The murder of thirteen US soldiers and the wounding of thirty others at Fort Hood, Texas, yesterday is an unprecedented even in the history of the US military. It marks the first time in the history of the republic that a commissioned officer in the Armed Forces has turned his weapon on American troops.
Probably the closest thing the US Army has experienced prior to this in its history occurred in July 1867 when Captain Thomas Custer, acting under orders from his brother, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, tracked down three deserters, wounding two and killing one. Where Lieutenant William Calley and Captain John Compton participated in mass murders (347 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968 and 40 Italian prisoners of war at Biscari, Sicily on July 14, 1943, respectively) the victims were not their own troops.
The murderous rampage of Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan has entered the annals of military history as a unique betrayal of the traditional relationship between an officer -- and a physician -- and the men entrusted to his care by virtue of his rank.
Did it have to happen?
The past six years have been a watershed for the American military. It has demonstrated conclusively that it can match insurgents on the battlefield, develop civil infrastructure out of whole cloth, and recruit a volunteer force while embroiled in two wars. Unfortunately, it has also failed.
The virtue of the American military has always been its ability to take whatever manpower that was available and make from it a soldier (used here generically to describe a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine) loyal to the republic even when the individual loyalty of the individuals might have been nebulous. Confederate prisoners became "galvanized Yankees" on the frontier freeing up Federal troops to fight their own kinsmen. German immigrants fought in France in World War I and II. We are all familiar with the 442 Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion formed from Japanese-Americans and their courageous service in Europe. Native Americans, with no great reason to love the American government, did love the Army and fought with as scouts, line infantrymen, and Code Talkers.
What has happened in the past 6 years is that assurance that the men in uniform were if not loyal Americans at least loyal to their comrades has been shattered.
The tip of the iceberg appeared in 1998 with the arrest of former Special Forces sergeant Ali Mohammed, a former major in the Egyptian army before immigrating to the United States and joining the US Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, NC.
In September 2004 SFC Abdullah Webster was sentenced to prison for refusing to deploy to Iraq. Testifying on behalf of Sergeant Webster was Air Force Chaplain (Captain) Hamza Al-Mubarak who claimed it was better for Webster to die than to fight fellow muslims.
In 2003 Army Chaplain (Captain) James Yee was arrested and charged with espionage and sedition based on his dealings with al-Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo. He avoided court martial because the government was concerned with classified information that might come out at trial. His assistant, Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, was convicted by a court martial. Civilian translator Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, also stationed at Guantanamo, was arrested and convicted at the same time.
In 2004 Army Specialist Amir Abdul Rashid was arrested, and eventually sentenced to life in prison, for providing sensitive information to al-Qaeda.
In 2008 Navy Signalman Hassan Abu Jihaad was sentenced to ten years for divulging classified information to al-Qaeda.
And no one can forget that on March 23, 2003, the eve of our invasion of Iraq, Army Sergeant Hasan Karim Akbar tossed a hand grenade into the command post of 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division killing two officers and wounding fourteen others including the brigade commander. He is now on death row at the US Disciplinary Barracks and presumably will soon have the services of his own private shrink.
This list doesn't include the numerous John Walker Lindhs and Adam Gadahns out there. They, at least, made their sympathies plain.
Obviously, it is unfair to tar all muslims in the military through association with this short, yet impressive, list of muslims who have betrayed their uniform and their country. There is no doubt that many muslims serve this nation in uniform and do so honorably.
But at some point a frank conversation needs to take place on what it means when the nation can no longer rely on one identifiable demographic to uphold the oath they have taken. More importantly it calls into question the impact on combat readiness when there is a perception that muslim soldiers in your unit are as likely to kill you as they are to kill the enemy.
Clearly it is a very touchy subject. One of our most enduring myths is that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom and religious discrimination is one of the vices that we've largely abandoned as a people.
During World War II we didn't commission Japanese nationalists or ardent Nazis. During th Cold War we did our best to not commission members of the Communist Party. The reasons were obvious. Holding a commission confers certain privileges, while the odd Nazi or commie in the ranks might not be a threat a commissioned officer who took his oath "with purpose of reservation and evasion" is a significant danger. Oddly enough, in the case of Major Hasan, Article IV Section 3 of the US Constitution would allow him to serve as a commissioned officer in the military even if a decision were made to bar muslims from enlisting in the Armed Forces.
One of the enduring fallacies of the Bush Administration's prosecution of the War on Terror was the refusal to admit that islam was neither peaceful in nature nor a disinterested observer in the war. This is not to say that all muslims are members of al-Qaeda, but to blithely ignore the religious dimension of the war was simply wrongheaded. To continue to ignore the particular vulnerability of muslim troops and officers to the propaganda on the grounds and label that very unremarkable observation as being racist or xenophobic is a fatal error. As we saw yesterday at Fort Hood.
Major Hasan's rampage simply brings an issue which should have been addressed years ago back to center stage. Knowing what we know, how to we make sure these incidents of murder and sedition stop? Forever.