Wounded American soldier being evacuated from a combat zone in Iraq.
WHEN JOHNNY COMES LIMPING HOME
Just as our Vietnam Vets reach retirement age, our nation is creating a whole new generation of ravaged war veterans
by Horatio Guernica
“If we had the Internet back in the ’60s, the Vietnam War would have been over in a matter of weeks,” a grey-haired peace activist once exuberantly told me as we marched through San Francisco in the early dot-com era of 1991, protesting another President Bush and another war on Iraq.
At that moment, I believed him. But here we are, 18 years later, firmly entrenched in the Internet era, and six years into another senseless and fraudulent war in Iraq (and nearly eight years in Afghanistan) with no end in sight, online or elsewhere.
July 2009 was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in the history of America’s war in Afghanistan, reported NPR last week. (But the “best month” in Iraq, according to the Pentagon – only seven dead – surely an empty ‘victory’ when the total U.S. death toll for Iraq is over 4,000.)
Forty-three American soldiers died in Afghanistan last month. This brings the total to 749 in “Operation Enduring Freedom” (Afghanistan) and 4316 dead U.S. soldiers in “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (Iraq), according to the Washington Post’s “Faces of the Fallen”, for a total of 5,065 U.S. soldiers killed in both wars as of July 31, 2009.
(The number of dead Iraqi and Afghanistan civilians, however, is another matter — over 100,000.)
None of these numbers include the war wounded. Thousands more American soldiers are coming home maimed or scarred, some with brain injuries from which they will never recover.
So here we are with a new president, from another political party, and both wars are still flailing on, under the radar it would now seem, from our A.D.D media and equally distracted viewers. Late-night satirist Stephen Colbert recently took his show to Iraq to make this very point. He shaved his head in solidarity with the troops (and for a laugh, no doubt). All gimmickry aside, Colbert’s point was well-taken: We as a nation seem to have all but forgotten that we are at war.
Equally troubling and under-accounted for is the fact that even when the soldiers come home, the wars will not be over for them – or us.
As Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes reported in their 2008 book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict,” an enormous cost of the Iraq war alone lays before us—financial, emotional and physical. “…war is about men and women brutally killing and maiming other men and women. The costs live on long after the last shot has been fired.”
In the Toronto Star in March 2008, Stiglitz highlighted the health care costs of the thousands of injured soldiers:
“The administration has tried to keep the war’s costs from the American public. Veterans groups have used the Freedom of Information Act to discover the total number of injured – 15 times the number of fatalities.
Already, 52,000 returning veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The U.S. government will need to provide disability compensation to an estimated 40 per cent of the 1.65 million troops that have already been deployed.
And, of course, the bleeding will continue as long as the war continues, with the health-care and disability bill amounting to more than $600 billion (in present-value terms).”
It’s agonizingly ironic that just as our nation’s Vietnam Vets are reaching retirement age, we are creating a whole new generation of war vets in this country, many with eyes ablaze or glazed, unable to ever connect with normalcy again.
These veterans are bringing home with them broken bodies and broken psyches from having been forced to serve multiple tours of duty in poorly justified and often very bloody battles. Some may have survived brain-rattling explosions thanks to the modern wonders of protective armor, but will suffer pain or brain damage for the rest of their lives.
And some are coming home and turning their nightmares into other people’s nightmares.
In a two-part article in the Colorado Springs Gazette this past week (July 26 and 28, 2009), reporter Dave Phillips recounts the costs of war to one unit of soldiers who have committed a disproportionate number of violent crimes once they returned home. Writes Phillips in “Casualties of War; part I: The hell of war comes home:”
“Soldiers from other units at Fort Carson have committed crimes after deployments — military bookings at the El Paso County jail have tripled since the start of the Iraq war — but no other unit has a record as deadly as the soldiers of the 4th Brigade. The vast majority of the brigade’s soldiers have not committed crimes, but the number who have is far above the population at large. In a one-year period from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008, the murder rate for the 500 Lethal Warriors was 114 times the rate for Colorado Springs.
The battalion is overwhelmingly made up of young men, who, demographically, have the highest murder rate in the United States, but the brigade still has a murder rate 20 times that of young males as a whole.
The killings are only the headline-grabbing tip of a much broader pyramid of crime. Since 2005, the brigade’s returning soldiers have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping and suicides.”
Phillips goes on to cite author Eric T. Dean, who makes a number of insightful—and disturbing—observations about the toll and consequences of war on surviving soldiers:
“Eric Dean, an author in Connecticut who specializes in war’s psychological toll, reviewed records from the Civil War for his 1997 book, “Shook Over Hell,” and found the same surge of crime and suicide that Fort Carson has seen.
“They have been in every war,” he said. “They never readjusted. They ended up living alone, drinking too much.”
They were “the lost generation” of World War I. They are the veterans of Vietnam who disproportionately populate homeless shelters and prisons today.
The psychological casualties may be particularly heavy in Iraq, he said.
“In the Civil War, if you experienced really traumatic fighting, chances are you didn’t make it,” he said. “Today, you can be blown up multiple times and go right back into the fight.”
In Vietnam, most draftees did one yearlong tour. Since the start of the Iraq war, some soldiers have been deployed three times for 12 to 15 months each.
When a soldier faces constant threat of attack, studies suggest, the brain is flooded with adrenaline, dopamine and other performance-enhancing chemicals that the body naturally produces in a fight-or-flight response. Over time, the brain can crave these stimulants, like a junkie for his fix.
When the stimulant of combat is taken away, soldiers often have trouble sleeping, said Sister Kateri Koverman, a social worker who has counseled people in war zones for almost 40 years. They can feel irritable, numb and paranoid, she said. They can sink into depression.
And they can search for another substance to replace the rush of war.”
For peace activists of my generation, one big difference in our approach has been our attitude toward the soldiers. From the beginning, the millions of us who took to the streets to protest George Bush, Jr.’s invasion—some as early as September 2002 before the ‘preemptive’ war began—did not criticize the soldiers. That was one lesson we learned from Vietnam. The soldiers may be shooting the guns and taking the hits, but they are not calling the shots. So to every war supporter who accused us dissenters of disloyalty to the troops, we replied with signs that said: “Support our troops–bring them home!”
We have been supporting the troops since before they were even sent to war. It was the Bush/Cheney administration and the hapless Democratic leaders who have kept them there.
Since reclaiming Congress in the fall of 2006, the Democrats have capitulated time and again, approving never-ending funding, removing provisions that mandated a timeline for troop withdrawal, all despite the declarations in 2006 that they would end the Iraq war, with Nancy Pelosi at the speaker’s gavel. But impeachment—the only real way to hold the Bush administration accountable for this travesty—was “off the table,” declared Pelosi. Even though the vast majority of Americans had long turned against the war, Congress let Bush and Cheney exit out the back door of the White House with no penalty for their actions.
Inexplicably too afraid to impeach a criminal president with a 28 percent approval rating when they had the chance, the Democrats must now finally show real leadership with one of their own in the White House.
But it remains unclear if the Obama administration will ever seek accountability for its predecessor’s actions.
It’s also uncertain when our latest government will finally bring the troops home. But when it does, for these beleaguered soldiers and for our society as a whole as it attempts to reabsorb them, the war in many ways will have just begun.
Horatio Guernica is the pen name of a West Coast Writer.