Ft. Hood, Nidal Malik Hasan, and a Tell-Tale Business Card

11/19/2009 02:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Should someone be thrown out of the army if their business card identifies the bearer as an "SOA" (soldier of Allah)?

Probably not, but that, along with a number of other warning signs should have indicated that Major Malik Hasan's reported request to leave the army should have been granted before he went 9/11 at Ft. Hood.

The question of split loyalties inside the military, especially during a time of war, is urgent and troublesome. I first learned of it while working on my book,
Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, about two girls killed by a Marine after the Gulf War in Twentynine Palms, California. Some of the Marines I spoke with during the 90s - well over ten years ago - told me about radical Saudi clerics trying to recruit them in the supply lines in Kuwait.

Mostly these suitors offered money; some offered the idea of a religion that would treat converts fairly (the pitch was often directed to African Americans, but no one was exempted, according to what Marines, both black and white, were telling me). Now remember - this was before 9/11, and I reported the information in my book, which was first published in early 2001 (and recently re-issued in a new, updated edition which includes material about the murder of Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, allegedly killed two years ago by Corporal Cesar Laurean, a fellow Marine soon to face trial).

When I first learned that members of the US military were being approached by Islamic clerics, I wasn't really surprised; this is war, I thought, and offers to join the other side or take the first step in a shift of allegiance are probably routine. But the news was curious, and for a time, I wondered where it might lead. Then a few years after the attacks on New York and DC, there came a deadly incident in Kuwait: Muslim soldier Sgt. Asan Akbar fragged three tents of sleeping army officers and senior NCO's at an American base in that country. I wrote about it for Slate and also reported that Beltway sniper and former sergeant John Muhammed (executed last week and under arrest by then) may himself have waged a similar fragging incident while he was in the army during the Gulf War.

Split loyalties inside the military involves a lot of tribes. While writing Twentynine Palms, I found out that there had been a riot between Crips and Bloods, inside the same battalion (!), on the base at Twentynine Palms. It had to be broken up by mp's. What would happen if that fight had erupted in an actual war zone? I wondered. During the course of my research, I also heard that the Aryan Brotherhood was inside the armed services, along with other gangs, just like in the outside world, and then a few years later, the physical evidence emerged and caused a short-lived media storm: American gang graffiti had been found at various Iraqi War locations, adding to the ancient glyphs that characterize the region - themselves inscribed by vanished tribes marking their turf.

Solving the problem of tribes within our own military tribe is beyond my pay grade. But as Christopher Hitchens points out in his latest Slate piece,
"Hard Evidence," members of other communities among our guardians - blacks, Jews, Catholics - have not been involved in attacks on their brothers and sisters, although they may have disagreed with policy or various wars over the years. For sure, one way not to solve the problem is to ignore what certain influential Islamic clerics have been saying to their burgeoning flocks for years - and fail to take note when people announce their beliefs on that strange modern contrivance known as business cards.

We say all sorts of things about ourselves on our cards. Some of us are "Scorpios," we tell the world. Others are "entrepreneurs." Still others wrap it up visually with an image of an animal or an organization logo. What we say so quickly tells a lot - if only about the choice that was made in what to put on the card. It's what we want people to remember about us when they find our cards in a mess of stuff in their wallets.

Where did Major Hasan leave his cards? I wonder. Was it in a stripper's g-string at the local club he visited often? On his desk at Ft. Hood, next to a box of tissues for distraught patients? What did he think as he handed strangers or colleagues a card and then they read it (part of the custom of the exchange), and what - if anything - did they make of "SOA"? I would like to know the path of that tell-tale card and I wonder if it found its way into Hasan's file. As the short story writer Ellen Gilchrist has written, "The truth has a biological urge to come out." Alas, this time around, no one was listening.

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