The Hidden Costs of War

11 years ago, on August 26, 1994, a US Marine combat veteran from Gulf War I, Guy Harvey Baker, murdered two St. Paul policemen in cold blood. Virtually all of the coverage by the major media made it appear that these murders could not be rationalized (the usual inane comment "we'll probably never understand what actually happened," was used by several commentators). However, if attention were to be paid to the multiple underlying realities of the murder, most of which were not reported, many sobering and unwelcome lessons for our pro-war culture could be learned.

According to the earliest press clippings (never repeated, as far as I could tell) in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Baker had been, in his childhood and adolescence, the proverbial fun-loving kid down the block. He was popular in his Iowa hometown; his respected father had a well-paying job teaching in the public schools; he dated the best-looking girls; he was close to his family; and he hung out with the "cool crowd." In 1987 he joined the US Marine Corps, every patriotic American boy's dream, but in Baker's case it was the top of the slippery slope that ended tragically in St. Paul.

The Change Is Forever (Marine Corps Advertising Slogan)

Somewhere between basic training in 1987 (where he had been a standout, breaking course records in the obstacle course) and August 26, 1994, Baker became a "remorseless killer, very cool, very calm, very chilling." (That quote came from his jailers, but could just as easily have been from his proud Marine Corps superiors.) Friends say he was changed by his experiences in the Marines and specifically by his experience in the war, where he served as a forward air controller, working in the battlefield under dangerous conditions. He had been decorated for exemplary service more than once.

But Baker also had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, obviously, antisocial personality disorder, both virtually incurable conditions with multiple manifestations caused by a combination of exposure to psychological traumas, cruelty, chronic stress, sleep deprivation, neurotoxins and malnutrition.

The prototype of combat-induced PTSD is the Vietnam combat veteran who often came home "crazy," having been subjected to the severe psychological, spiritual and physical stress of jungle combat. The Vietnam combat soldier had been trained in every which way to kill those who were fingered as enemies, training that wasn't easily unlearned when he returned to civil society. He had found himself fearing for his life constantly in an insane environment, ready to point and shoot at anything that moved, usually asking questions only after the killing. He had been immersed in a 24/7 kill or be killed situation for months, often sleep-deprived, irritable, eating toxic food, drinking contaminated water — a crazy-making environment that offered little or no respite from the constant crises.

Combat veterans in all wars are often forced to unquestioningly kill potential enemies, including innocent civilians, and often witness, or participate in, torture, grotesque death, horrifying sights, smells and sounds – memories that haunt them forever in the form of unwanted daytime flashbacks and nocturnal nightmares.

On top of that, many soldier-victims grew to hate the war and the senseless killing, and began the lifelong mistrust of the Pentagon and the government politicians that ordered them into a hellhole. Usually the only respite to their intolerable existence was alcohol, tobacco, pot, heroin and other drugs, made readily available by the military. Upon returning to the states, the stressed veteran was not reprogrammed, re-humanized or re-spiritualized to fit back into "normal" society.

Combat-induced PTSD is classically manifested by recurrent nightmares (Baker's were about rats); severe insomnia (which causes chronic fatigue, headaches, irritability, mental dullness and often unemployability); depression and anxiety; panic attacks; flashbacks of the original traumas; marital dysfunction; hypervigilence and aggression, with violent reactions to what may only be minor threats. Such veterans are often reclusive but also may be abusive of those around them with reactions ranging from verbal, emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse.

Traumatized vets are much more likely to commit suicide than the average civilian (it is believed that upwards of 200,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since the war ended). They are more often chemically dependent or abusive of drugs and more likely to commit criminal acts (at one point in the 1970s, 20% of all US prison inmates were Vietnam vets). And homelessness is rampant, with a recent survey showing that 30% of the homeless in the US are military veterans).

In addition to Baker's PTSD, he had become partially deaf as a direct result of his battlefield experience. This service-connected disability certainly contributed to his joblessness and homelessness. Baker was an early victim of the Gulf War Syndrome, which caused him to have a chronic rash (remember Agent Orange?), numb feet, memory loss, restless nights and night sweats. Baker blamed the anti-nerve gas pills he was given, but of course he also had exposure to toxic residues of all kinds, including explosives, petroleum products and, most significantly, depleted uranium (DU), the radioactive armor-piercing shells that burn on impact, spreading tiny particles of uranium and plutonium all over the desert and into the air whenever the wind blows, to be inhaled or ingested by passersby for billions of years to come.

The first Bush administration, a proxy for us American citizens (who, as Bush the Elder often reminded us, supported the mass slaughter in Gulf War I by a 9 to 1 margin) sent Guy Harvey Baker and many other all-American "boys next-door" to do homicidal duty to ensure American access to cheap Middle Eastern oil. Baker was probably fooled into thinking that he was doing his "duty to God and country" rather than protecting the profitability, prestige and prerogative of multinational corporations such as Halliburton and Exxon, who seem to be above the law. He learned his soldiering trade well and became an obedient, unthinking, paid professional killer. He suffered – and died (mentally and spiritually) in ways that we civilians can't appreciate and which even Baker and his loved ones may not have understood. He was one of the "few good men" but was imbued with serious anti-social traits that are thought to be necessary in combat but, in civilian life, are a menace to society. He was discarded by the war machine that recruited him and is now disavowed by the Marine Corps that trained him to be what he became.

In 1994, Guy Harvey Baker was one of the most hated humans in the news, but he was any mother's son.

What the unthinking public and its vengeful politicians have done is to turn a blind eye to the root causes of the Baker story, ignoring what the glorification of war has done to our violence-tolerant society and its unsuspecting military recruits. And therefore we have not seen this truth: that our entire culture, not just Guy Harvey Baker, has been victimized by our nation's reliance on problem-solving by use of political intimidation, bribery, ruthless economic oppression and lethal, unaffordable military violence.

August 24, 2005