National Security

A Troubled Narrative

Post-traumatic stress is a concern for veterans, but it's not the whole story.

There is a military proverb that first reports from the battlefield are always wrong. Today's reporting from Fort Hood should be taken with that caveat, especially to the extent that we blame the shooter's short Iraq tour for his violent rampage. We know far too little about the shooter, victims, and situation to conclude that military service or combat stress caused the carnage at Fort Hood.

It would be enough for these stories to leap to conclusions about one particular shooting. Unfortunately, such reporting (in this case and that of the Navy Yard shooting last September) contributes to a deeply ingrained (and factually false) narrative about veterans that has become a part of the American psyche. This "Rambo narrative" -- the idea that veterans are deranged killers suffering from post-traumatic stress, ready to explode in the workplace or at home - did lasting harm to the Vietnam generation of veterans. It persists today, and is only inflamed by reporting like that on the Fort Hood shooting.

In a 2012 report on veterans employment, my colleagues surveyed nearly 70 companies from all sectors on questions of barriers to veterans in the workforce. A majority of companies surveyed said that "negative stereotypes," including but not limited to perceptions of pervasive post-traumatic stress, were a major factor in decisions not to hire veterans. One respondent said that "I've heard about some veterans coming back and going on rampages. I've never had this happen to me personally, but I always wonder if it is a possibility." Others spoke about how media reporting suggested that "all vets have PTSD," even though the data suggest that only a small minority do, and that these concerns may be unfounded or overblown.

It is true that many Iraq veterans -- RAND's landmark study suggests approximately one in five -- come home with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It is also true, as shown by the Washington Post's comprehensive survey of post-9/11 veterans, that many struggle with the transition home. Many of us feel ambivalent about our wars and alienated from society upon coming home. Large numbers of Iraq veterans also struggle to find a place in civilian society, whether in the workforce or elsewhere.

This may be hard to believe in a country that publicly venerates its returning veterans as heroes whenever given the chance with standing ovations at baseball games, applause on airplanes, "I Support Our Troops" bumper stickers, flag-waving Budweiser commercials, and a sea of goodwill from charitable organizations. Don't be confused, though: Those gestures, while doubtlessly heartfelt, don't do very much to bridge the yawning divide between the military and civilian worlds in an age when vast swaths of the country simply don't know anyone who serves. They also don't mean that those doing the applauding actually want to know what troops went through in Iraq and Afghanistan -- or are willing to avoid jumping to the conclusion that an unhinged soldier must have been unhinged because he was a veteran of our two long wars.

Left unchallenged, the potential popular conception of the veteran as a loose cannon can do lasting damage to the community of post-9/11 veterans who are coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. The vast majority of Iraq veterans (including those with post-traumatic stress) come home, leave the service without incident, and reintegrate into their communities. This transition is not always easy, and is often made more difficult by misperceptions within civil society about military service and combat stress. The most pernicious effect of overreporting the Fort Hood shooting may be to make transition harder for the millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who will now encounter a public led to believe that all post-9/11 veterans are powder kegs.

According to the Army, we know that Ivan Lopez enlisted in the Puerto Rico National Guard and served with that organization for eight years before enlisting in the Army as an infantryman in 2008. He joined a brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas, following his basic training, and in 2011, deployed with his unit to Iraq. It is unclear what Lopez did during that deployment, nor what combat (if any) or traumas he experienced in Iraq. At the end of 2011, Lopez departed Iraq with his unit after four months in theater, their deployment cut short by the end of the U.S. mission there. In November 2013, Lopez left Fort Bliss to pursue a job change from infantryman to truck driver. After a few months of training for his new specialty, Lopez arrived at Fort Hood in February 2014.

Lopez's short deployment puts him at the low end of the spectrum for combat exposure within the Army, which as of July 2012 had deployed 757,209 personnel for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 46 percent of them multiple times. However, even one day in theater could be sufficient to cause post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury, if that day were intense enough. We do not yet know yet what Lopez did in Iraq, nor what occurred to him there.

Given that paltry assortment of facts, it is far too soon to jump to any conclusions about Lopez and how his combat experience, PTSD, or status as a soldier may (or may not) have caused this shooting. Early reports suggested this was a dispute within a unit; it may have been over something so prosaic as a night duty assignment or missing piece of equipment.

The shooting at Fort Hood was a tragedy. I grieve for its victims, and desperately want to understand more about what caused this soldier to take the lives of his comrades. But we must not let this incident do more damage to an entire generation of veterans by contributing to the erroneous impression that we are all damaged by our service, unfit for society, and ready to blow at any minute.

