There's no armor, it turns out, for conscience.
So our men and women are coming home from the killing fields wounded in their heads, used up, greeted only by the military's own meat grinder of inadequate health care and intolerance for "weakness."
"Frankly, in my more than 25 years of clinical practice, I've never seen such immense emotional suffering and psychological brokenness." This is what whistleblower psychiatrist Kernan Manion wrote recently to President Obama about his experience counseling Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, as reported by Salon.
In September, Manion, having been told to "cease and desist all further correspondence with the government," was fired by the Navy for his urgent, outspoken communiqués about the mental-health minefield the military has on its hands. Two months later, of course, the issue of PTSD was blown into the national headlines by the massacre at Fort Hood. And a day after that, according to Salon, the body of a Marine was found at Camp Lejeune and a fellow Marine was arrested for the murder.
The wars we fight keep getting worse, or seem at any rate to back up on us with an ever-intensifying fury. Our war on terror is tightening the psychological vise on our collective insecurity, beginning with the soldiers who are fighting it. Salon, citing official figures, reported that 42 Marines committed suicide in 2008 and 146 attempted to do so.
Even more disturbing in terms of national security, 121 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, in all service branches, had been charged with murder as of 2008, according to a New York Times report. This statistic was cited in a recent Mother Jones article about Republican Sen. Richard Burr's bill, the "Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act," which would ease mental-health restrictions on vets' ability to buy guns.
This disturbing bill does not give psychologically wounded vets the help they need, but it certainly reflects the ignorance and arrogance of militarism, which perpetually organizes itself around an "enemy" somewhere out there stalking us. Those trapped in this mindset can imagine security only in relation to their power over this enemy, which leads them, and everyone else, into a vicious spiral of armed preparation, violence and counter-violence.
What we fail to notice in our rage and fear is that violence -- not the violence we endure but the violence we perpetrate -- dehumanizes us. Killing is the ultimate traumatic experience.
"In the military, you're trained to shoot at a target, but sometimes the humanity of that target intrudes, and people come to question what they've done," said Dr. Shira Maguen (putting it, I would say, mildly). Maguen is a staff psychologist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and lead author of a recent study of the factors causing PTSD, conducted in conjunction with the University of California, San Francisco. The study, published in the October 2009 issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress, used data from 1,200 veterans of the Vietnam War. It found, much to the researchers' surprise, that "the negative psychological effects of killing" made all other factors pale in comparison.
Here's how it looks before the humanity intrudes: "One morning, a few months before leaving, I was manning a machine-gun security post. I saw a Humvee come through the gate towing a blue mini-pickup. As they approached closer, I saw that the truck was riddled with bullets and shrapnel -- full of dead insurgents, decapitated corpses. I'll never forget this. A very young PFC in the back of the truck lifted a decapitated head. 'We really f---ed these guys up, didn't we?' Other soldiers were celebrating on top of the bodies. (The dead were) mostly teenage boys from the local community."
These words of Iraq War vet Jeffrey Smith were just a small shard of the four days of horrific testimony about this war -- about the racism and cultural ignorance of our occupation, about the inhumanity of military culture, about America's official disregard for human life -- given by vets at the Winter Soldier gathering a year and a half ago in Silver Spring, Md.
The authors of the PTSD study emphasized, according to a University of California news release, that their results had a harrowing relevance for the troops currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Previous research, they noted, indicates that "up to 65 percent of service members returning from the war in Iraq report killing an enemy combatant, and up to 28 percent report being responsible for the death of a noncombatant."
I fear that the war on terror is just starting to come home, just starting to haunt us. What we've done to the Iraqis and Afghanis, we've also done to ourselves. Every vet with serious PTSD is trapped in his or her personal Abu Ghraib, and a few -- getting no help from their own chain of command, except maybe redeployment -- will try to shoot their way out.
Of far more worry to the militarized sector are those who decide to join Jeffrey Smith and the other Winter Solider truth-tellers. He concluded his testimony: "I apologize to the Iraqi people for what we did."
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)
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