America’s War Heritage and What It Does To Those Who Served
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
This Independence Day of 2015, I have decided to write about something that I write about every chance I get, and that topic is the immorality of waging war. In this case, it’s this anti-war message combined with all the trappings of the 4th of July that I am blending to make today, July 4th, 2015 as Independence From War Day. With the population of the planet continuing to rise we are faced with the stark choice of learning to live together in peace and harmony or to face mutual annihilation. The horrors of the modern battlefield are the result of ever more powerful and formidable weapons. The tremendous firepower of modern military weaponry is so deadly and so accurate that the results of these attacks can be etched into the minds and psyches of the war’s veterans forever. These brave men and women were oftentimes exposed to chemical weapons that have left them permanently damaged. It’s an unfortunate and troubling fact that one out of five returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will come home mentally or physically disabled by their exposure to chemical weapons and depleted uranium ammunition. According to channel4.com, “An estimated 48,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were homeless in 2013, according to figures from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.” I understand last year’s number was over 60,000. And all because of lies about WMD’s, because what America’s military was really after was the oil.
I have found four examples from the last ten years of what can go wrong when these people come home from the battle front. Consider the case of John Allen Muhammad, (formerly John Allen Williams). In her memoir, “Scared Silent”, Mildred Muhammad, the later of his two ex-wives, writes that her husband went to the 1991 Gulf War a “happy,” “focused, and “intelligent” man, who returned home “depressed,” “totally confused,” and “violent,” making her fear for her life. In their briefs, Muhammad’s appeals lawyers stressed that his “severe mental illness” never came up at trial, where he was allowed to represent himself despite obvious mental incompetence. (Till the end, he maintained his innocence, claiming that at the time of the killing spree he was in Germany for dental work.) In seeking clemency and a stay of execution, Muhammad’s lawyers presented psychiatric reports diagnosing Schizophrenia and brain scans documenting profound malformations consistent with psychotic disease. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Virginia Governor Tim Kaine were impressed. According to Governor Kaine, “crimes that are this horrible, you just can’t understand….” And one day before Veterans Day, John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection.
Mental disorders from depression to mood swings, thought disorders, violent outbursts, and delusions are not uncommon among Gulf War veterans in addition to physical symptoms such as rashes, vertigo, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS, and brain tumors. According to Dr. William E. Baumzweiger, a California psychiatrist with expertise in psychiatric ailments of Gulf War veterans, “a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans become homicidal” seemingly “out of nowhere.” Indeed as early as 1994, University of Texas epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley, the preeminent researcher of Gulf War disease, had demonstrated that the brain scans of veterans with Gulf War illness were distinctly abnormal. Without a doubt Gulf War illness, as it’s come to be called, is a profound, multi-system physical illness “caused” by brain-damaging chemicals to which troops were exposed by the Department of Defense. The RAC report identified three specific neurotoxins as certain culprits: anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take (or risk court martial), insecticides and repellants that drenched troops’ tents, clothing, and gear, and nerve gases including sarin (the killer chemical in the Tokyo subway attack) emitted into the air when U.S. forces dismantled and demolished a vast munitions storage facility in Khamisiyah, Iraq. Muhammad’s lawyers pointed to childhood beatings as a cause of his psychiatric disease and brain malformation, claiming that Gulf War syndrome exacerbated these conditions. But they didn’t mention that Mohammad had no history of mental illness before the war – and that during the war he was stationed in Khamisiyah.
It probably wouldn’t have helped. In 2002, another Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr. was executed for the 1995 rape and murder of a young female soldier, Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride. Like Sergeant Muhammad, Sergeant Jones was an exemplary soldier decorated in the war; but also like Muhammad, he returned from Desert Storm depressed, disoriented, and increasingly anti-social and bizarre. Like Muhammad, his defense was inadequate–but his appeals lawyer displayed MRIs and other scans of his abnormal brain, arguing that it was evidence of the brain damage from toxins he and other veterans with Gulf War disease were exposed to in-country. Supporting the petition for clemency was the written testimony of Dr. Haley that “there is now a compelling involuntary link between Mr. Jones’ neurotoxic war injury and his inexplicable crime.” Like Muhammad, Jones was stationed in Khamisiyah during the demolition, which poisoned thousands of troops and then thousands more as sarin plumes traveled far and wide, a fact the government hid for close to a decade.
