Monday, July 28, 2014

The U.S.-Chinese War Over Africa

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 9 June 2014.

American and Chinese efforts in Africa can be characterized by two contrasting outlooks. The United States focuses on security, the Chinese on economic investment. Contrary to Howard French’s claims in his new book, China’s Second Continent, that Chinese settlers constitute “the beginnings of a new empire,” Beijing’s relationship with the continent is more nuanced than that – China is a burgeoning world power in desperate need of resources and profits. Unlike its European predecessors, Beijing has no interest in re-imagining colonies in its own image. Yet, its attention toward the continent may foretell a larger strategic competition between the United States and China. Whereas the Chinese look at Africa and sees dollar signs, Americans look at the continent and see dangers – Islamic terrorists, pirates, and corrupt dictators chief among them. This may not be the first time China has made advances in Africa. But this time around, its economic might and no-strings-attached sales pitch may prove a winning combination.

Pivot to Africa

The U.S. recognized the need to boost its presence in Africa because of its geographic and strategic importance. The establishment of U.S. Africa Command and its 2008 designation as a separate combatant command exhibit America’s renewed commitment to security on the continent. America has expanded airstrips to accommodate increasing personnel and logistical traffic and ramped up its training and liaison support of African militaries and intelligence agencies and institutions such as the African Union. U.S. Special Forces, intelligence officers and security contractors have been increasingly employed to target militants. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a recent trip to the region, linked U.S. assistance with a country’s democratic achievements.

Washington now has a military and intelligence presence in over a dozen countries there. For example, it employs private contractors to fly light civilian aircraft out of Burkina Faso over western Africa to track militants. Djibouti is its largest permanent base, home to 4,000 U.S. personnel and a hub for UAVs and manned reconnaissance aircraft. Washington also flies manned reconnaissance aircraft from Uganda, assisting in the hunt for Joseph Kony’s LRA. It has also established drone bases in Niger and Ethiopia, expanded facilities in Kenya for training African troops, and deployed forces to Mali to assist British and French efforts following the 2012 coup. The U.S. has also sent troops to Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Congo and the Central African Republic in recent years. Most recently, it deployed a contingent to Nigeria to assist in the search for Boko Haram militants.

In contrast, China has focused on economic partnership and development. China’s rapid growth and demand for natural resources requires it to look outside its borders for stable and affordable resources. In this regard, Africa provides China with a bonanza: Over 85% of China’s imports from Africa consist of raw natural resources. Trade between Africa and China has swelled by 30% per annum over the last ten years, while trade volume has been more than double that with the United States. China has also invested in roads, railways and ports to help transport these resources, benefiting Africans as well. For example, China recently pledged to build a $3.8 billion railway in Kenya. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the same African countries John Kerry had just a few weeks before.

Whereas the Chinese looks at Africa and sees dollar signs, the United States looks at the continent and sees dangers – Islamic terrorists, pirates, and corrupt dictators chief among them.
Unlike the United States and other Western trade partners, China does not condition its relationships in Africa with political or ideological commitments. This advantage is appreciated by African strongmen subject to harangues from the West on democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Still, some fear China’s goals are purely mercenary and an attempt to “lock up” all of Africa’s resources and that China will abandon the continent once it has gotten what it wants.

Reading Mao in Kinshasa

This is not for the first time Africa has become a chessboard of global competition between great powers, especially China. Though Washington and Moscow competed in Africa, the more interesting story is the competition between Beijing and Moscow for “hearts and minds” in Africa. As the Sino-Soviet Split deepened in the early 1960s, China began to challenge the Soviet Union for leadership of the socialist bloc. It saw an opportunity to build independent influence in states recently liberated from or still fighting for independence from European colonialism. Its influence was strongest in nearby North Korea and the former French colonies Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. However, as Jeremy Friedman writes, China presented a real challenge to the Soviets in Africa as well.

