Leadership: U.S. Army Cracks Down On Unauthorized Violence


November 8, 2010: The U.S. Army is making changes in how it operates at home. This is in response to major Nidal Malik Hasan's murder of 13 people at Fort Hood on November 5th, 2009. This was the act of an Islamic terrorist, although the U.S. government initially tried to explain it as just the act of a lone madman. Now it's realized that this is what terrorist attacks often are. Meanwhile, the investigation of Hasan revealed that he had not made a secret of his beliefs, and that many of his peers, subordinates and superiors had complained about his Islamic radical beliefs and actions. But nothing was done.

Several officers were punished, or investigated, for their role in allowing Hasan to do what he did. But the army also realized that there were institutional problems, and these were addressed, at least on paper, with the newly introduced rules. First, the army is conducting more thorough background checks. Not just to catch actual or potential Islamic radicals, but also gang members or radicals of any sort. This has already caught some questionable recruits, and, based on the few who got into the news, kept some dangerous, although otherwise qualified, applicants out of uniform.

The army is also attempting to deal with the atmosphere of political correctness that underpinned most of the bad decisions that enabled Hasan to stay in uniform, and even get promoted. In the army, as in any large organization, all the rules are not written down. In the army, many of the unwritten rules come in the form of "the commanders' intent." Sometimes this "intent" is spelled out, but in many cases, subordinate commanders have to figure it out. In the Hasan case, the commanders' intent was that Moslem officers, especially doctors, were to be kept happy and in uniform. When in doubt, look the other way, and hope for the best. In the case of Hasan, no one expected the guy to turn into a mass murderer. But, then, Hasan's superiors were encouraged to be optimistic about their Moslem problem child. So Hasan's radical rants and abusive behavior towards non-Moslems was, if not ignored, then played down.

Commanders have now been ordered to pay attention to religious or political activities of their subordinates, and sound off if radical or dangerous behavior appears to be in the works. This is a lot to ask from officers who know that some bad publicity not only makes the army look bad, but damages career prospects.

Another new rule is less risky to careers. Given the large amounts of stress troops undergo from numerous tours of duty in combat zones, troops coming back (and going to) combat zones now have to undergo a "risk assessment" (mostly answering questions about their state of mind.) This is something that's been going on for a while, but now is more intense. This is part of the growing effort to treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which has already benefited from the large amount of information collected from troops who have experienced a lot of combat.

Considerable recent  research is showing that PTSD is a distinct form of mental distress. For example, research turned up the fact those who had killed someone in combat, were 40 percent more likely to show symptoms of PTSD, or similar symptoms found in those who suffered concussions from roadside bombs. Thus it is becoming clear that there are several different conditions here, all with similar PTSD symptoms, but not with similar effects on the brain. Each strain of PTSD will require a different type of cure. Finding these cures is increasingly important, since better diagnostic capabilities has made it possible to more frequently, and accurately, diagnose PTSD.

Some counter-terrorism researchers see a connection between PTSD and the kind of mental state often found in Islamic terrorists, or those inclined to violent behavior in the name of some religious or political beliefs. The assessments are trying to detect those who are strongly inclined towards unauthorized violent behavior. It's a tricky business, because soldiers are conditioned and trained to undertake authorized violent behavior. Some of the other changes are needed, or annoying. Bases will improve their 911 (emergency response) procedures, while registration and regulation of private weapons troops keep on base have also changed.

Would any of this have caught Hasan before he went at it with his murderous intentions? Probably. Hasan made no secret of his Islamic radical attitudes. Some of his fellow soldiers reported this, but nothing came of this. Now, at least on paper, something should happen. But, already there are complaints about medical personnel being required to report troops who indicate potentially violent behavior. Civil rights groups are questioning whether the army can punish, or even investigate, troops exercising their constitutional right to free speech or practicing religion as they choose to. Commanders are caught between stopping another massacre, or getting accused (especially in the media, which loves stuff like this) of violating the civil rights of soldiers, and their civilian dependents living on base. Officers will be tempted to back off, rather than risk their career on a hunch. Commanders closest to the potential problem are supposed to pass their findings up the line, with the FBI now sharing this information. But the media will head for the source, and the officers in the line of fire know it.




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