War and the death penalty

RUSSELL NEUFELD is an attorney in New York City. This article is adapted from a talk given at the Long Island Ethical Humanist Society on October 24, 2004. The article appeared in the November-December 2004 issue of Justicia, the newsletter of the Judicial Process Commission.

The death penalty is something we impose on the people we send off to war, who get terribly messed up and then come home and do terrible things.

War traumatizes the people in it. Soldiers are trained to kill. They kill others and see their own comrades killed and wounded. They may narrowly miss death themselves. They come home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)–known in earlier wars as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” They use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate–to deaden the awful feelings and thoughts. The Vietnam War was a major cause of the drug plague that swept this country during the 1970s and 1980s.

When Manny Babbitt, a Black kid from Massachusetts, turned 17, he joined the Marines. He completed two tours of duty in Vietnam and five major campaigns, including the incredibly bloody siege of Khe Sanh. He was awarded the Cross of Gallantry, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Purple Heart and a drawer full of other medals and ribbons.

When Manny Babbitt came home he was a total mess. He suffered from PTSD flashbacks and delusions. He broke into the home of an elderly woman, who he robbed and beat. She later died from a heart attack resulting from the beating. In 2001, the state of California executed Manny Babbitt despite the protests of scores of Vietnam vets.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are producing a whole new generation of traumatized GIs, returning home with many of the same problems as their predecessors. The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported on a study of U.S. forces in Iraq. One in six self-report being traumatized. It is believed that self-reporting results in some underreporting, and that the true figure is closer to one in four.

And many of these young people go from being cannon fodder to grist for the capital punishment mill. In 2002, three Special Forces soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan returned home, and within six weeks, each killed their wives.

In July 2003, five GIs just back from Iraq went to a strip club, got ejected and killed the one of their group who they blamed for getting them kicked out. They stabbed him over 33 times and then burned his body.

In an excellent and powerful article in the November 2004 issue of GQ, Kenneth Cain interviewed several recently returned combat vets who are suffering from PTSD. One described his job of protecting an installation in Iraq from insurgents. U.S. soldiers would shoot at anyone they saw approaching. One night, they destroyed a van full of civilians. “We killed everybody in the car including what mustfve been a little boy or girl, but you couldnft tell, because the head was blown off,” he said.

After being injured in combat himself, he went AWOL several times and once barricaded himself in his room: “I couldnft stand it. Every time I shot at someone, it was a mistake. Every time something blew up, some kidfs head blew off.”

There is a biblical admonition that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. The story of one of my capital clients is a good example. His father went to Vietnam; another young, Black man, and, just like Manny Babbitt, he was at Khe Sanh. Assigned to an artillery unit, he saw his best friend get blown up, standing right next to him. He returned with PTSD. He took to drinking and drugs and violent fights with his wife, which my client witnessed.

When my client was nine years old, his father would take him with him to buy drugs. When my client was 13, his older sister started dating a drug dealer. This man appeared to my client as everything his father wasnft: successful and together. He looked up to him and soon started helping deal drugs. A few years later, they were both charged with capital murder for drug-related homicides.

So we send young people to war–to its horrors. It messes them up terribly, and when they do terribly messed up things–beat or kill their wives, steal to support their drug habit, and then kill someone in the course of a robbery–we disown them. We deny our own culpability as a society.

War is the great creator of the “other.” War creates a moral numbness, allowing us to kill totally innocent human beings. War, therefore, not only creates killers who face the death penalty, it also creates the moral climate that allows jurors to think itfs okay for the state to kill the killers.

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