At least one TV news broadcaster has described as a wake-up call the Fort Hood massacre on November 5, when Major Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed thirteen military personnel as well as wounding another twenty-eight, most of whom were about to be deployed to the Near East–probably Afghanistan. However, the broadcaster did not bother to try explaining just what this particular wake-up call meant. Exactly what was there to wake up about? Significantly, a similar incident took place back on March 26, 2003, a week after the Iraq invasion began, when Sergeant Asan Akbar fragged the tents of three senior officers and ended up killing two Americans, including one of the targeted senior officers. However, this particular incident was soon forgotten. Whatever its sensational impact for perhaps a week or two, the seemingly gratuitous violence by an American soldier of the Moslem faith was not seen to have any predictive value pertaining to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Just what, then, might be the lesson of Major Hasan’s far more deadly wake-up call at Fort Hood six and a half years later? Like Sergeant Akbar, Major Hasan is a devout Moslem who chose to engage in an essentially suicidal act of violence in order to remove himself from a military campaign that he opposed against an Islamic nation. Despite his best efforts, his deployment to Afghanistan was imminent, and the massacre was his “final solution” to avoid its consequences. Like Akbar, he seems to have joined the army a couple years earlier without realizing that his mission would take him to the Near East to go to war against Islamic societies. And like Akbar, he seems to have resorted to a lethal act of disobedience both to escape such combat and to declare his moral opposition to its happening. The question remains after more than a half dozen years of warfare in both Iraq and Afghanistan, whether Hasan’s massacre will have any impact on President Obama’s impending decision whether to escalate combat in Afghanistan–a choice that might turn out to be at least as important to our nation’s future as President Johnson’s choice in 1965.
What I am suggesting here is that, like Akbar, Hasan himself intended his suicidal behavior to be a “wake up call,” if without fully taking into account its effect on the present choice whether to escalate warfare in Afghanistan. What, then, were some of these issues that Hasan himself might have overlooked? The list here of four relevant aspects is short but important: (1) as a symptom of demoralization; (2) as a gesture of outrage against our nation’s military goals; (3) as an illustration of unanticipated consequences; and (4) as insistence that a cultural war is in progress tantamount to a modern crusade against Islamic societies.
As explained by Bob Herbert in his Saturday, Nov. 7 New York Times column, “Stress Beyond Belief,” Major Hasan’s outburst was a wake-up call in the sense that it exemplified the severe demoralization in the U.S. military resulting from the longest stretch of warfare in U.S. history (slightly longer than the Vietnam War, which lasted almost exactly eight years from 1965 to 1973). Our nation has too few soldiers to conduct two wars at the same time, too many of whom have been recycled to Iraq and Afghanistan on multiple tours of duty that inevitably impact the entire army–not just the soldiers directly involved. Everybody is affected, including families, friends, and neighbors. Even the military psychiatrists who treat post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.) among veterans returning from war suffer negative effects sometimes described as “compassion fatigue.” This in fact might have been the primary cause of Hasan’s massacre. If so, it was the therapist who totally broke down rather than his patients in response to their memory of their traumatic experiences. In any case too many of our troops have suffered pathological effects they must endure for the rest of their lives. This collective burden has necessarily contributed to the decline of our nation’s social fabric–the wasted lives, high crime and divorce rates and general social malaise. The impact of incessant military combat abroad over the past sixty years might not be the single most important factor in the moral decline of our nation, but it cannot be ignored.
A second wake-up call would be suggested by the individuals targeted by Major Hasan. His primary choice seems to have been the fellow psychiatrists and medical technicians who might have been among the personnel he claimed harassed him because of his Muslim faith. As indicated by press reports, he increasingly played up his commitment to his faith, and in turn those who ridiculed him probably became more hostile in response to his intensified religious piety. It is also significant that Hasan focused much of his rage on American soldiers, most of who were about to embark to military assignments abroad, probably either Iraq or Afghanistan. In any case, there seems to have been no doubt about his choice whom to shoot. As much as possible he selected those in uniform as opposed to those in civvies with whom they were talking. As a trained psychiatrist his primary task on a daily basis was to interview troops about to be deployed to Afghanistan, but to the extent that he also provided professional assistance to soldiers suffering from P.T.S.D., he might be expected to have felt profound empathy with their crises. However, this turns out not to have been the case. If anything, Major Hasan’s rampage enacted excessive hostility against U.S. soldiers, almost as if he wanted to kill them before they had a chance to kill their supposed Islamic enemies.
