Green Room

NYT tries to revive the “crazy vet” meme

posted at 1:02 pm on May 5, 2011 by

One of the most enduring themes of the Viet Nam era was that of the badly damaged Vietnam vet who came home and created mayhem – all because of his experiences and training. It was a myth that died hard only because the war was so unpopular and so many people wanted to believe it.

BG Burkett in his book Stolen Valor, completely takes all the underlying premises that supported that myth apart with facts and statistics. I don’t have time to relate them all but I cannot recommend that book highly enough.

That said, this article by Luke Mogelson in the New York Times Magazine (via PJ Tatler) entitled “The Beast In The Heart Of Every Fighting Man” is a travesty. It’s subhead gives you a clue why:

The case against American soldiers accused of murdering Afghan civilians turns on the idea of a rogue unit. But what if the killings are a symptom of a deeper problem?

Instead of telling the story of the now infamous “kill squad” from the 5th Stryker Brigade out of Ft. Lewis WA, and the reasons for their actions and activities, Mogelson does what many hacks do and tries to conflate what happened in a single platoon out in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan with a problem that infects the entire military.

Granted – no, stipulated – war is hell, it changes people, it is something which anyone who has ever experienced it up close and personal would never wish on another person. And yes, there are stresses that come from multiple deployments, leaving your family behind and watching men you think more of than anyone in the world die in action. But those stresses aren’t unique to these wars. Yes, multiple deployments are fairly unique. But then the alternative is the duration – which my parents did in WWII – 4 years of war, from beginning to end.

But that’s not the point of the article. Mogelson does a credible job of telling the “kill squad” story. It’s a horrible story in which a deviant but charismatic junior leader, in an isolated outpost, talks some impressionable squad members into doing the unthinkable all while the weak leadership in charge of the platoon failed in their roles.

Had he left it here, I could actually find myself saying nice things about it. It is a story that must be told.

But he didn’t leave it there. He started to veer in that old and predictable lane in which the military is indicted for making robot killers out of their charges and becoming so good at it that things like this happen.

In fact, just the treatment of the title outlines his attempt. And interestingly, later on in the article, he uses the full quote from Gen. George C Marshall from which the line comes:

“Once an army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.”

Mogelson deals with the first part, but he makes absolutely no effort at all to understand the second part and how critical it is to the institution he attacks. That is, “good officer[s]” and NCOs do keep control of it and they comprise the vast majority of the leadership in our military. That’s why the military spends so much time and effort training them to do so.

Mogelson is reduced to using the Philippine insurrection and My Lai, two isolated examples decades apart as some sort of proof of his premise. They are, instead, outliers. As was Abu Ghraib. There are always going to be bad people found in good institutions. We see bad cops – but we don’t think all policemen are bad nor do we pretend that law enforcement as a whole deserves blanket condemnation. We realize that with any organization of size which deals in a deadly business that there may be some bad people who we will have to weed out at some point or another.

However, Mogelson, via sociologist Stjepan Mestrovic, rejects that premise:

If we lack a sense of collective responsibility for these more recent war crimes, Mestrovic blames this on our readiness to believe that such occasional iniquities are aberrations perpetrated by a derelict few, rather than the inevitable result of institutional failures and, more generally, the nature of the conflicts in which we are engaged.

Institutional failures? A military that fights the cleanest wars imaginable, does everything in its power to avoid collateral damage, demands that its leadership monitor and control that so-called “beast” by being totally involved and leading from the front. A military that has fought like no other military has ever fought in history is an institutional failure?

Yeah, it was 40 years ago too according to these experts. Except it wasn’t.

Welcome to my world of those long gone days of the Viet Nam era when exactly this sort of nonsense was written about Viet Nam and it’s vets. And, if you read the comments to this story, you’ll find “mission accomplished” is appropriate:

These men and women return to abuse and often kill innocent people stateside. Their minds are permanently mangled.

The United States military is not protecting us but putting every US citizen in grave danger from the killing robots they have created..

END the military. We will all be safer.


In sum, the military’s purpose in training young men and women is to twist, destroy, and pervert basic human decency, empathy and consideration of other human beings– everything that most likely his or her family has also strived to cultivate in him or her– in order to serve the aims of empire.

Thus, the military is essentially an evil institution.

The old meme is resurfacing and gaining some traction. As I said way back then, “never again”.

The military is both an honorable profession and a extraordinarily necessary one. Its members are not “victims” of some evil institution. They’re not robots. They’re not “killing machines” who come home to “abuse and often kill innocent people stateside”. The purpose of our military isn’t now nor has it ever been to “pervert basic human decency”. It’s to do a necessary and often distasteful and dangerous job for the BENEFIT of those back home – for their safety and freedom.

