Monday, January 23, 2012 / 8:10 am
Pissed On, Pissed Off: War is the Soul-Killer
When your good, sweet kids come home from fighting a war, very often a small but essential part of them is dead.
by Jim Washburn
One of several downsides to not being famous is that you can be reading the Times at breakfast, become perturbed enough at the news that you launch into a long screed about it, and your spouse doesn’t even look up from her iPad. Then a week later you’ll watch Bill Maher say nearly the same thing to an adoring audience on HBO, and your spouse of course thinks Maher is being the cleverest guy ever.
This happened the other week when the footage broke of the Marine snipers in Afghanistan urinating on their dead targets. It was shameful, and certainly bad PR—the Afghans don’t get trickle-down economics—but, reading about it, I felt the story deserved some context.
Peeing on someone, who, being dead, is rather past caring, is the proverbial and literal act of adding insult to injury. Chances are that if you’ve already shot someone’s Uncle Ali through the head, his relatives are already about as pissed off as they need to get to hate us for life. The injudicious whiz adds little to that, and is furthermore only a minor affront compared to our torturing prisoners and the extrajudicial, impersonal killing of Muslim terrorists, children and anyone else loitering in the purview of our drone aircraft. They don’t just hate us for our pee-dom.
To turn the coin, pissing on the dead—ostensibly Taliban dead—also doesn’t belong on the same page as the horrific things the Taliban itself does, such as fire-bombing schools and throwing acid in the faces of female children whose only sin is wanting an education.
You probably won’t be hearing that argument made inside Afghanistan, where the Taliban enjoys a home-court advantage. As occupying armies have always found to be the case, people will tolerate much more from their own assholes than they will from foreign ones. Just consider how much more upset we’d be if an Army veteran had his skull fractured on the streets of America by an Al Qaeda agent rather than a Berkeley cop.
That’s what I opined at the breakfast table, and why my wife didn’t jump up, march over to Afghanistan and sort things out, I’ll never know. She was much more riled when Maher said nearly the same things a week later. (Of course, it’s all dead news now, with the domestic furor over the urinating Marines having already gone the way of our passing infatuation with Tickle Me Elmo and the Dancing Itos.)
I talk back to the TV, too. Watching that week’s Real Time, I found myself mumbling at Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Rob Reiner had just said that, while unjustified, the way the snipers had acted was to be expected, that these guys were in an untenable place, had likely seen friends killed, and that “war does make people a little crazy.”
Wasserman Schultz was atop a lofty peak, though, responding, “I’m sorry, expected? … This is the United States of America, the greatest country in the world, that is the country that we hold ourselves up as the shining example … it’s unacceptable in any way, shape or form.”
From at least as far back as our occupation of the Philippines up through our tragic, unnecessary war on Iraq, Wasserman Schultz’s “shining example” of a nation has done horrible things during wartime, even if not always as horrible as our enemies. War is bad. She would have been wise to defer to Reiner, whose A Few Good Men added the catchphrase “You can’t handle the truth!” to our national dialogue.
We really don’t want to know the truth. I’ve known enough guys who have been through war to know that it does indeed change them. War upends the cardinal rule of civilization and human ethics—Thou shalt not kill—putting you in a situation where you get the” attaboys” expressly for killing your fellow man. To pull the trigger, you have to dehumanize your enemy, and you also do that to distance yourself from the human life that you have just turned into avulsed meat and bone chips. Maybe he had kids, a great singing voice, or read the same comic books as you did growing up. You’ll never know, and neither will he now.
Your enemy isn’t the only one dehumanized by that. Killing is a soul killer. That’s one reason why a sane society only goes to war as a last resort: When your good, sweet kids come home from fighting a war, very often a small but essential part of them is dead, or is buried so deep inside it atrophies and turns them crazy. Even most “nanny state” hating conservatives don’t mind the VA hospitals and other safety nets we’ve created for our vets. Maybe that’s because we feel guilty as a nation for what we’ve taken from them in our wars, some of which we have embarked on as a first inclination rather than a last resort.