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The Men-Only Club

Why, after 65 years, can't NATO find a woman to head the alliance?

When, on April 4, 1949, the 12 foreign ministers of NATO's founding membership gathered in Washington, D.C., to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, President Harry Truman gave the defining speech of the hour: "We do not believe that there are blind tides of history which sweep men one way or another," he said. "In our own time we have seen brave men overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable and forces that seemed overwhelming. Men with courage and vision can still determine their own destiny."

This week, during the 65th anniversary of NATO, Truman's words still resonate -- but not just because of the alliance's recent resurgence in this next chapter of Eastern European realpolitik. Rather it's Truman's choice of protagonist that reflects today's reality every bit as much as it did in 1949: men overcoming obstacles, men with courage and vision.

For all of NATO's rhetoric about engaging in a "continuous process of reform, modernisation and transformation," the composition of its top leadership looks downright anachronistic. With the March 28 designation of Jens Stoltenberg as the next secretary general, it seems certain that at least 70 years will pass without a single woman serving at the very top of the organization.

The problem is not confined to the position of secretary-general. In 65 years, there has also never been a female deputy secretary-general, and Croatia's Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic is the first and only woman to ever serve in one of the assistant secretary-general positions.

Unsurprisingly, the imbalance is every bit as pronounced within the military delegations to NATO. There has never been a female supreme allied commander Europe, and all of its 56 current chiefs of defense and military representatives are male. Its organizational chart of top civilian and military leaders shows 80 men and three women smiling gamely at the camera.

Individual member states, meanwhile, are increasingly sending women to top positions within their own governments, outpacing NATO in the slog toward gender equality. At the moment, eight of the alliance's 28 member states have at least one woman representing the country's security and foreign-policy priorities in Brussels or serving as a defense minister, and over half of its members have or have previously had a female head of government. As senior stateswomen with expertise in collective defense, many of these women are qualified candidates for NATO leadership positions, yet they are not making it to that top echelon.

There are doubtlessly those who question whether a gender imbalance even matters, particularly in a defense-oriented organization. Given the alliance's challenging agenda, from countering Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression to making the most with increasingly strained military resources, the composition of its leadership may seem like an auxiliary concern.

In fact, the types of challenges with which NATO contends would especially benefit from more representative leadership. Ample research suggests that female leadership brings about positive change for organizations, particularly in the domain of conflict resolution. Women leaders have been shown to have a more democratic and collaborative leadership style -- an important attribute when trying to build consensus in a large organization such as NATO. When women play an active role in discussions about post-conflict reconstruction, research has shown that the resultant peace agreements and operational policies are less likely to marginalize parts of society and more likely to endure.

Recent literature about women in the private sector has hailed the diversity of perspective and problem-solving techniques that women bring -- surely those same benefits also apply in the context of the alliance. At a time when NATO is trying to address 21st-century challenges without slipping back into a 20th-century mindset, more diversity at the top could go a long way toward keeping the organization and its thinking modern.

Beyond these practical benefits, the other reason that increasing the number of women in top NATO positions matters is, quite simply, a question of values: A collective security organization that only represents 50 percent of the population in top leadership jobs is inconsistent with the contemporary Western values the alliance espouses.

But how might NATO address the gender gap at the top? Apart from bringing attention to this imbalance, one concrete step is to change its selection process for secretary-general. Currently, the alliance's top civilian leader is chosen through an informal consultation process, whereby member states suggest names, confer and bargain with other member states, and, after enough horse-trading, reach consensus. The process is opaque and conducted outside the public eye; we have no definitive record of which candidates were considered, his or her merits, and which countries supported each candidate.

With greater transparency, questionable patterns of bias or omission in candidate support could be noted and reviewed -- in other words, member states that nominate and support exclusively male candidates may be asked to justify their decision-making. Such a systematized process may also help counteract human biases in decision-making: Harvard University researchers have shown that when candidates are considered individually, as they are in the current informal consultation process, those making the evaluations are more likely to be influenced by stereotypes, which generally hurts female candidates. However, when groups of candidates are compared systematically, performance takes priority in the decision-making process. This change in the secretary-general selection process would be good for diversity and good for the organization's overall health and reputation.

In light of recent events, there's no doubt that NATO is not just relevant, but a critically important player in protecting global peace, security, and order. As member states work to counter new external challenges, however, they should not lose sight of the alliance's own internal weaknesses. Working toward a more diverse and representative leadership will bolster the organization's credibility and effectiveness and will position the alliance as a true model of the values it espouses.

Photo: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images