It attempted to create an Afro-Asian bloc and played up its own armed guerrilla insurgency and quest for independence and development as shared traits with Africans struggling for the same. It supported Algerian independence when Moscow did not and pictured Khrushchev’s ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the West and disarmament talks as evidence of lack of support for armed socialist revolutionaries in Africa and elsewhere. Chinese propaganda depicted the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis as Moscow backing down from the U.S. China greatly increased its African propaganda efforts by increasing local-language radio broadcasts and the distribution of books and pamphlets throughout the continent, far outpacing Soviet and even Western efforts. China seemed for a time to be winning the ideological battle with Moscow for leadership of socialism in the Third World.

But by 1963, it became apparent that though China was winning ideological and propaganda battles in Africa and elsewhere, it could not compete with the Soviet Union—or the West—in terms of material and financial support to socialist movements in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Cold War China lacked the capacity to provide large amounts of troops, weaponry or money to allies in far off places such as Africa. It could not buy nor project power. The Soviet Union and the West could. China lost its first round in the competition for Africa.

China is in a quite different position today. It is an economic powerhouse with the clear ability to contribute large amounts of wealth to the economies of African countries with the natural resources they seek. Today it is able to build the roads, railways and ports it could not afford during the Cold War and which the Soviets and the West could. While its first efforts in Africa were driven and focused purely on communist ideology and the shared revolutionary struggle, its African efforts today are marked by a clear lack of any connection to ideology. It buys resources and builds necessary infrastructure seemingly with no strings attached. Additionally, its relationship with the U.S. itself is one characterized by mutual dependence, rather than clear opposition as the competition during the Cold War was. African countries do not have to choose definitively between East and West.

While Chinese policy is to remain militarily disentangled from events that do not directly affect its interests, it has shown a greater willingness to contribute to African security. Beijing, for example, was instrumental in the passage of Security Council 1769 in 2007, authorizing a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. It has provided over 1500 troops to UN peacekeeping efforts in Africa, more than any other member of the UN Security Council. Its navy is part of the joint multinational effort to combat piracy off the African coast. Even Chinese aid and arms transfers to Africa have been misrepresented, as they give more military arm and aid to democratic regimes than the United States, according to a 2012 study.

In the mainstream narrative of the Cold War, the focus was placed on the conflict between the United States versus a monolithic Soviet Union, which supported socialist movements from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope. But this was never the case. Moscow was not the puppet-master it was believed to be. China and the Soviet Union fell out badly beginning in the late 1950s, and the relationship remained rather sour until the 1980s. This has perpetuated a view that China has always been isolationist and lacking in ambitions overseas, as well as concerns over the “rise” of China being over-inflated. China, in fact, attempted to project power outside of its own borders before—in Africa specifically. Previously it tried and failed because it lacked the resources to become a global power. But that has all changed.

Beijing is once again putting up stiff competition for Africa, this time for Washington instead of Moscow. Its “no strings attached” partnerships are attractive to many African governments. America’s financial and military aid, by contrast, often comes with strings attached, such as criteria for good governance and human rights. China’s efforts focus on obtaining the natural resources it requires and pays African states well in return in terms of both sales and infrastructure development to obtain them with no added conditions. With $2 trillion in trade, China may well win its second round in the scramble for Africa.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Russia's NATO Expansion Myth

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 28 May 2014.

It has recently been argued by some that Russia’s invasion and intrigue in the Ukraine was foreseeable and a natural consequence of NATO’s broken promise to Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapsing USSR not to expand eastwards into its former domains. Russian President Vladimir Putin is, so the theory goes, reacting to a 24-year program of US/NATO eastward expansion stemming from that broken promise. This is a grievance Russia has put forward in arguments against Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States joining NATO and again in 2008 when possible NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine was discussed. The ‘broken promise’ thesis was also offered to explain Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. The claim is that this course of events, or a similar one, was reasonably foreseeable, that some predicted it, and that it is a natural consequence. You reap what you sow. The problem is that NATO did not sow these seeds.