And then there’s the case of Timothy McVeigh. We have no scans of his brain, but we have ample reports of his mental state before and after Desert Storm, and evidence that the war changed him profoundly. In their biography, American Terrorist, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck paint a vivid picture of McVeigh’s days in the ground war. The enthusiastic young marksman, at first, happily followed orders and shot an Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun over a mile away. When a bloody mist replaced the soldier’s head in his viewfinder, McVeigh was disturbed and discharged the rest of his rounds into empty desert sand. Later, after Saddam had agreed to a UN and Soviet brokered ceasefire, McVeigh was further shocked and shaken by orders to kill defeated Iraqi soldiers traveling home on the highway from Kuwait to Iraq (come to be known as the “Highway of Death” for the thousands that U.S. Forces corralled and massacred on the night of Feb 26, 1991). He watched the road in horror as dogs chewed on human limbs, and as human bodies without arms or legs tried to crawl away. In his famous 60 Minutes interview ten years later, McVeigh would tell the late Ed Bradley that the killing changed him. He said he found himself thinking, “I’m in this person`s country. What right did I have to come over to his country and kill him? …How did he ever transgress against me?” He went over thinking, “Not only is Saddam evil, all Iraqis are evil.” But quickly it was “an entirely different ballgame… face to face…you realize they`re just people like you.” He told Bradley that the government modeled brutal violence. In a 1998 prison essay he objected to the United State’s continuing campaign against Iraq: It was the U.S. that had “set the standard” for “stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction.
McVeigh’s experience in the Gulf War surely altered his thinking. But did it also alter his brain? What toxins might have entered his body on the highway where U.S. forces had just dropped cluster bombs and 500-pound bombs of napalm and depleted uranium, incinerating thousands vehicles and the people inside. He told Ed Bradley that when he came back “something didn`t feel right in me, but..I couldn`t say what it was.” Psychological trauma alone, neuroscientists now tell us, affects not only psyches but brains. Sophisticated neuroimaging shows the brains of those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be abnormal in areas regulating memory retrieval and inhibition (hippocampus), fearfulness and focus (pre-frontal cortex), and emotionality and lability (amygdala). The hippocampus of Alzheimer’s sufferers are also shrunken, and the amygdala of bi-polar sufferers have enhanced activation similar to those with PTSD.
Unlike McVeigh, Muhammad, or Jones, Major Nidal Hasan was not exposed to war’s toxins, nor to its traumas first-hand. Day after day, though, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or on their way back, relived before him attacks and atrocities they had inflicted, suffered, and/or witnessed, altering his views and his mind. In the beginning of his Army training and service, by all accounts, Nidal Hasan was proud to serve his country. His examination of the internal conflict within Muslim GIs asked to kill other Muslims – prohibited in the Koran– started out an academic project to enhance the Army’s understanding and management of the dilemma. But as Hasan’s exposure to mentally disturbed soldiers’ memories, fears, and guilt increased, so evidently did his own internal strife and, in all likelihood, the secondary PTSD common to family members, friends, and professionals in close contact with victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of catastrophes. But Major Hasan’s religion was only one of several aspects of his being shattered by the stories he was charged with hearing. The troubled GI who opened fire on fellow soldiers at a counseling center in Fort Liberty back in 2011 was not a Muslim, although some right-wing blogs initially suggested he was. In truth, the violence soldiers and veterans inflict against other Americans is not unfathomable at all.
The fire power expended on Iraq in the six-year war was greater than that used in all wars in history combined. The savage murder of civilians, though not on the radar of most producers and consumers of American media, smolders in the minds of many troops and veterans of all backgrounds serving in all three recent wars in the region. Troops that were on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the local citizens, suffered from the fumes from open burn pits the depth of city blocks and the length of small towns. Blast injuries from IEDs continue to damage the interiors of bodies and brains, often with no external breakage or bleeding, causing a new kind of brain injury not seen before in the chronicles of war. Chemical fumes, powders, and liquids from military and industrial facilities bombed in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to contaminate earth, water, and air. For decades and perhaps centuries, the consequences of US invasions will be for Iraqis and Afghans to suffer disease and deprivation, and invading and occupying troops will carry the war back home, as soldiers always do, but with brains, bodies, and minds shattered as never before. Who will identify and prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for these heinous mass murders? Brutal murders by American veterans and troops of fellow soldiers and citizens were surely not the outcomes planned by our leaders, but by now they are forever linked to violent and very unstable behavior that have resulted in mass casualties here at home. America has a moral and social responsibility to clean up the mess they made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to render any and all medical and financial assistance that America’s veterans are entitled to. Whether America’s military and civilian leadership decides to do so or not remains to be seen.