We wanted to go beyond the Pentagon's focus on the deaths of American soldiers and focus instead on the tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi military deaths that had taken place and especially the soaring death rates of civilians in those lands. And, of course, we wanted to show that our grim wars should not be described in sterile terms via the usual imagery of families embracing upon a smiling service-member's return or the by-then-familiar photographs of neat coffins draped with flags being carried out of planes by uniformed service members as spouses (usually white, female, and non-disabled) looked on sadly.
That, we knew, was not the essence of America's already ongoing war on terror. My colleagues and I wanted people in this country to refocus on the staggering death and injury rates that only grew as the years passed, the ever-more-crippling ways in which all sides learned to kill and injure, and the long-term mental-health effects of arduous family separations.
A therapist mentor once taught me that, when working with veterans who have PTSD, I should, as he put it, "Ask them to start their story a little before they think it began and have them keep going even after they think it's over." My colleagues and I wanted to do that when it came to our wars, focusing not just on the obvious newsworthy photographs that tended to appeal to the American psyche, but on the missing context in which those photographs were taken. That's the best way I can think of to describe the purpose of our new book (and our future work). None of us should stop trying to refocus in that way, not until America's war story is declared over -- and not even then, given how long the costs of war are likely to take to play out.
One sunny afternoon in May 2011, as Catherine Lutz and I sat in her office in Brown's Anthropology Department sifting through media images for the initial launch of the Costs of War website, we happened upon a video of a screaming young Iraqi child with open burn wounds covering his face and body, a relative clutching him in her arms as they hustled through a crowd. Gunshots and explosions were audible in the background. The before, the after, the neighborhood where the violence was taking place, the weapons used, who was even fighting whom -- none of that was evident from the clip.
For years, that image and the sound of that child has haunted me. Who was he? Did he get to the hospital? Was there even a hospital for him to get to? Would he ever go to school or play again? Who was the woman and what had her life been like before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003? What was it like now? What services could she access? Was she safe?
I think of this image when I wake up at night, when I hear patients describe the screams of children in war zones, when I hear my own children scream during tantrums. It's like a nightmarish echo that spurs me to keep working because all of us, regardless of where we are, should be bearing witness to the costs of war until somebody in power decides to end the suffering.
Andrea Mazzarino co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project. She is an activist and social worker interested in the health impacts of war. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of the new book War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Andrea Mazzarino