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When the Personality Disorder Wears Camouflage

When a war crime doesn’t look quite like a war crime — when it seems cold and deliberate like a serial murder, rather than an impulsive act of vengeance — it can be especially disturbing, as United States Army officials have learned over the past week.” (New York Times Week in Review)

Given that the Army has said it has discharged the accused ringleader of the massacre for having a “personality disorder”, the reporter wonders why this evidence of a serious mental disorder was not recognized sooner and the soldier quickly discharged before he could do any damage.

“In this environment, people who have one diagnosis in particular — antisocial personality disorder — can often masquerade as bold, effective soldiers, psychiatrists argue. Antisocial behavior is characterized by reckless irresponsibility, habitual lying and an indifference to the suffering of others. In some reports Army officials have listed such a diagnosis as the reason for Mr. Green’s discharge.”

Psychopaths, the reporter explains (using a term which has been an imprecise synonym for antisocial personality disorder), feel no tension over the moral implications of their actions. He concludes that the atrocities in Iraq are few and that “just a few soldiers cause big trouble.” First of all, where did this writer get the notion that a ‘normal’ war crime is done in the heat of vengeance? This is a convenient explanation but is mostly in the service of his thesis that a few cold calculating sociopaths can turn a good war bad. Moreover, what one calls a war crime or atrocity is at issue here. Arguably, the entire invasion and occupation of Iraq is one enormous atrocity which has massacred and maimed tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

The author fails to draw on a distinction we make in clinical psychiatry between personality ‘traits’ and ‘disorders’. ‘Personality disorders’ are unlike the major mental illnesses the reporter hopes would be screened out of the military because of the stress intolerance and distress that they cause their sufferers. A personality disorder is merely an accentuation of a personality style, or set of traits (a person’s typical coping strategies, defense mechanisms and interactional style), which rigidly dominates the person’s personality and is relied upon inflexibly to a dysfunctional extent. In some cases this causes suffering to the affected individual (think, for example, of a person with disabling compulsiveness or shyness). In other cases, the personality disorder is — one might say — a successful adaptation insofar as it prevents the individual from feeling distress, instead inflicting it on those around him or her. This is true of many of the more notorious personality disorders we face in clinical psychiatry — borderline, narcissistic, paranoid and, as discussed in this article, antisocial states. A personality disorder is lifelong, enduring and maladaptive in most or all of the settings in which a person finds themselves in life. But even if a person does not have a pervasive personality disorder, their predominant personality traits can be a poor interactive fit with the particular social circumstances s/he finds h’self embedded, such as the Army or a war, at a given moment.

Where the article goes wrong, in attributing a small number of problems to a small number of ‘sick’ individuals, is in ignoring that an illegal and immoral war based on reckless and calculated violation of the rights of others without compunction, for personal gain with no appreciaton of the moral consequences, is a perfect interactive fit for antisocial traits. Even if the recruiters and the basic trainers were good at screening out those with a preexisting fullblown antisocial personality disorder (which would typically have declared itself, unless the recruiters are desperate for anyone, in that the person would likely have had a history of getting themselves into trouble in civilian life), the current conditions will precisely select for, encourage and engender an antisocial style of thinking and behaving. Much as the article I linked to the other day suggested that the conditions of the war make the Army a haven for right wing racialist extremism, the Iraq war is a breeding ground for antisocial behavior and ‘cold and deliberate war crimes’. I argued when the revelations about Abu Ghraib broke that both the perpetrators’ understanding of their mission (aiding in desperate intelligence-gathering at all costs) and the permissiveness of the entire culture of the US military intervention shaped the torture. The scapegoating of the (admittedly depraved) perpetrators was a convenient smokescreen obscuring their superiors’ responsibility, right up to the Pentagon and the White House. The same is true, even moreso, of the current crop of coldblooded massacres and murders. A war that is generally considered just (to the extent that any war can be said to be), where the decision to go to war and support the war effort is a national consensus, is a framework within which the psychological stability of combatants is more preserved, behavior in accordance with the accepted ethical standards of warfare is facilitated, and civilian massacres and detainee torture are much less — or not at all — a way of doing business.

The other point I quibble with is the author’s assertion that there is a relatively low frequency of psychiatric breakdowns in Iraq. This has little to do with the psychological health of the recruits or the impeccabe supportiveness, nurturance and protectiveness of the command structure. Rather, it is a matter of the Army’s callous indifference to the psychological distress suffered both on the battlefield and in returning combat veterans. In Iraq, psychological disterss is ignored or stigmatized and affected individuals bullied back onto patrol, as I have described here in earlier posts. And most psychiatric professionals, especially those who work with combat trauma, project an unprecedented proportion of Iraq veterans will need treatment for post-traumatic conditions. Perhaps the only soldiers immune are precisely those who have been selected for the effective use of antisocial traits, those who are unable to feel any compunctions for the immoral horror they inflict by their invading and occupying presence.