Welcome to Liberrants, a blog dedicated to editorials, discussions, and studies of all things libertarian. Don't let the title mislead you; it's merely my attempt to be creative in describing myself as a "hopeful curmudgeon" who embraces the goal of the free, peaceful, economically vibrant society envisioned by America's founding fathers. Jump in! Contribute! Enjoy!

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Location: Tucson, Arizona, United States

A critically thinking curmudgeon whose goal, in addition to creatively venting about the imperfect world in which we live, is to induce critical thinking in others. The ultimate goal is to help bring about a peaceful world in which we can all live in freedom.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How Many Howard Unruhs Will Iraqhanistan Produce?

Howard Unruh is dead. The man who set the baseline for spree killers in the second half of the twentieth century died yesterday at age 88 in the Trenton (New Jersey) State Hospital for the criminally insane where he had spent the previous sixty years of his life. For those unfamiliar with his story, Unruh, an army combat veteran of World War II, went on a rampage in his Camden, New Jersey neighborhood on Sunday, September 6, 1949, gunning down and killing 13 people, including three young children, and wounding 16 others in just 10 minutes before running out of ammunition. Here is a detailed narrative of Unruh's life and the killing spree that is about as detailed and accurate as you're likely to see anywhere. Reading it begs the question: How many Howard Unruhs, combat veterans of bloody and insane wars that have driven them to the point of madness, inhabit America today, their pathologies lurking just below the surface, awaiting the right trigger to set them off?

It is almost certain that Unruh suffered pre-existing mental illness that might have eventually led to a murderous outburst regardless of his life experiences (we'll leave aside the question of why the army didn't screen him out during its induction process, a question to which we already know the answer). It also seems obvious from reading his case history that his condition was aggravated by his military experiences and that his killing spree was the direct result of the trauma he experienced as a tank gunner in the U.S. Army's 342nd armored battalion. According to his military record, Unruh, a highly decorated soldier, saw action in Italy, France, and Belgium (including the Battle of the Bulge), all scenes of some of the bloodiest combat in the European theater of operations. By all accounts he was a loner, meaning that it would have been almost impossible for anyone to gauge the affects of his combat experiences on his psyche. Unruh's mother and brother reported, however, that after returning home at war's end he was “a changed person”, always tense and uneasy, not the person he was before enlisting. This is certainly typical of many combat veterans who re-enter civilian life, although very few veterans exhibit pathologies surrounding the readjustment process. Unruh's family also reported that he decorated his bedroom in his mother's home with all of his military insignia and that he had developed an obsession with firearms, even going so far as to set up a firing range in his mother's basement. All of these combined symptoms should have sent up proverbial “red flags.” While the term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” was unknown at the time, the term “battle fatigue” certainly was and Unruh was exhibiting classic symptoms of it.

So did Unruh receive any form of veteran's medical assistance? There's no evidence from any contemporary sources that he did, though it's likely that even if he had, his symptoms of mental illness would have been overlooked or ignored, standard operating procedure for Veterans Administration medical care both then and now. Even as advanced as psychiatric care is today compared with that available to Unruh's generation, veterans with PTSD or other forms of mental illness are routinely misdiagnosed, sometimes deliberately. Can we really expect that Unruh would have been given help that would have prevented the needless deaths of 13 people?

So what exactly has changed in sixty-plus years? The answer is, not much at all. It's very likely that the army doctors who examined Unruh at the time of his enlistment in 1942 saw signs of his mental illness, but chose to ignore them. After all, the United States Army needed cannon fodder and it didn't make any difference whether or not said raw material was of sound mind. In fact, a cynic could argue that the military powers-that-were very probably preferred recruits with a psychopathic edge, all the better to kill more krauts and nips. Just as today, with the U.S. Army lowering its enlistment standards to admit all sorts of human flotsam, including those with criminal records and psychiatric issues. All the better to kill more ragheads, blowback be damned. Let's see if anyone recalls Santayana's famous dictum the next time a recently-discharged Iraqhanistan Vet recreates the Battle of Falluja on Main Street USA.


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