Madness, Christianity, PTSD, and the death of 16 Afghans

It is not inevitable that a mind perpetually primed by fear and fueled by the adrenaline of war finally comes to the end of itself and plunges into a deed unimaginable. But it has happened in the past. And has happened again.

We read that the U.S. Army staff sergeant suspected in the killings of at least 16 Afghan civilians, nine of which were children, was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq.

In the weeks to come the Army Criminal Investigative Command will be seeking a motive for the slaughter. A slaughter that, according to the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, may warrant the death penalty.

We will wonder about the emerging picture of the 38 year old army sergeant, married with two children, whose act of horrific human destruction was finally an act of self-destruction.

And we will note that while this is not, historically, an isolated incident, it is rare. And in this way we will distance this event from the everyday acts of war. Perhaps the problem will be found in the screening process. We will dismiss the man as:

"Apparently deranged", "probably deranged", journalists announced, a soldier who "might have suffered some kind of breakdown" (The Guardian), a "rogue US soldier" (Financial Times) whose "rampage" (The New York Times) was "doubtless [sic] perpetrated in an act of madness" (Le Figaro).

Surely the strong, the balanced, must be unaffected by war. It is the weak, the sensitive, those unable to objectify the enemy who die inside and become a hindrance to the mission. Or those on the other side who—to stay in the “arena of war”—must come to bestialize the enemy, and so kill out of hate or sport.

Well, I make these observations from a distance. I write them out to help me live in a world of violence, perhaps to keep insanity kept at bay.

Still, does not killing another human require a shift of mind? Something’s required that goes beyond bias and approaches the xenophobic. The human made inhuman. Racial slurs devolve, enemies becomes bugs.

Or is it possible to engage in war with the belief you are only and always a defender and so maintain a certain innocence?

But then, isn’t it the defenders that end up wanting war? And from here, as Rene Girard has said, battle lust always ends up overwhelming reason.

There are no romantic wars, no wars fit for cinema. The enemy is never courted as equal, how is he loved?

I read about the pacifist churches. They talk of the contagion of violence, the un-bleachable stain of slaughter. They talk of the Christian imperative: that the nonviolence of Jesus is not an addendum but an inseparable element of Christian faith.

GK Chesterton, not a pacifist, would take offence at my use of his quote in this context. No matter, it fits: "The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried & found wanting but that it has not been tried."

Consider the current Republican race. Candidates claiming fastness to their particular version of the Christian faith. All with swords up and out rattling one another in defence of God and America. Iran the new demon and scapegoat.

Our own Christian Prime Minister, while more circumspect and temperate, has at the same time sounded like the Likud party.

But the casualties of war are always an afterthought of the waging.

In our own city, the Single Men’s Hostel—now Hope Mission’s Herb Jamieson Centre—was built primarily in reaction to the human fallout of WW2. Soldiers returning home—the flush of welcome over, haunted by memories handled by intoxication, unable to rise to domesticity—found themselves on the street.

These "bag men" of the 1950’s and 60’s were experiencing what we’ve now named as post traumatic stress disorder. It’s important we have named this, as it gives us some hope of treatment.

Presently, veteran homelessness in Canada is more a potential problem. And thankfully, it will not reach that of the last world war.

But what does that matter to the soldiers who are even now struggling under the weight of what they’ve experienced?

PTSD of course is not isolated to veterans of war; but far and away, soldiers—who have seen "active duty"—remain the most vulnerable. Certainly the US Army sergeant was in some way a sufferer.

The cure? Nonviolence. Yes, I see the unreality of this. But at least let’s start supporting those in America who are campaigning for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. (Remember Obama’s promise about this four years ago?)

In the meantime, we can move toward nonviolence in our own lives. One heart at peace with itself affects a thousand hearts.


  1. Yes, killing requires a shift of mind, and I don’t believe anybody, not even the strong and balanced, is left unchanged by participating.

    I think you should get a Facebook Like button on here. 🙂

  2. Good observation: war generally requires a dehumanization of the enemy – the Gooks, Japs, Jerrys, etc. I haven’t read enough just war theory to know if it includes the “love your enemy” idea, with its result that this would at least see the enemy as an equal.

    The full GK Chesterton quote (at least as I have it): “The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried & found wanting but that it has been found difficult and left untried.”

    And – PTSD was so named as a result of working with Vietnam war veterans.

    War is hell. We may differ on its inevitability and necessity, but at least we won’t glorify it.

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