Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

NPR Does Something Right....

In both morning and afternoon news editions, Daniel Zwerdling has been doing a story on soldiers returning to their home base at Ft. Carson, CO, from Iraq. His focus has been in interviewing soldiers whose records were good before Iraq and steadily eroded after returning, because of their experiences there.

The stories are all similar--soldiers experiencing classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which then affect their professional behavior, and, in most cases, not promptly receiving the mental health treatment they need, and in some instances, being dogged by superiors who think them weak for showing those symptoms, or choosing to punish them for the behavior accompanying PTSD.

One wife described her husband, pre-Iraq, as the kindest, most loving man imaginable, who, post-return, regularly knocks her down at any perceived slight. One soldier, knowing he had trouble, literally begged for treatment which was not forthcoming. His problem? He was overwhelmed by a central event during his time in Iraq--a fellow in his unit next to him was killed when his head literally exploded after being hit by enemy fire and the soldier was sprayed with the man's brains.

Now, I'm not an expert on PTSD, but I think I know its root causes. We spend a couple of decades civilizing our children--teaching them to treat others as they would like to be treated, encouraging them to avoid fighting and seek to resolve their problems non-violently and impressing on them that fighting should only be a last resort and in self-defense.

Then, for as many reasons as there are children, they enter the military. Quite suddenly, they are expected to selectively turn off all the training from those civilizing influences they've learned from parents, schools and general society, and kill other people, and are expected to switch that training on again when they are back in "civilization."

The problem is that many of those children of ours were not professional soldiers by natural inclination--they did not have the disposition to switch their emotions on and off at will. They had young families and no job, or they wanted an education they could not get by any other means except volunteering for the military. A smaller percentage were induced to join because they thought they were fighting the enemies of 9/11 in Iraq--and found their motivations challenged when they actually arrived to fight there.

All the things we taught our children--about solving problems amicably, about using force as a last resort and only to defend themselves--were negated by a national policy promulgated almost exclusively by people who avoided combat themselves when their time came for that, and the collision of those values hard against reality have come to damage those in our society in whom we had the most trust to carry on principles of "civilization" and "civilized behavior." The young people most adversely affected psychologically by this war are those who believed in the ideals we instilled in them as they were growing to adulthood.

It is that way in every war, but it is especially that way in wars that we discover, only later, were initiated for the most specious of purposes, and had nothing to do with the last resort of self defense, had nothing to do with protecting us from a genuine threat to our homes, families, our local businesses. In that way, the best of our children--the ones who took our advice about civilized behavior to heart and made it a part of themselves--are the canaries in the coal mine of wars of opportunity. They are the first to suffer.

Their minds rebel at what they have been forced to do in furtherance of the lies of their government and at what horrors they have witnessed in that effort. They were equipped by the military with most everything they needed to kill, except that ability to switch off their humanity in service of the imperial notions of a few unwise men, and then switch it back on again when they returned home. The soldier who is by inclination a professional has that ability, but those conscripted--either by the draft in the Vietnam War or--by economic necessity, do not. It is for that reason that these soldiers are now being viewed as "weak" or "shirking duty" by their professional superiors. How odd that our best and most-civilized soldiers--those we trained from infancy to adulthood to be good, decent people--are now the most disregarded after suffering, first-hand, the horrors we taught them, year by year, to avoid, and in which they had no choice but, in the face of brutal duty, to engage.


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