For those of you looking for a standard Alex James laugh-a-minute post, you may want to move on, because I’ve got some serious things to say today.
When you write a blog with the frequency I do, you start to get a feel for the way things work online: what will garner viewers, what kind of writing style suits your readership, and so on. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my work for State of Affairs is the difference between hype and substance. Yes, I’ll often cover major news events (the Obama Peace Prize debacle being probably the largest and most recent), but I’m not doing it to watch my little WordPress graph climb. I like to think I bring a certain amount of integrity to my subject matter; I’m not just posting for the sake of suckering people in with sensational headlines.
It was in the interest of that integrity that I chose not to write topical posts on either Veteran’s Day or Remembrance Day, though Jim did. I felt if I had something to say about the subject, I’d like to wait until a few days later when the hype died down and the people who visited my little piece of cyberspace were here not because “veteran” was the top Google search of the day, but because they actually wanted to read what I had to say. It’s one thing to piss and moan about the state of popular culture, which I do regularly; it’s very different to write about war.
I’d like to preface my article today with the following: I am not a soldier. I have never fired a weapon – hell, I can count on one hand the number of fist fights I’ve been in. I’m a pretty good friend, a bit of a troubadour, a two-fisted drinker – never a fighter. And while I’ve made my thoughts on war pretty clear in the past, I have nothing but respect for the men and women who sign up to go to some God-forsaken jungle or desert to get shot at all day long, because it’s not a job I could feasibly do. I’ve known veterans in my life, some of whom have been family members, and after talking with them extensively I can categorically say the job of a soldier is not glamourous or glorious or any of those things – it’s scary and dangerous and deadly. It’s a soldier’s job to go be brave as all get-out, perform duties that most of us would shy from, and fulfil the directives set out by their commanders. That’s the other thing: at the end of the day, soldiers don’t start wars – politicians do. My anger over the war in Iraq, specifically, is directed at policy makers, not GIs.
Civilians like me have only a cursory understanding of what goes on in war. We’ll go watch “Saving Private Ryan” and assume we have some idea of the kind of carnage a soldier can expect to see in a war zone, but it’s one thing to sit back on your couch eating popcorn and watching a man get cut in half by a machine gun – I would imagine it’s very different to see your comrade get his legs blown off by an IED right next to you. Hollywood and “Call of Duty” and CNN have all led us to believe that war is some kind of game; the violence doesn’t seem real, no matter how realistic they try to make it. Fact is, the violence is real. I personally know a Canadian veteran of the Afghanistan conflict who just barely made it back home with his life: he lost his leg to a landmine. I bet he could tell you that Stephen Spielberg and Activision don’t even scratch the surface.
Despite their training, soldiers are still human beings just like the rest of us, and their jobs require them to bear witness to, and sometimes take part in, horrifying acts of violence most average people would be completely incapable of digesting. Seeing your friends fed into a meat grinder and sent home in a bucket is typically pretty intense, and is unsurprisingly the cause of what psychologists today call “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”, a term formerly known as “combat fatigue” or “shell shock”.
According to the Wiki page, PTSD is identified through the following symptoms:
Diagnostic symptoms include re-experiencing original trauma(s), by means of flashbacks or nightmares; avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma; and increased arousal, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance. Formal diagnostic criteria (both DSM-IV and ICD-9) require that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (e.g. problems with work and/or relationships).
Although PTSD is attributed to many traumatic events (car accidents, rapes, etc.) the most common and visible victims of this illness are war veterans, for many of the reasons I stated above. The term was first used in relation to veterans of the Vietnam conflict, but it’s become increasingly prevalent in recent years among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Army chaplain and PTSD victim Roger Benimoff wrote a series of memoirs under the title “Faith Under Fire” about his experiences serving in Iraq. His faith, he said, was called seriously into question as he watched the brutality of day-to-day life in the Middle East conflict:
“I couldn’t stand that phrase anymore – ‘God was watching over me’…He wasn’t watching over the good men I knew in Iraq. Faith was the center of my life yet it failed to explain why I came home and those soldiers did not. The phrase was a Christian nicety, a cliché that when put to the test didn’t fit reality.”
His sentiment has been echoed by countless Iraq veterans, a startling statistic when you consider over 90% of American military personnel identify themselves as Christian. The general consensus seems to be that no loving God could possibly allow the rampant violence humans visit upon each other, the kind of violence people like Benimoff witness every day.
“I would get in touch with some of these guys, and they all had to come to the realization, ‘This is bullshit.’ It’s not just the horror of killing, but its context. . . . If you’re fighting a necessary war, it’s awful. But it’s kind of what you got to do. Let’s take a war that turns out to have been unnecessary. And in fact your leadership betrayed you. That willingness to serve was betrayed by a leadership that lied and squandered that trust. The very moral fabric of your life gets ripped apart.”
