During the past weeks some abominable acts of violence shocked the world. In early March US Sgt. Robert Bales went on a shooting spree in the Afghan Kandahar province. He went from house to house methodically shooting Afghan civilians. Altogether he killed 16 people, mostly women and children. In mid-March in Toulouse and Montauban the young Algerian born Muhamed Merah killed three French soldiers before gunning down three children and a teacher in a Jewish school.
What do the running amok of the US soldier stationed in Afghanistan and the series of murders by Mohamed Merah have to do with each other?
Mohamed Merah claimed that he wanted to take revenge for the prohibition of the burka in France, the deployment of the French Army in Afghanistan and the oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state. Before being shot during the police siege he regretted that he had been unable to kill more people. The motive of the shooting spree by Robert Bales is still unknown. Apparently Merah, by committing as much slaughter as possible, wanted to draw maximum attention to the oppression of his brother and sister Muslims. The spirit of revenge and retaliation drove him to these murders, which he claimed to be carrying out on behalf of al Qaida. On the other hand, it looks like Bales just went berserk – he later claimed that he had no memory of the killings.
How was it possible that the army man Robert Bales, himself a father of two children, lost control to this degree?
The New York Times reported on March 17th that Bales joined the army shortly after 9/11. “I am going to help my country”, was his justification. However, after being sent to the theatres of war, he became aware that the lives of the US soldiers (as that of all ISAF troops) were in danger 24 hours a day. They had to expect an attack at any moment. In four deployments within a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bales suffered from a head and foot injury. The eve before the shooting he witnessed a horrific scene in which one of his fellow soldiers lost a leg in a land mine. We do not know how many victims among civilians or enemy fighters he saw or how many shoot-outs he was involved in. In any case, the experience of Robert Bales in these wars was in no way exceptional.
It is a fact that war creates horrendous psychological damage among soldiers as well as civilians. “More than 200.000 people (i.e. one fifth of all veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan) have received treatment since the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in veteran hospitals – all of them were treated because of Posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD)”. USA Today published these figures in November 2011, referring to studies by the Veterans’ Association. “The estimated number of unreported cases of sick veterans is probably much higher (…) The army only admits some 50.000 cases of PTSD”. (https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/0,1518,822232,00.html).
Around one third of the veterans of the Vietnam war returned home with massive psychological disorders. Although only one percent of the population served in the US-army, the suicides of US veterans count for 20% of all suicides. Almost 1000 veterans try to commit suicide every month. As veterans report: “It is a horror. War changes your brain. Between war and life at home there is a world of difference. You change, whether you want it or not. Once you return home, you can no longer find a balance.” (www.tagesschau.de/ausland/usarmee128.html)
And once they return home many of them have to face unemployment and homelessness. The example of the city of Los Angeles is revealing: “In Los Angeles there are many homeless veterans. They lost everything, their job, their partners, their home. All this because of their psychological disorders and because they do not get any help. Roughly one third of all the homeless of Los Angeles are veterans.” (www.tagesschau.de/ausland/usarmee128.html)
Napo, the British National Association of Probation Officers, “estimated that 12,000 [former servicemen] are under supervision of probation officers, with a further 8,500 behind bars in England and Wales. The total of more than 20,000 is more than twice the number currently serving in Afghanistan” https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/
The psychological mutilation of the soldiers
If you give patriotism and nationalism an inch, you are drawn into a spiral of destruction which not only damages or destroys the lives of civilian populations, but also the soldiers themselves, who are mentally mutilated and emotionally destabilised. While the ruling class and their ideologues embellish wars by speaking about “humanitarian missons” and “stabilising countries”, the reality inside the theatre of war looks very different. Here the soldiers are dragged into an abyss where their initial anxieties evolve into hatred and paranoia. What is portrayed as a “humanitarian” deployment in reality turns out to be the permanent terrorisation of the population. In these circumstances soldiers often develop a sense of satisfaction if they can damage or destroy symbols which enjoy a high esteem among the local population, or if they can humiliate human beings directly and openly. The local population, which has been pushed into a dead-end, often feels nothing but contempt for the “liberators” – and many of them can easily be mobilised for suicide attacks. The killing machine has come into full swing.
After so many traumatic experiences Bales could no longer feel that he wanted to “help my country”. He was particularly outraged by the fact that after four previous deployments he was being sent to Afghanistan again. According to his wife they would have preferred being stationed in more peaceful outposts like Germany, Italy or Hawaii.
Bales may now be facing the death penalty. Instead of explaining why patriotism and nationalism necessarily lead to orgies of violence, to the destruction of the victims and the perpetrator, the US legal system now acts as prosecutor and judge. The ruling class wants to wash its hands of responsibility for the war, and more precisely, for the army’s systematic dehumanisation of its own soldiers. The army, frequently supported by professional psychologists using the latest techniques of ‘behaviour modification’, has one essential goal: soldiers have to be made fit for combat, which means overcoming any reluctance about killing fellow human beings. The psychologist and film maker Jan Haaken showed in her documentary Mind Zone the role the psychologists play: “We are not here to reduce the number of soldiers. In case of doubt soldiers are diagnosed fit for combat, as long as they can do the job”. https://www.democracynow.org/2012/3/16/mind_zone_new_film_tracks_therapists
Overcoming barbarism with barbaric means?
Mohamed Merah, who wiped out the lives of seven people because he wanted to take revenge for the all the acts of violence which this society perpetrates against people, only reproduced the murderous methods of an oppressing system. The means he chose are part of a destructive and self-destructive vicious circle. The fact that his application to join the French Foreign Legion and the army was turned down, although he wanted to offer his services to the French state, may cast a light on his readiness to kill in the service of the state and the nation.
“The spiral of violence which wipes out all that is human cannot be broken using the military methods of the capitalist system. In order to overcome an inhuman system, the goal and the means have to cohere..
The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises murder. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mould the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfil a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality”.
(Rosa Luxemburg, ‘What does Spartacus want?’, 14. December 1918, )