Sunday, November 18, 2007

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.


Blogger RoseCovered Glasses said...

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

Politicians make no difference.

We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read how this happens please see:

Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

For more details see:

November 18, 2007 3:03 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

I certainly hope it’s a view that infects other societies.

I'm shocked, shocked at your cultural imperialism, Maureen.

November 18, 2007 3:37 PM  
Blogger Karen at Pen in Hand said...

A thought provoking post, Maureen. I have to say that I have and still do tend to bring the same ideas about young men and women who enlist as you do. I wonder about the notion of informed consent before, oh, age 30. (Probably dangerous to enlist in marriage that early, too.)

November 18, 2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Ted, you know, I'm all for a rich tapestry of cultural diversity except where I'm right. The it's my way or the highway.

November 18, 2007 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

....and Michelle sticks her thumb out in true hitchhiker fashion...... But seriously, I recently talked to a couple of young Army guys here in Solon. Both of them re-enlisted and said they felt like they were making a true difference over there. Here's some more food for thought from a review of the guy who wrote "Imperial Grunts":

"Kaplan also questions the media stories of low troop morale. Among the troops he visits from the mean streets of Fallujah to the tropical backwaters of Mindanao, he finds almost universally high morale. (If the media was interested in the truth, they'd take a look at reenlistment statistics. While recruiting is lagging, reenlistments are exceeding targets -- often by wide margins -- and are highest among deployed troops.) Everywhere, troops tell him that they willingly -- even eagerly -- chose what they're doing. After traveling days over rough roads, sleeping in frontier outposts, and subsisting on local cuisine, Army Col. Thomas Wilhelm, announces simply, "I love my job."

The troops are also quick to admit that they are getting as much out of the service as they are giving. Again and again, they talk about the sense of direction, the self-discipline, and the maturity that the military has helped them develop. Generically working-class and disproportionately southern, they often feel a disconnect with civilians. In Iraq in 2004, Marine Cpl. Michael Pinckney explained his disillusionment with his countrymen who had "'lost the meaning of sacrifice. They expect things to be perfect and easy. They don't know that when things go wrong you persevere; you don't second-guess.'"

Maureen, I've heard these sentiments over and over again from soldiers both in TV/Radio interviews and first hand one-on-one.

I have no doubt there are a percentage of people who enlisted and weren't mentally cut out for the job, but I believe the vast majority have made an informed decision. Unlike most of the rest of the world, where service is required, our soldiers all got to choose. Did some of them choose poorly? I'm sure they did, but that doesn't mean they all did? I don't like the idea of changing things to suit the lowest common denominator. I think it would make us weak. I also think its really sort of insulting to insinuate that everyone who enlists is unintelligent. The guys I talked with here in Solon were both articulate and intelligent. And they still enlisted and re-enlisted. A lot of them re-enlist and that doesn't make them ignorant or immature. Yet they defend your right to think they are. We live in the coolest country in the world.

Having said all of that, would I have gone into Irag before Afghanistan was settled - no way! But that's a different story.
- Michelle

November 19, 2007 11:19 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Michelle, I guess my experience with the soldiers I've talked to has been different. I've only talked to a couple who were in Iraq but they were staying in my house and I talked to them over a period of days. They said many of the things the guys you met said. (I didn't ask one of them much, I didn't want to interrogate them. Jason, on the other hand, seemed willing and pleased to talk, so we've talked at length.) The longer they talked, the more complicated their reactions to the military became. I think military personnel do feel, rightly, that people like me don't understand.

You say, "The guys I talked with here in Solon were both articulate and intelligent. And they still enlisted and re-enlisted. A lot of them re-enlist and that doesn't make them ignorant or immature. Yet they defend your right to think they are. We live in the coolest country in the world." I feel as if you are saying that I should not say what I said because I have called them ignorant and immature. That they are defending my right to insult them. Reading that from you I feel at best misconstrued. I am sorry you think that I think that the kids who go to the military are ignorant or unintelligent. I said, "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." Most of the people I knew who went into the military were not into introspection. I'm sorry you think that means that I thought they were stupid. That bothers me a great deal and leads me to feel uncomfortable saying anything. Not all of the people I knew who went into the military met that description. One of them, Brian Mitchell, has gone on to write several books about the military. And he always struck me as very introspective. Hence the qualifiers like 'usually.'

That double the normal rate for suicide statistic is from the veteran's administration. It is a statistic that worries me. I don't think that the people who listed were immature eighteen year olds, that is, I don't think that they were less mature than other eighteen year olds. But I do think that eighteen year olds are still maturing.

