Sixty years after it was dropped on Salzburg, a U.S. bomb explodes, killing the two men who tried to defuse it. Vietnamese kids keep losing fingers, toes, arms, and legs to a conflict they’re too young to have even forgotten. Hostages of last year’s Chechen theater siege are still collapsing from the elixir that set them free. The spatial and temporal boundaries historians place on any war are convenient fictions; weapons aren’t rendered harmless by declarations of victory, and neither are people.
"Blowback," the CIA term for intervention’s unintended consequences, is a recurrent theme on this site. But despite its growing currency, it remains widely misunderstood. For ease of rebuttal, blowback debunkers construe the idea as narrowly as possible. Months have passed since the invasion of Iraq, we sometimes hear, without even a whimper from al Qaeda ergo, blowback is a myth. But terror attacks by foreigners are only one shape the phenomenon can take. Right now, what should worry us sleepless is the reimportation of cruelty and disillusionment from battlefields abroad.
To begin with, Rumsfeld & Co. have shown an indifference bordering on sadism to U.S. troops in Iraq. As the dead and maimed accumulate in the 51st state, euphoria and esprit de corps ripen into something else. Soldiers, reservists, and guardsmen ask when they can go home, only to be told, "Shut up!" Meanwhile, their spouses fret and obsess, their children pass more milestones without them, and the civilian world moves on. An American sergeant in Kuwait describes family life for the empire’s grunts:
"My initial thoughts are of my son. He is six weeks old now and getting huge! Is the bump on his head the doctors said would go away going away? God I miss him! I only knew him for four days before I left to come back to the desert, but leaving him broke my heart unlike any breaking it has had to endure to this point. Is he letting my wife sleep through the night? She says the last few days he has slept like six hours straight. That is a vast improvement over the two hours he was giving her before. Now my thoughts shift to her. I know she is holding up alright as I have some form of communication with her every night, but she is deteriorating. I think back to the morning that I left her standing in the parking lot of Battalion at three in the morning. She was crying and seven months pregnant. I tried to console her by telling her I would be back in time for the baby, but would I? They told me I would and ultimately I was. I am lucky (relatively speaking again). As I left her I couldn’t help but think about the ordeal she had coming her way. We had decided at the last moment that she was going to move back home with her mom. All of our friends were deployed and both of our families live in California (over a thousand miles away). She would have her mom to help her out especially if I didn’t make it back. My thoughts shift to being back home myself. When would I be able to walk the streets of my home town again? I re-enlisted in March for the opportunity to be a recruiter, but with all that has happened and is happening that plan may never come to fruition. My stomach turns at the possible things I may have gotten myself into by re-enlisting."
Odysseus didn’t return to ticker-tape parades and domestic bliss, now did he? (Or so I imagine Victor Davis Hanson’s response.) Long separations kill marriages, but even a serious spike in the number of military divorces would not be recognized by most as blowback. For instance, the murders and suicides last summer at Ft. Bragg made the evening news, but mainly as spectacular coincidence. As many as seven U.S. soldiers in Iraq have killed themselves so far how many would still be living had they never left home? That’s a counterfactual question, of course, and cannot be answered. But you had better believe that families are asking it, just as the amputees at Walter Reed must imagine the alternate trajectories their lives might have taken.
But after sprinkling a little sympathy on wounded vets, after wading through the gore of Ft. Bragg and tut-tutting our "culture of violence," most Americans will go right on denying the fundamental problem. Pattern? What pattern? Robert Flores? Did poorly in school. John Allen Muhammad? Muslim. Timothy McVeigh? Just an excitable boy who read The Turner Diaries.
An honest public discussion of the salient factor these men had in common would be unthinkable. Better to just let Barbara Walters interpret them for us, how tough luck and chance occurrences activated sinister genes. Citizens of the empire nod their heads solemnly, somehow comforted by the randomness of it all.
And maybe John Allen Muhammad did select his victims randomly, if that makes you feel any better, but there was nothing random about Oklahoma City. It was Pentagon morality turned back upon itself by a former pupil. As McVeigh wrote in 1998,
"Yet another example of this nation’s blatant hypocrisy is revealed by the polls which suggest that this nation is greatly in favor of bombing Iraq.
"In this instance, the people of the nation approve of bombing government employees because they are ‘guilty by association’ they are Iraqi government employees. In regard to the bombing in Oklahoma City, however, such logic is condemned."
McVeigh saw the U.S. government murder civilians abroad for a dubious "Greater Good," then turn its guns on civilians at home. His method of response bore the seal of his schooling.
And now, after another, costlier war on Iraq, with more casualties and longer deployments, we wonder how soldiers will handle the peace. How many will return to broken marriages and other personal disasters? How many will feel bitterness as the war’s phony pretexts fall apart? And of these, how many have internalized the ethics of the state?
If the answer to this question is even "one," we are in serious trouble.