We are all saddened by the sixteen people killed by an American soldier on a recent rampage. Clearly, he had lost his mind.
But soldiers go berserk in every war and we obviously have not found a way to prevent it. “War,” as Civil War General William Sherman said, “is hell.” People go berserk in hell. It’s predictable, though not who and when. Go to war and some soldiers will, as we like to say, “lose it.”
I don’t say that to excuse what Staff Sergeant Robert Bales did. And the military has to try to keep discipline. But neither does it excuse us. It has to be part of our calculation that everything will not go according to plan; that some of our soldiers will do horrible things; that they won’t avoid going berserk just because they are American. They will go berserk because they are human and every one of us has a different breaking point. In a war, some men will break, lose it, go nuts, regardless of nationality. Any other vision is just a dream.
But that also fires rounds through the idea that we can fight a clean war. Any strategy that depends on our fighting, or anybody fighting, a clean war is simply dreaming. War is hell. People get hurt. And they rarely welcome soldiers as heroes – especially when the war zone stays put and keeps killing.
In ancient times, raping and pillaging civilians was part of the object of war – we didn’t call it going berserk because the whole army did it. Then we tried to civilize war. You had to wear uniforms. Soldiers fought in large groups against other soldiers. Even so, men went berserk. Some attacked civilians without cause.
Our images and memories of the warmth bestowed on American soldiers after the two World Wars is rare, and not about newer forms of warfare. Things have changed. Soldiers coming back from Vietnam kept telling us that the people were the Vietcong. More precisely they couldn’t tell the Vietcong from peasants too frightened to take any side. Guerilla warfare obscures the landmarks. You can’t distinguish heaven and hell. And it takes a lot to stay sane in hell.
That’s why the failure to provide for the soldiers coming home with “PTSD” – post traumatic stress disorder as we call it now – has become such a big issue. A large portion of our soldiers are coming home with huge mental problems. They’ve also lost it, hurting themselves and their families who feel the brunt of what war has done to them. And we’ve been letting them down.
But there is another consequence. If winning means winning the hearts and minds of the civilians where we are fighting, it isn’t going to happen. They’ll praise us while we rid their towns of people they don’t like, but eventually war will make a shambles of their homes, kill their friends and relatives, with us the invaders in their country.
So there is a lesson. It’s time to get out of Afghanistan. This is the wrong war, in the wrong place. We will gain nothing. If the Taliban regroup with al-Qaeda, we can deal with that quickly and effectively. But trying to rule Afghanistan, or rule it long enough to pass it on, is nonsense. Let’s get out.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 20, 2012.