The Book of the Week is “Ranger Games, A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime” by Ben Blum, published in 2017.
Alex Blum discovered his calling early in life: becoming a soldier in the Rangers, an elite fighting force of the U.S. military. Beginning in 2001, he attended high school in the Denver area, with a few others who trained with him after graduating.
Rangers training was fraught with the usual extremes: sleep and nutrition deprivation for days; at irregular intervals for no reason– expletive-laden tirades by commanders; team-oriented missions that, for an individual’s smallest infraction– punished the entire group with prolonged, exhausting physical activity in wet, dirty, painful conditions, etc., etc., etc.
Blum successfully completed his training, but was subjected to undue influence by a particular spellbinding commander who was also a pathological liar, who later led Blum and several other impressionable young men to commit a bank robbery in Tacoma, Washington.
Even though most members of the group were in the military, the ringleader acquired the following black-market weapons to do the crime: two AK-47’s, a Springfield XD 9mm pistol bearing an underslung flashlight, and a 9mm Glock 19 with a red laser light. These were used to terrorize the bank employees, and unsurprisingly, the employees all exhibited symptoms of PTSD after the robbery. The volume of black-market firearms can only grow bigger and bigger if left unchecked, spurring more and more episodes such as this one.
A high-profile court case resulted, that raised numerous issues regarding military training, law, criminal justice, psychology and sociology in the United States. In the aftermath, the author– Blum’s cousin– a mathematician turned journalist, took an interest in the case for various reasons. His extended family’s reputation was harmed, he was curious as to how his cousin (a good boy from a good family, of course) could do such evil, and he sought to help his cousin turn his life around.
A huge body of knowledge has been gleaned on the major aspects of why Blum did as he was told, without questioning its morality, let alone criminality. In the American criminal justice system, there have been endless debates over insanity, brainwashing, and how to test whether a criminal defendant knows the difference between right and wrong.
Throw in the fact that the defendant underwent special-operations military training, and the debates never end. Only after years of extensive, frank discussions between and among the author, other family members, fellow defendants and attorneys was Blum himself able to make shameful, honest admissions about specific aspects of his behavior.
Blum’s story is reminiscent of numerous pop-cultural stories; his legal defense is similar to that in the 1995 movie, “Murder in the First” in that society played a role in Blum’s situation. But there have been plenty of documented real-life episodes too, similar to his in some ways. Tara Westover’s wasn’t, but her book “Educated” pondered how people can ascertain and agree on the Truth. It isn’t easy.
The following quote from Bertrand Russell can never be repeated too often: “There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.”
There was the real-life case of the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller– spellbinder and pathological liar– a similar character to Blum’s commander. The author also brought up Donald Trump, whose behavior was excused with the cliches “boys will be boys” and “that’s just the way he is” at the book’s writing. Yet “…past demagogues across the world had been greeted at first as clowns.”
Anyway, a government sending people to fight a war wants to win it, of course. The author wrote that after WWII, a psychological study showed the following:
- Combatants fight for their buddies– the psychological bonding between them prompts them to sacrifice their lives for others on the team, not their country. They don’t really care about teaching the enemy about their own country’s values.
- Petitionary prayer is perceived to work.
- Hating the enemy doesn’t work– it’s hard to harm people one doesn’t know, even if one has been taught to hate specific ethnic groups. And individuals who harbor so much anger that they don’t care whether they harm innocent strangers of any ethnicity– one would hope would be weeded out in the military application process.
Without question, Blum’s military training involved the first idea in the above list. Blum appeared as a guest on Dr. Phil McGraw’s TV show, which suggested two different reasons why Blum helped commit the crime. Perhaps he had a genetic predisposition (it runs in families– an internal cause) for engaging in evil behavior that is triggered in certain situations; or brainwashing or peer pressure (societal, external stimuli alone) made him do it.
Read the book to learn of the psychological growth experienced by the author and his cousin, the fallout for family members, and about the former’s detailed research results on the whole traumatic episode.