U.S. Army soldier directs traffic as Afghan citizens gather in Panjwai, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Mar. 11, 2012. Afghan President Hamid Karzai says a U.S. service member has killed more than a dozen people in a shooting.
"The Links to Violence"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
March 14, 2012
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
After massacre in Afghanistan, three question the Pentagon must ask
IT NEED not take one US soldier to attack and kill 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, to remind us that war is horrible. The killings have unleashed a steady stream of analysis about why we are still in Afghanistan. But that may be assigning too much importance to one lone soldier. Unfortunately, the Afghan war is bigger, and in some respects more disheartening, than these brutal killings.
But just as it is too easy to define the Afghan war by the killings in the Kandahar province, it is too myopic to view the rampage as the inevitable consequence of too much combat. There have always been shocking massacres, from My Lai in Vietnam to Biscari, Italy, in World War II, when US troops killed Italian prisoners of war. Today, in an age of instantaneous communication, these incidents take on tremendous global impact, making it still harder for a government to make amends. After all, almost 18 months passed between the My Lai murders in 1968 and the first news reports from journalist Seymour Hersh in late 1969.
So if the promised Pentagon review of what happened in Kandahar is to provide any useful lessons, it will have to focus less on Afghanistan or just one staff sergeant than on how better to avoid these horrors in the future. For the sake of the military and those who serve in it, a successful account should address these fundamental questions:
1) What did his supervisors know and when did they know it? True, the unnamed 38-year-old soldier's behavior is aberrant, but such murderous impulses rarely just appear one day. Combat troops are together every second of every hour, and there are few unnoticed signals. While the killer's behavior is often mentioned in the same sentence as the recent Koran burnings, they are in fact nothing alike. Koran burning is negligence of a profound order, but it involved mere property. The killings are an unambiguous crime. It's possible that the killer just woke up in the middle of the night and went on a shooting spree, but for all we know, his superiors had grave concerns about his mental stability but were unwilling, or unable, to act on them. We have already learned that the soldier was in the midst of serious marital problems and was having difficulties reintegrating back and forth to civilian life after four tours of duty — a series of disclosures that suggest he was already on someone's radar.
2) What is the relationship between multiple combat tours and violence? The Pentagon should look back to other violent episodes, including the soldiers who were recently convicted for shooting Afghans as sport. In total, how many tours did each of these soldiers make? If two is normal, then four may be simply too many. Stress can be cumulative. In 2009, the American Journal of Public Health documented that troops who face multiple deployments are at a 300 percent increased risk of mental health problems.
3) How is "brain injury" being diagnosed and treated? Multiple reports claim that the staff sergeant had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) sustained in Iraq during a vehicle rollover in 2010 but had passed a mental health screening. A thorough account of his treatment — or lack thereof — is in order. An even more essential concern is whether we are using the term TBI, the diagnosis for every head trauma incurred in war, including concussions, too loosely. With up to 400,000 soldiers with TBIs, there would be a strong incentive to have them cleared as efficiently as possible; a serious injury is more likely to be lost in the shuffle.
We owe these answers to ourselves, our troops, and also to the Afghans. Rather than hand over the staff sergeant for trial in Afghanistan, which some there are requesting, he should suffer his fate in an American military tribunal. He is ours, not theirs. But we still owe them an explanation.
Every war will have incidents that violate the norms of humanity, let alone of combat. They are not a reflection on our military or even the justness of the war. American soldiers don't deserve to be tainted by a lone killer in their midst, or to be put at greater risk by the Taliban's promise to seek revenge. But the soldiers, and the Afghans they are helping, deserve a system that will, to the best of its ability, learn from such tragedies.
Even if, as surely we all know by now, war is horrible.
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