It’s Friday, April 5, 2019, at 9 PM. An entertaining talk show, Skavlan. A dialogue between a prime minister and a special forces soldier who has no regret having kicked in doors and “killed a lot” in Afghanistan.
He justifies himself by the most primitive and long-ago debunked theory about Good and Evil in this world. And then the listening prime minister expresses his admiration.
Something roamed around in my mind hours after the event and I had to check: Did he really say what I think I heard?
It made me think about theories and worldviews on which political decisions can be founded. About the general, normalized fascination of war and killing, and about the soldier as hero and the victim as invisible, non-existent.
It made me think about the sophisticated, almost imperceptible, media methods by which perpetrators of law violations and war crimes are turned (and turn themselves) into victims and perform smoothly as part of a Friday night’s entertainment program.
And, finally, how a similar conversation about alternatives – about nonviolent peace-making – would appear irrelevant, unthinkable. There is no peace discourse today. War is peace given our “Zeitgeist”.
As far as I know, nobody has publicly expressed the view that this conversation was disturbing. I find that highly disturbing. Too.
Setting the stage and sitting on the stage
The Norwegian journalist, Fredrik Skavlan, is the host and interviewer. He is super professional, a good listener, makes people feel good and he has obviously done his research homework before meeting his, mostly famous, guests face-to-face. He lets them talk and does not see it as his task to challenge them, at least not politically.
According to Skavlan’s Facebook page, the talk show is one of Europe’s largest with around 2 million viewers per show.
The Danish prime minister, Løkke Rasmussen, is responsible for Denmark’s recent bombings in both Iraq and Syria. His party isn’t new to warfare. His party colleague, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was the Danish PM responsible for Denmark’s role as an occupying power in Iraq 2003-2007.
Fogh Rasmussen (they are not related) was then rewarded for this participation in aggression on a sovereign state without any UN mandate and became NATO’s Secretary-General.
In that role, he will be remembered for leading the Alliance’s destruction of Libya in 2011. There was a UN mandate about setting up a No-Fly Zone but not for the destruction of large parts of the country and the killing of its leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Well, no guilt by association intended, but I had no expectations that Løkke Rasmussen that would say anything independent-minded, meaningful or critical about war as such.
Another participant in this program was Ant (Anthony) Middleton, a British Special Forces soldier who – evidently – is proud of having kicked in lots of doors in Afghanistan and killed a lot of people seemingly without the slightest remorse (see below).
A quick search of the net tells that Anthony Middleton is a celebrity thanks to having been Chief Instructor for British Channel 4’s hit show ‘SAS : Who Dares Wins’. SAS stand for the Special Air Service of the British Army and the program slogan – Who Dares Wins – is also the slogan of SAS.
In other words, this is Channel 4’s contribution to promotes SAS whose activities around the world are basically top classified and probably not always lawful, noble or moral.
He is in the limelight thanks to just having published his autobiography and at the moment is on the “Mind Over Muscle Tour” around Britain.1
You’ll be able to see the sequence with Ant Middleton and the Danish PM (in English) here until October 2, 2019.
And with this, the stage is set.
Now listen to the conversation which I have written down sentence by sentence from the program. Because the program is not available after October 2, I have written the essential passages here. Thus, 4:30 minutes into the clip:
“Skavlan to Middleton: How many have you killed?
Middleton: I’ve taken a lot of lives but what I do remember is not necessarily the people I have killed because – I’m the first man in, I’ve done three tours in Afghanistan and I am kicking down doors on a daily basis, we’re hunting down Taliban commanders. It’s – you know, the list goes on.
But what I do remember is not pulling the trigger. What people must remember is that my job is to conserve life, to save life. I only take life when there is a level of evil that’s been surpassed or I am in an immediate threat or my pals are in immediate danger to life. But what I do remember is being there and I could have taken a shot and every time it just wasn’t right, I took my finger off the trigger. Those are the times I do remember.
Skavlan: Do you think about the fact that you’ve killed a lot of people that is someone’s father, you’re a father of five yourself?
Middleton: No, no, not at all. Like I said, there is goodness and there is evil in this world. I’m a good man and I know that. And, as I said, if you surpass a certain threshold of evil, you do not deserve to be walking this planet, and that’s how I saw it. I never saw it – again it was never personal. I never saw it as this was someone’s… you know…Listen! If you live by the sword, you must expect to die by the sword. You know, it’s again… taking extreme ownership of yourself, holding yourself accountable.
