What if Thursday's atrocious slaughter at Fort Hood only signals that the worst is yet to come? The murder scene Thursday afternoon at the Killeen, Texas, military base, the largest in the country, was heart-wrenching. Details remained murky, but at least 13 are dead and 30 wounded in a killing spree that may momentarily remind us of a reality that most Americans can readily forget: soldiers and their families are living, and bending, under a harrowing and unrelenting stress that will not let up any time soon. And the U.S. military could well be reaching a breaking point as the president decides to send more troops into Afghanistan.
It's hard to draw too many conclusions right now, but we do know this: Thursday night, authorities shot and then apprehended the lone suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. A psychiatrist who was set to deploy to Iraq at the end of the month, Hasan reportedly opened fire around the Fort Hood Readiness Center, where troops are prepared for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. And though this scene is a most extreme and tragic outlier, it comes at a time when the stress of combat has affected so many soldiers individually that it makes it increasingly difficult for the military as a whole to deploy for wars abroad. In an abrupt news conference, Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the top commander at Fort Hood, said in response to the shooting that authorities would "increase the security presence" on the military base. On the surface, it seemed like a logical enough plan. But it makes one wonder how much any kind of lockdown will either get at the root causes of soldier stresses or better prepare them for more battle.
Hasan's perspective is unknown. He had yet to fight abroad. But the accusations against him can't help but bring to mind the violence scarring military bases all over the country after the duration of two long, brutal wars. In May, Fort Campbell—a major military base in Kentucky and the home of the "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne Division—went into a three-day stand-down after a soldier killed himself, the 11th suicide since the beginning of the year, more than on any other base. "Suicidal behavior is bad," Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend said at the time. In black shorts, a T shirt, and running shoes, he climbed atop a podium in a field and addressed his troops. "It's bad for soldiers, it's bad for families, bad for your units, bad for this division and our Army and our country, and it's got to stop now." The pep talk and accompanying posters, imploring soldiers to take care of one another, had limited effect. Another six soldiers have killed themselves since the stand-down.
That the two wars currently being waged are taking a psychological toll on soldiers is no surprise. Some studies report that as many as a third of returning soldiers suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, a constant, tension-inducing malady that leaves men and women detached from their family lives, numb to their peaceful life stateside, and, let it be said, sometimes angry as hell. "No one comes home from war unchanged," says the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And while those who have faced multiple deployments are the most likely candidates to lash out irrationally after returning, it's impossible to discount how the grind of an eight-year war has affected the rest of the military, who see friends leave whole and return in pieces; who wonder constantly if they'll be next. (As a psychiatrist, Hasan may have been particularly vulnerable: there have been numerous accounts of chaplains suffering from depression and PTSD after counseling returning soldiers. Hearing their horror stories, sharing their pain, and being unable to help often pushed these men over the edge. The fact that they were supposed to be healers, that they had never seen combat themselves, made it much harder to ask for help.)
While policymakers discuss troop levels in an anesthetic language of numbers in the tens of thousands, a bone-rattling truth underlies so many of the lives of soldiers and their sons, daughters, wives, husbands, and families. Theirs is an insufferable emotional existence. "Deployment seems more and more to signal divorce," one wife of an Army soldier said privately. Statistics back up her claim in an unexpected way: divorce rates of female soldiers are spiking; they are now three times that of their male counterparts. There are also reports of domestic violence, of an increase in bar fights. Buffalo, N.Y., has set up its own court for returning vets to handle an increasing number of criminal, often violent, behavior from soldiers.
Of course, Hasan had not yet been deployed, and the true cause of Thursday's tragedy is still unknown. And yet some are already suggesting that Major Hasan's lack of combat experience precludes us from assuming the crimes were at all influenced by the stress of war. "They weren't in Iraq," author Dinesh D'Souza said on television Thursday night, analyzing the culprit. "They were living a normal, everyday life." But he is wrong. In the midst of two wars, those living as military and military family experience a different—often, more distressing—everyday experience of "normal." And forgetting that, either in understanding this singular case, or making a decision about more deployments, is dangerous at best, and morally bankrupt at worst.
The U.S. is drawing down troops in Iraq at a quick clip, but Gen. Stanley McChrystal has requested tens of thousands more to fight in Afghanistan. Though President Obama has made no decision about the way forward, some suggest that as many 80,000 more could be sent in as reinforcements. That would put nearly 150,000 American soldiers in country for at least the foreseeable future, pushing a thumb down on an already stressed-out military. Of course, the vast majority of those under that stress, no matter how brutal, will not pick up a gun and shoot indiscriminately, like Hasan did. But the situation is bad, and getting much worse. From there, it isn't much of a leap to argue that to further tax our military would do as much as anything to guarantee that the homegrown terror on display today could well repeat itself in the future.