Wounded Warriors, Wounded Nation

We as a nation find ourselves caught and confused in a tunneled maze of violence with no way out, waging what has been aptly called a “forever war.” Reluctantly, we suspect that Euripides got it right when he put these words into the mouth of war-weary Hecuba, queen mother of Troy: “No more can be hoped for, by anyone in any life, than to elude ruin one day at a time.” This may be true so long as we live and act from fear, fear of the worst that could happen, fear of ruin. There is, however, an alternative. We actually have a choice to make, as a country but first as individuals and as communities. “The most basic way [people are] divided,” wrote Abraham Heschel, “is between those who believe that war is unnecessary and those who believe that war is inevitable; between those who believe that the sword is the symbol of honor and those to whom seeking to convert swords into plowshares is the only way to keep our civilization from disaster.” We stand as always at a crossroads: one road leads to war, the other towards peace.

Wars, we know well, often begin with the telling of lies, too many to retell here. Some of these lies are the ones we tell ourselves. In 1861, on the brink of what was to be the bloody cleavage of our nation, neither southerners nor northerners imagined that the impending war would be prolonged or slaughterous. The South expected the North to mount at best a brief, futile resistance to their secession, while the North anticipated a decisive victory at Bull Run, putting a rapid end to the rebellion. The truth was something different. Between 1861 and 1865, these two armies, north and south, Americans all, killed each other to the tune of 620,000 dead, 2% of the country’s total population, which today would come to 6 million souls. American combatant fatalities in that defining conflict roughly equaled U.S. losses in all of our wars from the American Revolution through Korea.

Then there are the lies, the false promises, that leaders tell their people and their armies as they march to war. There was Kaiser Wilhelm, boasting in 1914 that he would have “Paris for lunch and St. Petersburg for dinner,” and would bring the war to a victorious conclusion in five months, in time for all those involved to celebrate Christmas with their families. In his enthusiasm, he failed to mention the possibility that the war he was launching might last for years and entail 37 million total casualties. More recently and closer to home, we may recall Donald Rumsfeld’s confident prediction on February 2nd, 2003 that the war in Iraq “could last six days. I doubt six months,” and Richard Cheney’s sunny estimate a month later on March 16th: “I think it will go relatively quickly… (in) weeks rather than months.” Some would call these honest mistakes; for who can possibly predict the course or outcome of war? But that is precisely the point. No one in their right mind would or should pretend to know what will happen when people and nations, much less religions, begin killing each other. “It is a common mistake in going to war,” wrote Thucydides twenty-five centuries ago, “to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disaster to think the matter over.” We ought instead to “consider the great part that the unpredictable plays in war… the longer the war goes on, the more things seem to be decided by chance… we can’t see into them but have to wait in the dark to see how they turn out.” The fog of war is nothing new, and we have no right to blame our folly on it. What we can’t foresee is our fault. Among the darkest and most common lies told about and for the sake of war is that wars ever end well, or for that matter that they ever truly end at all. This is a truth that our veterans know only too well.

In every major American war since Korea, the number of Americans killed in battle has been exceeded by the number of veterans who afterward took their own lives.

On the other hand, in a world as violent and threatening as ours, peace must seem a fond wish, not a policy, much less a plan. If one side prays while the other kills, is the outcome in any doubt? As Machiavelli put it: There are armed prophets and unarmed prophets, and the armed prophets always win. Without war as a last resort, we are prey. Are these our only choices in a deadly world—either to lie down and die or to meet savagery with savagery, either to succumb to our enemies or to emulate them? What has taken the military and the country off guard, however, is the fact that even in victory the act of war inflicts ruthless wounds on all those who wage it, and arguably reserves its deepest wounds for the survivors. The creation of a truly professional military has admittedly increased the lethality of our fighting forces and enhanced their chances for survival, survival in combat. The bad news, however, is that in every major American war since Korea, the number of Americans killed in battle has been exceeded by the number of veterans who afterward took their own lives.

To address this and other related “glitches” in the system the Army has introduced “resilience training,” which sounds all too much like a “reset” switch, enabling soldiers to resume their lives and their martial profession where they left off, battle-ready, Army strong. I’ve read but cannot confirm and don’t want to believe that the military is experimenting with hypnosis and amnesia drugs that would wipe the inner slate clean after battle. Another solution in the works to increase lethality while arguably eliminating moral injury is the development and deployment of semi- or eventually fully autonomous killer robots. It is estimated that in a matter of decades up to 25% of our ground infantry forces may likely be robotic. Real-life Star Wars battle droids, coming soon to the theater of war—a dazzling thought to geeks and generals (not all), a nightmare for others. But how new is the programmed warrior? The Army’s 6-foot-2 Atlas robotic soldier, in an advanced stage of development, merely represents the perfect convergence of two endeavors we as a nation undertook decades ago and have more or less learned to live with: the dehumanization of warriors and the humanization of machines. Conditioning men and women to kill and programming machines to do the same bear a disturbing resemblance to each other. For now, we are still able to discern the line between them; but for how long? Of course, to their victims, it is a line that matters not at all. Dead is dead and will stay that way.