Skavlan: But of course, there are casualties that are less guilty of being evil. Have you experienced that?
Middleton: (Pausing)…. It comes with the territory. It’s part and parcel of conflict. It’s part and parcel of being in a combat zone. And don’t get me wrong, there are bullies with weapons out there.
Skavlan then turns to the Danish PM: You’re the man behind the desk. Because the war he’s talking about is our war too, or has been. I wonder how you reflect on that, how hard a decision to send someone – you mentioned it before Ant came in.
Løkke Rasmussen (speaking to Middleton, not Skavlan): Well, first of all, I admire your attitude. And I totally agree with the way you distinguish between good and evil. But, you know, this is for real and as I mentioned earlier on, we have had 43 casualties in Afghanistan and I have been writing all those letters myself, and each time I have done so, I have felt the — (can’t seem to find the words) — it’s very personal. It’s not just for fun.
Middleton: We train our whole life to do that. I wanted that fight at the highest order. I trained my whole career to fight and when it came, it’s like you allow me to do my job. You know, there is the other side, of course there is the other side and it’s traumatic but…
Skavlan to Middleton: But you are sent by someone behind a desk that you never met?
Middleton: Yes but if they didn’t send me, they would not be allowing me to do my job and….
Løkke Rasmussen: Yes, and I realise that and without going into details, I have been in situations where our Special Forces have asked permission to do something on the ground where we have made the assessment that this would not happen…
Middleton: (smiling) I understand that…
Løkke Rasmussen: And when I have met those people later on and on a more private basis, they have actually been more or less angry with me: Why didn’t you approve? Why did you not give your permission? So…
Skavlan to Middleton: This is the situation you’ve been in…?
Middleton: Yeah, and if you did not use us, you would have just as much up war as if you didn’t. I suppose you can’t get it right?! I love my job. I prioritize it over my family and my children. I am not proud of that but I did it. I was waiting for that call. I wanted to be the first man through that door. You know, use me! You’ve spent millions on training me…
Skavlan: You were 16 when you joined the army. What was the push factor and what was the pull factor?
Middleton: I joined the army because I was a very self-sufficient young man, you know, who always wanted to stand on my own two feet. I always wanted to do my own thing and I always loved the challenge.
I’m an extreme doer. And, you know, I’m not an intellectual, I’m not a bookworm. I do, do, do… and 9 out of 10, I’ve failed and learned from that, so the military was just appealing and to get away, do my own thing, get a roof over my head, be fed, and you know the little bit of money I got I could start to build my life the way I wanted to. It wasn’t ”I’m going in and have this amazing career in the Special Forces.
It was, like you know, it was me as a youngster, let me stand on my own two feet, let me hold myself accountable for my life and see where it takes me. And the stepping stones… I’m good at what I have done and I love extreme soldiering, you know I was a para, then a Marine, then a sniper, then an (intelligence?) operator and the natural progression was into the United Kingdom’s Special Forces.”
What is actually stated here?
- There is good and evil in this world. The two are separated and the good people are on one side, the evil people on the other. It does not occur to Middleton, or the Danish PM, that there could be good and evil people on both sides. Or that each individual actor could have good and evil sides – that can be activated depending, for instance, on what the person experiences from the outside.
- Evil does not have to be defined, but it can be graduated. Over a certain level, it is right to not only try to stop the evildoer but to kill him. Over that level, the evildoer does not have a right to walk on earth.
- The judge that decides when that level is reached, is – he himself, the killer. So, it’s about the killer who does good and does justice by eradicating evil.
- Evil and good are qualities of human beings, not for example of situations, structures, or history and traumas.
- Although Middleton admits, indeed has no problems talking about, that he has killed a lot, he says that he knows he is a good person. And that goodness does not include any consideration for the humanity of the one he kills; it’s irrelevant to the argument and the deed whether the opponent is a father of children like Middleton himself is.
- Middleton mentions no particular, say ideological, reason for his participation in warfare, but emphasizes more than once during the program that he couldn’t wait to get off to Afghanistan, do what he was trained for; he doesn’t want to be stopped in carrying out his killing mission and – essentially – it is all about him doing his own thing, as he says, and loving the challenge.
