As you probably know, last Sunday, one of our fellow U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan (out of nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord) went on a rampage, killing 16 local civilians in their homes, most of them children. I admit to having some trouble concentrating on my own life’s details after this latest military misconduct, another barbarous deed that will likely reverberate around the world for some time. Gruesome and painful details are still emerging and who knows what will unfold from here, but it could get pretty harsh, echoing the edge I feel in my heart.
Early reports are that the fellow was “unstable” and “troubled” after three tours of duty in Iraq, including a head injury. And we at Cedars are called to “love without judgment.” Nonetheless, it is indeed hard to find love for someone who would resort to such random, deadly violence against innocent children. Or, for that matter, for the people in charge who allowed (or forced) him to serve so much time in harm’s way that he became Harm personified.
I know that the vast majority of military personnel perform with honor, and I will try to hold room in my heart for the perpetrator(s) of this insanity, but I think we are also called to use great judgment to discern a path that will both hold this person accountable and name the contributing context in which he acted so brutally. The two are essentially linked and simply prosecuting an actor will not really alter the horrific storyline.
I trust the military authorities to do the former, although not without some reservation, but that is out of my hands anyway. What I can do is address the latter, the context of this massacre, about which we might reasonably struggle to find meaningful perspective (and might disagree, of course). Here’s what emerges for me in my upset at this sad, sad turn of events halfway across the planet.
As has been famously noted, “War is Hell.” When decent people go there, some will—perhaps inevitably—become Hellions. Part of me believes behavior of the sort we are reeling from now is in no way acceptable and should certainly be eliminated from the human repertoire. Another, more historical part of me suspects, however, that it isn’t just recent wars that are Hell. I do not doubt that there have been parallel activities—spontaneous wickedness, willful ignorance and contrived brutality—throughout the annals of war.
Now, however, those annals are much more visible and accessible, thanks to our modern, global media and the 24/7 news cycle. (I can even recall how, when I was of formative age, the Vietnam War came vividly to my TV screen nightly.) What else has changed is our weaponry. Violent inclinations now have so much more lethal handmaidens. How psychologically stable, one might reasonably ask, for instance, are the personnel who stand just a finger push away from various nukes (often confined in submarines, no less)?
And is 100% psychological stability even reasonable to expect? Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome seems to be rampant. Many warriors come home incredibly and understandably distressed. If “War is Hell,” what do we really expect of people who go there, or of those who design the fierce, fiery landscapes? Who are we kidding?
I’m no pacifist, but the adage that “violence begets violence” has perhaps never been more horribly apparent—and wrenching, and from numerous angles. (I grieve also for the children recently shot by handguns.) Maybe this is a watershed moment, when our society has to look in the mirror and truly see the consequences of our complicity with a resort to force and weapons. Trying to solve complex, inter-cultural dilemmas through sheer power is hereby exposed as the unfeasible and damaging excuse for diplomacy it is. Bring back the National Peace Academy.
We are an inherently creative species; we must find a better way. That would be the hope I can muster this week.