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Nan Levinson: Moral Injury and American War

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

"It's a day of picnics and patriotic parades, a night of concerts and fireworks, and a reason to fly the American flag."  That, at least, is how the federal government describes July 4th on its official website, USA.gov.  "Independence Day," it tells us, "honors the birthday of the United States of America and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776."

As you may recall, however foggily, from grammar school social studies classes, that document struck a decidedly anti-military tone, castigating America's then-ruler for having:

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"kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

"He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

"He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

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"For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us."

Today, of course, America's rulers have saddled the country with a large standing army, created an exceptionally powerful military establishment largely divorced from civilian life, created secret laws and enforced abridgments of basic civil liberties while quartering among us, at military bases all over America, large bodies of troops.

Given these developments, it's hardly surprising that, over the years, the signing of this country's foundational document as it was launching its anti-colonial War of Independence has somehow been wrapped in "warrior" values that go with the neo-colonial wars we have been fighting in distant lands.  In fact, Independence Day has become prime-time for military recruiting.  The Navy's high-flying Blue Angels, for example, are taking their aerial acrobatics to the skies above Boston Harbor as part of this July 4th's festivities.  Meanwhile, the "Golden Knights," the Army's trick parachute team, will dramatically descend on celebrations in St. Louis.  It's military - go-go all day long.

With so many martial myths afoot, the time seems ripe for a candid discussion of the troops we're so often called upon to "support" on July 4th and every other day of the year.  In her first piece for TomDispatch, journalist Nan Levinson examines the veterans of our post-9/11 wars, their "sacred wounds," "moral injuries," and just what America's uniformed sons and daughters have experienced during the last decade of far-flung occupations.  With new military interventions blossoming all the time, the subjects she raises ought to be at the forefront of American minds.  If U.S. troops find themselves morally injured, shouldn't we ask: Who put them in the position to suffer such wounds in the first place? Nick Turse

Mad, Bad, Sad: What's Really Happened to America's Soldiers
By Nan Levinson

"PTSD is going to color everything you write," came the warning from a stepmother of a Marine, a woman who keeps track of such things.  That was in 2005, when post-traumatic stress disorder, a.k.a. PTSD, wasn't getting much attention, but soon it was pretty much all anyone wrote about.  Story upon story about the damage done to our guys in uniform -- drinking, divorce, depression, destitution -- a laundry list of miseries and victimhood.  When it comes to veterans, it seems like the only response we can imagine is to feel sorry for them.

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Victim is one of the two roles we allow our soldiers and veterans (the other is, of course, hero), but most don't have PTSD, and this isn't one of those stories.

Civilian to the core, I've escaped any firsthand experience of war, but I've spent the past seven years talking with current GIs and recent veterans, and among the many things they've taught me is that nobody gets out of war unmarked.  That's especially true when your war turns out to be a shadowy, relentless occupation of a distant land, which requires you to do things that you regret and that continue to haunt you.

Theoretically, whole countries go to war, not just their soldiers, but not this time.  Civilian sympathy for "the troops" may be just one more way for us to avoid a real reckoning with our last decade-plus of war, when the hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown up on the average American's radar only if somebody screws up or noticeable numbers of Americans get killed.  The veterans at the heart of this story -- victims, heroes, it doesn't matter -- struggle to reconcile what they did in those countries with the "service" we keep thanking them for.  We can see them as sick, with all the stigma, neediness, and expense that entails, or we can recognize them as human beings, confronting the morality of what they've done in our name and what they've seen and come to know -- even as they try to move on.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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