Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Questions of courage keep the war personal, from the boots on the ground to the White House

There is no honor in judging the courage of a soldier’s actions during a battle by those who weren’t there. And I’ve never been there. I’ve never served in the military. I can only wonder how I might respond to a threat to my life, real or perceived, during war. I can’t say whether the questions my conscience raises as I wonder from afar would even appear in the heat of battle.

But there is also no honor in downplaying or ignoring the death of innocent civilians in Iraq. The question of courage for us at home is an internal battle that begins with the will to consider the guilt for those lives lost. Is the war worth the sacrifice of our moral integrity? Is this question the same for those without loved ones in Iraq? Does it haunt our “commander-in-chief” as does me, the father of a soldier who has seen too much combat there?

Two months ago I listened to Darrell Anderson testify as I sat on the panel at a Citizen’s Hearing about the legality of the war. Anderson served in Iraq in 2004 with the 1st Armored Division. He encountered combat in Baghdad and Najaf and was awarded the Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel from a roadside bomb.

Those are Anderson’s credentials, so to speak, the simple summary of duty that leaves out the personal story. This part alone deserves to be honored in the traditional manner we recognize the courage of all who have served. But it’s another form of courage which I both admired and found myself stuttering to measure alongside that of other front line soldiers.

Anderson told the story of his unit being under fire during an April afternoon while guarding a police station in Baghdad. They had lost a few soldiers, leaving them all on edge. But as the night wore on he said it got quieter, which seemed to encourage some local residents to attempt to flee the area.

He was one of about 15 soldiers with weapons ready, including a 50-caliber machine gun. To ward off approaching vehicles that might have been armed with car bombs or desperate insurgents, they established a lighted perimeter. Three vehicles turned back without incident. The fourth one penetrated the lit perimeter and came to a stop in front of his position. Anderson’s orders were to fire, but he didn’t, and says that after the windows rolled down they saw two adults in the front seats and two children in the back.

The story appears longer in the words to tell it then the likely unfolding of the real event. Listening then, and thinking back now, there is no way to know how long Anderson’s mind considered what action he should take. Was it bravery that allowed him to wait, or fear of making a mistake? In this instance, are they the same, being that his life also appeared to be threatened?

Ever since listening to him testify I’ve believed Anderson’s act was an example of exceptionally disciplined courage. But letting it rest there hasn’t happened. Instead it’s built a courtroom conflict in my head where the jury continues to deliberate.

I have frequently been visited by a scene from the legendary battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War. I imagined myself as a soldier in another time, under the order “don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes” as the British Redcoats advanced up the hill.

Wondering how I would have responded in such as situation isn’t a new thought now. In my innocent youth I shook with the fear whenever I’d think about such a defining moment of courage. I could almost feel my eyes wander seeking signals from other soldiers, only to find them all intently focused on the approaching enemy. I imagined I’d never be brave enough to execute the will to hold off acting to save my life. I’d either fire too soon or flee. I’d fail.

But Anderson’s story hasn’t haunted me by calling forth a perceived cowardice from so long ago. My admiration for his bravery has become attached to the contradictory response from his superior officer who openly berated him for not firing as ordered and threatened him with punishment if he failed again.

It’s not difficult to reconcile the different eras of these wars. The Minutemen atop Bunker Hill faced an enemy in uniform carrying weapons in plain visible sight. Self defense wasn’t about guesswork. The orders that day stem from a strategy intended to make the most effective use the limited accuracy of the soldier’s muzzle loading muskets.

In Baghdad Anderson’s regiment was equipped with automatic weapons where the constant barrage of bullets diminished the absolute necessity for accuracy in every shot. And the approaching motor vehicle may have been delivering a bomb with the driver, a suicide mission by an enemy intended to inflict mass causalities on his unit.

The officers in charge in both battles would issue orders deemed essential to protect his troops while at the same time forming the strategy expected to win the battle. Even though they are focused on the entire unit’s performance and not the individual, the two are intertwined in the immediate fight and in the war itself.

But the battle in Baghdad never happened. And the lives of a family of civilians were spared. Wasn’t Anderson right to extend his courage on behalf of the innocent? Or do orders following the established rules of engagement take precedent? If the enemy’s strategy creates the uncertainty such as the kind that Anderson faced, shooting first and asking questions later seems to be in our soldiers’ best interest. Did Anderson wrongfully put his fellow soldiers at risk?

To declare Anderson acted with the highest level of courage also risks impugning the bravery of any soldier who follows orders in a similar situation. Their first act of courage is being there while I sit comfortably second guessing the wisdom of such orders and rules. I haven’t been able to muster the strength to openly consider Anderson a hero.

Perhaps the two month avoidance of analyzing the issue more precisely reaches into a personal dilemma. My oldest son was in Mosul and then Baghdad during a 16-month tour in Iraq. Did Michael face such a situation? If he did, how did he respond? As a staff sergeant would he have reprimanded Anderson’s failure to obey his orders?

