Stephen Kent

It had to be a nightmare for U.S. Army public relations officers and recruiters as they received some unfriendly fire resulting from simultaneous legal actions against three of its members.

Maj. Nidal Hasan was a medical corps major convicted of a shooting rampage, killing 13 and injuring more than 30 at Fort Hood, Texas. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, on his fourth deployment in a war zone, was convicted of the massacre of 16 unarmed civilians in a village in Afghanistan. The third, Pfc. Bradley Manning, an intelligence specialist, was convicted of leaking classified documents.

All three joined the same army, took the same oath to protect and defend the country and its constitution. What went wrong?

Bales violated the centuries-old military standards of conduct by killing the innocent. The killings were not done in the heat of battle nor as the act of a renegade unit like the one that killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in Vietnam, known as the My Lai massacre. It was the act of one man sneaking out one night, killing, returning to base, and then going out to kill more, then setting the bodies of victims on fire.

Hasan acted against an equally basic principle — you don’t fire on your own troops — when he attacked those at a processing center preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Manning took it upon himself to violate confidentiality in support of his anti-war position.

“It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time I realized that (in) our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity,” Manning said in a statement.

It resembles Pope Benedict XVI’s warning in a 2007 World Day of Peace statement: “Moreover, the scourge of terrorism demands a profound reflection on the ethical limits restricting the use of modern methods of guaranteeing internal security.”

Manning’s claim to conscience is sullied by the inexcusable illegal methods he used. Each of these three cases lead more toward reflection than conclusion.

People trained in ground combat have said they are not taught how to kill, that it is more about removing the primal instinct against killing. Once trained to admit killing, it approaches a thin line of control for using it. War legitimizes killing. Killing becomes an instrument, a means to an end. Hasan said he killed to prevent “illegal and immoral aggression against Muslims” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bales’ motive was unclear.

War is dehumanizing in the sense that military training attempts to remove the deep-seated belief that taking human life is wrong. These years of war and violence have desensitized the public as well, leading to a war culture and glorifying all that is military.

With these three cases playing out, along with the daily slaughters in Egypt and Syria, “the rules of war” become an oxymoron.

All indications at the beginning of this month are that war is the option of choice in Syria. For those who would cry havoc, it would be prudent to assure that the dogs of war remain on a tight leash.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at: