Sunday, March 25, 2012

Afghan Massacre: Q & attempted A

I received some thoughtful questions on my last blog post about the March 11 Afghanistan massacre, and I’m going to try my best to answer them. I apologize in advance for my inability to do so adequately. They’re hard questions. I also apologize (and warn you) that this is very long. They’re hard questions that cannot possibly be addressed briefly. (Or maybe I’m just trying to dazzle and confound you with my rhetoric.)

Please also remember that my perspective is limited – I’m just ONE public affairs officer who served ONE nine-month tour in ONE tiny corner of Afghanistan. I encourage everyone to research these issues, talk to others who’ve “been there/done that,” enhance your sphere of knowledge.

In the meantime, here's my 3 cents . . .

I would like to hear a bit more about how the military handles information about things like this. The military has released very little information on the incident. It seems that the lack of official, confirmed information on the incident could lead one to regard all accounts as rumor. I read that soldiers with knowledge such as the suspect's identity or other details of the incident are strictly forbidden from communicating, even with loved ones who may be worried about them. Therefore, civilians might be a more accessible source of information. What effect does this have? Is this an appropriate way of handling it? In your former job, what would you have been called upon to do to control the flow of information?

The cop out answer is the military handles information like this very carefully, and the response is situation dependant. When it comes to public affairs, there’s a bit of push-and-pull. Rumors are bad. We want to fill the information void first in order to mitigate them. But, we also don’t want to fill the void with speculation and half-truths, and prior to an investigation (and often even after an investigation) speculation and half-truths are all there is. Something I dealt with in the military, and something I face again as a nonfiction writer . . . is there ever such a thing as Truth with a capital T?

My experience with incidents of this serious nature is fortunately pretty limited, but in general, when the $*&% hits the fan, public affairs will:

Draft a press release. The initial press release is never sufficient in explaining what happened, because there is never enough “confirmed” information available. A press release, in a complicated, foggy situation like this, is essentially an admission that something happened and a promise that the military is taking it seriously and will launch an investigation to learn more – which can take months or even years, and people (understandably) don’t like to wait that long. For the initial press release, there are rules that dictate what information is releasable in order to ensure, to the extent possible, security of those involved, accuracy of information, adherence to policy, and propriety of information released (which forms the catchy acronym SAPP).

For example, in an incident where casualties are involved, no names are released until 24 hours after the next of kin have been officially notified. This is for the same reason that communications are suspended: Loved ones deserve to have their hearts broken by official military representatives standing on their porch in dress uniforms, not by a frantic phone call or a speculative news report. I was on the home station end of a casualty notification and got a behind-the-scenes peek at how this process works – it’s something the military is committed to handling professionally and as delicately as possible. The communication suspension absolutely sucks and absolutely has the potential to breed worry (and, yes, rumor) but I do believe it’s absolutely necessary. I can’t help but think that in the case of the accused Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the information trickled so slowly in an effort to protect his family. I don’t envy those who had to break the hearts of his wife and two small children. I don't envy the wife and children for what they must now endure.

After the notifications are made, public affairs offers to assist the family. The media barrage comes quickly. Reporters can camp out on the sidewalk outside the family home, ambush them on their way to the mailbox. Sometimes people are okay with that. Sometimes they even seek out media interaction as a way of expressing themselves or honoring/defending their loved ones. Everyone deals with grief differently. For those who are, understandably, overwhelmed, public affairs can be the buffer. We can be the equivalent of lawyers escorting the family into a closed courtroom: My client has no further comment.

