The winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture — “The Hurt Locker” — told audiences that “war is a drug” and can be addictive for soldiers. But war is also a drug that can numb the senses and impair mental capabilities. It impacts the human psyche in unusual ways, traumatizing anyone exposed to it, including our soldiers. On March 27, Rolling Stone magazine published an article about the “kill team” — a group of United States soldiers in Afghanistan engaged in killing innocent civilians, mutilating their corpses, taking photographs and videos with the corpses and, in one case, even cutting off and carrying the finger of a dead civilian as a memento. Disturbing, isn’t it? How could these soldiers be so cold-hearted and ruthless? Well, a soldier has to be ruthless in order to be an efficient mercenary.
Corporal Jeremy Morlock and Private First Class Andrew Holmesbegan, soldiers in the military unit Bravo Company stationed near Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, left their team on one occasion “looking for someone to kill” after a dry spell of encounters with the enemy, the Taliban. They “picked” 15-year-old Gul Mudin for “execution,” killing him and treating his corpse as a trophy, according to the article. Morlock told the judge in trial that he couldn’t understand how he had lost his moral compass. Horrifying images and videos of the killings have surfaced after being passed on from soldier to soldier, including a video showing soldiers attacking two Afghan men by an airstrike while listening to cello rock band Apocalyptica. While in many cases — including this one — the victims were actual enemies and not innocent civilians, soldiers enjoying such encounters and documenting them in photographs and videos is unethical and against army protocol.
On the other hand, suicide rates among soldiers are extremely high. And frequently the soldiers are not the only ones mourned. Time magazine published an article in its March issue discussing the story of Matthew Magdzas, a soldier who shot his pregnant wife, his 13-month-old daughter, the family’s three dogs and then himself on Aug. 18, 2010. He was one of 113 members of the National Guard who committed suicide in 2010, according to the article. Magdzas received insufficient mental health care since his return from Iraq in July 2007 after spending about a year there, despite being flagged as a high suicide risk case by the Department of Veteran Affairs. Furthermore, the military asked him to leave after an examination by a psychologist at Fort Knox diagnosed his chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. A soldier who went to Iraq with Magdzas described this as the reaction of the army that believes it is “cheaper” to just get rid of soldiers who are “broken” rather than to rehabilitate them.
To end the life of another being is undoubtedly one of the most distressing human acts. That is, if you have a normal human conscience. A “guide” to political assassinations published by the CIA as part of training files during the U.S. coup in Guatemala in 1954 described murder as “not morally justifiable” and said it shouldn’t be attempted by “morally squeamish” persons. Committing murder scars a person for life. There is no escape other than to switch off your moral consciousness, as the CIA so thoughtfully pointed out. So we have extremely traumatized soldiers who couldn’t handle the cruel face of war and chose to end their lives along with their loved ones, or soldiers who pushed their morals so far away that it became difficult for them to understand the monstrosity of their acts.
War is never good no matter where, for any reasons or using any methods. It is also not inevitable. But if a war has to be fought, and soldiers have to be trained and sent out to fight in foreign lands, the least a country can do is understand the plight of these soldiers and have enough resources to take care of them after they are exposed to terrifying environments. As we know from the case of Magdzas and hundreds like him, there clearly isn’t a strong enough support system for soldiers. And by involving ourselves in more wars we are increasing the number of individuals treated as mere weapons — used, damaged and discarded — in meaningless wars.
The greatest cost of war that the world will continue to bear for at least an entire generation after it ends is its effect on the human mind. For now, Corporal Morlock has been sentenced to 24 years in jail for killing three Afghan civilians, and Magdzas’s family has joined the hundreds of other families resigned to move on from their loss. Writer Jose Narosky rightfully said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” So why is it so difficult to recognize and help the wounded?
Aida Ali is a senior editorial page editor.