Finally, the real haunting questions reveal themselves. Which choice would I want Michael to make? Does the taking of an innocent life matter less to me if he believed he was acting in self defense? Is it my selfish impulse that wants to interfere with my distinction between right and wrong? Have I been lacking the courage to ask him these questions because I’m just grateful he’s home, or because I don’t want to share his burden if he did kill a civilian in a similar set of circumstances?

We all want our soldiers to come home. These men and women represent us all, regardless of whether or not we support their mission in Iraq. So even though most Americans will never be confronted by the direct assault of the war’s psychological horror, these questions don’t belong to military families alone. They just reach more directly to test the core of our moral beliefs.

The country as a whole tries to measure the war’s success or failings by the number of U.S. fatalities. This global view asks another question. If success is even partly defined by the casualty count of our troops, when does the price become so high that the majority of Americans would choose failure to win over the loss any more U.S. soldiers?

The steady procession of flagged draped coffins arriving from Vietnam bled the collective compassionate heart of the nation’s people until it broke the back of our government and brought that war to its failed conclusion. It’s the reason why the Bush administration placed a prohibition on photographing the arrival of our dead from this war. But even better is to minimize our losses. Is this why our nation’s military leaders, civilian and uniformed, justify rules of engagement that immorally devalue the lives of innocent civilians?

President Bush and I have one thing in common as we consider whether Anderson acted heroically or in defiance of legitimate orders. We are both safe from the conflict. But my son fought in Iraq, and thus I have to look the demon in the eye and ask do I place Michael’s life ahead of a child caught in the crossfire.

Bush doesn’t see an individual soldier as I do. Giving us soulless phrases like collateral damage may keep the war impersonal, but he is fooling himself if he thinks the burden of guilt for every civilian death doesn’t rise from up the boots on the ground to the White House.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

PTSD - What does it want from us?

The classical image of the uniformed solider returning from war is a shower of affection that honors their courage and dedication to the greater good of a nation. Those who didn’t return become memorialized as fallen heroes, the making of legends in the collective memory. One creates the posters for future recruitment, the other the monuments and somber holidays that aim to immortalize the nobility of war.

Warriors are supposed to be heroes. Where do today’s veterans at Walter Reed, and every other VA facility, fit next to the supposed pride in our history? If they aren’t being treated as heroes, what is the fate of the returning warrior wounded in our war?

America claims to be the world’s source of technological ingenuity, always on the steady march to improving the quality of life. And the “can do” confidence of the military is supposed to be an exemplary model where failure is never an option. So what reason could there possibly be to deny our wounded soldiers the proper care they need?

To understand the possibilities of any contentious, complex and even confusing situation, we have to look hard at more than the facts as they appear. The obvious is often a distraction, and the easily imagined causes and solutions may do nothing more than sugar coat the more serious nature of the problem. But we have to begin with what we see, which is failure yet to be explained.

Once the problem at Walter Reed was finally exposed, the cry came from all corners of the country that there’s no excuse for the ill-treatment of our troops. The word scandal comes with every news story feeding itself to an outraged public. So the scapegoat procession begins. Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, Dr. Francis J. Harvey, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, three career casualties of the failure at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Scandals deliver focus to the issue, which is then supposed to enable the fix. Get the right people on the job. Extra funding for the medical needs of our wounded fits right in with the rest of the skyrocketing defense spending for our national security. It can’t cost that much next to the price for the weapons and overseas deployments of soldiers who vastly outnumber the ones suffering at home.

Where is the money needed? The situation which sparked the Walter Reed controversy wasn’t in the inpatient wards where the most seriously injured are treated. The news stories suggest the hospital itself is an example of the best care possible. While the place in the normal spotlight shines, the outpatient conditions many were living in combined with the bureaucratic insensitivity caught the nation’s attention.

According to Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull, the troops on the outside outnumber the patients in the main wards 17 to 1. If we go beyond Walter Reed and Washington DC, we’d also find similar stories, most especially when it comes to mental health care and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In a Washington Post interview, clinical social worker Joe Wilson said the breakdown of care “creates resentment and disenfranchisement. These soldiers will withdraw and stay in their rooms. They will actively avoid the very treatment and services that are meant to be helpful."

Sgt. 1st Class John Allen, injured in Afghanistan in 2002, testified to congress that the conditions and neglectful attitudes “result is a massive stress and mental pain causing further harm. It would be very easy to correct the situation if the command element climate supported it.” It’s almost as if their healing was intended to be incomplete.

As soon as we imagine that the words “command element” allude to a systematic failure, the problem becomes much bigger than the three terminated careers. Can their replacements make a difference on the same budget, or will they seek an increase in funding to make the necessary improvements?

Money issues turn us to Congress and the administration, our elected leaders who are mere miles from Walter Reed. Don’t they visit the wounded in the hospitals out of genuine concern? Shouldn’t they have ample opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the staff, equipment and programs intended to care for the soldiers? Why haven’t they already funded the care the troops deserve?

It seems so obvious that with best care imaginable for our returning wounded vets they would they be then better equipped, mentally and physically, to transition back to civilian life? Yet by zeroing in on money and personnel, other questions might be forgotten under the assumption the problem has been solved? And we don’t have to look back far into our history to see the pattern of neglect may be just as likely to continue. Why?

