Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 4, 2014

Mental Health, Fort Hood & Other Spiritual Dilemmas

Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 5.30.51 PM.

In the wee hours of the morning Thursday, I tuned my car radio to a talk radio station and started for the first time taking in the “gory details” regarding the latest Fort Hood shooting. I had spent Wednesday listening to music and/or sports, stayed off of Facebook and watched no television. Plus I work alone on a strange work and sleep schedule, which is why the early morning reports the next day on Specialist Lopez were the first I was hearing of the incident.

Having no “water cooler” around which to gather and discuss such incidents, as always, this Marking Time blog post will have to do for me. It is a tough story to engage with, however. Though I am continuing to tay “off the grid”, news-wise, I’m willing to bet that any number of people within the political, gun-control, medical and/or religious sphere are now taking this fresh opportunity to press their own views, to ride on the coattails of the tragedy now being endured by a handful of families in Texas –all in order to shine a light on the Big Picture (or their own version of it).

So it is with some trepidation that I add my own “peacemaker” voice to that debate. These are real people here, not fictional characters, figureheads, or pawns on a philosophical chess board. But ignoring the patterns –especially in light of the shootings at the same location five years ago– is not necessarily the more ethical choice, either.

I fully admit my bias here, and I fully expect a majority of my fellow citizens will disagree, but here goes anyway:

I believe the U.S. military– like just about any military power in history– has a number of impossibly contradictory communication agendas and propaganda messages to maintain. Meanwhile, well-intentioned but ill-informed soldiers and private citizens get caught in the crossfire of these contradictions far too often, and unintended violence of various kinds is often the result.

I would contend that the broader social sickness here is actually an underlying spiritual illness, an addiction to violence, or else we wouldn’t have steadily increasing and alarmingly random violent eruptions in all sectors of Western society, not just in the military. So I wonder if, at times, the real issue is the inherent cracks in the messages themselves.

The wrongheaded but more broadly-taught messages, IMO:

  1. violence is inevitable and necessary,
  2.  a “just war” (about justice and not money) is possible,
  3. those “other” humans are expendable (a.k.a. “my rights and life matter more”)
  4. I have a right to what I want, and to protect it at all costs.

The inability to question these messages may be what causes soldiers, high school students and other ill people (especially men) to crack under the pressure of that tension and contradiction, and turn violent.

I know almost nothing about Specialist Lopez’s personal life or past history, so I can’t comment on that. On the other hand, if even the psychologists treating Lopez had no clue he was in such desperate condition either, then I have to ask: who, if anyone, can be called a credible expert in such things? Certainly not the pundits, military officers or psychiatrists parading across tv screens this week to comfort a scared-out-of-its-wits public.

On the other hand, I do know something about clinical depression. And while it is primarily genetic and chemical, still there are hundreds more public policy supports that can be put in place than we currently attempt. But most societies worldwide choose to sweep the real issues under the rug and scapegoat the sick, instead of addressing the societies’ own complicit role in the steady rise of mental illness’s severity worldwide.

I also know about the higher-than-normal preponderance of mental health problems and addiction incidents within the U.S. military. The numbers don’t lie. So if you have a hard time thinking of it in terms of political or moral philosophy, then let’s just stick to the science: According to a recent medical study, “The suicide rate among veterans increased an average 2.6 percent a year from 2005 to 2011, or more than double that of the 1.1 percent civilian rate” . And lest we think of it as strictly a U.S. problem, or a gun-control problem, similar veteran suicide statistics exist in the U.K., where gun ownership is far lower.

And combat itself, or traumatic brain injury (TBI), are also more political distraction from the good science than they are major scientific determinants themselves. Lopez was never in combat, and in general suicide/homicide/abuse numbers are not much higher for combatants than for other service members. So what, then, was the “trauma” for which Lopez needed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder testing, if not the psychological trauma of combat or of an actual injury? The hard truth is this: the trauma could just as easily have happened when he was ten years old, as when he served overseas.