Public affairs personnel serve as official spokespeople. It’s their contact info on the press release, their quotes in the media, their phones ringing off the hook. All other military personnel are directed not to respond if they’re questioned about the incident, to refer all inquiries to
public affairs. Again, this is a double-edged sword. It’s necessary to have a spokesperson who has access to the most up-to-date information, who knows what to and what not to release, and who is trained to handle the prying questions that inevitably come. The concern with having a military person speak to any issue is the perception that their viewpoints represent that of the military as a whole. So, yes, spokespeople are necessary. But at the same time, taking away a person’s ability to speak his mind has potentially damaging secondary effects. As much as it seems like it sometimes, the military is not full of brainwashed, unfeeling androids. Not everyone always agrees with the “party line.” I personally had some ethical conflicts with what I believed versus what my job dictated I said and did (it’s damn hard being an information filter), and I know that contributed to me self-isolating and closing myself off emotionally. Stifling expression can lead to pent up emotions, which can lead to emotional trauma and emotional outbursts.

So how do you find a balance? How do you reconcile a military that must require its members to forfeit some level of personal freedom in order to complete the mission, with the emotional strain that can result? I wish I knew the answer. I wish anyone did.

While most of your post added to my understanding of the situation, I still don't understand what you mean when you say you understand why he did what he did. If demons are to blame, what are their names? How, specifically, do they affect soldiers? Are you suggesting the soldier might plead not-guilty for reasons of temporary insanity do to his role in the war? Is this the case for all soldiers? Where, in your opinion does the line lie between soldier and murderer (not legally speaking, but in terms of the mentality needed to commit the act of killing someone) and what causes a person to cross it? Do shortcomings in training or support for soldiers contribute? What could we do, and what should our military do, to deal with and prevent such incidents?

First of all, I want to clarify that I in no way condone Sgt. Bales’ alleged actions. I don’t know why he did what he did, and, demons are no demons, there is no justification for murder. But I understand how war can screw with your head, screw with your emotions; I understand how it can make you “snap.” Did Sgt. Bales snap? I don’t know. Did he have demons, after three tours in Iraq? Absolutely.

There are many demons, and I can’t speak to all of them. Here some I’ve experienced:

Paranoia – you have to be paranoid in a war zone. You have to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Complacency, hesitation can mean death. Even those who don’t have a direct combat role (with a few Geneva Convention noncombatant exceptions) are trained to kill, because war can turn life and death in a flash. I mostly worked a desk job, but I carried two weapons and I knew how to use them. Just knowing makes your hands twitch. It makes your mind spin, lurching for the chance to translate training into action, turning shadowed corners and sudden noises into attackers, molding suspicion from every conversation. War is sensory overload. Paranoia burrows under your skin. It’s impossible to leave it completely behind, even when the warzone is gone.

Compounded stress – the Siamese twin of paranoia. The threat of death every day is pretty stressful. A job that directly feeds into national security is pretty stressful. Having hundreds of people all up in your business all day every day is pretty stressful. And a lot of traditional coping mechanisms (binging on comfort food, hanging out with friends, going to the gym, taking a day off, drinking) are not necessarily available in a combat zone. So the stress builds.

Frustration – with everything. With the lack of progress. With the little progresses that no one talks about. With corruption, foot-dragging and selfish motivations on the Afghan side. With bureaucratic red tape on the U.S. side. With leadership decisions and indecisions. With waking up every morning and still being in Afghanistan. With everything you’re missing at home. With confusion over what exactly you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re supposed to be doing it. With no one to talk to – and even if there is someone, with no way to possibly explain how you feel. With the same dry, overcooked chicken breast again in the chow hall. With sheer masses of people and no privacy. With outside conversations about war limited to the budget deficit and troop strength numbers. With being a face behind the numbers no one sees. With saying and writing things everyone sees.

Anger – at everyone. At all the people behind the frustrations. At yourself for being angry and frustrated and paranoid. At the local Afghan coalition employees who stockpiled cell phones, wires and batteries – three ingredients in homemade bombs – in an old latrine. At the other “innocent civilians” who plant roadside bombs, who dress in Afghan Security Force uniforms and infiltrate the forces to kill their NATO trainers, who strap suicide vests to their chests. At the godforsaken country of Afghanistan for holding you hostage. At the U.S. for playing World Police and sending you there in the first place. At yourself for being so idealistic and setting yourself up for disappointment. At everything for disappointing you.