I recently read that so many vets comes home troubled inside that the Department of Veteran Affairs has become the world’s largest psychiatric treatment system, along with being the largest prescriber of psychiatric medicines.
Which brings me to this past week’s news: I can’t read about Itzcoatl Ocampo without feeling sad for the guy. It’s some heinous shit he’s accused of: choosing and stalking his victims from among the most hapless and unfortuned members of our population; lacerating and stabbing them dozens of times.
But then you read of how his friends and family members describe a fun, kind guy who would give his last dollars away to help others. He’d gone into the Marine Corps right after high school, served in Iraq and came home changed, everyone said, distracted and talking about the end of the world. A friend told the press, “He seemed really depressed and down, and things in his life weren’t looking that well,” while his father, himself homeless, talked to the OC Register about his son’s military service and apparent murders: “They killed the person he was, and that’s the only reason I can think of that he would do something like that.”
Of the 30,000 suicides in the US annually, one out of every five is a veteran. (The suicide of a vet friend is thought to be one of the things that sent Army vet Benjamin Colton Barnes around the bend early this year, when he shot four at a party, then killed a Mount Rainier park ranger.) Vets are twice as likely to become homeless as non-vets. They have more trouble finding jobs. By VA estimates, 11 to 20 percent suffer from PTSD, which can lead to aggression and criminality. There are VA programs in place to help vets reenter society—Ocampo’s father and a vet friend had urged him to avail himself of one—but counseling and medication are no long-term solution for what has justly been called an epidemic of suicide and other problems of vets returning from our two most recent wars.
I’ve talked to some older folks who think this is a generation of crybabies; that the vets returning from the horrors of the trenches of our pre-Vietnam wars never had such problems. To such arguments, we should all say two things:
2) These wars aren’t those wars.
Bullshit, because vets of those wars had plenty of problems upon returning home. Read newspapers that came out in the years following WW II and you’ll find numerous accounts of soldiers who had trouble adjusting back to civilian life. I don’t know much about those returning from Korea, except for the case of the late and fabulous folksinger U. Utah Philips, who lost all feeling for life in the Korean War, and was a shiftless hobo for years until he started raising his voice in song. And look sometime to the aftermath of the First World War, when veterans had such a hard time back home that they marched on Washington 43,000 strong, where many camped out in a show of force far greater than the Occupy movement has thus far mustered.
And these wars are different. The actual “war” part of the Afghan and Iraq wars was among the shortest in history. After that, they became occupations, of populations who very deeply did not wish to be occupied. There were no front lines, no uniforms to tell friend from foe. You couldn’t tell a goatherd from a suicide bomber. Maybe your best friend gets blown up, and it doesn’t help knowing it’s in a war that never should have been.
And a lot of our folks over there didn’t necessarily come from a stable environment at home. Along with patriotism, one of the big spurs to Iraq-era enlistment was economic desperation. Much like the Depression started years before 1929 for lots of poor folks, many in our generation were at their wits end long before the meltdown, and military service was the only path to a possible college education for some, or the only alternative to homelessness for others. (Bill Moyers, who I’m delighted to say is back on TV, did some heartbreaking stories on this plight back then.)
Demobilized troops have returned home to even harder conditions. Some were able to learn usable skills in the military, but nothing like they used to, because so much of that work is outsourced by the military now, thanks to Dick Cheney. So it ain’t a picnic out there.
My friend Scott Sechman has recorded a song about our vets, called “I Can’t Find My Dreams,” and I like it, even if I’ve nicknamed it “I Can’t Find My Jeans.” I suppose you could say it is mawkish—yes, the harmonica plays taps at the end–but so was “Puff the Magic Dragon” in its day, yet it came along just when dragons needed a shout-out. Sechman’s song is similarly timely. Our vets deserve a home that is more than a cardboard box behind Carl’s Jr.