The Souls of Soldiers: Crime, Trauma, and the Chain of Command

He was a good Catholic kid from upstate New York who was never the same after he came back from overseas. He hung around the neighborhood all day, and tried to make friends with local kids half his age.

The Administration is challenging all 72,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder being treated by the VA. Bush, Cheney et al. apparently believe that combat experience isn’t all that traumatic – as if they’d know. At the same time, the GOP-led Chain of Command appears to have encouraged soldiers to commit cruel, excessive, and sometimes criminal behavior. The scars left on our young soldier’s psyches, as well as those of their victims, will last long after this particular Republican cabal has left power.

He showed us pictures of himself in Korea – pictures of him with his foot on mutilated bodies, pictures of him and his grinning buddies holding strings decorated with human ears.

A recently released video shows US soldiers burning the bodies of Taliban fighters after facing them toward Mecca, in a calculated insult to Islamic practices. Torture practices in the US military gulag have also been designed specifically to offend Muslim beliefs and Arabic culture, especially about sexuality. (Contrary to popular assumption in this country, Islamic beliefs and Arabic cultural practices are not always the same thing.) An analysis by human rights lawyers now reveals that the military's investigations of alleged crimes in its ranks have been perfunctory at best.

His face was a filigree of scars from a drunken driving accident. He married a quiet girl, and would take his family out for ice cream on Friday. Most other nights he went out alone and came home late.

A Spanish judge has now issued arrest warrants for three US soldiers in the death of a television cameraman at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. Many press observers of the tank attack on the hotel, or of the attack on Al Jazeera’s headquarters, were convinced they were witnessing a deliberate attack on the press.

There have always been excesses and abuses in war, and I saw its scars as a child. But the burned bodies, desecrated Korans, rape, sodomy, torture, murder … all appear to reflect a pattern of intimidation and anti-Islamic psychological warfare that was designed and implemented from the top down.

“If they could see into my heart, he told me, “they’d lock me behind barbed wire forever.”

Only a handful of our soldiers have been morally compromised as a result of their superiors’ actions. Most of the military personnel now being hounded because of their PTSD treatment aren’t suffering from guilty consciences. They’re victims of an unjust war based on lies. But each traumatized soldier stands in silent rebuke to this Administration and its war, so their claims must be challenged – even if it results in suicide, as it has in at least one case.

He smiled a lot, but his hands shook. Somebody said that he died young, but I never found out for sure

A district attorney once told me that “Pieces of evidence are like cockroaches. For every one you find, there are a hundred you won’t. You don’t know they’re there, but the perps do.” Bush and his cronies know that there is a pattern of evidence behind these military crimes. As I've said before, I believe that’s why he’s nominated Harriet Miers – for his own protection should more evidence be made public.

The Gonzales memo justifying torture laid the groundwork for dozens – perhaps hundreds – of terrible deeds that will scar the torturer as well as the tortured. In the ancient Islamic mystical tradition called Sufism (despised by the Wahhabis who now dominate the Middle East) there is a saying: “We’re not punished for our sins, we’re punished by our sins.”

The punishment these soldiers will continue to endure is the result of their leaders’ policies. If the chain of command has encouraged illegal behavior, it has also damaged the psyches – the souls, if you prefer – of the soldiers under its command. That is the Other Crime of the civilian hierarchy that is running our military today. Researchers are building the super-soldier of the future (subscription or ad viewing required), but at what expense to the spirit?

Somewhere there is a young woman who lives a haunted life. She feels she can never return to normal civilian life, with a job and family, because of what she’s done. Somewhere there is a young man who will never get a night’s sleep again, who will always feel exiled from the ebb and flow of life among “decent” people. Among those supposedly decent people are the Senators who voted for McCain’s “feel-good” anti-torture bill in the Senate, yet supported Gonzales’ confirmation and looked the other way when they could have made a difference.

“Once you do these things with your own hands,” he told me, “you learn something no human being should ever know: It’s easy.”