Guilt – it’s not a rational feeling, but it’s there, inherent in the what ifs. What if I could have prevented [bad thing] from happening? What if I could have enabled [good thing] to happen/last longer/be better? What if I had done more, tried harder, anticipated better, moved faster, learned quicker? When it comes down to it, most things in a warzone are out of individual control, but that’s hard to accept. The military preaches control. In many ways, the military is a bubble of control. So when, individually, you feel controlless, it’s disorienting. Admitting a lack of control feels like failure, and failure in the military can mean a lot of bad things. And bad things mean guilt.

The big, obvious demon is one I thankfully I don’t know personally: what the military describes as witnessing or experiencing an event that involves threatened or actual serious injury or death. Yes, death is a part of war. Everyone knows that. But knowing can’t prepare you for experiencing. We all know our pets will die some day, but we still get sad when they do. Now, multiply that feeling by about a zillion. Regardless of its inevitability, nothing can steel you to witness the violent slaughter of a human being. There is nothing “natural” about death in war. And in its aftermath, there’s no time to grieve. When a plane from Hurlburt Field crashed in Afghanistan a couple years ago, killing two crew members, the squadron ceased flying for 24 hours to allow friends and colleagues to grieve. For a whole day. Then they were up flying again, maneuvering multi-million dollar equipment, carrying weapons, executing national security strategy. Because war is bigger than the individual.

But is the individual bigger – stronger – than war?

Reportedly, the day prior to his shooting spree, Sgt. Bales witnessed a buddy get his legs blown off. To this piece of information, The Independent columnist Robert Fisk responded: “So what?” If I met Mr. Fisk, I would be really tempted to punch him in the face. Hopefully instead I would have the peace of mind to tell him this: In the military, your battle buddies are more than comrades, they’re more than friends. They’re people you trust with your life and who trust you with theirs. When Sgt. Bales saw his buddy’s legs blown off – probably by a roadside bomb planted by an “innocent civilian” – he witnessed the near death and serious maiming of one of the most important people in his life, and someone who, if the order of march had been slightly different, could have been Bales himself. There is nothing “so what” about that.

Will Sgt. Bales make a temporary insanity plea? Should he? I don’t know. All I know is that war is a crazy thing and it makes everyone who experiences it at least a little crazy.

The military knows this, too. They knew it before 16 civilians were murdered on March 11. In his column, Fisk references a speech by the International Security Assistance Force commander, Gen. John Allen, after two U.S. soldiers were killed in retaliation for the Koran burnings at a U.S. military base last month. On Feb. 23, the general, who’s in charge of all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, told a group of soldiers:
“There will be moments like this when your emotions are governed by anger and a desire to strike back. Now is not the time for revenge. Now is not the time for vengeance. Now is the time to look deep inside your souls, remember your mission, remember your discipline, remember who you are."

That’s a nice speech. It’s a true speech. It’s also a terrible speech because it’s a necessary speech. Fisk expressed concern that General Allen had to plead with a “supposedly well-disciplined, elite, professional army” not to commit murder. My concern is that the general’s words acknowledge a military that has become so tired, so frustrated, so battered, bruised and scarred that it has created an environment that could breed murder. And my concern is that military leadership thinks pleading is enough to prevent it. Obviously – 16 deaths later – it’s not.

I do believe there are shortcomings in training and support. But at the same time, how can you possibly prepare people mentally and emotionally for war? You can make them proficient on weapons, send them on 20-mile ruck marches to “toughen them up,” make them perform menial tasks to “instill discipline,” sleep deprive them and put them through strenuous exercises in manufactured “high stress” environments, break them down, build them up. All this will make them stronger. But there’s no possible way to ensure they’re strong enough. War is the final exam, and not all the answers are in the book.