The myth that such a promise was made has been allowed to grow by assertion, speculation and incomplete information. More and more primary sources and memoirs of the participants in the negotiations between Washington, Bonn and Moscow have become available over time. There is a rich background of study of this particular controversy by academics such as Fred Oldenberg, Mark Kramer, Mary Elise Sarotte, and Kristina Spohr, among others. From the available interviews, memoirs, written documents, agreements, transcripts and notes on the multiple bilateral negotiations—from Soviet and East German sources as well as Western—it is clear the subject of the eastward expansion of NATO into former East bloc states was never discussed as a stand-alone issue and no such agreement or promise was given by Washington to Moscow. At a recent Council on Foreign Relations event, for example, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said U.S. negotiators never agreed to such a thing at the time.

The closest the participants ever came to directly tackling the issue was at the very beginning of the negotiations quickly following the collapse of Eastern European governments and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. West Germany’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher—more concerned with German issues than the larger Cold War—was concerned Moscow would take a hard line and wanted to make a pre-emptive offer to smooth their feathers—before the issue had ever been formally discussed between East and West—that a unified Germany would not be a member of NATO, but rather either neutral or a member of another strictly European organisation, the OSCE. Interestingly, Genscher became Chairman of the OSCE in 1991.

If NATO expansion was as vital an issue to Russia then as is claimed today, Moscow would and could have insisted on a clear statement of it in writing.
However, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl did not endorse even this view. It would essentially mean West Germany leaving NATO. The U.S. and UK also disagreed. NATO without West Germany would have significantly weakened the organisation, making it an almost solely an Anglo-American affair after France all but exited in 1966. The official West German, U.S. and UK positions in negotiations with Moscow never included Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s idea. NATO’s eastward expansion was only discussed in clear text in the context of German reunification—namely whether NATO troops would be allowed on former-East German soil. NATO took the position that they had to be, as it would make no sense to have unified Germany as a full member with security guarantees for only half the country. Moscow agreed in the 1990 Treaty on Final Settlement with Respect to Germany that, yes, reunited Germany would remain in NATO, but no NATO troops should be moved into former East Germany until after all Soviet troops had departed. NATO was held to and kept this promise. Arguably, as NATO’s security blanket now also covered eastern Germany, it already represented an eastward expansion of NATO—by way of agreement with Moscow.

If NATO expansion was as vital an issue to Russia then as is claimed today, Moscow would and could have insisted on a clear statement of it in writing. It certainly would and should have wanted more than verbal assurances given during ongoing and evolving diplomatic negotiations. Of course some argue this away by claiming Moscow was outsmarted or outmanoeuvred by George HW Bush and Helmut Kohl and that the Soviets were under pressure to move quickly because of the impending collapse of Eastern European governments. Such a vital point must surely have been apparent to the Soviets. That former East bloc states may want to join the alliance one day was not so far outside the realm of possibilities. The idea had occurred to the U.S. State Department and Hungary and Poland were already discussing NATO membership in February 1990.

One important question should be asked: Why would NATO agree not to expand NATO eastwards? In 1990 the world held its breath at the prospect of the end of 45 years of Cold War. The United States and its trans-Atlantic partners had come out on top. Many in the Bush administration saw the job now as to help Gorbachev hold the situation together so that it did not descend into violent chaos. However, it would be extremely naïve to believe that the U.S. and its allies would agree to leave everything east of the Oder-Neisse Line alone, especially when they had finally won the Cold War. To do such a thing would fly in the face of 45 years of fighting a battle for democracy, capitalism and freedom against a communist vision of collectivism, oppression and stagnation. Why would NATO agree to forgo the fruits of victory? There is no written provision addressing NATO expansion contained in any of the agreements or communiques stemming from any of the negotiations. Those, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Americans such as former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and former US Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, who assert such a promise was made have no concrete evidence to point to. They rely on retellings of flawed memories or the myths built from an assertion over time, all refuted by primary-source evidence. No such promise was ever made.

