What’s surprising is that it doesn’t happen more often.
Don’t get me wrong, what happened at Fort Hood is a tragedy of terrifying proportions. The irony of surviving a combat deployment or preparing to enter the war zone for the first time, only to be killed by a fellow soldier – a doctor, no less, entrusted with the care and wellbeing of soldiers - in a place where you should have been safe is profound and horrifying. Incidents like this, soldier on soldier violence, eat away at the bond and the trust between warriors, and that trust, that bond, is the very core of military life, it’s the intangible thing that often means the difference between survival and death in situations most civilians can’t even begin to imagine.
But it happens.
We’ve been at war now for what? Eight years, if you mark September 11, 2001 as the opening shot. We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan since the first week of October, 2001 and in Iraq since the night of March 19th, 2003 – and in fact, I was directly involved in the opening operation on that night, in the oil fields of Southern Iraq, this is very personal to me. We’ve been fighting across two brutal fronts for twice as long as the United States was involved in World War II, for almost three times as long as we were in Korea, and we’ve been fighting hard for just about half as long as the entire Vietnam Conflict. Unlike those previous conflicts, however, this one is being fought by an all volunteer military, many members of which have returned for two, three, and even four tours of duty in the meat grinder. Many members of which never expected to see actual combat on foreign soil, members of the National Guard and the Reserves have been called on to do things that are the traditional responsibility of the regular military and they have performed magnificently.
The stresses are extraordinary. They are often cumulative. If you have never faced combat, if you’ve never faced imminent death over and over and over again, if you’ve never walked among the dead and the bleeding and sundered, heard the cries of the dying, if you’ve never lived with the smell of death and decay and rot in your nose for months and years at a time, you simply cannot understand what it can do to the human mind – even by simple association.
In America, we take comfort in the myth of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. Those men, our grandfathers, those great American patriots who went off to war and beat back the Japanese and the Nazi’s and liberated Europe and then came home unbowed, unbroken, undamaged and built the mighty superpower we Americans live in today. We like to tell ourselves that those men were unaffected by the horror of war, they came home and returned to their lives and sweethearts and the sunny and wonderful 1950’s. But peel back the thin veneer of that myth and you will find alcoholism and suicide and domestic violence and homelessness. Somehow Brokaw’s myth left out those men who returned home and found they no longer fit – and who then banded together to form groups like the Hell’s Angels and the Booze Fighters and fell into lives of violence and crime on the edge of the Greatest Generation’s shiny American Dream. Somehow Brokaw’s myth leaves out those others, the ethnic minorities, who didn’t share in that dream – who instead faced violent racism and rejection and marginalization by those same returned veterans – you have only to look to the persecution of Jews in 1950’s America perpetuated by veterans who as soldiers in Europe five or ten years before had fought for the liberation of those same people. Brokaw’s myth of the Greatest Generation somehow leaves out the lynchings and murders and segregation of blacks in the 1940’s 50, and 60’s South, many of whom had fought, and bled, and served themselves – and a number of whom were hung in their uniforms.
In the 1950’s we went off to Korea, often called The Forgotten War, my dad served there. Fought by the Greatest Generation and their sons. It was supposed to be a “police action,” but it didn’t work out that way. And many of those who came home from Incheon and Chosin faced the same disconnection and demons as their WWII predecessors – and they dealt with it the same way, booze and violence and divorce and domestic conflict and homelessness.
And then there was Vietnam.
For those members of the media who keep saying that that Major Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood is the worst case of soldier on soldier violence ever, all I can say is that they must have slept through Vietnam.
I’ve received a pile of emails from folks across the country. Allow me to share a few excerpts with you:
“Surely even you will have to agree now that the military is broken…something must be done!”
No, I do not have to agree. This is a shallow and baseless statement. I’ve seen it repeated by pundits and commenters and other clueless idiots who obviously think that wisdom is contained in pithy sound bites and who’s ability to think for themselves is about as complex as those little one-line quotes printed on the side of Starbucks cups. As I noted above, the US Military and its allies have been fighting hard for eight long years. To date we are still an all volunteer force. And in fact, we continue to meet our recruiting goals across the board. We’ve accomplished every single mission set before us, and continue to do so. Desertions are so rare that they make the news when they happen. Soldiers refusing to deploy or to follow orders are so rare, that they make the news when they do so. Violence by Soldiers outside the pale is so rare, that it makes the news when it happens. Despite what FoxNews would have you believe – morale is high, and honor, courage, commitment, duty, valor, and heroism are in abundance. When a soldier speaks out against the war or the government of this administration or the previous one, it is an event so rare that it makes the news. I served in this conflict, and I continue to live and work among the men and women of the Armed Forces and I speak from authority and direct knowledge - unlike those in the media or those engaged in making political hay. The military is nowhere near “broken” and to say so, to use the tragedy at Fort Hood to perpetuate this idiotic claim dishonors, discredits, and dismisses out of hand all of us who have served and continue to serve.
