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Massacre excuses: Guilt by association for U.S. troops

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on March 31, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
March 30, 2012 4:50 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Too many cheap explanations are being tossed around for the March 11 massacre of what appears to be 17 innocent villagers in Afghanistan. As a result, untold thousands of combat veterans risk getting indirectly smeared.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a Lake Tapps man who’d been deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, has been charged with the killings. The public knows very little about the crimes and very little about him; the Army has not been particularly forthcoming.

Into the vacuum of information has blown a whirlwind of speculation. Plus, in this case, artful comments from Bales’ defense attorney.

Much of the speculation concerns post-traumatic stress syndrome. Specifically, whether the slaughter was triggered by PTSD.

There are several problems with this notion. For starters, the Army has said nothing about whether Bales actually suffered from PTSD. His wife has said she saw no signs of it.

The estimates of soldiers who return from war with the disorder runs as high as 30 percent. That leaves a minimum of 70 percent who don’t come back with PTSD. Was Bales among the minority who do? We simply don’t know.

More to the point, soldiers and veterans who’ve had PTSD aren’t known for mass murder. The disorder can cause anguish, nightmares and flashbacks; it can trigger domestic abuse and even suicide.

But it doesn’t connect any dots for violence of the March 11 magnitude. The attempts to turn it into an explanation imply that other soldiers with the same condition are also at risk of becoming bloodthirsty berserkers.

This is not only untrue and grotesquely unjust, it also further stigmatizes a condition that badly needs de-stigmatizing. Many Americans – not just combat survivors – live with PTSD. They need help and understanding, not shame.

Let’s look at the other excuses:

• Traumatic brain injury. Bales reportedly suffered a concussion or something of the sort in a previous deployment. But TBI is no more of an explanation for mass murder than PTSD.

• Alcohol consumption. Come on. There’s no hard evidence – only Army-fueled rumors – that Bales was under the influence when the killings occurred. In any case, every club on every military base would be a combat zone if alcohol instilled the urge to kill.

• Larium. Some say this malaria drug is a likely culprit in the massacre. It has been linked – rarely – to episodes of psychosis. But there’s not a hint that Bales ever received it. Nor does psychosis lead to the kind of premeditated, carefully executed killings he is accused of. It rarely leads to any killing at all.

Oh yes, Bales also had financial problems, was passed over for promotion and didn’t want to be deployed. Two-thirds of the American military may be in similar circumstances.
Finally, there’s that old, mystical, all-purpose excuse: He “just snapped.” That’s what Vietnam veterans – widely depicted as human time bombs – were always on the verge of doing back in the 1970s. Supposedly.

Let’s wait for the facts to catch up with the story. The Army ought to be telling the country a whole lot more about this episode, which has single-handedly jeopardized 11 years of effort in Afghanistan. Until it does, no one should be offering glib explanations that threaten to tar countless American troops and veterans.

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