Regardless of the truth, the Russian government asserts, and many Russians undoubtedly believe, that such a promise was made and has been broken by NATO and the US specifically. Many others outside of Russia also believe it as an article of faith. Many want to believe it because it conforms to their Weltanschauung—worldview. With such cases, the truth is—sadly—unhelpful. Regardless of what was not promised, no less a personage than George Kennan asserted in 1998 that NATO expansion was unnecessary, that with the USSR gone there was no longer any threat and US support for continued expansion placed Russia up against a wall. Russia had to struggle to rebuild itself in a new post-Soviet image with a new role in Europe. Unable to join NATO or the EU, it watched as its former foe swallowed up more and more of its former satellites and crept into its ‘near abroad’. A reaction was to be expected. If this view is true, Vladimir Putin maintains a lingering Cold War imperialist mindset. Putin must see the 1990 negotiations, not as the final testament and rites of a dying empire, but as a sort of Neo-Potsdam Conference in which the Oder-Neisse Line was still being maintained, just with open borders, friendlier relations and looser control over satellites. Perhaps he considers it a bit like a much wider and more severe Polish or Prague Spring. He believes Russia was promised something by the US—that it would leave its near-abroad alone. He must also still believe Russia has a right to and should maintain dominance over its bordering states, as in the time of the Czar and Stalin after him. He does not believe these nations have a right to independent self-determination.

Putin must refuse to believe that Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Georgia and now the Ukraine determined themselves they wanted to join NATO and/or the EU. For Russia, it can only be that America—and its partners Britain and France—conned or cajoled these states into coming over to their side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. For Putin, there is only Russia and the US and every other state is just a piece on the game board. If this is all true, it is understandable why Vladimir Putin wants to believe the US promised to leave Eastern Europe to him and Russia in 1990. This thinking also portrays some wishful thinking on America’s part, hoping against hope for the ‘end of history’ and the ‘peace dividend’. It is true that NATO was conceived to collectively confront the Soviet threat, now gone. However, to believe that the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact meant that NATO was no longer necessary because the last great evil had been defeated portrays naïve thinking and perhaps the doomed repetition of history.

The West still has not learned some lessons. We believed WWI was the ‘war to end all wars’. It was not. We believed the same at the end of WWII in 1945 and again at the end of the Cold War in 1990. While threats from Islamic terror and atomic rogue states have been exaggerated over the last 15 years, the history of the 20th century shows that America and Europe still need NATO. The world is still a dangerous place in which collective security remains necessary. In fact, looking at individual European military forces and defence budgets, collective security under NATO is all they have. None maintains a fighting force capable of mounting any sizeable operation without US support. History always returns. As with the dominant narrative of the Cold War, this thinking also leaves out the agency and will of other states besides the US and Russia. If the Cold War is truly over, then the Baltic and Eastern European states such as the Ukraine are not anymore just pawns or peons or customers to be convinced or coerced into choosing one side or the other. Even if such a promise had been made between NATO and Moscow 24 years ago—and it was not—they do not have the power to make decisions for these other countries today. They are sovereign, independent nations.

These states, their governments and their people control their own relations and chose to be members of NATO, the EU, the OSCE, and etcetera. After all, this freedom is what the US claimed to be fighting the Cold War for. It is within the Western rhetoric of freedom, independence and democracy. It was not the US or Europe who overthrew the Russian puppet government in the Ukraine in some Cold War-esque covert action—it was the Ukrainian people taking to the streets to demand change as they have several times over the last decade. To say that the US and its allies should have predicted and it was foreseeable that expanding NATO and considering Ukrainian EU membership would lead to a backlash from Russia is to ignore the individual will of Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians and reduce what they want to a secondary consideration. Anyone who claims this future was predictable based upon a false version of the past should be seriously questioned. Vladimir Putin believes Russia is entitled to control its neighbouring states as in the days of the USSR and the Russian Empire. It is not entitled to, no matter what it falsely believes it was promised 24 years ago.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

When Vets Kill

This post originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 9 May 2014.

Are American vets saints or sinners? When incidents such as the 2009 and 2014 Fort Hood shootings, the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh Temple attack and the 2013 Washington Naval Yard shootings—all involving former military personnel—are combined in the media with reports of the epidemic of veteran suicide, veteran homelessness, military sexual trauma, and domestic violence among soldiers, it paints a grim picture. Yet the portrayal sends a mixed message when paired with the ‘celebrity Generals’ and corporate and political hero worship of serving troops and veterans. Such media depictions only serve to erect the metaphorical wall even higher between those who serve and those who do not, yet creating a kind of collective guilt among the latter that recoils in horror after such shootings, even as they cannot pass someone in uniform without reaffirming their patriotism with a token nod of support. More perplexing is when such shootings get hijacked by media discussions over PTSD, which distracts everyone from the real issue at stake: the presence of handguns on military bases, which are supposed to be citadels of security.So which is it: saints or sinners?

