Reading this terrific piece about James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, I stumbled across this passage from Jones’s WWII, a nonfiction treatment of the Second World War:
Everything the civilian soldier learned and was taught from the moment of his induction was one more delicate stop along this path of the soldier evolving toward acceptance of his death. The idea that his death, under certain circumstances, is correct and right. The training, the discipline, the daily humiliations, the privileges of “brutish” sergeants, the living en masse like schools of fish, are all directed toward breaking down the sense of the sanctity of the physical person, and toward hardening the awareness that a soldier is the chattel (hopefully a proud chattel, but a chattel all the same) of the society he serves and was born a member of.
I don’t know how accurate a representation of military life Jones’s description is, but it sounds remarkably similar to Hannah Arendt’s account of the camps in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Once the moral person has been killed, the one thing that still prevents men from being made into living corpses is the differentiation of the individual, his unique identity….
The methods of dealing with this uniqueness of the human person are numerous….They begin with the monstrous conditions in the transports to the camps, when hundreds of human beings are packed into a cattle-car stark naked, glued to each other, and shunted back and forth over the countryside for days on end….The aim of all these methods, in any case, is to manipulate the human body—with its infinite possibilities of suffering—in such a way as to make it destroy the human person as inexorably as do certain mental diseases of organic origin.
It is more significant that those individually condemned to death very seldom attempted to take one of their executioners with them, that there were scarcely any revolts….For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events. Nothing then remains but ghastly marionettes with human faces, which all behave like the dog in Pavlov’s experiments, which all react with perfect reliability even when going to their own death….