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Will Warning Signs of Kandahar Killings Be Seen?

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"There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs." ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

At 3 a.m. on Sunday, an American soldier walked off his base about a mile from a cluster of villages in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, and went on a shooting spree, killing 16 civilians, including nine children and three women. According to news reports, the man then gathered 11 of the bodies and set fire to them. The soldier, who surrendered to a U.S. military patrol on his way back to the base, is being held in American custody as investigators try to establish why he launched his own personal war on a bunch of unarmed civilians.

President Barack Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday to apologize for what he called the "tragic and shocking" incident, while Karzai called the act "unforgivable." The Taliban jumped right on it, vowing reprisals against "savage murderers" and accusing the military of "arming lunatics" to randomly kill Afghan civilians.

I'm only quoting the Taliban statements as news and not because I believe anyone in the world should ever heed lectures of moral outrage from the likes of that crew. I also want to make clear that this is not going to be another opinion piece where one Veteran excuses behavior that can only be described as beastly on the part of one of our troops.

Even though it was committed by one of our own, we need to use the same term for this that we would use to describe a similar crime that happened in an American suburb or a small town in Kansas -- mass murder. That is most assuredly what this was.

But as I see social media sites exploding with American outrage over these killings and the unqualified damning tone of some comments, it becomes clear to me, as a Veteran, that these murders, while reprehensible, are being viewed by too many people through a very narrow moral prism that does not take into account the sad complexity of how war damages people.

U.S. military officials say that the suspect has already done three combat tours in Iraq and was beginning his fourth deployment, this one in Afghanistan. And sadly, this is not unique to this soldier. Over the last 10 years, we have seriously overextended our military and most of our troops have served multiple tours of duty under very difficult and dangerous conditions. Will any of us ever again call people in the reserves "weekend warriors" after how many times even our reservists have been sent back into battle?

According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), 2.4 million men and women have served in these two wars, so based on the well-known impact that the stress of war can exert on a person, should murderous outbursts by a tiny percentage of millions of troops really come as much of a surprise? While 99.99 percent of our troops have handled their service and the accompanying mental and emotional strain with courage and stability, the incredible pressure put on our soldiers will inevitably make a small number of those people crack.

And it is indeed a very small number.

"As commanders gather the facts, we encourage the public and media worldwide to refrain from rushing to stereotypes," said IAVA Founder and Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff. "This horrific act appears to have been perpetrated by one soldier. It in no way reflects the behavior of the almost 2.4 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11."

"Our troops continue to serve honorably -- many on second and third tours -- in unimaginably tough conditions. We must stand together as a nation to ensure their exceptional service and leadership in Afghanistan and throughout the world is not tarnished by this one incident."

The fact that the man who committed these murders is a part of a miniscule percentage is no comfort to the families of those killed Sunday and, again, there is simply no excuse.

However, it's incredibly easy for one who has never served in the military or been to war to make the mistake of viewing even the worst atrocities through the prism of normal life and the morals we, from our safe, stateside seats, traditionally view as being noble and right. Serving in a war zone is a bizarre, otherworldly experience. Your attention is suddenly and intensely focused not on what to have for dinner tonight, helping the kids with their homework or the latest dysfunction with a pain-in-the-ass relative. It's far more along the lines of primitive survival and, if you talk to anyone who's been in combat, the added commitment and responsibility of also watching the backs of the people serving with you.

Everything else comes in a distant second to that. Morals and even sanity can get rapidly blurred when men and women are placed in the unreal circumstances of every day potentially bringing their own death.

Add to that basic -- and unnatural -- shifting of life's priorities, the fact that in the two wars we have engaged since 9/11, our troops have no easy way to identify a "hostile", versus a "friendly". When the bad guys dress, talk and act exactly like the civilians you are there to protect, hyper-vigilance must out of necessity be something you wear almost like a second skin.

Imagine never -- ever -- being able to relax and not fear for your life and the impact that would have on your psyche for even 24 hours straight. Now string together 12-18 months of those days and multiply that by two, three or four tours of duty.

Dr. Bengt Arnetz, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Wayne State University, likened the lack of focus on the mental state of our troops after so much time in combat with how machinery eventually breaks down without care.

"If you look at the machinery, you check for wear and tear and you do repair work and tune it up on regular basis," said Arnetz. "We're much worse with that approach with soldiers... We don't have that approach to it where soldiers are concerned; we don't have a systematic approach."

Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said that one cause for the Kandahar killings could be an accumulation of resentment and anger based on lengthy combat service.

"He could have endured the loss of friends and colleagues in the context of his service in Afghanistan," he said. "This anger and resentment could have led him to redress these losses and abuses in an impulsive act of violence."

Finally there's the element that people who have never served simply cannot know about and that's the need to dehumanize your enemy as a core requirement of being able to kill another person and still go about your business. Because killing is not a natural act, you must dehumanize your enemy to be able to pull that trigger and to do it without delay that could kill you and those around you. And you must learn to be OK enough with that to move on to the next day and the next patrol.

And until Taliban fighters and other insurgents in Afghanistan start wearing uniforms that clearly identify them as bad guys, that civilian man or woman walking or driving toward you could be coming to shake your hand or to blow you into a million pieces. So how then, over months and years of ongoing vigilance and distrust, does one not dehumanize everyone who is not wearing a U.S. military uniform?

Did the man who committed these atrocious killings imagine himself on routine patrol, going house to house looking for Taliban weapons caches? Maybe, maybe not. It could just be that he snapped and wanted to go out and kill some locals. The point is, we will likely never know.

But to view the act through the same lens you might employ if your next door neighbor started shooting up the neighborhood is short-sighted and, at the very least, suggests that many of us do not understand the true context of war. And as a country, we may not understand it well enough to ensure that we pay enough attention to the significant and long-term resources some percentage of our men and women will need when they come home.

None of this means that the soldier who committed this act moves to the front of the line for our sympathy. This should first be reserved for the victims of this wanton act of violence. We might also want to throw some sympathy in the direction of the perpetrator's family as well as they, one way or another, have lost their loved one (as they knew him) in this tragedy.

When we're done thinking in sympathetic terms, we should think of broader themes such as what we have put over two million of our husbands, wives, sons, daughters and parents through in the last 10 years and the extent of ongoing support and resources that will be required on the home front to help them deal with the fallout from their experiences. As Rieckhoff rightfully points out, this was the act of one person and we ought not lose sight of the vast majority of our returning troops who will complete their post-war adjustment with the same courage they showed while at war.

If the current Afghanistan troop-withdrawal plan stays in place, we should expect that all of our people will be home by the end of 2014. We need to work much harder to find the percentage of our veterans broken by these wars and do everything we can to heal them -- and do it before deathly spectacles like this are repeated.

Politicians often give speeches in which they say that our troops "do everything asked of them." These killings are yet another sign that we are long passed having asked too much.