“I don’t know what the world is coming to, I’m nearly sixty and I’ve never seen violence like this, in the schools, the military.”
I saw nearly this same comment under a news article on CNN.com. “I’m fifty and I’ve never seen violence like this.”
Really? You must have been in a coma pretty much right through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’ and 90’s then. Because by the time the United States was eight years into Vietnam, say 1967 or so, it was goddamned hard to miss the violence in the streets of America – which as I recall was also around the height of the civil rights movement. By 1967, the practice of “fragging” was in full swing in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. There were many places an officer didn’t dare venture, places where death was more likely than on the battlefield, and those places were in the depths of US Navy ships and the back rooms of Army barracks, and in the bars and whorehouses and back alleys of San Diego and Norfolk and the Philippines and Thailand. Back home, perhaps you missed the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weathermen and the countless other groups dedicated to the violent overthrow of America. You must have slept clean through the Manson murders. You must have been out of town during the Watts riots. Hell you must have missed the Timothy McVieghs and Terry Nichols and Mark David Chapmans and other, lesser known, but too many to be named. I guess you missed it when a soldier of the 101st Airborne tossed a grenade into a tent at Camp Pennsylvania in 2003 because he had been reprimanded by his commander. You must be blind to walk past the homeless vets on damned near every street in America without noticing – or did you think that life on the street is all bliss and peaceful harmony? If you think this is the first incident of violence by a soldier against other soldiers or against his fellows or that violence is somehow worse now than it has ever been you’re just deluding yourself.
“Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim”
I got no less than three emails containing this little platitude, I’ve seen it repeated a dozen times in comments under various news articles, and I’ve heard it several time in conversation in direct reference to the Fort Hood shootings. This kind of shallow, mindless fiction taken as fact is precisely what got us into this conflict in the first place. The statement “all terrorists are Muslim” I’m sure will come as a complete surprise to those who fight against the Catholic and Protestant terrorists of Northern Ireland, or the Hindu Tamils of Sri Lanka, or the Maoist terrorists of Malaysia, or Marxist terrorists – most of whom are Catholics – of Columbia, or professed atheist terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, or Christian Separatists such as ETA in northern Spain, or the devote Christian terrorist who gunned down abortion doctor George Tiller in cold blood in the middle of a Christian church sanctuary. In fact, five minutes of research will show just how stupid and baseless that statement is. It’s a trick of perspective, the majority of terrorism we as Americans face today is indeed Muslim, because we are involved in a region where Islam is the dominant belief system. Were we to be involved elsewhere, the threat would come from a different axis. HOWEVER, it has yet to be proven that the primary driver in Hasan’s attack on his fellows was religious in nature.
Which takes us to:
“This just goes to prove something I’ve said all long, that Muslims cannot be trusted. The bastards should shipped back to whatever shit-hole they came from. They sure shouldn’t be allowed to serve along side our brave soldiers…”
First, please stop using the phrase “our brave soldiers.” I find it galling. The word “soldier” is sufficient. Second, if you’re so damned concerned about “our brave soldiers” how about calling your congressman and senator and demanding that those same soldiers have the tools and equipment necessary to do their jobs properly? How about demanding that they have the counseling and medical care they need upon returning home and before going back into the sandbox? How about telling your government that, hey, our brave soldiers need better care and better equipment and better support – so, uh, I guess spending the defense budget on F-22 raptor assembly lines and LCX cruisers and pie in the sky weapons systems and other such crap solely in order to keep voters employed at the expense of those self same soldiers probably isn’t such a good idea? How about supporting a president who prefers to give due and careful consideration to the idea of sending yet another 40,000 of those soldiers into the meat grinder, instead of calling him a traitor and unpatriotic? Otherwise, do me a big favor and shut the fuck up about “our brave soldiers” because your hypocrisy makes me sick.
