This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
"The wandering scribe of war crimes" is how TomDispatch regular Ann Jones once described me. Indeed, for more than a decade, across three continents, I've been intermittently interviewing witnesses and victims, perpetrators and survivors of almost unspeakable atrocities. I can't count the number of massacre survivors and rape victims and tortured women and mutilated men I've spoken with, sometimes decades -- but sometimes just days -- after they were brutalized. In almost every case, what occurred in only a matter of minutes irreparably altered their lives.
I've also spent countless hours talking with another class of atrocity survivors: witnesses who did little else but watch and perpetrators who beat, tortured, or killed innocents in the service of one government or another. In almost every case, what occurred in just a matter of minutes irreparably altered their lives, too.
Sometimes, it seemed as if the survivors coped with the trauma far better than the perpetrators. I remember an American veteran of the Vietnam War I once interviewed. He had a million stories, all of them punctuated with a big, bold laugh. Jovial is the word I often use to describe him. We talked for hours, but I finally got down to business and he quickly grew quiet. Then, jovial he was not. I asked him about a massacre I had good reason to believe he had seen, maybe even taken part in. He told me he couldn't recall it, but that he didn't doubt it happened. (It wasn't the first time I'd heard such a response.) While he had endless war stories, when it came to the darkest corner of the conflict, he said, his memories had been reduced to one episode.
As was standard operating procedure, his unit burned villages as a matter of course. In one of these "villes," a woman ran up to him, bitter and enraged, no doubt complaining that her home and all her possessions were going up in flames. After shoving her away several times, he drew up the butt of his rifle and slammed it straight into the center of her face. It was an explosion of blood, he told me, followed by shrieks and sobs. Mr. Jovial walked away laughing.
That's it, all he could remember, he assured me. He recalled it because he couldn't forget it. At the time, the act was meaningless to him. Decades later, he relived it every day -- her shattered nose, the blood, the screams. He asked himself over and over again: How could I have done that? How could I have walked away laughing? I suggested that he was incredibly young and poorly trained and scared and immersed in a culture of violence, but none of these answers satisfied him. It was clear enough that he was never going to solve that riddle, just as he was never going to forget that woman and what he did to her.
Today, TomDispatch regular and former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren takes on these same issues, plumbing the depths of "moral injury" -- what, that is, can happen to soldiers when the values they're taught as civilians are shattered on the shoals of war. Van Buren learned something of this firsthand in Iraq and grapples with it in his new World War II novel, Hooper's War. "Van Buren doesn't provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time," says Kirkus Reviews of this "complex" alternate history. Given America's penchant for ceaseless conflict, his book, like his piece today, raises questions that remain tragically relevant. Ever relevant, you might say. Nick Turse
Whistleblowers, Moral Injury, and Endless War
Was Chelsea Manning Motivated By Moral Injury?
By Peter Van Buren
"My guilt will never go away," former Marine Matthew Hoh explained to me. "There is a significant portion of me that doesn't believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair."
If America accepts the idea of fighting endless wars, it will have to accept something else as well: that the costs of war are similarly endless. I'm thinking about the trillions of dollars, the million or more "enemy" dead (a striking percentage of them civilians), the tens of thousands of American combat casualties, those 20 veteran suicides each day, and the diminished lives of those who survive all of that. There's that pain, carried by an unknown number of women and men, that won't disappear, ever, and that goes by the label "moral injury."
The Lasting Pain of War
When I started Hooper's War, a novel about the end of World War II in the Pacific, I had in mind just that pain. I was thinking -- couldn't stop thinking, in fact -- about what really happens to people in war, combatants and civilians alike. The need to tell that story grew in large part out of my own experiences in Iraq, where I spent a year embedded with a combat unit as a U.S. State Department employee, and where I witnessed, among so many other horrors, two soldier suicides.
The new book began one day when Facebook retrieved photos of Iraqi children I had posted years ago, with a cheery "See Your Memories" caption on them. Oh yes, I remembered. Then, on the news, I began seeing places in Iraq familiar to me, but this time being overrun by Islamic State militants or later being re-retaken with the help of another generation of young Americans. And I kept running into people who'd been involved in my war and were all too ready to share too many drinks and tell me too much about what I was already up all too many nights thinking about.
As these experiences morphed first into nightmares and then into the basis for research, I found myself speaking with more veterans of more wars who continued to suffer in ways they had a hard time describing, but which they wrestled with everyday. I realized that I understood them, even as they seemed to be trying to put their feelings into words for the first time. Many of them described how they had entered the battle zones convinced that "we're the good guys," and then had to live with the depth of guilt and shame that followed when that sense didn't survive the test of events.
Sometimes they were remarkably articulate, sometimes anything but. It seemed not to matter which war we were talking about -- or whether I was reading a handwritten diary from the Korean War, an oral history of the Pacific War, or an old bestseller about a conflict ironically labeled "the Good War." The story always seemed to be the same: decisions made in seconds that lasted lifetimes, including the uncomfortable balancing of morality and expediency in situations in which a soldier might believe horrific acts like torture could save lives or had to accept civilian casualties in pursuit of military objectives. In war, you were always living in a world in which no action seemed ideal and yet avoiding acting was often inconceivable.
PTSD and Moral Injury