Orders don’t sound the same when they’re life or death. The weight of a rifle changes when pointed at a human. A uniform feels different when stained with blood. An enemy’s blood. A buddy’s. Your own. No training can prepare someone for these moments. No training can prepare someone for the emotional aftermath.

So then the question becomes, how do we clean up the aftermath? How do we prevent other Sgt. Bales’ from “snapping”? The first step, I believe, is talking about it. Easier said than done. The military has a long-seeded stigma around mental health care. After all, people with “mental health” issues shouldn’t be serving on the front lines, right? People in the military should be self-sufficient, competent, composed, right? People in the military should suck it up and deal with it because “service before self,” right?

It’s gotten better. My mom served as an Army nurse in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and when her unit returned home, no one asked how they were faring mentally. No one encouraged them to “get help” if they needed it. Now, all returning troops fill out a post-deployment health questionnaire intended to flag mental health concerns and other potential issues. But it’s common knowledge people often lie on these questionnaires. I did. I didn’t want to report to alcohol abuse counseling because it was embarrassing and I didn’t see my nightly tipsiness as a problem. And thankfully, I could pull myself out of that gutter and it wasn’t a serious problem. Not everyone is so lucky.

Oftentimes, symptoms don’t emerge until weeks or months after deployment. For me, it
was 97 days. If/when symptoms do emerge, it’s up to the individual to self report. Many people aren’t willing to do this. Because of the stigma. Because of that horrible feeling of walking through the doors labeled “Mental Health” when your nametag broadcasts to everyone who you are, and your rank broadcasts how strong you’re supposed to be. Because of fear of negative career repercussions. Because of fear of not being able to deploy, of being left behind while your unit deploys, of not being there to protect your buddies and feeling that terrible, gnawing guilt. Because you think you’re tough enough to deal with it because the military has always told you that you need to be.

In a way, you do need to be tough enough – that’s what makes this so tough. War is not for the weak. In a perfect world, soldiers would be strong enough to push through it when they’re at war, and strong enough to stop pushing when they get back; to seek help, to work through and intellectualize, to make peace with their experiences. But turning emotions on and off is not that easy. Especially when the military’s switch is perpetually stuck in “off.”

Beyond the stigma, there are numbers. Every military member represents a number in a pool of people who can be scooped up and sent wherever, whenever the military needs those numbers. The pool is only so big. When it dries up, sometimes they have to start scraping along the shoreline – where those designated not-quite-so-fit-for-duty are resting. I’ve known more than one soldier who have been sent to war on cocktails of medications that supposedly “manage” their psychological symptoms. I saw one snap; his cocktail turned sour, he pulled a knife on his command sergeant major. They sent him home. Quietly. No one was hurt. Crisis averted. Another cocktail. Back to the shore line.

So is the answer a bigger pool? Stronger swimmers? Less demand? How about we all build a campfire on the shore, hold hands and sing kumbaya. Yep, it’s that easy.

I would also really like to hear about how you hope to see this specific massacre situation, and the larger, ongoing issue of the war, resolved. How do you hope the people involved in this war (on both sides) will be regarded by the public? And how should we regard the alleged perpetrator?

Oh dear . . . everyone always says you shouldn’t talk politics with friends and family or random blog readers. Well, since you asked . . .

I want everyone to come home. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better. Yes, there will be a power void if we leave early and security will probably collapse and mass chaos will likely ensue. But I’m pretty sure that will happen in 2014, too. Or 2015. Or 3582. It feels like diminishing returns for a military, for a country, that’s already given so much. It also feels like giving up. And I hate that conflict. Is there a point when you have to – for lack of better terminology – cut your losses? Have we already passed that point? I think so.

