Who’s Left is It, Any Way?


From Howard Unruh to John Muhammad

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.

Writing About Wellstone

Earlier this year we published Jeff Taylor’s excellent article on Paul Wellstone’s political performance. After Wellstone’s death, Taylor suggested to CounterPunch’s editors that perhaps the article, which was critical of Wellstone, should be taken off the CounterPunch site on the grounds that it might seem tasteless amid the mourning for the senator and his family.

Jeffrey St. Clair and I felt that there was no need to take the article down, and that visitors to our site are capable of understanding that a thoughtful assessment written months ago did not imply ghoulish intent to dance on Wellstone’s grave. We told Jeff as much. Here’s his final considered response.

“After thinking about it for a few days (and watching the politically-motivated hagiography wheels turn), I think the essay should remain. I still believe everything I wrote. It’s full of truths, even if they’re inconvenient or painful. add an author’s note , as follows: This essay was written in June 2002, four months before Senator Wellstone and seven others died in a tragic plane crash. My differences with Wellstone were political, not personal. I used to be a great admirer of Wellstone the politician. He gained my long-distance support in 1990 when he led opposition to the Gulf War and I voted for him in 1996 when I moved to Minnesota. A year after that, I was an early Wellstone-for-President booster.

“Over time, I became disillusioned and my article reflects that fact. It’s easier to romanticize a politician when you don’t know so much about him or her. Since his death, I’ve been getting hate mail from Wellstone worshippers and gleeful mail from Wellstone haters. The latter tendency is sick and evil. The former is deluded and irrational. Should powerful politicians be exempt from criticism because they might someday die a premature death? I think it’s also wrong that some are willing to exploit personal tragedies to score political points. Despite the sad way his life ended, the strengths and weaknesses of Wellstone’s career stand on their own, are instructive, and are subject to discussion.

“P.S.–Wellstone’s replacement in the Senate race, Walter Mondale, has all of Wellstone’s vices and none of Wellstone’s virtues. Thanks for posting my essay in the first place and for considering this request. CounterPunch remains a true public service. Thanks, Jeff Taylor.”

Talking of Hitchens

This just in from Bill Blum, author of the invaluable “Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower”:

“I hadn’t planned on publicizing the following exchange of emails I had with Christopher Hitchens, but inasmuch as he reneged on his promise and continues to write the same dribble, I am submitting it to the world’s judgment. ?

October 20, 2002 “Dear Mr. Hitchens, I’ve followed your support for the American Empire’s newest bombing hysteria, but I have failed to hear from you any kind of response to the most important question: Do you support, once again, the dropping of large quantities of highly lethal explosives upon the heads of countless innocent men, women and children, destroying their homes, their schools, their hospitals, their lives, their futures? If you can’t deal with this question, but instead continue to content yourself with snapping at the heels of the left with irrelevant, esoteric, and (hopefully) droll side issues, then I would say that you are guilty of serious character failure and are engaging in nothing less than intellectual masturbation. Sincerely, Bill Blum.”

October 21, 2002 “If you consider that a properly phrased question, or would publish it as such under your own name, then I am willing to reply to it. But I will, for now and for your sake, consider it confidential. Do you feel like having another try? CH.”

October 21, 2002 “If you can get it published and reply to it, that would suit me fine. Bill Blum.”

“That”, Blum writes, “was the last I heard from Hitchens. My analysis is this: He was unable to respond in substance to the question I challenged him with and so he thought that he’d try intimidation instead, on the premise, apparently, that I would be embarrassed to see my email publicized. Why would he have thought I’d be embarrassed? Because I used the word “masturbation”? If not that, I can’t imagine.”

And Talking of Blum and Hitchens

This also just in from Adam Engel, a New York-based CounterPuncher, who had asked us whether we thought Wellstone had been assassinated. We told him No, we didn’t think so, and he answered thus:

“I didn’t think so, but A) I just finished reading Bill Blum’s “Killing Hope,” which, along with your and JSC’s “White Out” would make even the late great William Burroughs quake in his boots (and is chock full of plane-crash assassinations), and B) though I’m a “stop-light” Green (If I can’t vote Red, I’ll vote Green, but NEVER Yellow), I did argue fervently to fellow de facto Greens that Wellstone was no Al Gore.

“By the way, I followed your brief exchange with Sam Smith regarding Hitchens. Why are so many writers/scholars/editors that I respect and admire, including, among others, Chomsky, Herman, Solomon, Pilger, Albert, Ehrenreich, Fisk, Sam Smith, Cockburn, St Clair, and so many others wasting valuable time, talking and writing about Christopher Hitchens? Even when he was a ‘good-guy’ I never saw him as anything but Hunter Thompson in a White Hat–an arrogant, foppish, chain-smoking, self-promoting boozer. At least Thompson never pretended to be anything other than a self-serving asshole. The world’s on fire, yet so much print/screen space has been wasted merely because this wanna-be Norman Mailer opted for a bigger paycheck and better health insurance or whatever the Corporate Media gave him. He’s a piece of snot that doesn’t even deserve the dignity of a decent Kleenex burial, but should be flicked furtively to the rug or wiped under the couch when no one’s looking…yet, he’s treated like news. Je ne comprend pas.”


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.