Paying the price for our PTSD

March 29, 2012
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

There is an entirely different war going on in the East than we are aware of.

Ryan Mallough

Silhouette Staff


On March 16, 1968, American Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division opened fire on the civilians of the South Vietnamese village of Mai Lai. Between 300-500 Vietnamese, mostly women and children, were killed in the massacre, which would be covered up for a year before reaching the American public.

Twenty-six American soldiers were charged, twenty-five of them acquitted. Only Second Lieutenant William Calley was convicted, given a life sentence on being found guilty of 22 murders. While Calley’s name will forever be associated with the massacre, his sentence was reduced to three years’ house arrest by President Nixon, and he was ultimately released in 1974, serving a total of just over three years for twenty-two murders.

There was no justice for the victims of Mai Lai.

On March 11 of this year, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly left his base in Afghanistan an entered two nearby villages, opening fire on sleeping families and killing seventeen. This time, there was no cover-up. Staff Sgt. Bales was quietly withdrawn from Afghanistan back to the United States via Kuwait and held at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, where he has been charged with seventeen counts of premeditated murder.

Bales’ lawyer has cited post-traumatic stress as the trigger behind his actions. It was Bales’ seventh tour, he had lost a part of his foot in previous duty and he had a close friend lose his leg days before the attack. While the Afghan shootings were shocking, what is perhaps most surprising is that something like this has not happened before.

According to a 2011 study by Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute at Brown University, 88,719 veterans of the Afghan and Iraqi wars were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as of 2010. Lutz also noted that 39 per cent of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq were on their second or higher tour of duty.

The American army does not have the man power to afford their soldiers single tours of duty. The longevity of the conflict and the relative strength and staying power of the insurgency have forced the Americans to stay far more engaged than expected at the outset of the war. In response, President Bush, and President Obama after him, oversaw a surge in troop levels, hoping to overwhelm insurgent forces, bringing more soldiers into the area, many of them veterans of multiple tours of duty.

However, as a result of the insurgency, the enemy no longer looks like the enemy, but instead looks like the people they are there to protect. The result was soldiers patrolling the streets and seeing a threat in every passing face. It inevitably takes a psychological toll.

The rationale behind Bales’ actions will be analyzed both in the courts of law and public opinion, and PTSD discourse will inevitably dominate the Western airwaves.

While PTSD is an issue that needs to be brought to the forefront, another issue will be lost in the coverage: the issue of justice, not for Bales’ actions, but for the Afghan people.

Whether it was ever their intention or not, the American forces entered Afghanistan under the pretence of removing the Taliban and brining democratic values to the region. Central to those democratic values are the ideas of accountability and justice. That one has to be held responsible for his actions.

Despite the fact the soldier was American, he committed crimes against the Afghani people. In light of the American’s role in Afghanistan, it would go a long way towards future relations to hold the trial in Afghanistan under Afghani law, even if the Americans reserve the right to punish Bales on their own terms. The Afghani people deserve to have their right to trial upheld.

At the very least the Obama administration should extend an invitation to the Karzai government to send a delegation to bear witness to the proceedings should they be held in the United States; even better would be to extend an invitation to an Afghani lawyer to participate in the prosecution. Such a gesture would do infinitely more to repair the damage caused than the current American strategy of throwing money at the problem ($50,000 per victim) and bringing the trial behind closed doors.

President Lyndon B. Johnson said that “ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds [of the Vietnamese]” in Vietnam War. Allowing events like the Mai Lai massacre to happen and the handling of its aftermath ensured that America would fail. Once again administrations have emphasised the importance of winning over “hearts and minds” This may be their last chance to fix the past, and to show they ever really cared.

His trial is pending, but if it continues on the track it is on, there will be no justice – conviction or no, death penalty or no – for the Afghan people. America has a chance to makes things right.


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