Soldiers and veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and other wars are killing themselves, according to Sixty Minutes, at a rate of 22-a-day. For any fair-minded person whose mind is not locked into a dehumanized state of war-justifying numbness, that is both incredible and unacceptable.
The Sixty Minutes story focused on Clay Hunt, an otherwise strong and attractive 26-year-old Iraq/Afghan Marine veteran who shot himself. His devastated parents and his closest war-buddy were interviewed, each revealing great pain and the deepest of human bonds with the man. Agonizing self-blame was expressed along with the tears.
Clay Hunt and mourning soldiers in Iraq
The question hovering over the story was: Why did he do it? He had undertaken important humanitarian work in Haiti following the earthquake there; he was smart, physically healthy and beloved by women; he seemed a guy ready to grab the world by the tail and accomplish important things.
To everyone from the reporter to the relatives and friends it was a perplexing mystery. Why did he do it? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was appropriately mentioned; survival guilt was discussed. Video of Hunt in Haiti showed him saying that as a Marine he felt he had done a lot of good in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he added that he had seen and done "horrible" things.
"But that's war," he told the person filming him on a truck in Haiti. In Haiti, he said, he felt he could do good without being shot at or having to kill anyone.
The elephant in the room no one seemed willing to recognize was the idea of moral damage. Asking bright, strong young men like Hunt to fight wars like Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Vietnam before that -- can be like luring an unsuspecting animal into a trap. The bait is the powerful call to do something good for your country, to sacrifice for a larger purpose. The trap, of course, is the fact wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam are never what the drumbeat of homefront-oriented propaganda says they are.
For the Claude Rains character in Casablanca an expression of shock that there is gambling going on at Rick's nightclub is an ironic joke on the French officer's corruption. But for some young Americans, the discovery that there is dissimulation in the corridors of power in Washington -- that the war he or she has been sent to sacrifice in is not what it was billed to be -- is a true shock to the moral system they may be unable to accommodate or escape.
With powerful historical forces behind them, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon sent us into Vietnam and George W. Bush sent us into Iraq and Afghanistan. The first Tonkin Gulf speedboat incident was provoked by secret US aggression against Vietnam. The second one never happened at all. Yet, they were used to dishonestly justify a war resolution that fully unleashed the dogs of war for a decade. Twenty-nine years later, Congress and the Media laid down again for bogus reports of weapons of mass destruction and the delusion there were Iraqi connections to those who knocked down the twin towers. Both wars were rooted in flat-out lies and delusions.
In both cases, young Americans eagerly signed up to do their nation's bidding. For the Vietnam War, the number of suicides far exceeds the number of names on the wall in Washington. Chuck Dean, in his book Nam Vet: Making Peace With Your past, puts the number at over 150,000, based on VA and Disabled American Veteran sources.
It's hard to know exactly what complex of stressors causes an individual soldier to kill him- or herself. But the incredible rate of 22-a-day suggests a powerful causal link, to the point it seems a case of pro-military loyalty, squeamishness or outright denial not to raise the question of untenable moral damage. That is, do wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam instill in some soldiers and veterans such deep moral damage of a nature no one wants to talk about that life for them becomes too painful to go on with?
I recall a panel of Vietnam veterans at a community college outside Philadelphia back in the early 1990s that debated the questions for or against war. The panel was evenly divided between pro-war, right-leaning Vietnam veterans and anti-war, left-leaning Vietnam veterans. At one point, several of the pro-war vets became very anxious and agitated, and it was the antiwar vets who calmly talked their brothers-in-arms down from their troubled state.
It was a powerful lesson. It seemed to me, a Vietnam vet, that the disturbed vets on stage were trying desperately to hold onto an inner belief that the Vietnam War they had participated in was an honorable enterprise. When confronted with fair questions about the nature of that enterprise, they began to boil over inside. Meanwhile, the vets who had by then long ago given up on their war as a morally defensible enterprise remained cool and detached.
I submit this sort of double bind plays a role in why so many soldiers and veterans are committing suicide at such an alarming rate. Trying to make one's experience in a war zone accord with propaganda can be, for some, an excruciatingly painful task.