Wounded Nation

What does any of this, however, have to do with us—the over 99% of U.S. citizens who are neither warriors nor war victims? The all-volunteer, professional military, signed into law in 1973, promised a firewall between the war zone and the home front, between soldiers and civilians, between the haunted and the oblivious. And it may appear to have kept that promise. But is it a promise that can be kept? Just War Theory, in its long journey from Saint Augustine to President Obama, has promised the possibility of war without sin, without criminality—war in which men and women imperil their lives but not their souls or their humanity. It issued moral waivers to warriors, licenses to kill without moral injury, without guilt or shame. Convenient lies, nothing more. The truth is that there is no such thing as just war or righteous killing. Nor is there any such thing as civilian impunity. War darkens souls—the souls of warriors and the souls of the nation that sends them off to do its violent bidding. An entire nation goes to war when it deploys its sons and daughters. We are a nation of warriors, a warlike people. Committed and resigned to institutionalized violence in the national interest, war has long been our default position. Moral injury is the signature wound not only of our military but of our society as well. Most of us sleep soundly at night, but we shouldn’t.

As blind as we often are to ourselves, to the rest of the world we are an incomprehensibly violent nation, a nation under arms, whether or not we all wear uniforms and carry arms. Our self-evident solution to violence and killing, whether within or beyond our borders, is more violence and killing. Handguns, hellfire missiles, lethal injections, and ultimately nuclear warheads are, we assume, what keep us safe and sound. For all but less than 1% of the population war is visited mostly as entertainment. The blockbuster success of Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper reveal our desensitization to, if not appetite for, killing at a distance. We have made our peace with war. Whether in response to risk, threat, or attack, we take for granted that the only alternative to war is doing nothing. Our minds fall blank when we try to imagine anything else. Peace is boring and unrealistic. War, on the other hand, is exciting and surprisingly safe when we watch it from our couches, as we did during the “Shock and Awe” commercial-free TV special in 2003. Much of the nation slept well that night. No moral injury here. But are we sure about that?

There is a surprising fact confounding those who try to understand and address moral injury and suicide in the ranks of our active duty military and veterans. A 2011 report on military suicides stated that roughly half of those who took their lives had no history of deployment in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and 85% had no direct combat history. What can this possibly mean? If moral injury represents a wound inflicted by virtue of involvement in war, killing, and destruction, what sense does it make for those who never took part, nor ever directly witnessed it, to suffer from moral injury? I have an only tentative suggestion to offer here, one formed after talking with a number of active duty service men and women and veterans who make this same claim. It has to do with the “kill switch” that, as we have already seen, the military knows all too well how to turn on in its ranks. To be primed to kill, convinced of one’s capacity and willingness to take life, and to have rehearsed the act until is engrained, is in some real if elusive way to have already done the act and to have become a killer. This is precisely what a young woman whom I will call Sally has painfully reported. Deployed to Iraq, Sally was trained as a convoy driver and was conditioned to run over anyone in her path. What most deeply troubled her was the fact that this included children, known to have been used by insurgents to slow down or stop military convoys and thus render them prey to ambush and massacre. “I had to convince myself,” said Sally, “that I could or rather that I would—without any hesitation—speed up and drive straight over a child in such a situation.” She practiced just this in active simulation and in her imagination, even in her dreams, until she was ready. As it happened the situation never arose and Sally never killed a child. Even so, she returned from Iraq desperately traumatized and suffering profoundly. To help others understand her inner pain, her soul wound, she explained that before her National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq she was a pre-school teacher. It was what she wanted to do with her life. But how can a trained killer of children do that? It’s her question, not mine. If we consider her confused, suffering from unreasonable guilt and shame, then it is we who are confused and who need to listen long and hard to the men and women whom we have sent to wage our wars.

Speaking of our wars, one of our few touted successes, perhaps our only one since World War II, is the Cold War; and we have all waged that. The entire nation—all of us—were and arguably still are cold warriors, without a shot fired, or rather a missile launched. The still vast, if reduced, nuclear arsenal we maintain and are prepared to deploy on a moment’s notice has, we console ourselves, kept the peace, a global peace held in place by fear, the fear of mutual assured destruction. For that policy to work we have had to convince ourselves across decades that, under attack, we could and would, in retaliation, launch our missiles and so in all probability annihilate our species, even though it would amount to no more than global revenge. Imagine the moral injury of those responsible for such an act, in the hypothetical instance that they survived! What I would ask of you, then, is to consider the moral injury all of us have suffered from having accommodated ourselves to that act, having made our peace with it. As a child in Chicago in the 1940’s and 50’s I, together with my schoolmates, rehearsed my role as a would-be survivor of what was then fantasized to be “winnable” nuclear war, diving under my desk and covering my head. Since then we have all lived in fear of nuclear annihilation and have embraced the threat of nuclear retaliation as its rational antidote.

