President Bush recently created a flap with his opinion that history will regard the war with Iraq as "just a comma". To an extent, he was right. In the context of history, a century may hardly be considered an epoch and our last century has been a story of trauma and its deadly aftermath.. What that hiustory may disclose is that the United States suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by brutal trauma, advanced fear, danger, and anger over a prolonged period of time. The twentieth century had dawned in a country that had, in recent memory, been accustomed to peace, to going about the daily business of survival in one's own way. Sure, there had been that little mix-up with Spain over the sinking of the Maine, a brief fracas with Mexico, and the usual Indian trouble as the nation spread West, but these were but brief adventures and the last real war had been the one between the States fifty years or so before. The average American knew little and cared less about the affairs of the world beyond our shores and even the periodic upsets in Washington, DC had little bearing on everyday life.
Suddenly the world erupted and the naive, unlettered young men were taken from their homes, their farms, their mines, and the factories, shipped across the ocean and unloaded into a nation about which they knew nothing. Shortly they found themselves in trenches, facing other men who looked just like them but for the uniforms they wore. They were ordered to shoot the other man before he could shoot them and they did so, in many instances when they were so close that the blood emerging from the uniform and the look in the dying eyes was visible to the shooter. All the while, mortar shells were exploding about them and they could see their fellows falling beside them, with the same blood and the same expressions in their eyes. There can be no wonder that the term, "shell-shocked" was coined to designate the illness that overcame them when they could do it no longer.
With the Armistice, they were brought home and unceremoniously discharged to return to their former life. There was little medical care available to them and absolutely no understanding of their mental condition while many were able to re-establish their former lives after a fashion by burying them in their subconscious, learning to live with their memories and the nightmares. Others were not so lucky, wandering the countryside, doing odd jobs, drinking too much, and begging or stealing the necessities of life. In a few years, their situation was further complicated by the economic crash and the devaluation of American money and of American labor. Employers assumed the status of owners of their employees and there was no redress. Striking workers were locked out or beaten by "scabs", foreign workers who were eager for their jobs at any price and, on occasion, they were fired upon by the military. Some who were veterans and had been promised pensions hitch-hiked or rode trains to Washington to protest in a peaceful fashion and were run out of town by the military for their audacity, some losing their lives.
In a short time, American men, including some of the same ones, were scooped up in a draft, transported to the same place and required to do the same thing over again. Others were sent to Oriental or tropical places to fight the most deadly and brutal war of our history. Those who were captured were to suffer untold torture during cruel and inhuman imprisonment while those whose minds cracked under the stress were termed cowards and mistreated by their superiors. Since "The War To End All Wars" had been fought some time before, they were told that this war would establish Peace on Earth. This, too, was not to be.
Once the enemy was defeated, we set out to restore the conquered nations and to repair the damage to our national reputation. However, our former ally, the Soviet Union, decided to maintain dominion over the nations in whose conquest they had played an major part. In the spirit of conciliation, some nations were divided with half decreed to be free and the other half finding their fate in the hands of the Politburo. The people in the free sections of these countries became prosperous while their brothers in the Communist areas were envious and desired to attain the more desireable state by reuniting or invading in an effort to rejoin their brothers. This led to United Nations "police action" in Korea which required the exposure to war's horrors of the next generation of American men. And then Vietnam was the subject of our "protection of freedom", resulting in the loss of many American lives and the destruction of many "walking wounded" who were finally diagnosed as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The slightest loud noise could generate sufficient stress to trigger the "fight or flight" mechanism and send them into uncontrollable reactions that, in many cases, actually endangered their family and friends. Some fled to the streets and others to rude camps in the woods becasue they felt incapable of co-existing with other human beings.
The soldiers were not the only ones exposed to extreme fear and hardships. The rivaly with the Soviet Union was so intense that a generation of children were drilled every day in school to "duck and cover" in case of an attack by an atomic bomb. We were reminded daily of the possibility of a mushroom cloud and lived on tenterhooks, eyes on the sky, ready to duck into our prepared and stocked bomb shelters. We must be forgiven for our sigh of relief when the Communist government of the Soviet Union fell and we looked forward to a period of peace at last. But there was still the trouble in Europe as some nations, newly freed from the Communist bloc, had to redefine themselves as to nationality and ethnic heritage. As the consequence, we found our soldiers spread all over the world, always battle-trained and battle-ready, poised for a war that always threatened. We were forced to live through the Nazi Juggernaut, the "Red Menace, the "Yellow Horde", the "Domino Theory", the "Mushroom Cloud", and now we are faced with "Islamo-Fascist Terr'ists". It is no wonder that the American people are as spooky as a punch-drunk prize fighter.
There was a big boom as the planes flew into the World Trade Center, shattering all hope for peace and normalization. Certainly the perpetrators of that foul deed must be found and punished! The battle began fiercely in the mountains of Afghanistan as we rooted out the guilty men. Suddenly, our "all-volunteer army" of boys, who had been unable to complete school and counted on their military service only to qualify them for promised government help, were sent into Afghanistan to rout the supposed bad guys and bring Osama's head home on a platter. With that job half-done, many were pulled out and diverted to Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein for reasons that are not yet clear. States were stripped of their National Guardsmen until there were too few left to perform the duties for which they were needed in their local crises.
Soldiers were "involuntarily retained" when their service in Iraq was done and retreaded for tour after tour, becoming cannon fodder for whom the only reprieve from the fight was and is serious injury or death. Meanwhile, their families were subjected to constant threat warnings, being told to insulate their homes against the coming "mushroom cloud" with plastic and duct tape. Whenever opposition to executive plans was detected, we were subjected to "Orange Alerts" and "increased threat warnings" and warned not to even ask the reasons for the conflict, what would constitute victory or what the plans were for achieving that goal.
After more than a half century of constant strain and terror, the nation as a whole is a patient with PTSD. Some of us are content to "duck and cover" while others respond in the opposite fashion to the "fight or flight" syndrome and are willing to send our children anywhere in the world to commit untold destruction on the slightest provocation. One response prevents our doing anything constructive while the other makes us a threat to all who may be imagined to constitute danger. History is replete with stories of the ends of powerful nations by just such a process. Whether ancient Greece, Rome, Great Britain, or Germany, nations of great power and ambition are brought down by wars of aggression and neglect of the civilian populace. Ronald Reagan diagnosed a "great national malaise" and now it is obvious that it was, coincidentally, not just campaign rhetoric. Our choices for treatment are few. We could bring our beleaguered soldiers home, secure our borders, take time to heal and to rear a generation un-marked by recent history, or we could continue on with war after war of aggression until we are destroyed by it. The choice is ours.