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Margaret Heffernan Headshot

Willful Blindness in Afghanistan

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Nobody should be surprised by Robert Bales' alleged rampage, killing 16 Afghanis. The amount of rage and pain in the U.S. military has been obvious to anyone close to the army for several years. In 2010, for my book Willful Blindness, I interviewed Cythia Thomas, proprietor of the Under the Hood café:

"I'd been saying for months that something like this was bound to happen. It was so obvious. You push these boys too far, what's in their heads is so awful and so violent. Of course you're going to have problems with violence."

At the time I spoke to her, Thomas was referring to the case of Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot and killed fourteen people on Fort Hood military base. But her observations remain as important and incisive today as they did then.

"This stuff happens, on a smaller scale, all the time: soldiers killing someone or stabbings, shootings. All the time. People don't understand. We can have two weeks and there will be three, four, five violent incidents. And people don't see them. The violence. Everything is just all the time. A soldier snapping and doing this is not surprising. People don't want to see it, they don't want to hear about it. But it's here. It will go on happening."

Bales is described by friends who knew him before he went to war as "friendly, kind and loving." But Cynthia Thomas's mantra is: In war, there are no unwounded soldiers. She opened her café -- in the face of local hostility -- to give soldiers a place to bring their physical and psychological wounds and find solace, compassion and help. That they could not find it within the military itself appalled her, not least because the reasons were so clear, so venal and so cynical.

The soldiers aren't getting the help they need, she says, because once diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) they aren't supposed to be re-deployed.

"There's real pressure here not to diagnose it. We have soldiers on 15 medications and they have an adjustment disorder, a mood disorder, you can call it anything but PTSD because they know if they have PTSD, they can get a medical discharge and the government would have to pay them for being disabled and that's a lot of money. The military is a business; if your employee can't do his job, you get rid of him. So you just have this tension building, boys needing help and not getting help."

Of course everyone is horrified by what Bales allegedly did, by the horrific impact on a fragile culture. But make no mistake: he didn't act alone. He was aided and abetted by the military service that sent him to Iraq for the third time, a service that could have known, and should have known, how dangerous this was but refused to help one of its own.