad level. Often just 4 or five men (sometimes just 3) with at most a very junior NCO if they had one at all. Tired, scared, overstretched and under near constant attack from either elusive small arms fire or IED’s and absent the good leadership needed to keep them from coming to see all Iraqis' as subhuman enemies their hatred grew finding an outlet in one particular sociopath able to finally catalyze this crime amongst three of his mates. Taking fire and seeing the gunman disappear into a house only to meet incredulous denials from the occupants for months on end. It’s not hard to imagine that with time, with no alternatives presented, they came to hate the people of Iraq. Alone and leaderless their marginal characters blackened.
"In and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened with slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularlised impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares." 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
"Everything belonged to him--but that was a trifle. The thing to know was what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible--not good for one either-- trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land--I mean literally. You can't understand--how could you?" 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
In this age about the best you can hope for is a good Company. Which means a young captain usually running a Company for the first time. Those with the most experience obviously live at those higher pay grades and organizational layers. And the route to promotion is generally charted through the colon of one’s superiors not the judgment of your subordinates. One must also be fair in noting that modern battalion and greater sized units are so geographically spread out as to make it hard for a commander to have a lot of shared experience with the foot soldiers and you can’t be too present without undermining the authority of the junior officers. Nevertheless being visible and clued into the nature of what you are asking the soldiers to do goes a long way. Soldiers are more accepting of even dangerous or onerous orders from someone they feel at least understands the risks.

The lightening rod for the rape and murder was a loner with a record who got a ‘morals exemption’ to join the army since recruiting was such a problem at the time. He walked around spouting hateful vitriol constantly but in a world of killing and violence how does one separate out the good soldier from the sociopath?
"Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last--only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude--and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
War is unlikely to be a good place to bring out the best of such a man’s character.
"I tried to break the spell--the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness--that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations." 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I still think it comes down to leadership. Other than the obvious combat advantage of sound leadership why is this so important? The unimaginable face of war. In my life and career I have witnessed things that would curdled most people’s blood. I have had guns pointed at me, heard the passing of missiles through leaves mere feet away, well before the crack of a rifle. I have witnessed death, suffering and injury beyond words. More so than most save a few. I’ve recovered broken and mangled bodies in the dark and the rain. None of which even comes close to a single second in combat. Won’t matter how many times I watch Saving Private Ryan.

Under that level of stress a lot can happen to soldiers. Particularly now when our soldiers are essentially at the front a year at a time. Assuming you don’t die, you either harden, break, numb, withdraw , endure - or descend into madness. Character, leadership and community. Absent these anyone can become a monster. Good vs evil is a staple of Hollywood war movies but the real Barnes’, Elias’, Kurtz’ and a myriad others contend for the souls of people taken from their simplistic youth and thrown into hell. While the majority of the country complains about the lowest taxes in the western world while comfortably sipping their morning latte’. These soldiers are superbly trained to maneuver and destroy with ruthless precision. Why does it come as such a surprise when ill directed, the same steel can be used to do such ghastly things? Any cocked weapon is a danger particularly without proper care. They deserve the best leadership. By those who do (or should) understand war. We also need to remember that most of these soldiers are just kids. Remember the first time you were away from home in a foreign country. Consider how alien things could be, even without getting shot at.
"It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'"

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
"Black Hearts" is a hard read. But if we are going to keep sending young men and women into these dark places we at the very least owe them our best efforts to try and understand the costs that we can never know. Provide them with the tools and support needed for them both to survive - and endure. Help them not stray so far that they can never come back to us.
" --it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice. I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone--and to this day I don't know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the peculiar blackness of that experience." 

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Fortunately many of those associated with this crime have chosen to share their experiences with the book's author. None of this justifies the acts performed or the suffering of the innocent victims. Nor could it ever. But if we continue to insist that evil bursts forth without provocation and without the creation of a relentless foundation, then nothing will ever change.