By Glenn Petersen
Of all the ugly euphemisms used by military leaders and the politicians who ostensibly oversee them, “collateral damage” haunts me the most. The phrase implies that some terrible tragedy was not intended by the ones who caused it. And since the intent was not there, their argument goes; those who perpetrated it cannot be held responsible for it. My own understanding of responsibility, however, as well as of the assigning and accepting of it, are rooted in a notion I imbibed from Noam Chomsky, among others: If individuals or governments can foresee the likely negative consequences of their actions, and still go ahead with these actions, then they should—or perhaps must—take responsibility for them.
The alleged slaying of a large number of civilians in Afghanistan by Army Sergeant Robert Bales must be understood in this light. What happened to both Bales and the people who died at his hands represents unintended but largely foreseeable consequences of the wars the U.S. has brought to the Middle East. The U.S. military first went into Afghanistan on what was in effect a punitive raid; it had little if any notion of what it would do once it had ousted the Taliban. And then, in an equally ill-thought-out move, it invaded Iraq. Having gotten itself enmeshed in two wars simultaneously with no ability to conscript more troops, the Defense Department then opted to up the ante by rotating the same forces in and out, over and over again. One foreseeable, if not necessarily intended, consequence of this debacle has been the steady ratcheting up of the stressors traumatizing our troops.
Bales will be punished in one way or another, both to show the world what we do with miscreants and to ensure that no one farther up the chain of command is charged with responsibility. But make no mistake: the tragedy in Afghanistan is as much about Sgt. Bales as it is about the civilians who died there. And to whatever degree American troops have already been casualties of war; we have not yet even seen the tip of the iceberg. It strikes me as deeply unfair to the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq to portray U.S. troops as victims in this, and yet Americans do need to grasp what it is we’ve done to the hundreds of thousands of men and women we have sent into combat in the past decade.
I was 19 and still developmentally a child when I fought in Vietnam, and as a consequence the war literally became a part of me; it is now a physiological fact. I live in a shadow of war that I carry with me every day, and know that even when I am able to manage this residue, I can't banish it. I also understand that the trauma of war tends to evolve slowly, if at all, and to the extent that it does change it is as likely to grow in strength and pervasiveness as it is to diminish. I know this isn't the case for everyone, but it is the case for far too many vets. I have every reason to suspect that those who’ve fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to carry even greater scars than we did. For decades the predominant popular image of the Vietnam vet was some homeless wretch or half-psycho killer. Many of the guys who served as models for this stereotype have passed already. But the cycle’s going to come around again, and this time with a much greater impact.
Some will declare that American policy-makers and leaders should not be blamed for the damage they’ve done to our own. These are the ones who like to speak of individual culpability and free will and the few bad apples in the barrel. It’s much like the tobacco company executives who argued that since not everyone who smokes has great difficulty quitting, cigarettes cannot be identified as addictive, despite overwhelming evidence that nicotine is among the most addictive substances on the planet. Apologists for military policy will tell us that since not every soldier’s life has been impaired by the multiple combat tours they have been required to make, it is not fair to blame the rigors of combat for the damages these troops now suffer.
If the military and those who wish to use it as a means for establishing and maintaining American influence abroad were actually required to accept responsibility for the overwhelming impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other combat-related traumas on our troops, they would be forced to think long and carefully before recklessly deploying them again. And since everyone knows there’s no point in having a massive military machine that is not used abroad, there would be much clamoring to reduce the size and cost of our military establishment; exhortations that must be hushed at all costs if the military is to retain its influence in American life.
None of this, of course, will lessen the impact of combat on those who have served and who now suffer. But while their travails will be chronicled in the media, and decried by well-meaning commentators, the military will continue to insist that it can't be held responsible for Sgt. Bales and all others who break under similar strains, fearing that if it were to acknowledge for even a moment what it wrought, it would be much less able to accomplish all that it claims it can and must do.
Glenn Petersen is the chair of the Anthropology and Sociology Department at CUNY Baruch College as well a professor at CUNY's Graduate Center. He also flew in U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft in 1966 and 1967 in Vietnam.
[Photo courtesy of DefenseImagery.mil]