Afghanistan Massacre: Unstable Soldiers, Untreated Brain Injuries, PTSD

AP is reporting that the staff sergeant who killed 16 Afghan villagers near Qandahar on Sunday morning had suffered a head injury in a vehicle incident in Iraq, before being deployed to Afghanistan. He had been “trained as a sniper.”

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, under pressure from the Afghanistan government of Hamid Karzai to say something dramatic, brought up the possibility of the death penalty for the shooter. While it is important that Afghans feel that justice is done, Panetta is sidestepping a bigger issue.

The shooter was from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, the leadership of which has a long history of prioritizing deployments over making sure that soldiers with brain injuries and possible Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are properly treated. The base has been plagued by suicides, spousal abuse, and soldiers going berserk abroad.

GI Voice has called Lewis-McChord a “rogue base.”

AP has video:

It should be remembered that frequency and duration of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan were substantially increased by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. As a result of the Bush administration’s frenetic pursuit of multiple wars abroad, the small professional military of the US was put under enormous strain. Deployments were increased from a year to 18 months, and multiple deployments became common. Because of the prevalence of roadside bombs as an insurgent weapon of choice, brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan sky-rocketed. The murky military occupations of countries where young US troops had little local knowledge produced paranoia and widespread Islamophobia, sometimes reinforced by evangelical hatemongering among the troops. British officers who served with Americans in Iraq were shocked and appalled at the sheer racism they often encountered among their US colleagues, complaining that Americans viewed locals as Untermenschen, a lesser race as the Nazis would have put it. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome often went untreated.

There is no ideal way to fight wars of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. But JBLC’s leadership clearly is not doing right by our men and women in uniform, and is thereby endangering not only them but also the hope for a soft landing for the US and NATO in Afghanistan.

The rogue staff sergeant snapped and did a horrible thing. But it is too soon to conclude that he was acting alone or that there wasn’t a vendetta between US troops at his forward operating base near Qandahar and the villagers he attacked. And it is way too soon for Panetta to put it all on him, and to decline to reconsider how the US deals with the horrible toll that war takes on those Americans sent to fight it.

If President Obama really can arrange for, as he says, the “tides of war” to recede, he is still left with a big task, of seeing to it that the veterans and their families are better served in the treatment of the less visible wounds they carry. While the Veterans Administration has improved in the past decade on these issues, mental health and brain injury treatment are still inadequate, both for service people and Vets.

Americans in general should rethink our policy of perpetual war and constant foreign intervention, of war as a standing industry with lobbies and paid-for TV spokesmen, purveyed by all the US news networks to keep us hooked on foreign deployments. War should be rare and a last resort. One thing Panetta got right is that the UN Charter should govern it, so that we can finally put the crimes of the Axis behind us as we move into the 21st century. War should either be for self-defense after an attack, or it should be to preserve dire threats to international order as deemed by the UN Security Council. Otherwise, it is not just a problem of a rogue sergeant, or of a rogue base. It will increasingly be a problem of a rogue nation.

19 Responses

  1. Thank you very much, Juan, for speaking up for the real interests of the ordinary soldiers in this terrible affair.

    Previous generations of generals, who truly were America’s greatest, only wanted a shell of a professional military in peacetime, and considered the wave of volunteers that would enlist in a war that seemed necessary and patriotic, to be a basic strength of American strategy and policy. They worried about the problems of training such waves of humanity, and given the differing cultural attitudes of mid-Century America, came pretty close to achieving “industrial success” in mass manpower training in WWII. And their curriculum had a section on respect for local populations.

    How far we’ve come, and sadly, mostly in directions that we need to reverse.

  2. In the case of the Fort Hood shootings we found connections between the shooter and an American abroad, a case that resulted in the extra-judicial killing of an American citizen by the US government. It is far too early to argue this infividual acted along; he may have had similar encouragement from “abroad”, i.e., the United States. His background and connections need to be carefully screened, and the possibility of unattended injury from his previous head wound given careful scrutiny. We need to be able to rule out the involvement of American religious extremists and negligence by the military command.

  3. But—! Perpetual War is just so darn much profitable FUN! It’s not like the careerists, contractors and Networked Battlespace Managers can claim ignorance of the framework of failure modes that is “War, American-Style.” They have tons of briefings by people who are often frustrated at the dumb indifference of the Brass. Even silly spots like globalsecurity.com, a great wannabe resource with links to post-service job opportunities in “security,” have articles like this, link to globalsecurity.org, to explain parts of the invaded culture that might affect an invader’s behavior and “likelihood of victory,” or kick his a$$ out of country…

    For the literarily challenged needing context, there are resources like these: link to amazon.com\c%201961-1975&rh=n%3A4366%2Ck%3AVietnam%20War\c%201961-1975&page=1 And I haven’t found a link to the little comic book each GI got in “processing in,” explaining 3,000 years of history and culture in 40 pages of simplistic images. I doubt the “indoctrination” has really improved much in quality. Certainly not in effect. Here’s the current hooker page designed to suck in new recruits: link to americasarmy.com

    My First Sergeant in 1968, an avid Christianist, once explained while in lugubrious liquor that everything he needed to know about the world, about life, was in “the Book.” I thought he meant the Bible. Turns out he was referring to the Army Manual. Undo that set of thought processes, if you can…

    C’mon, man: Resistance is pretty much futile! It’s what we do, who we are, how we feeeeel in our bones.