- What is not stated is things like these: having a problem with having killed a lot; a sense of regret, guilt feeling or a wish for forgiveness or reconciliation. This assumption is backed up by the fact that, postwar, he has gone into public activities and entertainment media in which his military experiences come to good use. He has, to put it crudely, become a hero, a celebrity mass killer actor and lecturer.
Why is this really disturbing?
Probably, Middleton is only unique because of the almost charming, smiling and totally emotionless ways he is coping with his killing. Few, if any, go through such situations and kill a lot without having to cope with the fact that, in spite of all, they took life.
When returning from the killing fields, many feel alienated, feel that nobody understand what they have been through (which is true), and sooner or later, take to drugs, alcohol, or the radical way out – committing suicide. Very few become celebrity stars with huge audiences.
One may find Middleton’s witness account and his obvious denial of any wrongdoing rather disturbing. I do – but on the other hand, I have been working in war zones and met perpetrators as well as victims. Few have the moral fiber to go through years of psycho-social soul-searching and healing and ask forgiveness.
Most veterans are also hidden away, are never integrated in society and if they are received as heroes when coming home that status fades before dawn. Governments and societies usually don’t want to be reminded of such things.
No, I must admit that what disturbs me – for real, to quote him – is that PM Løkke Rasmussen’s bluntly admires Middleton’s attitude and also totally agrees with the good/evil dichotomy.
Løkke Rasmussen probably has less need for a psychological cover-up than has Middleton. But he anyhow subscribes to a theory that is as outdated and simplifying in the extreme and which has been academically debunked decades ago.
It’s also a theory which – when applied in the political realm – is sheer colonialist/racist: We (white/men/Westerners/Christians) are good people, those we kill – particularly abroad and particularly in Muslim countries – are evil: they are less white, mostly men but morally weaker, inferior, non-Westerners and Islam(ists). (Note that the word Christian-ist doesn’t exist – for a reason: Christianity shall not be connected with terrorism; Islam borders on – or is – terrorism; an evil religion. Thus Islamists.
If a prime minister knew as little about theories and concepts in fields such as economy, social welfare, or ideology – s/he would be facing a barrage of criticism. And there would be commentators and editorial writers who would shout at him: How can you say such things?!
Now it is only about war and peace, about “primitive” Afghans and those out there who threaten our ways of life. And it is about Denmark’s blindly loyal US-framed foreign and security politics and in those fields no special, scholarly competence is needed.
One thing is that such a conversation can take place in public, based on a stone-age theory, in the year 2019. Quite another is that it happens in front of tens of thousands of viewers and no one raises and eyebrow. I find that disturbing, very very disturbing.
It speaks volumes about the pervasive peace and conflict illiteracy of our culture and our times. It speaks volumes about the military and other hardline monopoly on the politically correct thinking about war and peace. And what sort of primitive thinking underlies everything called war, never challenged in the mainstream media and no longer even by the so-called Left.
It ought not be possible for educated people to speak on television the way prime minister Løkke Rasmussen and special forces soldier Middleton did and not causing an outcry.
The perpetrator as victim
In programs like Skavlan and in virtually all programs with news about events in the world, we never see simultaneously the perpetrator of violence with the victim of violence.
In this edition of Skavlan, we saw two different perpetrators of violence – the victims – those deserving to be killed – were not represented and had no voice. The conflict in Afghanistan was given no background except the implicit one: it’s filled with evil people and we have a right to find them, kick in their doors and kill them. They should not walk on this earth.
Ant Middleton did not seem to feel pity for himself. But, in the exchange with Løkke Rasmussen, he seems to see himself as a potential victim, namely if he had not been sent and had not been allowed to perform his killing job. If someone in the audience had shouted “You are not as good a man as you think you are” – he would probably have felt like a victim.
Løkke Rasmussen, the man behind the desk who gives orders and sends Danes into warzones, quickly avoids Skavlan’s questions and starts talking about how hard it is for him to personally write those letters to the families of Danish young boys who have been killed.
He may not be aware of it but his answer comes across as “Look how difficult my situation is!” – and he even states in as some kind of self-defence that war is “for real” and “not for fun.”