Ironically the NYT publishes this garbage just after some hard men heroically risked their lives in a daring raid to kill a mass-murdering terrorist who struck the very city they print this in.

This is the thanks they get.

Bruce McQuain blogs at Questions and Observations (QandO), Blackfive, the Washington Examiner and the Green Room.  Follow him on Twitter: @McQandO

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When I got back from Vietnam I was always asked three questions in various ways.

1. Did you kill anybody?
2. What kind of drugs did you do?
3. Do you have nightmares?

Vince on May 5, 2011 at 1:23 PM

When I got back from Vietnam I was always asked three questions in various ways.

1. Did you kill anybody?
2. What kind of drugs did you do?
3. Do you have nightmares?

Vince on May 5, 2011 at 1:23 PM

Damn shame. My dad was born with glaucoma, and lost vision in one eye in the first few days of his life, so he was never drafted. But some of the most well-adjusted successful men I’ve known in my father’s generation happened to be vietnam vets. The slander infuriates me, though I was born a few years after the last American troops left.

gryphon202 on May 5, 2011 at 1:33 PM

What makes you think the lie ever went away? The left just was shamed into not retelling it.

Crawford on May 5, 2011 at 1:50 PM

I think the good news is that this attempted meme revival will have no resonance. There is a perennial Amen corner for this kind of politically freighted conflation job, but it doesn’t extend to the wider US population.

Any military officer who has followed this story recognizes all the red flags regarding weak leadership and lax standards in the Stryker unit. It comes off as a textbook case for a Leadership 101 seminar. That’s what made the difference, and such circumstances ARE outliers. Period.

The other lesson worth taking aboard from this incident, as well as from the My Lai incident and the Philippine insurrection, is that the likelihood of such rare atrocities goes up, the longer our troops are deployed in tactically ambiguous COIN situations.

The right leadership will be a counterweight to such eruptions. But our political leaders should think long and hard about putting troops in situations where COIN is the baseline warfighting method.

J.E. Dyer on May 5, 2011 at 2:41 PM

When I got back from Vietnam I was always asked three questions in various ways.

1. Did you kill anybody?
2. What kind of drugs did you do?
3. Do you have nightmares?

Vince on May 5, 2011 at 1:23 PM

After Vietnam my father went in for his first civilian interview and was asked how many women and children he had killed. In the interview! He went on to be a very successful investment banker. Now we have the phenomenon of people posing as Vietnam vets. It’s bizarre.

We now have a professional military and in my own experience in the military I have seen how priming soldiers the way they do can cause serious problems but the military doesn’t ignore this. I have one friend who really went off the deep end after his deployment was canceled… he was devastated that he didn’t get to go. Fortunately, he has fully recovered and is involved in politics now.

We have a little informal group of vets where I live who welcome guys coming out of service or back from deployment and yeah some of the guys we met have problems with anger and end up in trouble but they are the exception rather than the norm. The US statistics are sobering, however. We need to address these problems without encouraging generalizations or stereotypes which make the adjustment of coming home harder. The situation now is completely different from the situation after Vietnam and it is a very different military. Guys in uniform aren’t getting spat on. The military and the government provide follow up support that did not exist before but there might be a downside to that support.

My biggest concern is that we create an expectation that combat vets are likely to be screwed up and that vets are responding to that cultural expectation. Our little group is primarily social but we try to show you can and should successfully make the transition to civilian life. When I look at materials and campaigns some of the PTSD organizations run I wonder if they set the wrong expectations.

Sorry to ramble about this and I sincerely do not mean to offend anyone with my comment about PTSD. It’s just a thought.

lexhamfox on May 5, 2011 at 2:48 PM

J.E. – I don’t disagree with your assessment at all and believe it to be true – however, this is a personal thing with me, it’s is a nail I will hammer every time I see it pop up.

Never again.

Bruce McQuain on May 5, 2011 at 3:10 PM

Bruce — agreed, and I didn’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t have written on this.

Mogelson’s piece demonstrates that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m not convinced the utterly protected hothouse in which he was reared can survive for much longer. For the sake of millions of Americans, I hope I’m wrong.

J.E. Dyer on May 5, 2011 at 6:02 PM

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Comments have been closed on this post but the discussion continues here.

Jazz Shaw on May 6, 2011 at 1:53 PM

Jane Fonda is anxiously awaiting the call to serve…

Syphilitic whore

Roy Rogers on May 6, 2011 at 5:20 PM