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What Nidal Hasan, Timothy McVeigh, and the Beltway Sniper Have in Common: All Were Scarred by Pointless U.S. Wars

Some of the most notorious massacres of the past 15 years have been committed by veterans whose brains have been severely damaged from trauma or exposure to toxic chemicals.

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Even the most astute of commentators, like New York Times columnist Frank Rich, are wondering if Hasan is an "actual terrorist or an unfathomable mass murderer merely dabbling in jihadist ideas." But Major Hasan's religion was only one of several aspects of his being shattered by the stories he was charged with hearing. The troubled GI who opened fire on fellow soldiers at a counseling center in Fort Liberty earlier this year was not a Muslim, although some right-wing blogs initially suggested he was. In truth, the violence soldiers and veterans inflict against other Americans is not unfathomable at all.

The fire power expended on Iraq in the six-war was greater than that used in all wars in history combined, exceeded only by today's continuing sequel. The savage murder of civilians, though not on the radar of most producers and consumers of American media, smolders in the minds of many troops and veterans of all backgrounds serving in all three recent wars in the region. Troops on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the local citizens, suffer the fumes from open burn pits the depth of city blocks and the length of small towns; blast injuries from IEDs continue to damage the interiors of bodies and brains, often with no external breakage or bleading, causing, eminent neurologists say, a new kind of brain injury not seen before in the chronicles of war. Chemical fumes, powders, and liquids from military and industrial facilities bombed in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to contaminate earth, water, and air. Were today's wars to end tomorrow, the consequences of our invasions would not. For decades and perhaps centuries, Iraqis and Afghans will suffer disease and deprivation, and invading and occupying troops will carry the war back home, as soldiers always do, but with brains, bodies, and minds shattered as never before.

As the U.S. criminal justice system closes the case of Sergeant Muhammad and takes up that of Major Hasan, who will identify and prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for these heinous mass murders? The current trend in international war crimes and crimes against humanity is to consign crimes committed by individuals to national courts, and to apply international justice to those at the highest levels of government who make the decisions implemented on the ground. Brutal murders by American veterans and troops of fellow soldiers and citizens were surely not the outcomes planned by our leaders, but by now they are too common and too linked to wartime exposures to be considered unanticipated or unfathomable.

Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York's fellowship program for emerging scholars. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as The Partisan Review, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times and Tikkun. When You Come Home, her new novel, which explores the the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness, was published this year by Curbstone Press.