Two People Discuss War; formerly titled: A Marine and an Iraqi Discuss War

Last week, as part of Ralph Nader’s four-day conference in Washington, DC, Breaking Through Power, my friend Raed Jarrar, a Palestinian-Iraqi-American, and I gave a talk on the horrors of war. My perspectives of combat, occupation, colonial administration and war time politics, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Washington, were set besides Raed’s experiences of living in Baghdad following the Gulf War, through the years of sanctions, into the American invasion, yes, the glory of Shock and Awe, and for the first year of occupation. Raed left Baghdad in 2004, but returned to Iraq to help rebuild, before becoming a full-time peace and anti-war activist.

The video is below. I want to thank Ralph Nader and the Center for Study of Responsive Law for allowing Raed and I to share how we both came to the same understanding of our lives, our world, our leaders, our people, our wars and the need for peace, from the different ends of a rifle.

Also, my apologies to the brave and fantastic Alli McCracken for giving the equally brave and fantastic Medea Benjamin credit for trying to, rightfully, arrest Henry Kissinger last year. Thank you Alli and Code Pink.

The remainder of the day’s talks and conversations can be found on Youtube.

Big Sexy Does the Impossible…

 

“Bartolo has done it! The impossible has happened!”

If you’re a Mets fan, a baseball fan, a sports fan, a fan of fellow dudes in their 40s still playing sports with gusto and swagger, or just anyone who is not cynical, miserable or self-loathing, Philadelphia sports fans I am referencing you, you are most likely still smiling and possibly cheering over Mets pitcher, Bartolo Colon, aka Big Sexy, hitting his first professional home run at the age of 42.

In 1969, another Mets pitcher, Tom Seaver, a young man in the midst of just his third year in his eventual Hall of Fame career, still young enough to have more guts than savvy, and more heart than fear, declared:

“If the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam.”

The Amazins did beat the Orioles to win the World Series that year, but the Americans stayed in Vietnam for another four years. Over those four years nearly 15,000 US soldiers would be killed in that far away land, tens of thousands would be wounded, many of them permanently, hundreds of thousands would be psychologically injured, and tens of thousands, more likely hundreds of thousands, would die, as they continue to die, by the never ending after effects of war, most especially the Rainbow Herbicides (Agents Blue, Orange, White, etc.) and suicide.

As the Mets did the impossible and became World Champions, President Nixon continued his secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos and escalated the bombing of Vietnam. By the time Nixon, Kissinger, Abrams, et. al admitted the war in Vietnam could not be won millions more men, women and children had been killed and wounded, countless families shattered, and an entire eco-system destroyed. The Killing Fields in Cambodia were set to begin and half the Cambodian population would be murdered.*

As with our veterans of Vietnam here at home, the war still goes on in that far away land. Meant to destroy lives decades ago, bombs and landmines today kill or maim an estimated 1,000 people each year, many of them born after the war ended. And the Rainbow Herbicides with which we soaked and saturated the Vietnamese fields, mountains, rivers, lakes, jungles, crops, livestock, schools, temples, churches and homes? The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates almost 5 million people were exposed to the 20 million gallons of chemicals dispersed aerially over 5 million acres, it was, after all, the largest chemical weapons program in history. Estimates are 1 million people are currently living their lives disabled in South East Asia because of the chemicals sprayed over four decades ago, and that includes 100,000 children. Those children, monstrously deformed, are still being born today. Read and look here and, when your eyes are dry and your stomach settled, please visit Project Renew and the Vietnam Agent Orange Responsibility and Relief Campaign to help, and then call your members of Congress and tell them to support Barbara Lee’s H.R. 2114.

Not long before Tom Seaver contravened conventional and accepted sports and political wisdom another New York sports legend, Joe Namath, famously predicted his New York Jets would defeat Johnny Unitas and the Colts. David and Goliath never played out so theatrically and athletically as Namath, and his long hair and sideburns, made good on his guarantee of victory – the folks in Baltimore had it tough in 1969. Of course, the cultural significance of Namath’s boast and win is not lost on anyone with a knowledge of 1960/70s American societal upheaval and by comparing side by side photos of Broadway Joe and Johnny U.

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The Jets can’t win, the Mets can’t win, overweight 42 year old pitchers can’t hit home runs, the US can’t get out of Vietnam, the hippies can’t win, love can’t win…Peace can’t happen…

From those who know: those in uniform with tin medals; those in residence at Langley, at Foggy Bottom, or in a think tank office paid for by defense industry dollars; and those on the campaign trail who, craven, wicked and desperate, are happy to wave the Bloody Shirt, we hear, with endless certitude and authority, that we can’t get out of the Middle East, we can’t get out of war, we can’t, we can’t…What happens if we don’t?

I am certain, the answer to that is, simply, more death, including here in the US, more suffering, more shattered families, a poisoned world, and, eventually, the end of man.

