Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Robert Bales Was No 'Lone Gunman'


This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News on 19 March 2012.

Our country today is in the enviable position of being able to fight a gritty multi-front counterinsurgency far away in unfriendly and inhospitable terrain. And we’ve been doing it for over 10 years now. The average American hasn’t felt so much as a bump in the road for it. There has been no draft, no fuel rations, no chocolate shortages. When I served in Iraq, we used to say “the military is at war: America is at the mall.”

Since the recent murders committed by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Afghanistan, the perpetrator as has been called “troubled,” “crazed” and other such adjectives. The military is probing for alcohol involvement. He received a medical exam prior to deployment but, no surprise, was given a clean bill of health by military doctors. He was injured twice and witnessed fellow soldiers maimed and killed on previous deployments. He was also reportedly having family troubles back home.

They’re looking for the reasons why Bales did it. Yet, none of these single things caused this incident on their own. All of these circumstances were caused by yet another circumstance: sending a man to Iraq three times and then to Afghanistan for a fourth tour.

It is true no one made him pull the trigger, so he should bear personal responsibility for his actions. Bales should be punished to the full extent of the law if found guilty.

But America shares in the collective responsibility for this incident. If you send young men and women off to war, they will not come back the same. If you send them off to combat every other year for a decade, they will not come back okay. War is an action for which there are all kinds of consequences. But because the average American only knows war as something that happens long ago or far away, it is easy to shake our heads and ask how someone could possibly do this.

In fact, the average American hardly notices we’re still at war. Blaming it on the “lone gunman” pushes away the collective national responsibility for the consequences of sending volunteers to war for ten years.

Soldiers returning from war are often accused of being desensitized from violence due to what they’ve experienced. In some cases this is true. But the average American at home is desensitized to the violence that combat veterans face. I can vouch for the fact that I very much feel the toll of what I experienced in Iraq. I think about it daily, sometimes when I don;t want to. I’m sure other combat veterans will say the same. But war and violence are something average Americans only experience on the evening news or watching TV series like “Homeland.” This is an enviable position.

As far as the military is concerned, no PowerPoint slideshow or sensitivity training will prevent these incidents. While I was in the Army, I participated in training sessions every week regarding professional and moral behaviors we all already knew. Despite legal arguments after such incidents, no one needs to be taught that torture or urinating on bodies is unethical. These classes weren’t given to teach us anything. They were given to provide cover for the government and leadership when such incidents do occur. They do nothing to actually prevent them.

The military has a culture that looks at the expression of grief as a sign of weakness. Those that seek help are not able to “hack it.” Of late, the military has improved in the provision of post-combat support services, but military leadership still allows a culture of denial to exist. The resources are there, but troops are not able to access them. The structure of the military also creates situations where one soldier can be sent to combat for four tours while others never go or deploy to support missions in places like Kuwait, Turkey or Uzbekistan.

Many of our troops have done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some have been wounded in action on multiple occasions. Everyone who went knows someone who didn’t make it back. Many saw friends die. Many suffer from invisible scars such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Relationships with spouses and children have also been casualties. Of the first five years of my own marriage, I spent almost all of it away at war or training to go back. The memory of what happened “over there” leads many to divorce, to drink, to commit suicide. Or worse, such as this incident and others like it show.

America’s military is an all-volunteer force. Our military will bear any burden and make any sacrifice asked of them, including spending a decade at war. But we are in unchartered territory, in terms of how this affects our men and women in uniform. As such, this creates a greater responsibility by those that make military decisions to ensure our troops are not making sacrifices in vain and that their hardships are recognized. With more veterans coming home since the end of World War II to an unfriendly job market and greeted by proposed cuts to veterans services, this promise is not being kept.

Our political and military leaders shouldn’t shake their heads, let themselves off the hook and blame the “lone gunman.” We all collectively bear some responsibility for this incident. Unfortunately, this likely won’t be the last. Our soldiers and their families always pay dearly for the decision to go to war. They pay for it for the rest of their lives. Those who decide to send our troops to war and those that support them pay nothing, but they reap the benefit of a peaceful and secure life.