Vietnam, Iraq & Liberal Guilt
I’ve been thinking about two things recently. One is this quote from The New Yorker about the Brian De Palma film “Redacted,” “None of us particularly want to hear what “Redacted” has to say, including liberals who criticize the war but regard the soldiers as noble victims.” I’d say that I fall into that camp. I actually don’t regard the soldiers as noble. I remember very well from growing up in a blue collar town just who it is who volunteers for the armed services. The kids who went to be soldiers weren’t usually the dregs of adolescent society—the stoners, the thugs, the thieves, the losers. But they were the kids who were low on introspection. I assume that the jarheads I’ve sent packages to are kids. That they will drink too much, become enraged a lot, and that they may not have the intellectual and emotional resources to deal with the experiences that they are having. I assume they are not particularly comfortable with ambiguity—doesn’t the military promise a life where ambiguity is reduced? I fear that the promise they did not consciously recognize was being made, that life in the military will be reduced to clear situations where they will know how to behave and what will be tested is their bravery, is not being kept. I suspect they are up to their eyebrows in the ambiguous, the murky, the demoralizing. They are finding out that they may be brave on a given day, and overwhelmed on another.
But I certainly regard them as victims. Which is perhaps not fair. Although a lot of the soldiers in Iraq were in the National Guard and did not volunteer expecting what they got, the full time military is volunteer. If someone chooses to volunteer, it’s hard to argue that they are ‘victims.’ Still, we send young people into war and there is more and more evidence that a majority of 18 to 20 year olds have brains not yet mature and that the areas that are still maturing are the parts of the brain the involve judgment.
I don’t think it’s possible to volunteer knowing really what it is like to be in war. When I volunteered to go to China I was 28. I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into. And nobody shot at me.
Here’s the other thing I read that I have been thinking about.
"At least 120 Americans who served in the U.S. military killed themselves per week in 2005, CBS News learned in a five-month investigation into veteran suicides. That's 6,256 veteran suicides in one year, in 45 states."
I read it first via Walter Jon Williams.
He links back to the CBS news article.
As Tarl Neustaedter points out, “The U.S. overall suicide rate in 2005 was 10.5 per 100,000 - around 30,000. From the figures in the article, it appears that the veteran suicide rate in 2005 was 6256 out of 24.5 million, or a rate of 25 per 100,000. Somewhat over double the civilian rate.” Veterans commit suicide at about twice the rate as the general population. There are a lot of reasons for that—men are more likely to commit suicide than women. Issues of temperament and socioeconomic class. Situational depression and something called ‘kindling’, which is the name for the observation that an episode of depression seems to make the brain more susceptible to depression. And that subsequent depressive bouts come sooner and sooner, and last longer and longer. Which is to say that if someone gets depressed in a stressful situation, like Iraq, they are more likely to suffer depression later than if they hadn’t gotten depressed in the first case, and that each time they get depressed it will be worse.
Lastly, I’ve been thinking about Vietnam. It was the backdrop of my childhood. Walter Cronkite and Vietnam. A strange cultural phenomena, that. It turns out that it’s very difficult to find any evidence that soldiers were spat on when they got home. But it is true that the public’s reaction to the war was tempered by My Lai and that there was a profound distrust of soldiers. Except the symbol of the Vietnam War is probably the POW/MIA, again, the soldier as victim. We are a different society from almost all other societies historically in that we do not view war as a right of passage, as a crucible to create great men, but as a potentially, perhaps certainly damaging event in a young man’s life. Even our analysis of World War II is changing to reflect this view.
It makes it harder for us to fight a war. I certainly hope it’s a view that infects other societies.