The military is a microcosm of society — that’s something I’m fond of saying. If it exists in the culture at large, it also probably exists in the military. Though this is a “duh” statement for those of us who live inside the military community, it often comes as a surprise to those who, like me before I married a soldier, have had little exposure to people in uniform. You can wear the uniform on active duty and have a full-time job that entails singing from concert stages, making ice sculptures, fixing air conditioners, studying practically every form of science or practicing law or medicine. There are even military graphic artists who do internships with Disney in order to learn more about drawing cartoons. For the military.
And so I think it’s that microcosm condition that best explains the tragic “why?” of SSG Robert Bales. Bales is the soldier who is said to have massacred 16 Afghan civilians — nine of them children. Anytime a tragedy like this occurs anywhere, humans are tempted into looking for explanations. We need to know what it was about this person — a fellow human — that made him do what we believe to be the unthinkable. We try to reason things out so that we will be reassured that the same potential is not in us or in the people around us. And so the rush to blame Bales’ actions on problems at home, on money problems, on alcohol, is so alluring. We can work down that checklist and say: “I don’t have that, so I must be okay.” But just as quickly as the explanations for Bales’ actions have appeared, so have the statements from people who know him who say that they never saw this same potential in him, either.
Likewise, it is easy — oh, is it ever easy and ever tempting — to place the blame on combat. Combat is awful. Combat is brutal. Long deployments leave people disjointed and unhinged, at least temporarily. These are facts. Moreover, the vast majority of the American population cannot relate to combat and may even feel a bit guilty that so few have borne such a heavy burden for so many, for so long. And so saying “we did this to him” (or “you did this to him” with a finger pointed towards our elected officials) is almost cathartic. But it doesn’t account for the many, many more troops who have deployed many more times than Bales and experienced even worse events during those deployments but have easily integrated back into society, or have returned for yet another combat tour without going on a shooting spree.
In my circle of friends I can readily name several soldiers who are certainly suffering from war-related traumas. Their lives have fallen apart and it’s easy to see how combat was, for them, the last straw. But I can also name many more soldiers who saw and did the exact same things and came home to mow their lawns, coach Little League, volunteer at church and start companies in their post-military lives. My husband is one of these guys. Over the years his war stories have trickled out and each time I learn of something else he saw or endured I am speechless, because I expect that I am someone who would come unhinged after having the same experience. He, however, is wired in a way that allows him to compartmentalize those experiences and set them aside; I am not. But there are many other situations where I excel and he does not, and you can’t tell by looking at either of us who would do better in a particular circumstance.
So, is repeated exposure to combat to blame for what Robert Bales did? Perhaps, but only in part. If he had never been deployed, or perhaps had never been deployed four times, he might not have acted as he did, just as if I had never given birth I would have never suffered from postpartum depression and would probably never have known that I have in me the potential to get depressed. But combat exposure alone does not make someone capable of slaughtering innocent people, just as childbirth doesn’t make most women sad. Do some troops get PTSD after exposure to stressful situations? Absolutely. PTSD is real and combat is certainly stressful. But people also get PTSD after being in car wrecks on I-95 and yet no one views frequent interstate commuters as being damaged and capable of committing atrocities.
I worry more for our veterans because of the potential for society to view them as broken and dangerous than for their actual propensity to be broken and dangerous.
Please read that statement again. It is the most important thing I’ve written in this entire post.
I recently talked to a man who runs an organization that helps veterans find work after their military service is finished. He said that despite proven work skills and excellent educational backgrounds, many of our veterans are being passed over for jobs because employers worry that they are mentally damaged. Many employers are simply afraid to hire veterans — and I’m sure Bales’ actions have done nothing to assuage those fears. I think we may have come so far in getting help for troops who are experiencing PTSD (“experiencing” because it is not usually a lifelong affliction, btw) and war-related trauma that we have given the rest of society the mistaken impression that all troops have trouble adjusting to post-combat life. Most of them don’t. They might need maybe a month or two after a deployment to get used to living in the very different environment we have back here in the peaceful States, but they pretty much just phase right back into life in America.
The military is indeed a microcosm of society. We’ve got everything, good and bad, in the military community that the civilian world has. And just as there exists in society people who will resort to shooting sprees when the perfect storm of negative events take place in their lives — something we have seen with every massacre that has taken place inside our country — regular, nice, military people are capable of doing unthinkable things when they’re predisposed to do so and their buttons are pushed. It is tragic and unfortunate that this is what happened with Robert Bales.