Mass shooting at Fort Hood: collateral damage from Iraq and Afghanistan wars

The mayhem at Fort Hood in Texas, which has left 13 men and women dead and 30 injured, is a byproduct of the brutal wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is a form of “collateral damage” for which the American political and military establishment is ultimately responsible.

The US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have now lasted a combined 14 and a half years. Not only is there no end in sight in either case, there is the prospect of the wars’ expansion into Pakistan, with bloodier and more disastrous consequences. The invasions have already led to the devastation of Iraqi and Afghan society, the deaths of as many as a million Iraqis alone, and thousands of Americans killed, or maimed.

The wars are not about democracy, overthrowing tyrants, or protecting the American people from terrorism. The US ruling elite is waging these interventions to seize control of critical energy supplies, to strengthen its position vis à vis its rivals in Europe and Asia, to gain global hegemony through its military superiority.

The impact of these neo-colonial wars, including the moral impact of the enormous gulf between the “official story” and harsh reality, must find expression within sections of the US military itself. To fight a predatory war against a hostile population is a demoralizing and inevitably brutalizing experience.

The alleged perpetrator at Fort Hood, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the son of Palestinian immigrant parents now both dead, spent most of his Army medical career at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC. For six years, from 2003 until last summer, he worked as a liaison between wounded soldiers and the hospital’s psychiatric staff.

In that capacity, he dealt with severely wounded military personnel. His aunt told the Washington Post that on the rare occasions “when he spoke of his work in any detail … Hasan told her of soldiers wracked by what they had seen. One patient had suffered burns to his face so intense ‘that his face had nearly melted,’ she said. ‘He told us how upsetting that was to him.’” An op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun by a Vietnam veteran and psychiatrist asks, only half-facetiously, “Is post-traumatic stress disorder something you can catch from your patients like a virus?”

Hasan, a devout Muslim, apparently developed a fierce opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Promoted to the rank of major in May, he subsequently learned he was going to be deployed to Afghanistan. He had hired a military lawyer and had been attempting to avoid being sent overseas and to leave the Army since September. Hasan’s aunt told the Post that the military “would not let him leave even after he offered to repay” the cost of his medical training.

His cousin commented to the media that Hasan was deeply traumatized about seeing wartime service. “We’ve known for the last five years that that was probably his worst nightmare. He would tell us how he hears horrific things [from the wounded] … that was probably affecting him psychologically.”

Many factors combine to produce the sort of breakdown that Hasan obviously underwent, including the overall social and political atmosphere in the country. A co-worker told reporters that Hasan was angry about American involvement in the ongoing wars, and that he “was hoping Obama would pull troops out and that things would settle down, and when things were not going that way, he became more agitated and frustrated with the conflicts over there.” The imperviousness of the existing political system to the sentiments of the population, along with the resulting feelings of alienation and powerlessness, is no small contributor to apparently “senseless” violence.

Personal mental instability is undoubtedly an element. Unmarried and without a girlfriend, a “bookish loner,” increasingly devoted to religion, Hasan had told relatives that “the military was his life.” Bitter disappointment and a sense of betrayal as he discovered the true character of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and horror over the possibility of being compelled to participate in those wars, may well have pushed a psychologically vulnerable individual over the edge.

The media is already harping on one of its favorite themes whenever a mass shooting takes place in America: how did the authorities miss the “warning signs”? Indeed, there seem to have been numerous such signs in this case, including Hasan’s alleged web site postings in defense of suicide bombers, and his frantic anxiety about deployment to Afghanistan.

On the one hand, the Army’s apparent indifference to Hasan’s state of mind gives some indication of the value the military command places on the work of its psychiatric staff, overworked and overwhelmed in any event as a result of the volume of mentally damaged Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans thrust into the system.

On the other, how is the military to pick out signs of a potential individual collapse, when there are so many indications of mass, collective breakdown?

The Wall Street Journal reported November 3, two days before the Fort Hood killings, that 16 US soldiers killed themselves in October, “an unusually high monthly toll that is fueling concerns about the mental health of the nation’s military personnel after more than eight years of continuous warfare.”

The Journal notes that 134 active-duty soldiers had taken their lives so far in 2009, putting “the Army on pace to break last year’s record of 140. … The number of Army suicides has risen by 37% since 2006, and last year, the suicide rate surpassed that of the US population for the first time.” More soldiers killed themselves in 2008 than at any time since the Pentagon began keeping track nearly three decades ago.

In late October, a National Guard soldier, who had served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, home on a 15-day leave, shot himself in the head in a Muncie, Indiana movie theater. In July a 30-year-old soldier was shot and killed by a fellow soldier at a party at Fort Hood, and in September a soldier shot and killed a lieutenant at the base, before killing himself (Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the world, has suffered more than 500 combat deaths and 75 suicides since 2001). In Baghdad earlier this year, an Army sergeant walked into a combat stress center and opened fire, killing five of his fellow soldiers.

Ten members of a single military unit at Fort Carson, Colorado, were charged with murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter from 2006 through the fall of 2008.

An article in the September 2009 issue of Management Science notes that the tempo of deployment cycles in Iraq is higher than for any war since World War II and that survey data suggests that the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Iraq war veterans may be as high as 35 percent.

Endless war is wreaking havoc on American society. The Fort Hood shootings emerge almost inevitably out of this horror and confusion.