World

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.

The media were so busy linking alleged Fort Hood murderer Major Nidal Hasan to international Islamic terrorism the last few weeks that they hardly noted the execution of the Beltway sniper, John Allen Muhammad, on November 10th. Seven years ago, Muhammad was at the top of conservative commentators' Islamofascists-with-Links-to-Al Qaeda lists. Now, like then, the search for foreign links is proving to be a fruitless, distracting us from the abundant evidence of a causal connection between such murders and service in the U.S. military.



Consider the case of John Allen Muhammad, (formerly John Allen Williams). In her recently published memoir, Scared Silent, Mildred Muhammad, the later of his two ex-wives, writes that her husband went to the 1991 Gulf War a "happy," "focused, and "intelligent" man, who returned home "depressed," "totally confused," and "violent," making her fear for her life. In their briefs, Muhammad's appeals lawyers stressed that his "severe mental illness" never came up at trial, where he was allowed to represent himself despite obvious mental incompetence. (Till the end, he maintained his innocence, claiming that at the time of the killing spree he was in Germany for dental work.)



In seeking clemency and a stay of execution, Muhammad's lawyers presented psychiatric reports diagnosing Schizophrenia and brain scans documenting profound malformations consistent with psychotic disease. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Virginia Governor Tim Kaine were impressed. According to Governor Kaine, "crimes that are this horrible, you just can't understand…." And one day before Veterans Day, John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection.



Muhammad's lawyers might have included other facts.



Mental disorders from depression to mood swings, thought disorders, violent outbursts, and delusions are not uncommon among Gulf War veterans in addition to physical symptoms such as rashes, vertigo, respiratory and gastrointestinal problem, and neurological diseases like Parkinson's, ALS, and brain tumors. According to Dr. William E. Baumzweiger, a California psychiatrist with expertise in psychiatric ailments of Gulf War veterans, "a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans become homicidal" seemingly "out of nowhere." Indeed as early as 1994, University of Texas epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley, the preeminent researcher of Gulf War disease, had demonstrated that the brain scans of veterans with Gulf War illness were distinctly abnormal.



Last year a blue-panel, congressionally-mandated Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC) finally confirmed what veterans and their families have long asserted: That "without a doubt," Gulf War illness, as it's come to be called, is a profound, multi-system physical illness "caused" by brain-damaging chemicals to which troops were exposed by the Department of Defense. The RAC report identified three specific neurotoxins as certain culprits: anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take (or risk court martial), insecticides and repellants that drenched troops' tents, clothing, and gear, and nerve gases including sarin (the killer chemical in the Tokyo subway attack) emitted into the air when U.S. forces dismantled and demolished a vast munitions storage facility in Khamisiyah, Iraq. Muhammad's lawyers pointed to childhood beatings as a cause of his psychiatric disease and brain malformation, claiming that Gulf War syndrome exacerbated these conditions. But they didn't mention that Mohammad had no history of mental illness before the war--and that during the war he was stationed in Khamisiyah.



It probably wouldn't have helped. In 2002, another Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr. was executed for the 1995 rape and murder of a young female soldier, Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride. Like Sergeant Muhammad, Sergeant Jones was an exemplary soldier decorated in the war; but also like Muhammad, he returned from Desert Storm depressed, disoriented, and increasingly anti-social and bizarre. Like Muhammad, his defense was inadequate--but his appeals lawyer displayed MRIs and other scans of his abnormal brain, arguing that it was evidence of the brain damage from toxins he and other veterans with Gulf War disease were exposed to in-country. Supporting the petition for clemency was the written testimony of Dr. Haley that "there is now a compelling involuntary link between Mr. Jones' neurotoxic war injury and his inexplicable crime." Like Muhammad, Jones was stationed in Khamisiyah during the demolition, which poisoned thousands of troops and then thousands more as sarin plumes traveled far and wide, a fact the government hid for close to a decade.



And then there's the case of Timothy McVeigh. We have no scans of his brain, but we have ample reports of his mental state before and after Desert Storm, and evidence that the war changed him profoundly. In their biography, American Terrorist, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck paint a vivid picture of McVeigh's days in the ground war. The enthusiastic young marksman, at first, happily followed orders and shot an Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun over a mile away. When a bloody mist replaced the soldier's head in his viewfinder, McVeigh was disturbed and discharged the rest of his round into empty desert sand. Later, after Saddam had agreed to a UN and Soviet brokered ceasefire, McVeigh was further shocked and shaken by orders to kill defeated Iraqi soldiers traveling home on the highway from Kuwait to Iraq (come to be known as the "Highway of Death" for the thousands that U.S. Forces corralled and massacred on the night of Feb 26, 1991). He watched the road in horror as dogs chewed on human limbs, and as human bodies without arms or legs tried to crawl away.



In his famous 60 Minutes interview ten years later, McVeigh would tell Ed Bradley that the killing changed him. He found himself thinking, "I'm in this person`s country. What right did I have to come over to his country and kill him? …How did he ever transgress against me?" He went over thinking, "Not only is Saddam evil, all Iraqis are evil." But quickly it was "an entirely different ballgame… face to face…you realize they`re just people like you." He told Bradley that the government modeled brutal violence. In a 1998 prison essay he objected to the United State's continuing campaign against Iraq: It was the U.S. that had "set the standard" for "stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction.



McVeigh's experience in the Gulf War surely altered his thinking. But did it also alter his brain? What toxins might have entered his body on the highway where U.S. forces had just dropped cluster bombs and 500-ton bombs, napalm and depleted uranium, incinerating thousands vehicles and the people inside. He told Ed Bradley that when he came back "something didn`t feel right in me, but..I couldn`t say what it was." Psychological trauma alone, neeruoscientist now tell us, affects not only psyches but brains. Sophisticated neuroimaging shows the brains of those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be abnormal in areas regulating memory retrieval and inhibition (hippocampus), fearfulness and focus (pre-frontal cortex), and emotionality and lability (amygdala). The hippocampus of Alzheimer's sufferers are also shrunken and the amygdala of bi-polar sufferers have enhanced activation similar to those with PTSD.



Unlike McVeigh, Muhammad, or Jones, Major Hasan was not exposed to war's toxins, nor to its traumas first-hand. Day after day, though, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or on their way back, relived before him attacks and atrocities they had inflicted, suffered, and/or witnessed, altering his views and his mind. In the beginning of his Army training and service, by all accounts, Nidal Hasan was proud to serve his country. His examination of the internal conflict within Muslim GIs asked to kill other Muslims - prohibited in the Koran-- started out an academic project to enhance the Army's understanding and management of the dilemma. But as Hasan's exposure to mentally disturbed soldiers' memories, fears, and guilt increased, so evidently did his own internal strife and, in all likelihood, the secondary PTSD common to family members, friends, and professionals in close contact with victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of catastrophes.



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.