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Ghost of Haditha Haunts American Shooting Spree in Iraq

New American Media Editor's Note: When a US Army Sergeant went on a shooting spree in Iraq, killing five fellow soldiers, his targets were different from the victims of previous rampages like Haditha. But NAM contributor Aaron Glantz says the source of the trauma and the rage is the same. Aaron Glantz reported extensively from Iraq from 2003 to 2005 and is author of The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans.

Now we know how the Iraqi people feel. For six years, nearly 150,000 exhausted, traumatized American soldiers have occupied the country governed by loose rules of engagement.

The result has been a series of massacres: a squad of angry Marines on their second tour kill 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha; in nearby Ishaqi, US troops are caught on video storming a house, machine-gunning eleven civilians to death. In Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, an American soldier who displays symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, rapes and murders a young Iraqi girl after being prescribed sleeping pills and sent back into combat.

In each of these cases, the victims were Iraqi, the perpetrators American. But that all changed Monday, when John Russell, a US Army Sergeant on his third tour in Iraq walked into a mental health clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad and went on a shooting spree, killing five of his fellow soldiers.

Russell's killing rampage is getting a different kind of treatment from our government and the media, but long-time observers of America's military know both types of killings come from the same place in the human psyche.

"The rage to kill out of control" is how Vietnam veteran Shad Meshad describes it. A licensed social worker, Meshad helped found a national network of storefront mental health clinics in the 1970s and now runs the National Veterans Foundation.

"These are situations where someone made the choice in a controlled environment to be uncontrolled and to kill," Meshad said. "I don't see any difference whether the victim is a civilian or an enemy prisoner of war, or a fellow soldier. When someone snaps and they go from anger to rage which is uncontrolled then anything can happen."

While there is still much we don't know about Sergeant Russell's history and motivations, a picture is beginning to emerge of a soldier pushed to the brink of insanity by repeated and consistent exposure to war.


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The 44-year old Russell had spent many years of his life at war when he allegedly opened fire and killed five of his fellow soldiers. Russell was drawing to the end of his third tour in Iraq and had also served deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo.

And while it's not yet clear what experiences Russell had during those deployments, veterans and mental health professionals have long drawn a link between these types of shootings by veterans to a combination of PTSD and a permissive attitude by the military command structure which looks the other way when American soldiers commit war crimes.

It's for these reasons, they say, that crime statistics among Vietnam veterans are so frightening. By 1986, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey reported that almost half of all Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD had been arrested or jailed at least once - 34.2 had been jailed more than once, 11.5 percent had been convicted of a felony.

"Every atrocity strengthens the enemy and potentially disables the service member who commits it," psychiatrist Jonathan Shay wrote in his landmark book Odysseus in America. "The overwhelming majority of people who join the armed services are not psychopaths; they are good people who will be seared by knowing themselves to be murderers." Calling out politicians who say we need to support the troops by bending the rules of international law, Shay says, "you do not ‘support our service men,' by mocking the law of land warfare and calling it a joke."

Nearly 800,000 soldiers have served at least two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the non-partisan Rand Corporation estimates more than 300,000 suffer from either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or major depression.

Last May, USA Today reported the Pentagon had illegally deployed 43,000 soldiers deemed medically unfit for combat during the first five years of the Iraq war.

We are only now beginning to see the violent effects of these tragic decisions. So far, most of the victims have been Iraqis, but this week's Baghdad shooting shows that increasingly we will see dead Americans as well.


Aaron Glantz

Aaron Glantz

Aaron Glantz is a senior reporter at Reveal who produces public interest journalism with impact. He is the author of "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans" (University of California Press).

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