What Made Him Snap? Soldier Goes on Killing Spree in Baghdad 'Stress Clinic'

Personal Health

At 2 p.m. (Baghdad time) Monday, a U.S. soldier opened fire on his fellow troops at the Camp Liberty stress clinic.

The stress clinic is where service members are treated for psychological conditions. As of this writing, the military is reporting that the shooter killed five American soldiers, wounded three others and is now in custody. His name, his deployment history and his association with the clinic have not yet been released.

The incident, according to military sources, is the deadliest attack on troops by a fellow soldier since these wars began.

Since our invasion of Iraq, compelling analogies have been made to the war in Vietnam. Specifically, but not exclusively, we have again invaded a country in the name of freedom. We are again treating civilian populations as collateral damage. And we have again betrayed the soldiers who are fighting in our name, soldiers who were told they would be greeted as liberators, who were given inappropriate training and shamefully inadequate equipment and asked to risk their lives for reasons that have repeatedly shifted as each of the justifications for the invasion have been exposed as lies.

To my knowledge, there were no comparable massacres of American soldiers by other service members during the Vietnam years, but that is not to say that there weren't plenty of examples of American guns being turned on other Americans. Those examples have, to a tragic degree, been erased both from official history and even communal memory, leaving us far less prepared for the present, not to mention the future.

First, there were the so-called "fraggings," (a term used to describe attempts by soldiers to kill or injure their own officers with a fragmentation device, usually a grenade). In 1972, Sen. Charles Mathias, R-Md., called fragging the most tragic word in all the lexicon of war, "with all that it implies of total failure of discipline and depression of morale, the complete sense of frustration and confusion and the loss of goals and hope itself."

In 2006, when I was doing research for my book Flashback, I discovered the extent to which American soldiers resorted to such desperate measures:

The U.S. Army does not have exact statistics on how many officers were killed in Vietnam in this manner, but in December 1972, the Defense Department acknowledged between 800 and 1,000 actual or suspected fraggings. It also admitted that it could not account for the deaths of over 1,400 other officers and NCOs.
It should be noted that this number does not include incidents that occurred in other branches of service. Neither does it include attempts to kill by other means. In eloquent militarese, (military historians Richard A.) Gabriel and (Paul L.) Savage write, "The category of assaults by 'explosive device' excludes attempts to kill 'leadership elements' by other means, such as a rifle, automatic-weapons fire, ambush by claymore mines and misdirection to hostile ambush."
These figures suggest that 20 to 25 percent -- if not more -- of all officers killed during the war were killed by their own men. In 1971, the Americal Division (of My Lai infamy) was experiencing one fragging a week. The Army was clearly at war with itself.

Fraggings in Iraq have reportedly been rare, but in today's Army, officers aren't rotated every six months, as they were in Vietnam. That allows them more than just a narrow window of opportunity to win the trust of their troops and means they're less likely to be to be naïve and inexperienced. They may also be less likely to take excessive risk with their soldiers' lives to prove themselves worthy of promotion.

The Army may be more of a meritocracy today than it was then -- it may even be a more egalitarian and racially harmonious society -- but it has endured multiple deployments, and the psychic damage that results from long and terrible exposure to combat has been well documented.

Today's soldiers may be less likely to focus rage and frustration on their officers, but may well simply lose focus altogether, causing indiscriminate damage to themselves or whoever is within reach.

Tim Albone, a British journalist, recently spent time at Camp Liberty's Stress Control Center. His report, reprinted on the Army's Web site, describes the kind of emotional support soldiers seeking psychiatric counseling are offered.

"This is mental health military-style," writes Albone. Soldiers are referred to as warriors, not patients; PTSD is referred to as post-traumatic growth; and trauma is talked about as something to be learned from -- something that will "help you grow." He quotes Maj. Kevin Gormley, the center commander, saying, "Our job is to keep soldiers on the battlefield, not send them home." Maj. Thomas Jarrett, who runs the "warrior resiliency and thriving" program, echoes: "Our goal is to get back to the fight and get on with business ... we deploy, we fight our nation's wars."

Such combat stress units have been in place for more than a decade, during which time the suicide rate among soldiers has continued to rise, and the Army has continued to deny that a connection exists.

Also from Flashback:

The Army's response to the fragging epidemic during the Vietnam years was revealing of an institution that had lost the ability to critique and evaluate its own internal culture: they took the soldiers' guns away and restricted their access to explosives. By 1970, in many units, only those soldiers on guard duty or patrol were allowed to carry their weapons.
An enlisted man quoted in the New York Times claimed that "the American garrisons on the larger bases are virtually disarmed. The lifers have taken our weapons from us and put them under lock and key." The Saturday Review called it "symbolic of the Army's plight" that "the men are not even trusted to carry the weapons necessary to fight the war they have been sent to wage."
Military police units were also expanded and used to quell any actual or threatened insurrection. American guns turned on unarmed American boys was no less of a tragic irony in Vietnam than at Kent State in Ohio or Jackson State in Mississippi.

And it is no less of an irony that the total of six students killed and 21 wounded at Kent State and Jackson State made more of an impression on the country and did more to bring the war to an end than the tens of thousands who had already died in Vietnam.

GI resistance to the war in Vietnam was widespread and is largely forgotten. I suspect that those of us in the anti-war movement owe the profoundest of apologies to those whose resistance to the war, in whatever form it took -- refusing orders, sabotage, drug use, desertion, even fragging -- was based in a rejection of government policy and a more personal, but equally profound rejection of war.

The despair that motivated their rebellion has much to teach us about what kinds and degrees of moral or rational behavior can be asked or expected of men (or women) in combat and under what conditions.

Our experiences during the Vietnam War years offered an opportunity for communication across the boundaries of class, education, race and experience in the search for better solutions than war. PTSD -- and PTSD-related violence and suicide -- has to be seen as one among many forms of moral and psychological response to a betrayal of what's right.

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