The answer is complicated, and one that is informed by this country’s collective urge to celebrate all things that support the troops, who Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich describes as the real “One Percent”, but without asking Americans to make a shred of sacrifice. God forbid that taxes were raised to pay for two wars or that anybody in Congress mention talk of a draft. In truth, a cynic might say that the troops are unfurled before the public whenever they help move product — whether to sell newspapers, to sell beer, to sell candidates, and so forth. The military and veterans are together one of the few institutions in America that continues to enjoy near-Universal, non-partisan respect. However this ‘respect’ often translates into little more than a pat on the back, a handshake and a ‘thanks for your service’. The struggles of America’s veterans are real. However, they are neither unblemished heroes nor violent mental psychopaths. What is missing from the veterans’ narrative depicted in the media is the veterans themselves.

Vets are portrayed as national saints or victims and perpetrators. Despite having such obvious symbolic power in America, veterans have little real power. Corporate boardrooms do not welcome them. There are virtually no veteran CEOs who do not work for military-related companies or in a project they did not start themselves. The US Congress has the lowest number of veteran members since the end of WWII. Military pay and benefits—long sacrosanct—are now being targeted as entitlements in fiscal battles in Washington. The VA benefits backlog is still a problem after decades of empty political promises. Many of those vets who do make it into powerful circles are often granted access because of who they come to know, not out of some belief that they merit success for their sacrifices. Most veterans organisations, new and old, have chosen or been forced to pick a partisan political side, despite the fact that neither side can claim to have clean hands when it comes to handling military and veterans affairs.
Madison Avenue has also gotten on the troops-are-heroes gravy train. One can hardly pick up a name-brand product at a grocery store in America without it carrying a notice that some of the corporate proceeds go to helping ‘our heroes’ through a tax-deductible veteran’s charity. The opening or halftime ceremony of every major sporting event features tributes to the troops.

While it is encouraging that veterans and charities are receiving this kind of attention, it is clearly not for altruistic motives. Images of US troops are being used to sell products. Almost every major corporate brand in America has a military page on its website where it professes to make special efforts to hire vets—leaving out mention of the tax incentives it receives to do so. For-profit colleges with questionable reputations for quality mercilessly target veterans for their GI Bill funds. Politicians and political action groups are the worst offenders in abusing service-members for their own personal gain, from sources as diverse as gay pride rallies to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Despite regulations against it, men and women in uniform are a favorite backdrop for elected officials who hope to gain from the legitimacy and public support the troops enjoy.
One can hardly pick up a name-brand product at a grocery store in America without it carrying a notice that some of the corporate proceeds go to helping ‘our heroes’ through a tax-deductible veteran’s charity.

This year’s Super Bowl featured a Budweiser ad showing a ‘Hero’s Welcome’ for a Lieutenant returning from Afghanistan. Budweiser at one point even claimed to have ‘Army support’ for the ad. Opinion among veterans was split as to whether the commercial stepped over the fine line between recognizing the troops and using them to sell products. It is against military regulations to appear in uniform to sell products or to participate in political activities. The US Army initially considered pursuing a cease-and-desist order to prevent the spot from airing and never adequately explained why it decided to allow Budweiser to go-ahead.

By way of contrast, immediately following the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas by Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, media reports were quick to point out that it happened on a military post, the shooter was a soldier, a veteran of the Iraq War, and apparently had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Parallels were immediately drawn between this incident, the 2009 Fort Hood shootings by Major Nadal Hassan and the 2013 Washington Naval Yard shootings by Navy Reservist Aaron Alexis. Even the killing of three people at a Jewish community center in Kansas by a Klansman was linked to the gunman’s status as a Vietnam vet. With 24-hour television news and most major newspapers providing extensive coverage in the days and weeks following the Lopez shootings, one would be excused for believing there must be an epidemic of violence among American troops and veterans. Inside each of us, the media appears to insinuate, is a Timothy McVeigh itching to be heard.

