Blowback: From Howard Unruh to John Muhammad

by Alexander Cockburn (CounterPunch, November 1, 2002)

A nation always on the war path means a nation always under arms, a nation to which war is always coming home. A minority of these homecomers arrive in the form of psychically maimed people, violence-prone drunks, domestic abusers, drug addicts, basket cases. This summer, before Muhammad and Malvo embarked on their lethal jaunts, the whole issue of of blowback, of wars Coming Home had turned red hot with the murders and suicides in North Carolina's Fort Bragg, a vast military base and home to the elite Special Forces.

On June 11 Sgt. Rigoberto Nieves, 32, of the 3rd Special Forces Group, shot his 28-year-old wife, Teresa, and then himself, in their bedroom, as Teresa's sister and other relatives sat downstairs. He had returned from Afghanistan two days earlier, having requested leave to resolve "personal issues."

On June 29 Jennifer Wright was strangled by her husband, William. The 36-year-old Green Beret confessed to the killing three weeks later.

On July 9 Sgt. Cedric Griffin, 28, of the 37th Engineer Battalion at Fort Bragg, was arrested after stabbing his wife, Marilyn, more than fifty times before setting her body on fire. The couple had been married for eight years but had recently separated.

Sgt. Brandon Floyd was a member of the Delta Force, a champion triathlete. He'd just come back from Afghanistan. On July 19, amid a domestic quarrel, Floyd shot his wife, Andrea, in the head. Then he put the barrel inside his mouth and blew the top of his head off.

On July 23 in Fayetteville, the support town for Fort Bragg, Joan Shannon killed her husband, Maj. David Shannon, part of the Special Operations Command. The 40-year-old was shot in the head and chest while sleeping in his bed.

A common theme of the few good news stories on this issue cites wives complaining of the great difficulty in getting any help in dealing with a violent, maybe homicidal, husband. Analisa Nazareno had a harrowing account this month in the San Antonio Express-News about Rhonda Pion, terrified of her husband, legally blind and therefore unable to drive away from Fort Sam Houston, an army base there. Rules required that Pion seek permission from her husband's commanding officer to get a protective order from the military judge advocate general's office. As one victim's advocate said, "It's like having to go to your father-in-law and asking him for permission to protect yourself from his son." Ultimately Pion fled to a relative in Louisiana.

Maj. Gen. Robert Clark is having trouble getting his third star because he's accused of not doing enough to deal with domestic and antigay violence when he was commanding officer at Fort Campbell, in Kentucky. In 1999 Pvt. Barry Winchell was beaten to death there. In addition to Winchell's murder, there were four homicides related to domestic violence while Clark was in charge. Kathy Spence, the mother of one victim, LaRonda Spence, said her daughter complained at least thirty times to her husband's superiors about his abuse, but they did nothing. "How can you promote someone who is supposed to protect the country when they can't even protect our daughters?" Spence asked Ron Martz, a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Congress established a Defense Department task force in 1999 after findings showed that the rate of domestic violence in the military had risen by more than a third, to 25.6 per 1,000 soldiers in 1996 from 18.6 per 1,000 in 1990. At the time, domestic violence rates were dropping among the general population. In that six-year period there were 61,000 cases of military spouses suffering domestic violence, five times higher than the number in the civilian population. In the year 2000, 12,068 cases of spousal abuse were reported to the military's Family Advocacy Program. There were eight deaths that year-all women, and all involving domestic violence.

The military is desperate to bury the stats, but it's clear that most abusers get away with it. Special Forces soldiers, at hairtrigger readiness to kill, can be away for up to ten months a year. A Green Beret with five to seven years' experience earns $25,000. Each partner in this financially stressed duo worries, often with reason, that the other is fooling around.

The two best recent stories on the Fort Bragg killings have, maybe unsurprisingly, appeared outside this country, which most recently hosted a bland piece of Army PR in USA Today, by Dave Moniz. Tim Reid, always a good reporter, had a fine piece in the London Times, as did Doug Saunders in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Saunders quotes David Grossman, a former US military psychologist who helped develop programs to make new recruits more effective killers, to increase what's called the "trigger-pull ratio." These programs are now part of basic training. Grossman says that the trick is to break down the natural human aversion to killing. He calls this "disengagement." Once this aversion has been removed, it never comes back, and can make it easier for former soldiers to become murderers. "The ability to watch a human being's head explode and to do it again and again-that takes a kind of desensitization to human suffering that has to be learned," Grossman said.

So don't blame Charlton Heston. The US military is the chief sponsor of violence in this country. One day in 1949 Howard Unruh, a 28-year-old World War II veteran, shot thirteen of his New Jersey neighbors. His famous line was, "I'd have killed a thousand if I'd had enough bullets." His military firearms training made his "walk of death" the first modern serial-killer case.

From Unruh to Muhammad. Millions have been molded in this manner. Blowback is the consequence. It will be with us as long as the Empire needs war as its guarantor. America is living in the blowback years. What goes around comes around, with unforeseen consequences, or consequences foreseen but discounted. Unleash the mujahedeen on the Soviets in Afghanistan, and you get Osama bin Laden.
Blowback usually comes as a shock, because the art of politics is to separate actions from consequences.

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