The Soldier And The Policeman’s Trained Attention And Its Pathologies

In the chapter ‘Focus’ in his book of essays,The Examined Life, Robert Nozick writes:

The ability and opportunity to focus our attention, to choose what we will pay attention to, is an important component of our autonomy. [p.122]

In a footnote appended to this sentence, Nozick continues:

What we presently focus upon is affected by what we are like, yet over the long run a person is molded by where his or her attention continually dwells. Hence the great importance of what your occupation requires you to be sensitive to and what it ignores de jure or de facto, for its pattern of sensitivities and insensitivities–unless a continuing effort is made to counterbalance this–will eventually become your own.

Consider then, the soldier and the policeman, and the pathologies that are said to famously exist within these professions (each of which has been reckoned a pinnacle of masculinity in some dimension or the other): trauma, anomie, depression, rage, anxiety.

The soldier and the policeman are required to constantly detect danger, manifest in person and place and situation and object; they are taught to respond with hostility, with armed and dangerous bodies. (Some soldiers, if they are unlucky enough, work as policemen in occupied territories; counterinsurgency work and such patrolling and policing must surely count among the ‘dirtiest’ occupations of all.) They are finely tuned to turn their attention persistently and consistently in these directions; they return from tours of duty of urban spaces and warzones with their danger-and-hostility detectors turned on. They are on edge, irritable and tense and taut, filled with rage and fear, all easily manifest in domestic violence and suicide. They bring older selves to their professions and return with newer ones created in the crucible of their new work, where their focus and attention has been systematically diverted and focused, as it had been taught to, in the academy, in advanced training. There, they had been taught, repeatedly, to ignore many human qualities–for instance, the humanity of those they kill on the battlefield or those they capture, interrogate, handcuff, or imprison. It is, indeed, one of their ‘core competencies,’ the hallmark of their profession, and one they must perfect through practice over the course of their careers. They must be competent, at finding targets and perps, who are now not humans any more, but ‘enemies’ and ‘criminals.’ (On a related note, consider the anecdotal reports that oncologists are notoriously unsympathetic doctors. They might well be; after all, they are exposed to death all too often; all too many of their patients simply do not survive. This could result in greater sensitivity to death, but their work would be too onerously affected were they to let it affect them in deeper, more emotional ways.)

It should not surprise us that soldiers and policemen are ‘damaged’ thus by their work. Their ‘patterns of sensitivities and insensitivities’ have been altered, with little effort to ‘counterbalance’ them. Sometimes their enemies and opponents suffer the brunt of this; unfortunately, on many other occasions, it is their family, their neighbors, and friends and loved ones that do. We, as their parent society, bear some measure of responsibility for those we have so created and trained. A different society might eschew the need for such professions; till then, we remain with the pathologies we have set in motion.

Sandor Clegane, The Hound, on the Hypocrisy of Knighthood

A Song of Ice and Fire‘s Sandor Clegane, the Hound, is a vile man, a murderous mercenary who knows no scruples. But his impassioned rants against the hypocrisy of the knights of the Seven Kingdoms–besides providing him with some wonderful lines–give him a little redemptive touch.

In A Storm of Swords, before his battle with Beric Dondarrion, as he is accused by the Brotherhood without Banners (AKA the Knights of the Hollow Hill or The Forgotten Fellowship) of atrocities committed by the Lannisters, the Hound fights back:

“You server the Lannisters of Casterly Rock,” said Thoros.

“Once. Me and thousands more. Is each of us guilty of the crimes of others?” Clegane spat. “Might be you are knights after all. You lie like knights, maybe you murder like knights.”

 Lem and Jack-Be-Lucky began to shout at him, but Dondarrion raised a hand for silence. “Say what you mean, Clegane.”

“A knight’s a sword with a horse. The rest, the vows and the sacred oils and the lady’s favors, they’re silk ribbons tied around the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with silk ribbons tied round the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with ribbons hanging off it, but it will kill you just the same. Well, bugger your ribbons, and shove your swords up your arses. I’m the same as you. The only difference is, I don’t lie about what I am. So kill me, but don’t call me a murderer while you stand there telling each other your shit don’t stink. You hear me?

After he has cheated a ferryman of his fare by falsely promising to pay him on his ‘knight’s honor’ and is accused of breaking his vow, the Hound says:

Knights have no bloody honor.

Later too, the Hound lets an innkeeper know he does not want to be thought of, or addressed as if he were, a knight:

“I don’t want no trouble, ser,” the innkeep said.

“Then don’t call me ser.”

The Hound is right, of course: there is little distinction, often, in the behavior of sellswords and knights (as Sansa Stark painfully finds out);  the vows of knighthood are all too easily broken.

In leveling these charges against the exalted figure of the knight, Clegane forces a confrontation with the uncomfortable truth that renders the distinction between mercenary and professional soldier a tenuous one: both are in the business of killing.  The mercenary’s acts are all too quickly prejudged as driven by little more than selfish considerations but the soldier may often be granted the privilege of elaborate ideological cover for his actions.

This fragility of the distinction between ‘the man who fights for cause and country’ and ‘the man who fights for purse alone’ suggests a greater moral responsibility on the former.  But as the Hound sagely–if crudely–points out, all too often soldiers (and their leaders) are content to merely dress up their actions with puffery and bombast and pompous proclamations of codes of conduct. It is the easiness with which those may be discarded that is the target of the Hound’s ire. And it should be ours too.