  4. Duke University visiting Law Professor Charlie Dunlap had this to say: “This is a horrifying and almost unimaginable heartbreak not just for the Afghans, but also for the U.S. and NATO troops who have sacrificed so much in the past decade,” said Charlie Dunlap, former deputy judge advocate general of the U.S. Air Force who specializes in warfare policy and strategy.

    “While the investigation and justice process must be allowed to proceed, it is difficult to conceive how the strategic damage can be overcome.” And he also said this latest incident may require a “major revamping of the U.S.’s Afghan policy.” See link to bit.ly for more.

  5. Pssst — Spread the word: Dereliction of Duty II Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort link to strategist-7777.blogspot.com The text of the whole paper is at link to www1.rollingstone.com That’s a .pdf.

    Just in case you’ve forgotten how the military Brass actually operates (see, e.g., Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch), or what “we” ought to have learned from stuff like the Pentagon Papers and any number of equally futile, ultimately, glimpses of the truths behind the Potemkin Village pasteboard of “game-changing weaponry” and Light at the End of the Tunnel…

    Just think about what $8 or $10 or $20 trillion could buy, in health and education and infrastructure and all the rest of that squishy stuff that the Military is supposed to be “protecting,” but actually is sucking the wealth and life right out of to protect the officers’ perks and contractors’ profits.

    • Have you considered the possibility that large portions of the American population hate the have-nots among them so much that they would spend on weapons just so it wouldn’t be available for social spending? A Reagan cabinet official confessed as much in his autobiography.

  6. Soldiers with scant regard for local inhabitants, desecration of enemy (or just suspected enemy) dead, shoot-first tactics, night-time raids on civilians, poses with the SS flag, coal-scuttle helmets, and massacres of villagers. Achtung, baby, the Wehrmacht has returned, and we are the new Reich.

  7. link to nytimes.com

    More like the British Raj than the Wehrmacht judging from this photo, which looks like a scene out of the movie “Ghandi”.

    I am hopeful that Obama has managed to change the direction leading to aggressive war — the fundamental indictment of Nazi Germany. Thanks, Juan, for your compassionate write up on this unfortunate US soldier. I hope he doesn’t end up as an isolated scapegoat.

  8. A very interesting, thoughtful take on the matter.

    The Iraq War really dealt our military personnel a double-whammy. We started a second major war, which greatly increased the number of troop rotations that were needed; and we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, allowing the war to linger for years, neither pulling out nor committing to finish the job, for years on end, thus guaranteeing that the number of rotations would go much higher.

    Absent Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld’s obsession with invading Iraq, we would have finished up in Afghanistan in 2-4 years. At the high end, that’s four war-years during the Bush and Obama administrations. But because of the decision to invade Iraq, that goes up to 20 war-years so far, and probably 22 by the time all is said and done.

  9. “war as a standing industry with lobbies and paid-for TV spokesmen, purveyed by all the US news networks”

    Maybe it’s time to bring back the old “Merchants of Death” appellation? The “new media” would have to lead the charge, because the current broadcast/cable media is an integral part of the new “MoD Squad”.

    I’m concerned by the timing of this latest news, that the alleged murderer had “brain damage” and “PTSD”. Maybe – but it could also be viewed as a cynical way to buy him sympathy – and immunity from prosecution.

    Also, it really sounds as if this entire Lewis-McChord base needs to be shut down and investigated, and its alumni immediately withdrawn from Afghanistan. The rest of the US forces can follow, in my opinion.

    • I think you are right about the use of brain damage as the government covering its ass. This will just make things worse for veterans, just as “veterans gone berzerk” stories did after Vietnam. It won’t win any sympathy among the Afghans, who in effect have all performed combat tours for as long as they’ve been living since 1979.

  10. I do not believe in the death penalty and in our system he would spend the rest of his life in prison. You folks do think the death penalty is ok so if you are being fair this guy should be put down.

  11. The United States is in negotiations to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban.

    Perhaps an offer to turn him over to face Afghan justice would be a nice bargaining chip. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over him.

  12. The VA has ignored/minimized PTSD & head injury issues for a long time. Every vet I know, who is a product of the Iraq/Afghanistan meatgrinder is damaged from it. The VietNam vets I know are damaged, but not to the extent of these younger vets. Usually one tour was all anyone did in ‘Nam, these guys are doing four or five tours, and it’s a different world and military from then until now. I may not know all the vets returning from the hellholes of Asia, but all are diverse, in backgrounds and branches served, in ranks from enlisted to officer. ‘What could go wrong?’- everything, from the first Iraqi war to the current quagmire of Afghanistan and the aftermath of the second Iraqi war, that could go wrong, has gone wrong.

  13. Lone gunman? The question has not been answered. I know a Dari 3rd person plural pronoun when I hear it, and to hear the Afghan villagers using ‘they’ and not ‘he’ suggests the full storyline is evolving. As you wrote, “it is too soon to conclude that he was acting alone or that there wasn’t a vendetta between US troops at his forward operating base near Qandahar and the villagers he attacked.” CBS Evening News reported tonight that soldiers from the base went out to assess the shootings – were these the troops that set fire to the bodies?
    link to tribune.com.pk

  14. The Afghan murders are now the biggest problem in the world.
    I am a “Perpetual Traveler” for 30 years, work, missions and pleasure; often the only white face for sq kms
    Today for the first time in my life I was racially assaulted and attacked in public on transport
    When accused of being an American Dog and attacked I said I was German and could not speak the language; I am English and fluent; I handled it OK; next time?
    I have buried more than my share; today I had tears as I thought: How about the mothers?
    The Soldier is beyond forgiveness so is the System and the Warmongers all

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