Sarah Palin tells us that it is a mother’s ancient duty to raise her sons and then hand them over to the government to fight its wars.
She also said on Aug. 28, quite stridently, dressed in white against the marble white backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial steps, that the virtue and honor she and Glenn Beck demand must be “restored” throughout the nation, remains untarnished in our “warriors.” In fact, where the American people have been led astray, military men and women possess the bright, white righteousness to lead us back.
“I am speaking, of course, of America’s finest – our men and women in uniform, a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for… for these men and women, honor was never lost; if you look for the virtues that have sustained our country you will find them in those who wear the uniform, who take the oath who pay the price for our freedom.”
Again, the American soldier (Marine, sailor, airman) is exploited through a suffocating mix of hero worship and zealotry, long employed by Republican war hawks to demand loyalty to the state and to expand and protract our occupation overseas. But on that day, at the Restore Honor rally for which she delivered her remarks, Palin and Beck managed to take it to staggering new heights: they proclaimed the American soldier to be the unspoiled, suggesting everyone else be reborn in his image. The military, in effect, are gods.
But they are not gods. They are not only flawed like us, but we learn everyday that the war and the war culture fosters the very worst in some people, while it chews up and spits out others so they become mere shadows of what they were before.
Midway through the decade, the Army, desperate for soldiers, lowered its standards and offered more waivers to recruits with “serious criminal misconduct” and drug abuse in their backgrounds. Though standards have since again been raised (thanks to the terrible economy, which is driving more kids than ever to the recruitment centers), we have no idea what the repercussions have been.
What we do know is there have been a number of high-profile incidents in which soldiers and veterans have become murderers, rapists, and criminals, in theater and back home. Even more are suicidal, drug addicted, homeless, unemployable.
There were 14 homicides and attempted homicides perpetuated by soldiers stationed at Fort Carson from 2005 to 2008, according to an Army study last year. While the study wouldn’t draw a direct link between combat and crime it said a “cluster” of risk factors contributed to the behavior of the soldiers, including substance abuse, failure of leadership, mental illness, and “prior criminal behavior and psychopathology.” And, not surprisingly, the men had seen more combat in Iraq and Afghanistan than most.
But we’re not supposed to notice that the soldier wears no halo, moreover, we cannot talk about it openly, lest we be accused of “disrespecting the troops.”
This mass manipulation, which began with our collective guilt over Vietnam and culminated that day at the Lincoln Memorial, is at the heart of the current social and political paralysis over the war, it is why the antiwar movement has not been able to go mainstream and why the Pentagon and the Washington defense industry can forever bully the White House and Congress to keep fighting the war, building the weapons and funding more troops for their meat grinder.
Most recently, we read about a secret “kill team” that “for sport” was formed among one combat platoon in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, by which at least three Afghan civilians were killed, their bodies dismembered and parts saved as “trophies” by their killers. Spencer Ackerman over at Wired‘s Danger Room notes that there are photographs of these now incarcerated soldiers and their “prizes,” including dead bodies and a dismembered head, and “if the Army gets its way, that gruesome evidence won’t be public,” like the rest of the withheld video and photographic evidence generated by recent CIA and military abuses.
Was the accused ringleader of this group, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 25, a psycho before he came to Afghanistan? Perhaps, as fellow soldiers have quoted him bragging about the things “he got away with while serving in Iraq” in 2004. But was he a murder-minded brute before he enlisted? How about the seven other soldiers, who, doped out on hashish, are accused of covering up the crimes and beating up the one soldier who complained to the chain of command? Where did their “virtue” go?
The media coverage has been underwhelming, as usual, the crimes committed reported as if in a vacuum – but that’s typical. The chattering classes, normally ready to frenzy on a hot topic like hungry piranha, swim the other away.
Those who shrink from talking about these atrocities for fear of being called traitors need to get wise, particularly the flourishing Tea Partiers dedicated to smashing the “tyranny of government.” Remember, the war hawks who throw up and support the false edifice of patriotism, demanding our silence, are serving the interests of the government, not the individual.
For that, I argue that Beck and Palin are hurting the very “warriors” they deify. They enable the state by engaging in its propaganda, while ignoring the obvious cries of help for recognition and reform from within the ranks. Palin and Beck couldn’t care less that despite the circumstances, most are victims of the system. They never ask how – or why – the military is pushing these human beings beyond their limits and then dropping them like dirty laundry when they are used up and no longer useful. They only demand they give more.
Bred for Killing
Daniel Lakemacher, a former U.S. Navy medic at Guantanamo Bay, told Antiwar.com in an interview that he believes “the delinquents, the bad apples who don’t have issues killing people,” are the smallest percent of the active duty military today, but their attitudes and bad behavior are ignored if not rewarded by commanders, who themselves encourage the hatred and desensitization towards the enemy or “the other” beginning in boot camp.
And, as we have seen in the “kill squad” case, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, and later the Mahmoudiya rape and murders, in which five American soldiers were accused of conspiring and raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, then killing her and her family and setting their house on fire to cover it up, all it takes is a few ringleaders, a morally confused and tumultuous environment, and a few weakened individuals to go from blind hatred to war crime.