Their more or less explicit appeal for sympathy, for us empathising with them and their good intentions – well, does not touch me in the slightest. They could, at any moment in the past, have decided to stop being perpetrators of violence. Stopped being directly and indirectly responsible for taking lives. They made their choice.
Imagine instead: “I’ve raped a lot”
Imagine this conversation was not about war and peace. Imagine it was about rape, pedophilia, or inappropriate male behaviour vis-a-vis women – topical issues today and issues where there is a considerable political correctness and ever narrowing comfort zones.
Imagine an individual sitting in an entertainment TV program – but meaningful, serious such – and stating without flinching that he has no regrets about the boys and girls and female colleagues he had molested or raped and that he doesn’t even remember them.
Imagine that he also considered himself a good man and thought that those he had molested did somehow not deserve to walk in this planet. And you found out that, afterwards, this ‘good’ man had become a celebrity in the entertainment and lecturing world.
An intellectual counter argument to this imagined parallel example could surely be: But the teacher and his victims were not in conflict, it was not a mortally dangerous confrontation of “you or me”. And I’d say – “true, fair enough – but!”
Today’s discussions are about individuals feeling hurt, disturbed. The use of violence is limited to individuals and, as we all know, easily ends up on the front page of, say, New York Times, particularly if the involved parties are exactly that – famous, celebrities. It’s usually not about what I would call a worse offence, namely killing.
Warfare, in sharp contrast, is about a system of organised killing – mass killing of people “we” have no relations to. Strangers.
In the case of Afghanistan, it’s about the world’s militarily strongest countries that have fought a war in a small country for now 18 years. It about thousands of lives – if not in some cases and over time – millions of lives lost and whole societies destroyed.
It’s a system managed by huge state powers and profit-seeking corporations, think tanks and more – what President Eisenhower warned the Americans and the world about as far back as 1961.
And it is a cultural phenomenon: It’s about fighting those you look down upon, those who are morally or otherwise perceived as inferior, unworthy, living at a lower civilisational level than “we”.
Wars and killing in other lands are based on such assumptions – on demonization and de-humanization of entire nations and religions. And on the Middleton/Løkke Rasmussen “theory” that they are all evil out there and we have a right to be in their country, kick in thousands of poor people’s doors and kill this evil scum of the earth because we are good people.
Both types – the close personal and far anonymous, collective mass violence – deserves to be problematized. But he more people and media focus on the close personal hurt and harm, the less energy is left for addressing the larger world’s.
Or imagine this from a this thought-provoking angle…
Imagine Mr. Middleton had kicked in tons of doors in houses belonging to Jews, say in illegal settlement areas on occupied territory, and had “killed a lot” of Jews showing no regrets, just doing his job?
Imagine a Danish prime minister stating thoughtlessly that he admired such action and totally agreed with the theory that evil Jews deserved to be killed and not walk on this planet.
In lieu of a conclusion: The new militarism that we need to talk about in informed, intelligent ways
Over the last few decades, war has become so integrated into and intertwined with civil society that it has become normal, acceptable and legitimate. That’s what militarism is about.
Militarism was once about flags, parades, uniforms and song, it was about arming men (since then, weapon systems are manned and then made increasingly un-manned like drones). It was about some kind of rule-based dueling and honour. No more so!
Today’s militarism is about the melting into one the civil and the military spheres of society: the civilianization of the military and a militarization of the civil society. Civil society permeated by the ethos of killing, killing of them – the inferior – Evils in order to preserve us, the superior Goods. Killing for good.
I may be wrong. I have studied these things the last 45 years and there is, I gladly admit, a lot of books I have not read and many conflict and war zones I have not worked in. Be this as it may:
If you think I am wrong, let’s do what is still possible: Dialogue and learn from each other! Write your comments below, stimulate others to join that vitally important debate. But please…
Do not tell me that there is not something wrong deep down, that we are not far out, when such values, ethics and worldviews as those presented by two public figures in Skavlan do not raise eyebrows and provoke debates.
Do not tell me that we have kept decency and humanity intact and that we do right when we discuss individual cases of violence and remain, simultaneously, totally ignorant and illiterate about our own system of mass killing and the assumptions and theories that underpin them.
And, please, if the issue of globalised violence and war – as well as lost opportunities to make the world more peaceful and safe for all before it is too late – is not worth a wide and much more informed global conversation, tell me what is.