We can put an end to our wars and we must put an end to our wars. It is possible. We can choose not to aid dictatorships that repress their own people, monarchies that fund terror and massacre neighbors, or democracies that wantonly commit war crimes. We can not send troops and cash to prop up governments that hold fraudulent elections and which are composed of war and drug lords, and we can stop invading and bombing countries like Iraq and Libya. Additionally, we can stop shipping weapons from one war zone to another war zone, and we can stop trying to use terrorist groups, the very terrorist groups our invasions create, to achieve our political objectives. We could even stop being the planet’s largest arms merchant. We may say we want peace and stability, but it’s hard to demonstrate such when we sell the world the implements and ingredients that go into so much chaos, suffering and death.

In 2003 a majority in our Congress and our President thought invading Iraq had to be done. They were wrong. In 2009 a majority in our Congress and our President believed escalating the war in Afghanistan had to happen. They were wrong then too. More recently it has been a disbelief in a nuclear weapons deal with Iran and a cease fire in Ukraine. In both cases, majorities in Congress favored war with Iran and potentially war in Europe over talking with either the Iranians or the Russians. Well, today, we have a nuclear agreement with the Iranians, which the Iranian people endorsed, and there has been a cease fire in Ukraine that, while shaky, has held and has brought levels of violence down quite dramatically over the last 15 months (I am not linking to any polls to prove Ukrainians are happy their family members and neighbors have stopped being killed, although we have people, appropriately referred to as chickenhawks, war profiteers and psychopaths, in Washington, DC who would argue otherwise…).

What if we tried for peace? What if we empowered diplomacy and strengthened our role in constructive engagement, forgetting the boundaries, the ideologies and the allegiances of the past? What if we pursued policies of reconciliation among religions, ethnicities and sects, rather than trying to manipulate them to turn maps the colors and shades we want them? And what if we prioritized our problems at home, worked to rebuild our country and fixed our own democracy? I know, I know, I know, that’s silly, that’s trite, that’s naive….that’s impossible…Such thoughts and ideas, based on the realities of American foreign and military policy failures and rooted in morality and principle, aren’t allowed in Presidential Debates or in Republican or Democratic party platforms.

It appears that no matter who we elect in November our devotion to militarism, measured in trillions of dollars, and interventionist adventurism, measured in millions of dead and mutilated people, will not change, but will continue because to do otherwise is deemed impossible by our ruling political class.

The possibility of peace will not occur unless we force it to occur, until then, we might as just watch Bart defy the impossible. This time en espanol.

*For more information on the petty fear and lies that motivated the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations to begin, escalate and prolong the war in Vietnam please read Frederik Logevall’s Embers of War, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Not only do these books illustrate the malfeasance that dominated American policy making in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but they illuminate and illustrate the same gross failures, incompetencies and deceits of American foreign policy decision makers in our current century.

Talk on Moral Injury and PTSD

From a talk I gave to the Licensed Professional Counselors Association of North Carolina in October on my own issues with PTSD, depression, moral injury, alcohol abuse and suicidality. Please feel free to share this video with others. Other men and women sharing their stories with me has helped in my recovery and I want to do my part and pass that kind of assistance along.

Prior to giving this talk, as I was driving to the conference and walking into the venue, I planned on drinking as soon as I was done. Not just a few beers to watch my Mets play the Dodgers in the playoffs, but a medicinal drowning and extinguishment of that all too familiar, exhausting and debilitating anguish in my head, heart and soul. When I was finished with my talk, although tired, the plan was still there. I drove to a bar, got out of my car, and walked to the bar door. My desire, at that moment, not to be a liar was stronger than my need to drink, and I got back in my car and drove home.

From watching the video I doubt you can tell the pain I was in during this talk, an emotional, existential pain, unlike any known physical pain, and a sort of pain that seems to have no hope or end to it. It is as if a wedge or filter is placed into my head, not allowing me to access the functional, rational, more evolutionary modern parts of my brain. I am living in the poisonous fog that William Styron so masterfully articulated in his Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness;  a book that I can’t recommend enough to help friends and family understand how such mental pain and torment seems inescapable and unending, and drives otherwise very strong men and women to levels of despair that self-euthanizing becomes, in that ill and pained mind, a prudent, practical and necessary option.

My greatest gratitude to my good friend John Shuford who organized this talk and provided me with the video. I hope, in the future, to provide more information on an initiative John is working on to provide greater clinical training to therapists assisting veterans with combat related issues of PTSD, moral injury, depression, alcohol abuse and suicidality.

[Note: The introduction to the video gives a bit of a distorted summary of my career. You can find a professional biography on the About Me page of this blog. Not that it really matters though, as Babe Ruth said: “yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s ball games”]

 

Insulting America’s Sacred Idols: Helping Veterans Recover from Moral Injury

Back in March, Quaker House in Fayetteville, NC, the home of America’s largest military base, Fort Bragg, hosted me to discuss my recovery from PTSD and moral injury. The full video is below, along with a three minute clip that Lynn Newsom, the co-director of the Fayetteville Quaker House, is using in the talks she gives to military and non-military audiences on moral injury.