It therefore seems likely that Major Hasan’s homicidal rage was provoked to a certain extent by the stories his patients and colleagues shared with him that featured Muslim victimization at least as much as that of the American troops. Until Hasan recovers from his wounds well enough to explain himself, any retroactive assessment of his motives is of course entirely speculative, but manifold accounts from Iraq of innocent people shot down in the streets, of the grotesque dead bodies of children, of the families packed in houses mistakenly destroyed by rocket attacks, of the cars full of incinerated bodies killed by bazooka fire because they didn’t slow down enough, and in general the disdain expressed regarding the countless “sand-niggers” (or “ragheads,” or “camel jockeys”) who had to be pushed around at checkpoints–all of these topics and epithets as recounted by combat veterans in therapy sessions could only have outraged Hasan more than his non-Muslim colleagues.
One can also assume that Hasan’s seemingly disproportionate response despite his professional training for dealing exactly with this kind of provocation helps to explain the comparable outrage of Iraqi and Afghans against the U.S. troops occupying their country. American military spokesmen repeatedly emphasize the benevolent effort of U.S. troops to befriend their captive host populations, but their actual day-to-day impact unpublicized by the American press would seem to involve quite the opposite treatment as suggested by Hasan’s deadly outburst. He actually heard the stories of Muslim mistreatment first hand, as most Americans have not. He actually experienced this disdain first-hand in his own personal experience, as most Americans have not.
A third wake-up call would be suggested by the total surprise of Major Hasan’s attack. Nobody at Fort Hood had the slightest idea that such a massacre was possible. Yet it happened, and it took a female civilian police officer to terminate the event. Being taken by surprise has been an unfortunate byproduct of military conflict for American troops since Korea, when China suddenly invaded from the north. Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive was comparable, as were the various bomb attacks in Iraq when they first came into play. Time and again the U.S. military command from top to bottom has been confident of what seemed a stable operation only to discover that the situation was totally different. When a General Shinseki or anybody in a lesser position has had the temerity of express doubts, he has been eliminated from the hierarchy and replaced by somebody with a more “positive” outlook. Everybody in the chain of command–certainly officers such as Hasan who have been limited to psychiatric tasks relatively low on the totem pole–has learned the necessity of reflexive optimism whatever decisions come down from above. This has been essential for peddling themselves with their superiors as “part of the team” and ultimately for the Pentagon to peddle itself with Congress and the White House because of its essential role in the “defense of freedom.”
The very possibility of inadvertent results has been so completely suppressed in the military except by strategists at the very top of its leadership–and even there to too great an extent–that our nation’s defense establishment has been far less effective than it ought to be, given its enormous share of the federal budget. As illustrated by General McChrystal’s recent “take it or leave it” diagnosis of future prospects in Afghanistan, military strategists have been able to examine all the contingencies preceding a military campaign in great detail and with marvelous tactical sophistication, but they have been far less successful in bringing it to what they themselves might have considered an acceptable outcome. In fact every one of our nation’s major wars over the past sixty years–in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and now most probably Afghanistan–has fallen short of what might be described as victory. How many more misbegotten optimistic tactical assessments need to be played out before beltway politicians realize what is going on–that poker players are trying to play bridge, that checkers players are trying to play chess? For too many surprises occur to upset the most intricate calculations. In a bloodthirsty epiphany that lasted a mere seven minutes during which more than 100 rounds were fired, Hasan’s explosive outburst epitomized everything to be expected–and not to be expected–once the Afghan-Pakistani conflict becomes a full-scale war.
And a fourth and final wake-up call would be suggested by the fact that Major Hasan, like Sergeant Akbar, is a devout Muslim–sufficiently devout to have maintained contact with the radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who actually responded to his massacre last week by praising him as a hero, “a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.” Official U.S. spokesmen repeatedly insist that the various Near East conflicts involving our nation have nothing to do with religious or cultural issues that might identify our policies as any kind of a modern Crusade against the Islamic world. However, this purpose is exactly what too many Near Easterners take for granted additional to the importance of oil profits and Israel’s nationalist agenda. In any case, it is more than coincidental that Hasan gave a PowerPoint presentation about a year ago, “Why the War on Terror is a War on Islam.” And exactly so! This is what Asia’s Muslim population has come to believe, whatever our spokesmen try to say to the contrary. Hasan himself was raised and educated in the United States, but with his massacre he has betrayed his oath of loyalty to the army and declared his personal rejection of our government. His shift in loyalty to the Islamic faith was a personal choice, but it also reflected his sympathy with his brother who now lives in Ramallah on the West Bank as well as his deceased parents, both of whom were born as Palestinians near Jerusalem before migrating to the United States–also his friendship with al-Awlaki, whose emphasis on arms training might have encouraged his purchase of his own pistol.
