War Made Easy

Norman Soloman’s incredibly damning documentary on the intersections of our government, war and the media. Produced in 2007, this brilliantly critical examination of the selling of war is essential to understanding today’s perpetual wars. Simply irrefutable and shameful…

Martin Luther King: Beyond Vietnam

April 4, 1967

New York City

 

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that I consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett, Dr. Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, some of the most distinguished leaders and personalities of our nation. And of course it’s always good to come back to Riverside Church. Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of preaching here almost every year in that period, and it’s always a rich and rewarding experience to come to this great church and this great pulpit.

I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization that brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
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Shakespeare, PTSD and Moral Injury

Two of the more important works on PTSD and moral injury are Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Shay, a great proponent of the concept of Moral Injury, something I recognize in myself, explains the difference between PTSD and moral injury in this excellent piece from Public Insight Network:

Moral injury, Shay says, can happen when “there is a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.”

That person who’s betraying “what’s right” could be a superior — or that person could be you. Maybe it’s that you killed somebody or were ordered to kill. Or maybe it was something tragic that you could have stopped, but didn’t. Guilt and shame are at the center of moral injury. And, as Shay describes it, so is a shrinking of what he calls “the moral and social horizon.” When a person’s moral horizon shrinks, he says, so do a person’s ideals and attachments and ambitions……

….“Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked with combat vets for twenty years and authored two books about PTSD — or psychological and moral injury, as he insists it should be known — told me by phone from his Newton, Mass., office, ‘It’s titanic pain that these men live with. They don’t feel that they can get that across, in part because they feel they deserve it, and in part because they don’t feel people will understand it.’

“‘Despair, this word that’s so hard to get our arms around,’ he said. ‘It’s despair that rips people apart [who] feel they’ve become irredeemable.’

“I told Dr. Shay about Noah’s experiences in Iraq, in particular the killing, the loss of comrades, the nightmares. He sounded saddened on the phone, but unsurprised. ‘The flip side of this fellow’s despair was the murderous rages he experienced on his second tour,’ he said. ‘In combat, soldiers become each other’s mothers. The rage, need for revenge, and self-sacrificial commitment toward protecting each other when comrades are killed [are] akin to when a mother’s offspring are put in danger or killed.’

“Dr. Shay explained the nightmares and sleeplessness were one of the major issues. ‘The lack of sleep contributed directly to a loss of control of his own anger, a loss of control of things he felt morally responsible for.’”

And importantly:

Peers are the key to recovery — I can’t emphasize that enough,” he said. “Credentialed mental health professionals like me have no place in center stage. It’s the veterans themselves, healing each other, that belong at center stage.”

Shay, demonstrating that PTSD and moral injury has been common to warriors since the creation of civilization by identifying PTSD and moral injury in the great Homerian works, also identifies PTSD and Moral Injury in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV. From Public Insight Network, again, Shay places the corresponding PTSD symptoms alongside Lady Percy’s lines from Act II, Scene 2:

O my good lord, why are you thus alone?      (Social withdrawal and isolation)
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed? (Random, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy)
Tell me, sweet lord, what is ’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure,          (Somatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure)
and thy golden sleep?            (Insomnia)
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth     (Depression)
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?          (Hyperactive startle reaction)
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks      (Peripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyper-activity)
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?    (Sense of the dead being more real than the living, depression)
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,   (Fragmented, vigilant sleep)
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,
Cry “Courage! To the field!” And though hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, or trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,   (Traumatic dreams, reliving episodes of combat, fragmented sleep)
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream … (Night sweats, automatic hyperactivity)

Do you recognize this in a loved one? Do you recognize this in yourself? I wonder who in the great bard’s life inspired him to relay such pain through Lady Percy’s words. And note, that Lady Percy’s pain is as deep, tormenting and disabling as that of her husbands’. PTSD and moral injury is, in effect, contagious, and wrecks relationships and families. True now and true over five hundred years ago.

Before admitting my injury and getting help, from friends, family, peers, strangers and professionals, I would have silently and reluctantly recognized these words in myself. I would loathe myself for such recognition and would find solace in alcohol and suicidality. If this is you now, there is no shame, open up, admit your pain and get help. Your pain is as old as war and I promise you, you will find strength in others when you seek help and in that you will find strength in yourself.

Letter to the Editor

Last week, the Washington Post was kind enough to publish a letter I wrote in response to a column by Tom Ricks, a former WaPo journalist and author. The letter is here:

Thanks to Thomas E. Ricks for his Oct. 27 Sunday Opinion piece, “Can the military learn from its mistakes?” I am glad such a prominent voice on military affairs is raising the question of the United States’ lost wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Mr. Ricks missed the forest for the trees.

The U.S. military has failed to win because it has engaged in civil wars whose causes and meanings are absent any U.S. concern; Iraq, of course, is a civil war of our own making. There is no strategy, and certainly no general, capable of winning a war whose foundations were as morally rotten as the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, or a war in which success requires the funding and fortification of a corrupt and illegitimate government such as the regime in Kabul.

We can continue to argue about troop levels, deify or defrock generals and debate strategies, or we can own up to the reality that war is a failure. Until we do, lives will continue to be shattered without gain.

Peace.