During my talk I am not very clear about the correlation, and, yes, I would also say causation, between combat and suicide. However, there is a very clear link between combat veterans and suicide, a link that is obviously very dangerous to cherished American myths of war, with all too familiar, prevalent and false motifs of justice, honor and redemption. To illustrate the connection between war, violence and suicide, a connection that manifests in veterans through PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and moral injury, I have included, at the end of this essay, 15 fairly easy to find studies of the last few decades documenting the prevalence of suicide in combat veterans.

Among the below studies, and among the most recent, dealing with my fellow veterans of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, researchers at the National Center for Veterans Studies have found that veterans who were exposed to killing and atrocity had a 43% greater risk of suicide, while 70% of those Afghan and Iraq veterans who participated in heavy combat had attempted suicide. We spends millions of dollars and thousands of hours to physically, mentally and morally condition each young man and woman who volunteers to serve in the military to travel abroad and kill, but upon their return, in reality, effective and thorough programs to decondition our veterans, help them reenter and reintegrate into society and regain emotional, moral and spiritual balance and health are nonexistent, while care for developed wounds, both physical and mental is underfunded. Continue reading

“Longevity is Nothing Without Dignity”

The film follows the story of S. Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran and trained lawyer, whose wartime experiences transformed him into a revolutionary non-violent pacifist. In 1986, Brian and several veterans fasted for more than 40-days on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol to protest against the war in Central America.

Then, in September 1987, Brian and other Veterans Peace Action team members sat on the tracks to protest a weapons train carrying missiles and bombs bound to be used against peaceful civilians in Central America.

Instead of the train slowing down for the protesters on the tracks, the conductor increased the speed of the train to three times its legal speed limit. Brian tried to get off the tracks, but the speeding train struck him, cracked his skull, and tore off both his legs.

Today, Brian continues his efforts to fight for peace on his prosthetic limbs. Please join him and stop illegal American wars and other covert military actions waged against peaceful sovereign states and citizens internationally.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/final-production-for-paying-the-price-for-peace/x/11474221#/story

 

An Excellent Article On Moral Injury

Quite possibly the best article on moral injury I have read. Thanks to The Atlantic and to Maggie Puniewska.

Healing a Wounded Sense of Morality
Many veterans are suffering from a condition similar to, but distinct from, PTSD: moral injury, in which the ethical transgressions of war can leave service members traumatized.

MAGGIE PUNIEWSKA JUL 3, 2015

Amy Amidon has listened to war stories on a daily basis for almost a decade.

As a clinical psychologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, she works with a multi-week residential program called OASIS, or Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support, for soldiers who have recently returned from deployments. Grief and fear dominate the majority of the conversations in OASIS: Amidon regularly hears participants talk about improvised explosive devices claiming the lives of close friends; about flashbacks of airstrikes pounding cities to rubble; about days spent in 120-degree desert heat, playing hide and seek with a Taliban enemy. Many veterans in the program are there seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

But many of Amidon’s patients talk about another kind of trauma, a psychic bruise that, unlike PTSD, isn’t rooted in fear. Some of these soldiers describe experiences in which they, or someone close to them, violated their moral code: hurting a civilian who turned out to be unarmed, shooting at a child wearing explosives, or losing trust in a commander who became more concerned with collecting decorative pins than protecting the safety of his troops. Others, she says, are haunted by their own inaction, traumatized by something they witnessed and failed to prevent. In 2012, when the first wave of veterans was returning from the Middle East, these types of experiences were so prevalent at OASIS that “the patients asked for a separate group where they could talk about the heavier stuff, the guilt stuff,” Amidon says. In January 2013, the center created individual and group therapy opportunities specifically for soldiers to talk about the wartime situations that they felt went against their sense of right and wrong. (Rules of engagement are often an ineffective guide through these gray areas: A 2008 survey of soldiers deployed at the beginning of the conflict in Iraq found that nearly 30 percent of the soldiers in each group encountered ethical situations in which they were unsure how to respond.)

Experts have begun to refer to this specific type of psychological trauma as moral injury. “These morally ambiguous situations continue to bother you, weeks, months, or years after they happened,” says Shira Maguen, the mental-health director of the OEF/OIF Integrated Care Clinic at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and one of the first researchers to study the concept. Examples of situations that might precipitate moral injury are betrayals by those in leadership roles, within-rank violence, inability to prevent death or suffering, and hurting civilians. Sometimes it co-exists with PTSD, but moral injury is its own separate trauma with symptoms that can include feelings of shame, guilt, betrayal, regret, anxiety, anger, self-loathing, and self-harm. Last year, a study published in Traumatology found that military personnel who felt conflicted about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a combat situation were at an increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior afterwards, compared with their peers who didn’t have that same sense of ambiguity. The main difference between the two combat-induced traumas is that moral injury is not about the loss of safety, but the loss of trust—in oneself, in others, in the military, and sometimes in the nation as a whole.
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