But the depiction is false. A law enforcement analysis of 29 active shooter incidents between 1999 and 2012 found that most were workplace-related incidents committed by lone young men, the majority of which used semiautomatic pistols and died in the incident, either by their own hand or through the response of law enforcement personnel. Almost all of them had long-term issues with work or family. The most interesting fact is that of these 29 incidents, only 4 were current or former military personnel. One of them, Major Nadal Hassan, cited Islamic terror as his motive. Another, the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shootings, was motivated by racial hatred. The other two exhibited histories and grievances consistent with the other 25 non-veteran shooters. Based on this data, arguably there is no link between military service, PTSD and shooting rampages.

Specialist Ivan Lopez has the same profile as non-veteran active shooters. He was a young, lone male with a semiautomatic pistol who eventually turned his weapon on himself when confronted by law enforcement. The picture that has emerged of Lopez is of someone struggling to adjust to a new home, a new career and difficulties with his superiors—a situation that is not military-specific whatsoever. He just happened to be a soldier. Contrary to common views, Lopez did not just snap; he was likely harboring a long-simmering resentment toward his workplace and what he saw as unfairness in his life. The fact he already had his weapon in his car on the day of the shooting incident suggests a degree of premeditation or that he was already considering the possibility of taking action.

But the media immediately latched onto the fact he was a soldier, had deployed to Iraq and was being evaluated for PTSD. Much has since been made of the fact that he deployed to Iraq for only four months as proof he could not have PTSD. In fairness, one incident on one day is enough to be traumatized if severe enough. Different people are affected in different ways and, contrary to the media narrative, development and severity of PTSD does not depend upon the number of months or tours served in combat. One of the issues of treating PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury is that they are mental wounds which can only be diagnosed by their symptoms as reported by or observed in the patient.

Perhaps Lopez did have PTSD, perhaps not. There is no way to know now. It actually matters very little. Despite the connection the media immediately draws in such circumstances, there is only a very weak connection between PTSD and violence. However it is clear that Specialist Lopez was struggling to deal with his life in a way that many non-military, non-veteran Americans do every day, a struggle which can lead to violence. However this has not kept the media from playing up the military-PTSD aspect.
When it comes to US troops and veterans, the American media has developed a clearly detectable ‘Madonna/Whore Complex’, in which those who serve are invariably portrayed as either perfections of virtue beyond reproach (see the fawning coverage of David Petraeus prior to 2012) or as victims of the government or society or as perpetrators with festering mental health issues which may lead to suicide, violence or even murder.

Consider the following headline: “Veterans with PTSD Linked to Everything That Could Kill Your Children.” Fortunately, it is from the military satire site The Duffel Blog. Adding to this state of affairs is the (ab)use of service-members and veterans in media campaigns by politicians, political action committees and corporations for their own gain. Troops have become the new talking babies or cute kittens playing with yarn – mere props to move product and check Americans’ box to pay tribute for their service, and maybe even profit off their presence. Whenever events like the Fort Hood shooting presents us with a more nuanced and untidy picture of our veterans’ well-beings, we tend to veer into the other extreme, painting them with a broad brush as PTSD-addled killers. That is not to simply grasp the cliché that the truth is somewhere in between, but rather that most of our veterans are not unlike any other segment of the American population.

