You could be forgiven if, on learning of a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant executing 16 people in villages near Kandahar, you secretly wished that he was some virulent racist—a vicious dickhead who slipped through the vetting process.
Racism, at least, would have been a kind of excuse, evidence of a critically planned process. It's almost comforting: Even the most saintly among us has harbored or inspired some racial resentment. Racism is a universal form of bullshit—a lower-social-order attitude, but at least an indicator of some ordered thinking.
Instead, the shooter, allegedly an 11-year veteran, with three tours in Iraq, was probably crazy. Which basically means we're fucked.
Through the power of euphemism, we've come to think of madness as some regrettable and essentially random byproduct of combat instead of an intrinsic part of it. In Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Marine veteran Paul Fussell documents how we've officially added syllables to this condition to transform it almost into a logistical inconvenience.
In the First World War, it was "shell shock." In the Second, "Combat Fatigue" or "Battle Fatigue." We jumped from two self-evident syllables to four sublime inanities that make it sound as if soldiers only want for more naptime. And, of course, in the present day, we obfuscate via the king-hell syllabic nightmare of "post-traumatic stress disorder." It not only relies on the anodyne stress ("I have a party to plan and am running late! I am so stressed! I'm a Cathy cartoon! Ack, ack, ack!") but the post-trauma modifier, which makes it seem as if the horror has passed and needs only to be endured in a series of diminishing aftershocks.
History maintains a stronger grasp on the matter. Both the Bible and Herodotus chronicle bloodlust and mass rape in wartime. Old Norse sagas speak both of fey warriors already seemingly ethereal and dead, as well as berserkers so consumed by bloodshed that they lose awareness of the world around them in their mad violence. In With the Old Breed, Marine Eugene B. Sledge not only describes his formerly perfectly normal comrades cutting gold teeth out of the mouths of still-living enemies but also watches as someone urinates into the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier.
If that sounds familiar, it's because a similar story emerged a few weeks ago, about four Marines who urinated on three Taliban corpses while laughing and telling jokes. And the latter, dehumanizing comedy, echoes Philip Caputo's memoir A Rumor of War, in which his men joke, "Oh, excuse me, Mister Charlie," after kicking the corpse of a teen whom they knew was not Viet Cong but shot anyway, for swiping a tree branch at them and running away.
As Fussell notes, conduct similar to the above deserves words more honest than euphemism—words like insane. This is what killing and the fear of being killed fosters. Wanting to preserve the dignity of soldiers (or "heroes," if you will) does them no favor if it requires dishonesty about their condition, especially if such dishonesty allows it to metastasize into the methodical slaughter of women and children.
Even without the alleged shooter's three tours in Iraq (which, conservatively, would amount to more combat time than American soldiers saw in Europe in the Second World War) and a possible nervous breakdown, it's easy to see how service in Afghanistan could drive anyone mad. Outside of the Forward Operating Base, it's difficult to distinguish friends from enemies. The people of Afghanistan increasingly loathe our ability to piss on bodies, burn Qurans and rain bombs on weddings from a great height. The line between resentment and violent malice is a fine one for soldiers to read when they have no objective for striking back, no uniformed enemy, no certain position to attack, clear and defend.
Meanwhile, their Afghanistan endgame may as well be called The Bon Jovi Strategy, which might be a kind of baller way to experience a night in New Jersey but is annihilatingly depressing to anticipate dying for. Basically:
1. We've got to hold on to what we've got.
2. We're halfway there (to functionally rebuilding a country).
3. We're living on a prayer (that we don't fucking die).
Each soldier is a tin can waiting to get kicked around a country that we've ignored and taken on too many make-up dates for too long to be trusted anymore. We're following Seth G. Jones and RAND's blueprint that could have worked in 2002, before we split for the Iraq party in 2003 and ignored our awkward Afghan girlfriend for five straight years. Joshua Foust at the American Security Project is generous by years in saying, "The war was lost by 2009." Hell, even Newt Gingrich thinks we're fucked: "We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive. We're not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change. And yet we are clearly an alien presence."
What is perhaps most strangely disturbing about this massacre is that it's simultaneously too vague and too specific. If the killer were just a racist who slipped through the recruitment process—some recruiter waiving character questions to meet quota—and muted his bigotry until a lucky moment to go wax some Hajjis, it would at least speak to some universal understanding of persistent human ugliness.
At the same time, if those Afghan men, women and children fell prey to yet another drone attack—some Vegas-based fuckup pushing the wrong button on his PlayStation Murder—we could dismiss it, like endless others, as the product of accident, distance, instantaneous decision-making, bad intelligence and all the other excuses in the war-fog machine.
Instead, we likely have someone driven to exhaustion, where even repeated trips home, R&R and the relative calm of a Forward Operating Base can't ameliorate enough of the accreted misery and suspicion of 11 years of combat. Instead, we have a massacre both deliberate and efficiently lethal, yet likely born of the dehumanizing, intrinsic insanity of the job he's been asked to do: Remain hyper-vigilant, over years, about an enemy without distinguishing marks, in a job that marks time toward an abstract departure date, after an incomplete application of a half-assed strategy.
In all likelihood, this one falls in the dead middle, where the means and strains of even our best intentions grind inexorably toward a madness just ineffable enough to make us feel surprised and just predictable enough to make us feel ashamed.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.