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By Bill Shunas
Last year in the Belgian city of Liege, someone planted a bomb on a crowded street. Four people died and 123 were wounded. The first reports after the incident were that, fortunately, this was not the work of terrorists.
A few years ago many of us were in the streets protesting the upcoming war in Iraq, and after the war began, were back in the streets again. Those of us who did these things, according to the President of the United States, were the same as terrorists and presumably subject to arrest. We were terrorists because, by protesting his war, we were supporting the terrorists.
So what, or who is a terrorist? Bush and others suggest it might be someone who disagrees with you on issues of national security. Too bad some of these people get to be world leaders. If you asked me, I'd keep it simple. A terrorist would be someone who terrifies innocent people.
Back in March in the middle of one night when Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked off his base near Khandahar and into the village of Balandi and shot and killed eight children and four adults and burned their bodies, do you think other residents of Balandi were terrified? When Sergeant Bales left Balandi and walked over to the village of Alokzai where he killed one more child and three adults, were the residents of Alokzai terrified?
If, as in the Sergeant Bales incident, the person committing the terrifying act is a soldier involved in fighting a war, would this act be something other than an act of terror? Leon Panetta and others, when speaking about Robert Bales, said that in war atrocities (my word) happen. We agree. You can't get away from terror in war, so is this different than what terrorists do?
In the aftermath of the incident words like "rage," "psychopath" and "pre-existing conditions" were being thrown around. Us veterans maybe better understand the words "post-traumatic stress disorder" and "traumatic brain injury." Rage, psychopathy and pre-existing conditions are not required.
Commenting on the Bales incident, John McCain said we need to put more strength in Afghanistan or get out of there. The leading Republican candidates echoed what McCain said while beating the drums for more of the same in Iran. None seemed concerned about the consequences of another war.
When Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, was that an act of terrorism? Imagine the terror experienced by those in that building and those who had loved ones in that building. Maybe because McVeigh's body count reached triple digits he gets to be called a terrorist.
Last year when Anders Breivik, a Norwegian right-winger killed 77 people at a Labor Party youth camp, he wasn't labeled a terrorist, just a mass murderer.
Most of the time white guys don't get labeled as terrorists. Not unless they convert to Islam like John Walker Lindh (the guy who joined the Taliban army) who probably didn't terrorize, or even shoot, anybody.
A soldier needs to be held accountable for his or her actions in war. Staff Sergeant Bales should be punished if guilty for war crimes or crimes against humanity or however you wish to frame it. Having said that, I backtrack a little. One highly suspects that what he did was the result of issues that go beyond him. His mental state was what it was because of his service in the United States Army in two wars which have been devastating to the minds of many of its soldiers. Nevertheless he should be punished if guilty. It's sad. Seems like there are a lot of victims here.
Many people are going to want to cut Robert Bales some slack because they feel he was basically a good soldier who faced all these pressures and then snapped. Many will blame the military for sending him into combat four times in just a few years. Nobody thinks about the civilians in charge who formulated the policies that caused the Army to send him into combat four times in just a few years.
As demonstrated by George Bush, there is loose talk about who is a terrorist. If you reduce it to your political opponents you negate the idea that there is a serious problem. Of course, the bomb that went off in Liege was a terrorist act. So are many acts of war. Often you can't avoid such things in war because humans are fallible, so the real guilty parties are the civilians who unleash our armies in unjust and unnecessary war.
I never thought I'd say this, but John McCain was right when he said we needed to either strengthen our troops in Afghanistan or get out. Well, mostly right. The get out part is something we understand. It's the strengthen our forces part that needs a little work. Supposing there was a chance of winning that war by sending over whatever it takes, say 500,000 troops. What would be the cost? You'd have to enlarge our military, recruit more soldiers, pay for them and pay for their equipment. You'd have an ungodly increase in PTSD and all the human and monetary costs that involves. And you'd do this when money needs to be spent stateside on this poor economy.
Strengthening the troops doesn't even guarantee a win over there. Can you say Vietnam? Remember CG William Westmoreland asked for an additional 500,000 GIs to supplement the 500,000 already there. That was to fight a war on unfavorable terrain in a country where most of the people didn't like us. Can you say Afghanistan? Nuke 'em, goddamit.
So you have three types of terrorism. There's individual acts such as Liege or Oklahoma City. There's terrorist acts caused by powerful armies such as ours, both by its individual soldiers and by the army's very presence in another country. And then there's the shadowy world in between where Al Qaeda types pull off 9-11 or blow things up because it's fighting (in their minds) for some legitimate cause. This later kind of terror is convenient for world leaders because it can be used to mobilize a variety of military and imperial actions. The unfortunate irony, of course, is that this only perpetuates the cycle.
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author and VVAW member in the Chicago chapter.
VVAW joined Veterans For Peace, Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Code Pink, US Labor Against the War, and members
Of a local congregation of the Universalist Unitarian Church in an anti-war veterans contingent in the 2011 New York City Veterans
Day Parade up 5th Avenue. (left to right) - Per Odman, Michael Hayes, Ben Chitty.