Israel has been engaged in this cultural battle since 1948, and we have let ourselves be dragged into its nightmare over the last couple of decades on a much more expansionistic scale–from Gaza and Lebanon all the way to Pakistan and beyond. Whatever the cause, whatever the explanation, our nation’s war on communism for fifty years transmogrified into a war against a particular religion. When the supposed Bolshevik menace finally collapsed, we as a nation, without quite realizing what we were doing, shifted our sights to the Islamic world, for the most part a borderless society that is largely both tribal and feudal except for urban enclaves. As opposed to the communists in earlier wars, the Muslim “enemies” we killed in limited situations generated further enemies–their cousins and cousins of cousins–to be killed on a bigger scale, and bigger yet, until the retaliation for 9-11 pits us against what will soon enough be the entire global region from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the western edge of India.
The question remains whether our nation can afford this particular war. Until the Berlin Wall fell, the United States enjoyed economic superiority as well as a tactical advantage over the U.S.S.R. that was highly lucrative in the sense that our defense industries helped to keep our economy afloat. However, our conflict with the U.S.S.R. has long since terminated, and a new and strictly economic global standoff is now emerging that puts us on the losing end of the stick, especially because of our economy’s excessive debt to China, Japan, and many other nations with sovereign reserve funds invested in U.S. Treasury notes. Resulting from the steady fall of the dollar, these nations are looking for more profitable investments, and their political alignment can be expected to shift along with their financial withdrawal. So we are no longer in a position to waste our economic resources on a publicity-driven “war of choice” that is no longer in fact a “war of necessity” if the Taliban has expressed its willingness to negotiate a settlement and fewer than 100 Al Qaeda fighters are reported to be left in Afghanistan. If true, the military escalation now under consideration by the White House turns out to depend on an excuse just as fraudulent as the Tonkin incident in 1965 and Iraq’s “secret” nuclear weapons in 2003. At this point, however, we cannot ignore the significant difference that our almost guaranteed military quagmire in Afghanistan can only accelerate the international realignment that has begun to manifest itself with the effort of creditor nations to coordinate their impending rejection of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, for example as sponsored by BRIC (ominously inclusive of Brazil, Russia, India, and China).
Victory in Afghanistan might seem a quick antidote to such an economic threat, and it might even benefit our economy in Keynesian terms through the increased subsidization of our defense industries. However, any military occupation of Afghanistan would necessarily be prolonged–perhaps a decade or longer, especially if we resort to the construction of permanent military bases. Moreover, the conflict would unavoidably spread to include a large portion of Pakistan, whose volatile population is over half that of the United States. As Hasan’s massacre suggests, further surprises can be expected both on and off the battlefield, much as happened to the U.S.S.R. when its effort to subdue Afghanistan provided the coup de grace to its own economy. And of course the latest of our modern wars would further enlarge our national debt, ultimately reducing our nation’s standard of living into the foreseeable future. The rest of the post-industrial world need only stand aside and watch us destroy ourselves.
There is a lesson to be drawn from Hasan’s massacre if we have the sense–and courage–to recognize it: namely that we should wind down the conflict in Afghanistan as we claim to be doing in Iraq and pursue equitable diplomatic solutions throughout the entire Near East. Unfortunately, it seems, as current reports indicate (for example the CBS news Monday evening), President Obama can be anticipated in the near future to declare with his predictable rhetorical effectiveness that all those killed and wounded at Fort Hood further justify the Afghan escalation so their deaths will not have been in vain. In the words of Shakespeare (used fully eight times in his plays)–alas, alas.
The factual information used here has been primarily obtained from the New York Times coverage since the event occurred last Thursday, Nov. 5. Especially useful have been the two Nov. 6 articles by Robert McFadden and James Dao; the four Nov. 7 articles by James McKinley, Liz Robbins, Clifford Krauss & James Dao, and Campbell Robertson & Ray Rivera; the single Nov. 8 article by Benedict Carey & Damien Cave; the two Nov. 9 articles by James McKinley & James Dao, and Andrea Elliott; and the three Nov. 10 articles by Tamar Lewin, David Johnston & Scott Shane, and Michael Moss & Ray Rivera.