That’s an interesting point. Much has been made about the questionable morality of the American military presence in Iraq; many people have pointed out the lack of evidence to support the American government’s assertion of weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein was ostensibly hoarding, calling into question whether the Americans had any place invading the country.
Much like the history of the Vietnam conflict, veterans returning from this war aren’t greeted with the hero’s welcome their forefathers had when returning victorious from Europe. And even worse, the VA isn’t providing the support these victims (and make no mistake, they are victims) when they come back brutalized by what they’ve seen and done.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Michael McLendon, attached to the Veterans Benefits Association in Washington, has voiced some intensely controversial views on PTSD and its role in the lives of Iraq veterans. Claims for veterans’ assistance has risen considerably since the start of the Iraq war, and McLendon has no patience for it.
“That’s too many,” he’s quoted as saying. Apparently these veterans are “too young” to be filing claims, and are doing so “too soon”. He called PTSD a “made-up” term, and defended his position this way:
“[PTSD] is not a diagnosis based on empirical evidence, but rather . . . it is an artificial construct erected by a vote of selected psychiatrists”
If that isn’t enough, it gets better.
The veteran claims are “costing us too much money”, and – here’s the kicker:
“If the veterans believed in God and country…they would not come home with PTSD.”
Okay. I’m making a specific point to cut down on profanity and bile in this blog in the interest of not alienating my readers, but let me tell you what: I’m chewing through my tongue on this one.
I wonder if Mr. McLendon has ever served in a conflict. I wonder if he’s ever seen his comrades blown up, left bleeding on the sand with their entrails scattered all over the place, screaming for their mothers. Like I said at the start of this post, I’m not a soldier because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t deal with the kind of horror that constitutes reality for these men and women. And I am the last person on the planet who would ever, ever deign to cast judgement on people who have been through Hell. I’d like to know what makes Mr. McLendon an expert on this subject.
Too young? Yeah, they really are young, sir. They’re basically kids their government is sending to their deaths in a war half the world refused to support. They’re too young, all right – too young to pick up an M16 and trundle off to the desert to be systematically shot down by an enemy that has been largely created by years of botched foreign policy. They deserve our respect and our support. What they don’t deserve is to be told the nightmares they suffer from, the severe depression and the psychosis and the suicidal tendencies brought on by their experiences, are an “artificial construct”.
To be completely frank, if you’re going to spend billions of dollars waging a war with no end and no tangible benefits, you damn well better take care of the people fighting that war for you. I guarantee Mr. McLendon would be the last person to enlist, maybe even behind me, and perhaps if he were to experience first-hand the devastating effects of war on the human psyche, he might change his tune considerably.
And as far as belief in God goes: really? Belief in the Christian God and simple patriotism should shield young men and women from those effects?
Sorry, that one required it.
Whether or not I believe in God isn’t the issue here. I understand the fact that faith brings people through a lot of terrible times. But when the very situation faced by a person of faith undermines that fundamental belief, what then? I can’t agree more – what kind of God allows atrocities to occur? What kind of God allows His followers to come home permanently maimed in the interest of a war of avarice – if they come home at all?
There is something rotting at the core of the American military-political stratum if this is the way they treat those who sacrifice everything for “God and country”. I’m sickened, I’m furious, and I don’t even know what to say about this.
Here’s what I do know. If a fellow Canadian, a friend or a stranger, came home from a war they joined on good faith, only to discover they’d been mislead by our government and sent to die for nothing – if they were lucky enough to make it out alive – I would be the first person to step up, congratulate them on surviving, thank them for their service, and put every resource available at their disposal to put their lives back together.
Because they deserve it. They did something I couldn’t do, so I wouldn’t have to.
I’m not trying to get all misty-eyed and sentimental, nor am I a blind patriot. I hate war, and I hate the people who continually foist it upon us – on both sides of the conflict. But I don’t hate soldiers, and neither should the people responsible for taking care of them.
It’s my hope that this post will reach more people precisely because I didn’t post it on the one day a year we stop taking our lives, and the sacrifice of those who fight, for granted. Because Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day are all nice ideas, but the sacrifices these people have made are relevant every single day. I post this as a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do as a species. War will be a reality for the foreseeable future, for better or worse – and if that’s the case, the care of our veterans needs to be a priority.
Until you’re ready and willing to step up and take their place on the line of fire, I suggest you bear it in mind. I know I do.
ALEX JAMES EDIT: I received notes of thanks from two very important people as a result of this article, so I’d like to take a minute and direct you to their organizations, both of which are doing great work towards improving support for veterans.
Jason Ream is the president of Operation PTSD, a grassroots organization designed to raise awareness about the affliction and lobby for more resources to assist veterans suffering from PTSD.
Paul Sullivan used to work as an analyst for the VA’s Veteran’s Benefits Administration until he quit in 2006 to head up Veterans For Common Sense, an organization dedicated to exposing the mistreatment of Iraq and Afghanistan vets by the previous administration and working with the current government to improve services for veterans.
Both these organizations are well worth your time to check out, so go do it.