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The strong, violent type. (Flip Side).

Here's something else to worry about as we careen into Gulf War II: More Americans may die as a result of this war than the enemy manages to kill in battle. In Gulf War I, only 146 Americans were killed by Iraqis (or, in some cases, friendly fire), while more than 180 have been killed by veterans of that war since it ended.

The breakdown is this: 168 killed by Tim McVeigh in Oklahoma City and at least nine shot dead allegedly by John Muhammad and his young helper. We might also add the three nursing school professors killed by Robert Flores last October and a mother and her three children killed by Jeffrey Hutchinson in 1998. Each one of these killers was a Gulf War veteran.

Most Gulf War vets, like my nephew, are perfectly steady, nonviolent types, and there is no clear evidence that their crime rate is higher than that of the general population. But other recent wars have produced no counterpart to mass murderer McVeigh or alleged serial killer Muhammad. In fact, as far as I can tell from my research for Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, there is no other war in human history in which the veterans caused more postwar deaths than the enemy did in wartime.

When veterans run amok, we reflexively invoke "post-traumatic stress syndrome," which was the Vietnam war's version of shell shock. But to apply this diagnosis to Gulf War vets is to degrade the notion of "trauma." True, it must have been deeply unpleasant to camp in the desert, far from loved ones, for weeks or months on end, not knowing how strong the enemy was or when the fighting would start. But this is not hardship on the scale of months of close combat in the jungles of Vietnam.

So what's going on? At least part of the answer has to lie in the despair and unfocused class resentment that pervades blue-collar America, the class that stocks our volunteer army: McVeigh, surely a highly intelligent and focused young man, returned from the Gulf to work as a security guard for $6 and change an hour. Muhammad, also bright and by all accounts personable, took off on his killing spree from a Tacoma shelter after a series of failed small business ventures. Flores was flunking his nursing school classes.

In contrast to the experience of Gulf War vets, World War II vets got government help buying houses and paying for college; Vietnam vets could at least hope for a good union job at a steel mill or auto plant. But in the last decade, after deindustrialization and the downsizing of government social programs, many vets have come home to a scene like the setting of 8 Mile: low-paying "McJobs" and decrepit tenements and trailer parks.

The military is the only American institution that seems to value men like Muhammad and McVeigh, but all it had to offer them was sharp-shooting skills and instruction in the handling of explosives.

The very ease of the U.S. victory over Iraq in '91 may also have played a role in the production of killer vets. In wars that last longer and are more evenly matched, combatants acquire a sense of their own vulnerability. They are unlikely to develop the brutish arrogance of the Gulf War vet, quoted in The New York Times, who asked an Iraqi-American woman he'd met in a bar to "do an imitation of an Iraqi for me: Put up your arms and say, `Please, don't kill me.'"

Long wars do their own kinds of damage, of course. Consider all the Vietnam vets who came back with drug problems and other self-destructive tendencies. But in a war long enough for you to see the enemy dead close-up and to lose your own comrades to enemy fire, you stand a good chance of absorbing the lesson that one person's violent act is another person's terrible pain. There are few more humanizing lessons than that.

If the war lasts long enough, soldiers may even develop some grudging respect for the men on the other side. But in the first Gulf War, hundreds of Iraqi troops were, by the Pentagon's admission, eliminated like trash--buried alive by U.S. mine plows. At least to the killers, that kind of killing, like impersonal bombings from on high, can easily seem consequence-free.

We've fought at least one more vastly mismatched enemy since the Gulf War--in Afghanistan--and the American civilian death toll for that one already stands at three. Last summer at Fort Bragg, three veterans of the Afghanistan war murdered their wives. This is one of the risks of a war against the weak: Men may conclude that anyone weaker than themselves is a legitimate target.

The coming war with Iraq is likely to produce its own crop of killer vets. For one thing, class inequality is starker than it was a decade ago, meaning that more veterans will return to bitter disappointment. For another, Iraq is far weaker, militarily, than it was the first time around, so this war is likely to be even more like an extermination job than a traditional military encounter--which may be good for the United States in the short run, but likely to be brutalizing in its long-term effects.

We're supposed to take comfort in the fact that the U.S. military is so good at getting men to kill, repeatedly and without remorse. But maybe, before the next war begins, someone should figure out how to get them to stop.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Metropolitan Books, 2001).
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Author:Ehrenreich, Barbara
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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