Is doesn’t seem possible that Congress was in the dark on these problems. In fact, at least one congressman appeared to have spoken to hospital administrators about concerns. The day after Weightman was fired the Washington Post reported that Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-FL) had been voicing complaints about inpatient treatment since 2004.

The next day, the Young and his family had to explain to the media in Florida why he didn’t take his complaints to the floor in Congress. Young argued that he was unaware of the outpatient issue, and stood by his consistent dedication to the wounded. His accounts seem to speak to his personal concern, as if he was detached from his congressional duty. Did his immediate connection to the soldiers suffering create a compassionate reaction that removed him from his political persona?

Young also claims his attempts to raise concerns were rebuffed by the higher level officials he spoke to. And soon after the scandal broke, the military brass enflamed it further by attempting to silence the soldiers who had begun to speak out. What are the administrators trying to avoid?

Clinical psychotherapist Edward Tick has worked with veterans suffering from PTSD for many years. In his book War and the Soul he explains that “Warriors need elaborate rituals cleansing them of pain and stain. They need to express their stories and related feelings. They need to transfer responsibility for their violent actions to the society in whose name they acted.”

Society is also a system of individuals. To imagine a soldier’s trauma is the “pain and stain” of war’s horror on the individual soul, we’d also have to imagine the transference Tick is talking about must move to other individual souls one at a time rather than to society en masse. If so, Young perhaps had begun to absorb the guilt but was also keenly aware of the political system’s resistance to it.

Tick also points out that the “recovery of each individual is no longer a priority of the larger social system because the system functions even with the loss of significant numbers of its adult population.”

When the individual soldier’s health is imagined as statistical irrelevancy, it becomes apparent that something larger than the individuals who make up Congress and our government may be at work. The monetary solution is reduced to treating nothing but the symptoms while leaving the disease to fester. If the collective self preservation of a large group is about power, what is it about soldiers who find their way beyond the trauma of war that is threatening?

David Connelly served in combat in Vietnam and tells his story through poetry. He explains in an interview for the film Voices in Wartime that he wants to expose the “absolute inhumanity of combat” and to debunk the myths of war glorified in our textbook histories and pop culture’s imagined heroes.

The truth of war’s horrors has the power to undermine notion that war, especially modern warfare, can be fought humanely. Truth to power is what the wounded warrior brings to the table. It is a truth beyond what the peace activist community alone can muster. Only the ones who have seen it can grasp it.

But we are also part of the society that they were sent to fight for. Do we also have to allow then to transfer their pain and stain to us? Isn’t it our turn to fight for them, to ensure they are healed so their stories can be told beyond those of us ready to listen?

Healing implies a return to what was normal before the wound. But it also means change. Tick explains that “After war and other traumatic loss, we are different forever. We can neither get the old self back nor return to a state of innocence. We have been through a psychospiritual death. But like the mythological phoenix, from death we attain a rebirth.”

We in general, and family members especially rightly want their loved ones to be whole again, to be the person they knew so well before the war. How does this natural expectation remedy itself with a spiritual rebirth?

Human beings are naturally uneasy in the face of change. If there is comfort in the security of what we know and trust, then there is also a discomfort when confronting what we don’t recognize. Whether we respond with a steady dose of resistance or confused apprehension, we can become stuck in the role of secondary victims when it comes to watching a family member or friend struggle through psychological turmoil.

In his bestselling book “Care of the Soul”, Thomas Moore explains when “we are the observers of depression and are challenged to find a way to deal with it in others, we could abandon the monotheistic notion that life always has to be cheerful, and be instructed by melancholy. We could learn from its qualities and follow its lead, becoming more patient in its presence, lowering our excited expectations, taking a watchful attitude as this soul deals with its fate in utter seriousness and heaviness.” (emphasis mine)

We’re back to wondering about the fate of the warrior returning wounded from our war? Perhaps the wounds of war that our soldiers seek to heal are larger than physical and mental wounds suffered on the battlefield. Might they be larger than life, the call of fate? Could there be no return to normal because more is wanted of them?

To hear our soldiers’ truths aren’t we going to be changed as well? Our fate too may be calling to let go of the normal life we wanted to return to? We can’t go back either. Would we even want to if normal means our children and grandchildren will relive their horror and our anguish through another war?

Our political establishment, including the high ranking military officers, is entrenched in itself and corrupted by power. Its focus is self preservation, resistant to change to maintain their idea of normal, their comforts, and their sense of security. The system seems to want to marginalize and ostracize our wounded soldiers so that no one will listen to their truths.

The power rests with the establishment. The truth rests with those who have lived it. The healing of our wounded warriors might shift the balance of power to where the truth leads the way.

In the stories of those suffering from PTSD the promise of change has a beating heart. Edward Tick believes that nations need to allow the “survivor to come home and serve the causes of peace, justice and healing”. Maybe then we might all find our “mythological phoenix”, and perhaps the end of political warfare.

by Rich in Juneau