Stopping Soldiers from Becoming Murderers

From Time Magazine:

Adapted from Jim Frederick’s book Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death

On Nov. 5 of last year, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist known by his superiors to have job-performance problems and by others in the government to have Islamist sympathies, opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 43 more before he was subdued. Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly ordered a blue-ribbon panel to conduct an investigation into how such an atrocity could occur. Gates emphasized the importance of accountability. “One of the core functions of leadership is assessing the performance and fitness of people honestly and openly,” he said. “Failure to do so … may lead to damaging, if not devastating, consequences.”

Demanding accountability is admirable, but it marks something of a change for the modern armed forces. There is a military maxim that a commander is responsible for everything his or her subordinates do, or fail to do. But this has been largely an empty cliché in the post-9/11 era. As Army Lieut. Colonel Paul Yingling noted in a 2007 article in the Armed Forces Journal, “A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank … As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” (See pictures from inside the apartment of Nidal Malik Hasan.)

This lack of consequences for failures among senior officers is particularly profound in cases of extreme malfeasance and war crimes. Whether it is the behavior of prison guards at Abu Ghraib in Iraq or less publicized — but sadly numerous — cases of murder and brutality committed by soldiers and Marines, the military has punished, often severely, those who committed crimes. But it has spent little energy examining the leadership and command failures that created a climate in which such crimes could occur in the first place. (See pictures of the Fort Hood shootings.)

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