Death and Public Relations

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

The killer was in his fourth deployment. He walked from his base to one village, then another, leaving behind the lunacy and spiritual wreckage of American foreign policy. Then he walked back to his base and calmly turned himself in.

I’ve been staring at the words for hours now:

“This terrible incident does not change our steadfast dedication to protecting the Afghan people and to doing everything we can to build a strong and stable Afghanistan.” — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and their entire community.” — deputy American ambassador to Afghanistan, James B. Cunningham

The words are meant to soften this PR disaster, to muffle the cries of the survivors.

“And obviously what happened this weekend was absolutely tragic and heartbreaking. But when you look at what hundreds of thousands of our military personnel have achieved under enormous strain, you can’t help but be proud generally.” — President Barack Obama

But all they do is cascade like an avalanche of sludge down from the highest reaches of American empire. The 24-7 news media report that villagers are “angry” and the “already strained relationship between Washington and Kabul” has been “inflamed.” And 16 villagers in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province — nine of them children — are shot dead in their homes, many while sleeping, their deaths blending into the thousands, the millions, of Afghans and Iraqis slaughtered, displaced, starving and poisoned, mostly anonymously, in the 11 years of the “war on terror,” the war on sanity and innocence.

These 16 deaths stand out, eliciting searing headlines and bland, Hallmark-greeting-card apologies from on high, because they were perpetrated by an insane man in a soldier’s uniform, acting on strictly internal orders. They were sensational: the work of another lone-nut gunman. This is what grabs the headlines.

But the horror most people feel at these particular murders is not a function of their lone-nuttiness but just the opposite. At some deep level, the terror gnaws at us: These murders are not simply the result of national policy. They are national policy, in all its cruel, exploitative lunacy.

This is the emperor with no clothes.

The soldier who killed the villagers acting on his own warped orders was part of the human wreckage of the empire he served. Before deploying to Afghanistan in December, he served three tours in Iraq, which almost certainly means he had PTSD — cancer of the spirit — and it was in the process of eating him alive.

His home base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., was designated the most troubled outpost in the U.S. military by Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper, because of its horrific suicide rate — over 20 in the last two years — and because of other convicted killers who were stationed there, most notoriously the four members of “the kill team” who hunted random Afghanis for sport and wore body parts as trophies. They were convicted in 2010.

But the most telling scandal to hit the base, hoisting the most glaring red flag, is the one about the overturned PTSD diagnoses. Since 2007, according to the Washington Post, about 300 such diagnoses have been incorrectly downgraded at the base medical center to lesser conditions, allowing those soldiers to be redeployed and relieving the military of responsibility for treatment and long-term care. The situation caused such an uproar that the Army Medical Command opened an investigation last month and the head of the medical center was placed on administrative leave. My guess is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

American geo-policy is a self-perpetuating system that values human life as much as it values local and global ecosystems, which is to say, not at all. It cynically uses up the men and women who serve it militarily, then discards them as easily as it turns civilians into collateral damage in strategic bombing runs.

And PTSD is a tedious nuisance to the military high command. Vets have been complaining for years that they can’t get proper treatment for their psychological and spiritual wounds. In the documentary On the Bridge, which I wrote about last week, ex-Marine Ryan Endicott put it this way:

“You go to the chaplain, who tells you Jesus will save your soul if you accept him. Then you see the wizard — the battalion psychiatrist. He medicates you and gets you out the door. That’s it. I never had anyone to talk to. When I did try to talk, I was told to take more medication.”

The military-industrial machine, the engine of empire, is the ultimate debaser of human life. It spews death and public relations at an almost equal rate, and mostly the death blends into the PR and becomes regrettable, even tragic, but always necessary, always for the greater good.

Meanwhile, the spiritual cancer of PTSD is spreading. It’s as much American policy as the occupation of resource-rich and strategically useful nations.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at