Take Specialist Ivan Lopez. On another day, in different circumstances, a former police officer, Iraq War vet and Army reservist who decided to switch to driving trucks on active duty to feed his family would have been a hero. He would have been in a Budweiser commercial or spoke at the local VFW. Instead, the media pictures him as a frustrated loser with PTSD who was ten years older than other troops his rank who could not handle his troubles anymore. The veteran is a war hero one day, an armed killer the next. Within hours of the shootings and his suicide, the story was already creating media churn and being put to political use by politicians and advocacy organisations. It has become the latest chapter in the debate about guns in America. One side argues that active shootings like those in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Fort Hood could have been prevented if the public, school officials, and off-duty soldiers were allowed to be armed in public. The message has to focus on Lopez’s undiagnosed PTSD and mental health issues. It was not easy access to firearms that caused this shooting; it was Lopez’s mental health issues. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Contrary to popular belief, living on a military post means less access and exposure to privately-owned firearms than living off post. The weapons used by Major Nadal Hassan and Specialist Ivan Lopez were obtained off post at private establishments and kept against military regulations. Though every company-sized military element on a base counts hundreds of firearms among its equipment, access to this weaponry is very tightly controlled by commanders and armorers. Troops cannot simply draw out their assigned rifle at will. It can only be for a purpose authorized by the unit commander. Though military posts such as Fort Hood may contain tens of thousands of small arms weapons, they are kept secure in padlocked racks or cages behind bank vault doors armed with alarms that notify military police directly any time an arms room is accessed. Most military facilities with arms rooms are also manned by soldiers 24 hours a day. Any time a weapon leaves a vault, a paper trail is created as to who signed for it, when, and what armorer allowed it out. Access to weaponry is taken seriously by the US military.

Contrast this with the various disjointed, inconsistent and ill-enforced laws regulating the purchase, use, transport, carrying and storage of civilian firearms outside of bases across the United States. No matter your interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, even transporting a firearm from one town or county to another can lead to an unknowing violation of the law. Each city, county and state seems to have its own rules and regulations and the federal government seems to change its application or interpretation of firearms regulations depending upon who is in Congress or the White House. America’s gun laws, no matter your view of them, are a tragi-comical absolute mess.

Many troops own personal firearms as well. Military policy requires these weapons be registered with their unit and must be stored in the same arms room as military weaponry and are subject to the same controls. As with military-issue weaponry, access to personal weapons is only by arrangement with the armorer with the permission of the unit commander.
Yet some on the right would like to see more guns on military posts. More guns would not stop or deter an active shooter like Ivan Lopez. These are people who have determined they will commit a violent act and will continue to shoot people until they are shot by police or shoot themselves. The Hasan and Lopez shootings took place during the duty day and military police were on the scene within fifteen minutes. Both incidents were over quickly. Introducing an off duty soldier who happened by chance to be in the area and carrying his personal weapon into the situation could serve only to cause confusion among law enforcement as to who the perpetrator is. This would be made worse if word spreads across a post and draws armed soldiers who want to help, creating a tangle of armed troopers without command and control. Soldiers do not behave that way in combat and it makes equally less sense to do so on post. Law Enforcement, with special training, radios and coordination should handle such incidents.

It is rather ironic that the media focused on the military and PTSD aspect of the Lopez shooting rather than use it as an opportunity to discuss responsible gun laws. Instead, they’re portraying soldiers as victim-perpetrators to sell newspapers. In the case of Ivan Lopez, it was not PTSD or a soldier’s fondness for guns or access to military weaponry that allowed this latest Fort Hood shooting to occur. Lopez’s grievances with the world were not military-specific. They were the same issues many civilians have. Military weapons were not involved.

It was the easy access to weaponry off post that allowed Ivan Lopez to obtain a firearm in Killeen, Texas (ironically, from the same gun shop where Major Nadal Hasan bought one of his guns) and bring it onto post to kill his fellow soldiers. This incident had nothing to do with Lopez being a soldier or if he had PTSD or any failure in military policy as the media and some politicians and advocacy groups have claimed. It was the America outside of Fort Hood that allowed this incident to occur. If America outside the walls of military posts had as sensible gun control laws and took weapons as seriously as the America inside them, active shootings like this could be stopped.

Which returns us to the general public’s schizophrenic relationship with its armed forces. So long as there is this metaphorical wall between us and them, there will be this mixed message after tragedies whereby we praise our heroes with our right hand, while condemning their PTSD with our other hand, even as we refuse to do anything to fix our own gun-obsessed culture. Carry on America “supporting the troops,” with tributes, fundraisers, and shout-outs during seventh innings.
Keep patting backs, wearing t-shirts and slapping on bumper stickers. But if you really want to pay tribute to their sacrifice, fix this country. Make it into one that is worth fighting for and that the troops are welcome and safe to return to.