I tried to pick my words with care. Of course, it's no secret I don't support the war. But I meant my point in the post to be that I am concerned about what happens to people who go to war. In any country, in any war. And I confessed to the things I that I felt were perhaps wrong of me, that I was one of the people who tend to think of them as victims, when that may not be right. It was not an easy post to write.

November 19, 2007 3:21 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Glenn Beck is very clear about people like me.

November 19, 2007 3:23 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

Tonight my husband leaves for a conference in the "signature wound" of the Iraqi War, Traumatic Brain Injury, (TBI).

You may note that initial reports of TBI are from a couple of years ago, so this is a fairly fast response, as far as government programs go.

As others have pointed out, a larger percentage of troops are surviving injuries than in past conflicts. Estimates of the number of injured returning veterans is reportedly vary between the Pentagon's low 28,000 ish and 50,000. Will what doesn't kill them make them stronger? While the war currently has little effect on the day-to-day lives of most Americans, this is a question our country will be dealing with for many, many years.

No matter your opinion on this or any war, and I personally think this one has been lunacy, it's fair to ask for an evaluation of costs/risks versus benefits before lives are commandeered and sent to fight. I see the costs more clearly than I see the possible benefits, and this has nothing to do with troop morale, which I hope (for their sakes) remains high.

November 19, 2007 5:36 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I really have to object to the line:

"Yet they defend your right to think they are. We live in the coolest country in the world."

First of all, scientifically speaking, the coolest country in the world is the Netherlands. ;)

More exactly are they defending it? Cluster-bombing civilian neighborhoods in Baghdad and doing house-to-house weapons in the middle of the night secures the free speech rights of people back home in the U.S. how?

Outside of a situation where the roles are reserved (we're being threatened by a more powerful outside aggressor, not vice versa), the only relationship between liberty at home and war abroad is that the latter is a convenient excuse to chip away at the former.

November 20, 2007 4:31 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I should probably add that I do see the soldiers as victims.

Not the *primary* victims of the war, of course...those would be the Iraqi civilians, soldiers and resistance fighters (who are after all trying to defend their country against foreign conquest)...but victims none the less.

One can argue that anyone volunteering before the war should have known that the official line that the military exists to "defend the country" is a lie, that based on the relevant history they should have known they'd be used as cannon fodder in illegal, undeclared wars for corporate oil profits. (Or that people who've volunteered since the start of the war should have seen through, in some cases, the lies of recruiters who told them that they wouldn't be sent to Iraq.) Similarly, one could argue that someone who lives in a bad neighborhood shouldn't leave their window open or their door unlocked. In either case, though, I'd argue that at the end of the day, they're still victims.

November 20, 2007 4:36 PM  
Blogger Jarvis Rockhall said...

"From the figures in the article, it appears that the veteran suicide rate in 2005 was 6256 out of 24.5 million"

Whoah! Have I misunderstood this or are you saying that 24.5 million people committed suicide in the USA in 2005?!

I didn't realise it was that high!

The population of Britain is just over 60 million. So that's a third of the country. Figures like that really hammer home just how big the US really is.

November 21, 2007 12:26 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Jarvis, that's 24.5 million veterans in the U.S., not 24.5 million suicides. Our population is around 300 million, so I think even we would notice that many suicides.

November 23, 2007 8:13 PM  
Anonymous David Wyatt said...

It is true that many soldiers find themselves in military service, and that our army is one of volunteers. But combat experience shows that while people differ in their ability to retain perspective and such after combat, there is only so much they can take.

Our army was built to fight a short war, the sort of war we fought in 1991. If you want to talk about morale talk about re-enlistment rates of captains and first sergeants-- ten year guys who having gone this far stay in and do their twenty. They're getting out because endless deployments have forced many to choose between service and their family. These men and women will form the top leaders of the Army over the next generation. The truth is that our Army will suffer because they won't be there in the next decade.

And more than that they suffer because we are spending their lives for no good purpose. When the best we can hope for- and this is according to the Bush Administration itself-- "Won't look like victory" we ought to ask ourselves are we spending good lives after bad. Soldiers hate to leave their comrades on the battlefield, and they especially want to make sure their fallen comrades don't fall in vain. But it seems to me that sacrifice is already in vain. Iraq as a country no longer really exists. It's a fiction people cling to because the truth has become inconvenient.

And the real truth is I think they're out their because we don't want to admit the truth, and to protect certain political reputations. The truth is many of our leaders care more about the next election than the men and women who are fighting and dying overseas for a cause most Americans no longer believe in.

We are wasting them and wrecking our army because we lack the moral courage to face our own folly. That is the very definition of abuse.

November 25, 2007 3:41 AM  
Blogger meredith said...

The Hartford Courant pretty much broke the story of the high suicide rate among veterans. You can read it all here.

November 26, 2007 9:57 PM  

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