In 2010, the military pulled out of the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan (the
setting of the documentary RESTREPO) because the area was determined to be too dangerous (or in military terms, “not an effective use of resources”). In roughly three years, 42 U.S. soldiers were killed in Korengal and hundreds were injured. So pulling out was a good thing, because it meant no more blood would be spilled there. But what about those who were there while blood was being spilled? Were their efforts in vain? Did their buddies die in vain? Would it have been better to stay, to maybe make slight progress, to definitely spill more blood?

I’m afraid that the lives lost and the portions of lives spent working in Afghanistan will be remembered not for what they accomplished, or at least tried to accomplish, but for what they did not do. We did not bring peace to Afghanistan. We did not, at least by my subjective measuring stick, bring effective democracy. We did not get rid of all the bad guys while sparing all the innocent civilians. These are ridiculous, impossible goals, but they are what people tend to think of as “success.”

I hope instead we will be remembered for doing everything we could. For making small, but profound differences that may (God willing) be more evident as they ripple and grow through future generations. For giving children hope. For helping bring opportunities like schools and health clinics – and sometimes even equipping them with teachers and doctors! For opening lines of communication, and opening minds. Sometimes a crack is all that’s needed to make room for the seeds of change.

I hope we will be remembered for volunteering. Every single person currently serving in the U.S. military swore an oath during a time of war, knowing that deployments would almost certainly be a reality. That has never happened before. This nation must never forget to be thankful that when the call came, so many were willing to answer.

On the Afghan side my desires are not as clear. I want to believe the majority of Afghans are really interested in bettering their country. I talked with local women who said so with conviction that can’t be doubted. But I think, when it really comes down to it, Afghans are people who are just trying to survive. They’re clawing along the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They’re looking for physiological fulfillment: food, water, shelter, basic safety. I hope they find these things, because everyone deserves a chance to move to the next level of the pyramid. I really, truly wish there was a way we could more effectively help them get there. But I fear that’s another impossible goal.

As for Sgt. Bales, all I have left to say is that I hope he’s not regarded through black and white glasses. I hope he’s held accountable for what he’s done but that the military, the American and international publics, the Afghan people, the jury, his wife and children acknowledge the complexity of the gray area in which he acted.

I hope Sgt. Bales finds peace, in this life or the next.

I hope the investigation reveals what truly happened – with that elusive capital T – and that justice is served.

I hope that this incident reverberates through the military culture. Because Sgt. Bales is not the first, and if the culture does not change, I doubt he will be the last.

And if you read this whole thing, I owe you a beer.


  1. Okay Im not going to lie I only read about 33% of this. But nice post from what I did read! I guess that means I owe you a beer?

  2. Well done, Lauren! I'm very impressed with this thorough, thoughtful, incisive and frank post. Your refreshing candor offers the kind of real, personal insight we never get from the official reports, news stories or speculation through which we usually glimpse war. Keep going with this immensely valuable writing. If this awful incident has roused you to write and begin peeling back the veil behind which this violence brewed, at least some good may come of it.

    I share many of your feelings about this case and the war. I completely agree with you when you say that the best remedy and prevention for the horrors of war is to talk about them. Hopefully through honest discussion, we can prevent future atrocities and meanwhile bring to light the slight, yet meaningful changes that individuals bring about through dedication and good faith. We should remember that, futile though the war may be, the sacrifices and small victories mean more to the civilians and soldiers whose lives they change than any military victory could--or should. Perhaps the greatest victory of this war will not come until we stop the next futile war from happening.

    I'm grateful for the contribution you made in the military, but even more thankful for your willingness to tackle the greater challenge of helping the world understand how war affects people. I'm proud of you. Yet, as much as you have already done, I feel your greatest contribution is yet to come. So keep writing; we need you!

  3. Totally read every word. Another point = How do you help people that don't want help? How do you provide democracy to a country whose religion IS their socio-political view? Strip them of religion? Not a viable answer. We went there to beat the crap out of the 9-11 attackers, not 'restore' a country. Somehow we lost sight of kicking ass to kissing it. Very American. (I am not complaining, btw.)