One need look no further than ex-Army Spc. Charles Graner, who had a civilian record of violence before he served in Iraq, for the perfect example. A real tool. Though never officially acknowledged, it is widely believed that the sexual, psychological and physical abuse of Iraqi detainees there was part of a broader secret interrogation program sanctioned at the top of the food chain. A classic ringleader with a questionable moral compass, Graner encouraged sex parties and other debauchery among his unit, got his girlfriend, 20-year-old Spc. Lynndie England, pregnant, set the tone and then paved the way for the abuse by his fellow prison guards. And he took most of the gruesome photos and posed in quite a few himself.
Former Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski, the highest ranking officer to take the fall for the scandal (she was never directly involved, and insists the orders for the abuse came from above), says most of the accused were victims themselves. “Not one of my units were trained to perform prison operations in a combat zone,” she told me in a 2007 interview. They were scared, ill-equipped and easy prey. And more importantly, they followed orders.
“On the very few occasions where the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan have victimized locals, those incidents have typically centered around detainee abuse,” wrote Ackerman, in a recent column about the Kill Squad murders.
“Accordingly, the tone set by commanders has been key. At Abu Ghraib, an official Pentagon investigation found, guards operated in a unit with poor discipline; uncertain boundaries between guard duty and interrogations; and an environment where the chain of command sent mixed signals about tolerable abuse. Before that, the old Bagram detention center in Afghanistan hosted interrogators who beat detainees to death because they could. It would be years before commanders took action.
“At first blush, officers in the death-squad’s brigade may have been similarly lax.”
There were two amazing series of stories by the Colorado Post Gazette and Salon in 2009 that raised the very question about whether commanders knowingly sent troubled soldiers back into battle, praising them for their “kills” while turning a blind eye to their criminal behavior in and out of the war zone.
One soldier, Kenneth Eastridge, was a member of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (BCT), a unit stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado. It had a crime rate among its members 20 times higher than the national average for young men. Eastridge was known for the most “kills” in his unit in Iraq; he claims he was sent back to Iraq for a second tour, despite Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a brain injury, a substance abuse problem and a warrant for his arrest. He told the Gazette he once fired 1,700 rounds into a park filled with Iraqi civilians.
He is now doing time as an accessory to murder in Colorado. “The Army pounds it into your head until it is instinct: Kill everybody, kill everybody. And you do. Then they just think you can just come home and turn it off,” he told the reporter from his prison cell.
For his part, Lakemacher, who now publishes WarIsImmoral.com, became a conscientious objector after experiencing “the most atrocious things that I hope I’d never have to see again in my life.” He said he did not want to give into a culture in which military conditioning and the desensitization of the battlefield had numbed fellow soldiers against the brutality right in front of them. He said the conditioning began in boot camp, and then before deploying to Gitmo. “Before you even got there you had a defined emotional reaction to who these people are and a straight-up notion about how to respond to them” – and it was not positive.
Gitmo was, “very much the most hate-filled place I could ever imagine,” he told the Motor Home Diaries in August 2009. Battle-hardened veterans who had been stationed at the notorious prison would say to him, “’at least in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least you can shoot these guys. Here, you’re face to face with them and it’s like you’re not even supposed to do anything to try and hurt ’em.’
“And it was out of that where I really had to take a focused look at what I was doing, my own moral beliefs, what they were based in.” But would Palin even consider his decision “virtuous”? We think not.
Self-Destructive and Suicidal
Clearly, most men and women traumatized and mixed-up about their service in the war zone do not commit war crimes. Most are victims in the most direct way – they attack their physical and emotional pain and guilt with drugs (much of the “soaring” prescription drug use and abuse begins in the military, as recent data shows) and alcohol, and retreat into worlds where they cannot be reached and the military health system is too overwhelmed to help.
A U.S. Army report issued in July announced that the suicide rate is higher than the national civilian rate for the first time since Vietnam. There were 160 active duty suicides from Oct. 2008 through Sept. 30, 2009. This included “accidental deaths” from “high risk behavior involving drinking and drugs.” The report also put part of the blame on commanders, and raised the issue of lowered recruiting and retention standards.
Recently, The Nation featured a story about Spc. Alyssa Peterson, 27, who killed herself in-theater in 2003, allegedly because she was being ordered to take part in high-level interrogations for which she did not approve. Her local radio station in Flagstaff, Ariz., would later report that “she refused to participate (in the interrogations) after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed.”
Funny, Palin’s talk about her universal maternal responsibilities never extend to protecting poor souls like this.
Palin exploited the fact that her son, Track, 21, left for Army combat duty in Iraq during her campaign for vice president in 2008. In fact, she reveled in her status as a “mother of a combat soldier” at the August rally. But Track is home now, and his experience, whatever it was, hasn’t seemed to inform or nuance Palin’s fundamental, black/white views on war and the holy angels that fight them.
Sadly, her ignorance – our ignorance – and denial perpetuate the very circumstances that foster bad actors, broken lives and doomed souls. Our angels turn to demons, and those demons become our own.