I’m not saying that nuclear deterrence and nuclear war are morally equivalent, any more than Sally would say that her readiness to run down children was the same as having done so. Reaching and maintaining the readiness to kill a child or to destroy the planet, however, inflicts its own deep moral wound. “Whatever is wrong to do is wrong to threaten,” wrote Paul Ramsey. “If counter-population warfare is murder, then counter-population threats are murderous.” Nuclear deterrence, argues Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars, is simply immoral. “The immorality lies in the threat itself… it is our own intentions that we have to worry about.” I don’t know how many of us worry about that, but our complacency does not mean that we have not been injured, desensitized, and thus dehumanized. Granted, argues Walzer,

Killing millions of innocent people is worse than threatening to kill them. It is also true that no one wants to kill them, and it may well be true that no one expects to do so. Nevertheless, we intend the killings under certain circumstances. That is the stated policy of our government; and thousands of men, trained in the techniques of mass destruction and drilled in instant obedience, stand ready to carry it out. And from the perspective of morality, the readiness is all.… What we condemn… is the commitment to murder.

Once again, our response may be “well what do you expect… are we supposed to do nothing?” Our minds all too often fall blank at this point, mute and compliant. We have to do better than that.

Closing the Gates of War

“A prince,” wrote Machiavelli, “should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but the art of war.” We the people, however, should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as our art but the art of peace. Unrealistic? On the contrary, nothing, I would argue, is less realistic than war. It doesn’t work and never has. We are a wounded nation and will never find healing unless we, as individuals and as a nation, reset our moral compass, rediscover our moral imagination, and relearn the arts of peace. Not exacting revenge, not going to war, not responding with violence to every peril, threat, provocation, or even attack need not mean doing nothing. It might just mean doing something else.

Let me give a few examples from our recent past, a few moments when we could, and arguably should, have done something other than what we did, a few promising paths not taken.

After World War II, in response to the Marshall report on our infantry’s dysfunctional fire-rate, when it was acknowledged that most human beings, even under fire, are natural pacifists, we might have resolved to strain every nerve as a nation not to put them ever again in a situation where they must choose between living or killing. Instead, we decided to develop increasingly sophisticated and successful means of desensitizing our armed forces to the act of killing and so creating the most lethal fighting force the world has ever seen, and proud of it. But what of the path-not-taken? Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger, Paratrooper, and Professor at West Point, put the challenge this way:

We may never understand the nature of the force in humankind that causes us to strongly resist killing fellow human beings; but we can be thankful for it. And although military leaders responsible for winning a war may be distressed by this force, as a species we can view it with pride. It is there, it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there may just be hope for humankind after all.

Most importantly, if we want to build a world in which killing is increasingly rare, more scientists, soldiers, and others must speak up and challenge the popular myth that human beings are “natural born killers.” Popular culture has done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing. Indeed, today many video games are actually replicating military training and conditioning kids to kill.

Closely related and eventually integral to the military’s decision to break down our natural resistance to taking life was the Department of Defense’s decision in 1973 to scrap a citizen army of hesitant killers, and create instead an all-voluntary professional force.

One final example of what “doing something else” might have meant in the past, this time focused on the Cold War and the apocalyptic arsenal of nuclear weapons assembled to wage it. The poignancy of this particular path-not-taken has become all the more painful in recent weeks by President Obama’s decision to modernize our nuclear arsenal, moving the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock—set by a board of scientists and nuclear experts—to 11:57, the closest to midnight it has been since 1953. 54 years ago, in a personal letter delivered in secret to President Kennedy, then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, our “arch enemy,” proposed an end to the arms race and to the enmity between the two world’s two superpowers. As we listen to his words, I suggest we try to imagine the vision and the courage it took for Khrushchev to bypass his own security apparatus, defy his own nation’s war posture, and offer his hand in friendship, from one “evil empire” to another:

I often think how necessary it is for men who are vested with trust and great power to be inspired with the understanding of what seems to be an obvious truism, which is that we live on one planet and it is not in man’s power, at least in the foreseeable future, to change that. In a certain sense there is an analogy here—I like this comparison—with Noah’s Ark where both the “clean” and the “unclean” found sanctuary. But regardless of who lists himself with the “clean” and who is considered to be “unclean,” they are all equally interested in one thing and that is that the Ark should successfully continue its cruise. And we have no other alternative: either we should live in peace and cooperation so that the Ark maintains its buoyancy, or else it sinks. Therefore we must display concern for all of mankind, not to mention our own advantages, and find every possibility leading to peaceful solutions of problems.

When, many decades later, the secret correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev came to light, it revealed the depth and scale of their mutual commitment to work together towards disarmament, collaboration, and friendship and for some helped to explain both President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 and Premier Khrushchev’s removal from office just over ten months later on October 4, 1964. The peace they imagined was no idle dream, but an opportunity lost. That torch has passed to us. It is our turn now, again citing Premier Khrushchev, “to be inspired with the understanding of what seems to be an obvious truism, which is that we live on one planet and it is not in man’s power… to change that… (and so) to display concern for all of mankind, not to mention our own advantages,” (and) live in peace.”

[Photo source: Truthout.org via Flickr Creative Commons]


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