Thus it is important to ask which came first: troubled people with limited employment options entering the military, or else the military environment actually contributing to the psycho-spiritual dilemmas these soldiers face?  (And by environment, I include not just combat, but even the abuse or de-humanizing treatment endured in basic training itself, or on the bases, or in abuses of power within the most structured and secretive “chain of command” in modern life). I honestly don’t know which came first, messed up people, or an infrastructure that recruits them and uses them up. But the anecdotal statements about the environment at Fort Hood in this article –statements like “People in jail have a better life than a lot of these soldiers here…” –should not be dismissed. Plus, a human being’s sense of inner security and psychological wholeness is a much more delicate mystery than many people are willing to admit– be they a psychologist, minister, soldier, politician, teacher or ditch-digger.

But biased and powerful voices on the international stage do little to help with such “delicate” matters. They fix all problems with the same tool: a hammer, clumsily and heavily wielded. They (ok, change that to we… since I do pay taxes, thus footing the bill for this b.s.) … we cloak bad policies and messages about power, security, poverty, and economic privilege in the fancy clothes of patriotism and justice. Or occasionally military or political leaders and their manufacturer cronies use such pragmatic justifications as “job creation” instead, or “advancement of technology”. Or constitutional “freedom”, in the case of scared but proud gun enthusiasts. But when it comes to defending one of the four flawed principles above, any old lie, any old hammer, will do just fine. It’s classic bait-and-switch… and it works.

But not on me. As we learn in that old story , this emperor actually has no clothes. In all the ways that count, the military is a business like any other. (A similar point can be made about the criminal justice and prison system, as well… but that is a discussion for another day.) But no other business requires such a suspension of disbelief regarding those basic human rights that we so love to say we support: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Cognitive dissonance –in this case the suspicion that love (divine or human) does not in fact rule, but instead money and power and violence do– is just too much for some people to bear without falling apart, or getting high, or hurting others to stave off feelings of powerlessness.(Case-in-point: domestic abuse and sexual abuse statistics are higher in the military, too… at least double, more likely three times as high, or more.)

This is why I define the problem as psycho-spiritual: the values we are working from are flawed at the outset. And too many soldiers –like the rest of us– have been taught these values, and truly believe them. We treat the symptoms, but never the causes (many of which are economic, or else familial and shameful… and thus private and “off-limits”, difficult to account for within the public policy sphere). Meanwhile, those with the power to change minds, with the choice to stop selling to us and start instead helping us, have bought into that flawed worldview and are only invested in perpetuating it –even if they did not create it, which some did.

Oh sure, we have badly-behaving pop stars to distract us, or for us to foolishly blame for social ills. Meanwhile entire social structures perpetuate beliefs and practices which tear families apart, kill people, and even kill the planet itself, …all while asking us not just to whistle in the dark, but to actually say “It’s getting lighter”.

In fact it is getting darker. Leaders show little good faith (not in God, nor in humans), nor much imagination, in their political wheeling and dealing, nor in the half-hearted solutions they try (and fail) to impose within the confines of a broken system. Each generation’s failures, meanwhile, whittle away at the public trust, and the social fabric and basic decency are strained still more as we start to give up on ourselves and our leaders. We might actually vote, or send more of our “best and brightest” into the military, if we believed justice was actually being done. But that has not been the public perception in years, and in this way, I’m kind of proud of my fellow citizens for not cooperating, for not buying the b.s.

It’s like one great, grand social “Whatever!”,  unspoken but quite clear. Seldom are we taught to “create community”, to make personal sacrifices for the common good. Instead, the immature spirit of “looking out for #1” rolls onward. Where is the courage? The moral courage necessary to enact the kind of fundamental social changes that are required…

  • required for love (either divine or human) to actually rule,
  • for us to put our money where our mouth is,
  • for funding of mental health initiatives, schools and job training that outpace military spending
  • for elimination of tax loopholes for bankers, CEOs
  • to re-educate a quietly scared but still conformist and self-protective middle class that can’t pull the plug on faulty war machinery?

I may be posing the wrong questions above. I may be woefully idealistic and naive. So be it. At least I’m not accepting the common news reports and shallow political analysis at face value.

Lastly, the possible role of PTSD in the Lopez case brought to mind an older blog post I did, way back during the Bush administration. It comes at the psychology and spirituality of war from a slightly different angle. But if you’re interested, it can be found here:

War Is Ungodly and Wrong, PTSD is Proof (Marking Time)

And for an even more angry, liberal and complex look at the issues above, especially on domestic violence in the military, try this old story from The Nation magazine. It’s worth a look just for the stats themselves, whether or not you agree with the opinions (and to be clear, I agree only in part):


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