11 November 2009

Broken Man

Here in the U.S., our schools support athletic teams: football, basketball, baseball, soccer, gymnastics, etc. Kids, beginning in the middle school grades (ages 12+) compete on behalf of their schools against other schools. They wear uniforms with school colors. Often there are costumed mascots and uniformed cheerleaders rousing the crowd's passion for their team. It is well-known that our previous president, George W. Bush, was a cheerleader at his prep school. And here're pictures.

It is a measure of school 'spirit' or 'pride' for the non-participating students to cheer on and support their athletic teams by attending the games, by participating in 'pep rallies' to honor or energize their athlete heroes, and by raising funds to help pay for travel, uniforms, coaches, etc. In the state of Georgia, where I currently reside, football is the king of sports—high school and college. High school games are played on Friday nights during the Autumn, and it is like a secular religion in some areas of the state. This sense of spirit or pride in one's school's athletics carries over into university for some. It transmutes in the greater society to professional athletics. My British and South American readers can certainly identify with the passions they feel for their own futbol teams.

The spectacle of athletics is a civilized model, of course, for warfare: our team vs. their team in a winner-take-all contest. As a nation, we are goaded into 'supporting the troops' much the way we were scolded to 'support the team' in high school. Under this model, supporting wars and cheering on the soldiers that fight them become the true measure of patriotism for many.

Today, Nov. 11, in the U.S., is Veterans Day. Much of the rest of the world celebrates it as Armistice Day, remembering the conclusion of WWI.

Here's how our medical/insurance industrial complex supports our troops: "The number of US veterans [2,266] who died in 2008 because they lacked health insurance was 14 times higher than the US military death toll in Afghanistan that year, according to a new study." The Republican Party, principal goader and patriotic scold in the U.S., believes our health care system needs no reform.


On Thursday Nov. 5, 2009, an Army-trained psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, allegedly opened fire and killed 13 people, wounding some 38 others on the Ft. Hood Army Base near Killeen, Texas. Fort Hood "boasts of being the largest active duty armored post in the United States Armed Services."

Some basic facts about Maj. Hasan have been published: 1) he is a soldier in the Army Medical Corps who participated in the "Officer Basic Leadership Course (OBLC), a basic orientation course to the Army Health Care system, Army doctrine, and basic soldier and leader skills," 2) he is an M.D. psychiatrist, 3) he is a Muslim (possibly with ties to radical Islam), 4) in this country, he is a member of an ethnic minority, 5) he was willing to sacrifice his own life (though in this case it did not happen) to carry out this attack. Using these five coordinates, I think we can draw certain conclusions about why this horrific attack happened that avoid the sort of knee-jerk responses/analyses flooding the media.

If you had the patience to read through my longish series of posts on "Thyraphobia" (or recall some of the observations from my earlier "Swarm" series), you will recall I posed the following conclusion:
"Concretely: if I am invested with some sort of political or spiritual authority and have dreams of warfare (either offensive or defensive), to get you to do my warlike bidding and enlist you in my cause, I must first convince you of our natural affinity (family, community, nation, race, religion, etc.) and our mutual grievances against a common threat, stressing the goodness and rightness and love of our cause and the evilness and hate of our foe. To get you to be willing to sacrifice your own life in the service of this cause, I must break down your natural emotional defenses (to wit: fear and self-preservation) by demeaning you and your life. I accomplish this by appealing to your own existential situation of misery (it is caused by the devious threats of our enemy) and your natural emotion of shame (you are a fallen creature, weak, flawed, and unworthy). My cause, I assert, will ennoble your own life and, in the process, make things better for those about whom you care. Then I must cement your loyalty by promising you and convincing you that your faithfulness will surely result in some form of reward—physical (loot, booty, spoils, heroic acclaim, etc.) or spiritual (eternal life and favor in paradise). That is the formula. They all use it; they always have, and they always will."
Is it possible to make some sense of this incident through this lens? I believe so.

The military, medical school, and religion all seek to break down a person's individuality, to inculcate a certain professionalism. The military seeks to purge the individual of the emotion of fear and instill a sense of 'unit cohesion'; you must be willing to give up your life for your unit or your buddies. Medical school seeks to break down the complex emotions of sympathy and fellow-feeling; if you allow yourself to indulge in normal feelings of sympathy toward all the suffering you have to deal with over and over and over, world without end, you can easily become overwhelmed and burn out. Further, the psychiatrist is trained to recognize and avoid "countertransference", that is, to avoid any normal sense of empathy with his patients in order to keep a therapeutic distance. And religion (not just Muslim, but Christian and others as well, as discussed passim) encourages its adherents to deny themselves and look past the shamefulness of this fallen world (of which the individual religionist is a part) to a greater place and eternal world. [By the same token, law school seeks to break down the individual's moral sense so s/he can represent murderers, rapists, Enron, 'Scooter' Libbey, etc. without feeling guilty.] Each of these institutions has, at bottom, a depersonalizing effect on the individual, and Maj. Hasan, I think we can safely assume, has been subject to each sort of indoctrination. He has been broken down in different ways by each institution and, ultimately, alienated from himself.

Not once, not twice, but four times that we can count, this formula was applied to Maj. Hasan. And he, apparently, could not handle the strain.

This is not by way of an excuse or justification for his actions. I don't know Maj. Hasan. His thoughts and emotions are his own. I have no idea why he acted the way he did. He allegedly committed a brutal act, a crime, an atrocity. But warriors, by definition, are trained in the arts of atrocity, and wars are merely nationally sanctioned crimes. It only becomes news when warriors turn on their own—when sports team members fight among themselves. And now, in this respect, it is a legal matter for the military/judicial system to handle.

This is merely an attempt to understand what happened to a man, a frail human being, who appears to have been broken down once too often. The Army thought their mojo was stronger. In this case, it turns out they were wrong.


Of course, Maj. Hasan is not the only broken military man. The story of the broken war veteran returning home to an uncomprehending civilian society is practically as old as literature itself, ancient even at the time of the Odyssey. If you didn't see it, take a look at this wise essay in Sunday's NY Times.

When soldiers are among themselves, they are trained to cohere as a unit. They must depend absolutely on each other in life-threatening situations. They are uniformly broken down and indoctrinated to understand what war is and what their role in in it. When they come home, they are broken men and women. Their unit support system collapses. They have no idea, often, what their role in the society is anymore. And civil society, for good reason, does not share their understanding of the brutal nature of war—other than the superficial games model of sports. Some returning veterans are able to transition back into society because they have adequate social networks of family and friends who care for them. Others cannot because they do not.

In many respects, we are all broken individuals. Some more than others. Today—Veterans Day—we non-warriors cannot claim to understand what veterans' lives at war have been like, but we can express a sense of our shared humanity, our shared brokenness. And without cheering on wars and warfare as such, we can at least recognize the painful odyssey these men and women have had trying to find their way back into a place in civilized society and leave the horrors and brutality and dehumanization of warfare behind.

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