And finally third, some of those “brave soldiers” you talk about? They’re Muslim. For four months in the combat zone, I trusted my life to a Muslim. A US Navy Sailor whose parents fled the revolution in Iran and came to America. Their son was a Muslim of Shiite extraction and one of the finest men I ever served beside – he had every reason to believe in America, far more so than the flabby armchair warriors who have never served a single goddamned day in their lives. Thousand more Muslims serve honorably, every bit as committed to the ideals of their oath as their Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Wiccan, and Atheist comrades – and they are out there right now, keeping your dumb ass free.
I don’t know that Hansan’s actions were driven by his religion. I don’t know that they weren’t. Only Hansan can answer that, if he recovers. Condemning all Muslims in uniform for Hansan’s actions is pure bigotry and dishonors all those who serve steadfastly alongside us, and all those who live peacefully among us. Condemning all Muslims who wear the American uniform and who have sworn to give up their lives for this country, for you, because of the presumed motivations of Major Hansan, is a slap in the face of every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, and Guardsman who fights for the ideals of the United States. I spent a great deal of my life in Muslim countries and, outside of the warzone, none tried to kill me, few spoke rudely to me, and most were warm and kind. I will tell you that I’ve met more than my share of crazy people, some of whom obsessed about their particular bugaboo – which sometimes was their religion. I’ve met plenty of batshit crazy Christians in my life and even written about a few here. Islam doesn’t have the market on crazy. I suspect in the end, you’ll find that Hansan simply snapped, that he suffered a psychotic break and that while his religious beliefs exacerbated the situation they weren’t the reason for it. There are those who bemoan that “political correctness” somehow allowed this to happen. That Hansan should have been drummed out of the military for allegedly expressing pro-Islam, anti-American sentiments. Again, people are making assumptions without proven facts – it has not been proven that Hansan made those statements, either out loud or on-line. HOWEVER, he was under investigation for it. He had been reprimanded. He had received negative performance reviews. And if those things were proven true, he would have been removed from service. This is how the system works. In this case obviously it didn’t work fast enough, but the solution is an improvement in the system, not in the condemnation of Muslims. To do so means that next time you’ll miss the crazy bastard who isn’t a religious extremist.
And there will be a next time.
Yes, there will.
Those of us who serve in this time of war live among violence, violence unimaginable to those who have not been there. Our grandfathers knew it, so did our fathers. It is our profession. It changes us. Some handle it better than others, some can’t handle it at all – but it affects each and every one of us. Even those who are exposed only by proximity, as was Major Hansan.
This, my friends, is the cost of war.
This is only one of the many, many consequences of war.
The great writer Robert Anson Heinlein, himself a veteran, said many times, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” And he was right. We’ve been at this war for eight years now. Thousands are dead, many thousands more wounded, and maimed, and scarred by battle. I can walk through the parking lots on any base in this country and count dozens, hundreds, of Combat Wounded, Purple Heart license plates – did you think that comes without cost? And not all wounds, maybe not even a majority, are visible. You don’t have to take a bullet to come home wounded.
Some will recover. Some will come home with a renewed sense of life and living. Some will return resolute and steadfast and determined. But, some will be haunted for the rest of their lives. Some will drink themselves to death. Some will strike out at their spouses and children and friends. Some will end up homeless and destitute and unable to cope. Some will cry and rage and wander the earth broken and hopeless.
This is the cost. This is the toll in flesh and spirit.
For all of you armchair warhawks who have not served, who have not seen combat, know this: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
This is the cost.
No, as I said above, it’s surprising that this doesn’t happen more often.
The question is, what are you going to do about it?
Update: I was asked about my thoughts on the fact that soldiers are not allowed to carry live weapons routinely on base, and whether doing so would have prevented this tragedy.
I’ll answer by pointing out that in the immediate confused aftermath of the shooting, two soldiers were taken into custody on the rumor that they were somehow involved, and that this was a conspiracy by a group of “terrorists” or soldiers gone rogue. Try to imagine the wild confusion of that moment. Try to imagine the hysteria and group think.
Now try to imagine it with armed soldiers.
Try to picture in your head just how much worse this situation would have been if those two soldiers, who were later released as uninvolved and innocent, were mistakenly gunned down by their comrades in the heat of confusion. Try to imagine the number of dead and wounded when everybody involved was armed with automatic battle weapons.
Now, try to imagine the long term effects on the military, on the culture, on the trust and the bond between soldiers when each of them must carry a weapon at home just in case they have to gun each other down.
Now add to that mix, those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from alienation, and the stress of war and conflict.
Yes, try to imagine that.
You can’t, can you?
Because if you could, you wouldn’t have made such a stupid suggestion in the first damned place.
Additional thoughts here.