Monday, December 2, 2013

Are all wars really the same?

Jim George, an American soldier, was shot three times during a firefight in Laos in 1971. He lay for days waiting to be evacuated. It was probably during this time that a germ invaded his immune system. Years later, after an infected ingrown toenail failed to respond to treatment, he underwent surgery. Twelve operations later he had no legs.

One day a few years ago, George sat talking with a group of old-timers at a soldiers’ home whose latest wave of residential patients included mentally tormented veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I mean, all wars are the same,” George said.

“Only the landscape changes,” a buddy added.

As I read this anecdote in Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel’s heartbreaking new book about the traumas afflicting many veterans of our country’s most recent wars, I wondered if this was true.

Actually, this is not exactly what I wondered. What I wondered was: What made these recent wars different? And: Why did so many soldiers return from them with such severe mental issues?

Thank You for Your Service suggests how mental wounds from World War II, Korea and Vietnam affected veterans’ behavior. Finkel writes of a father who is silent about his service but takes out his anger and frustration on his son with a belt. He describes veterans tormented by flashbacks. From my own research I know what gruesome events combat soldiers witness and experience in all wars.

And yet Afghanistan and Iraq seem somehow different.

It is a volunteer army now. As I read the wrenching life stories Finkel wove together, it struck me that once combat broke these men, they had no Plan B. After they came home with recurring nightmares of comrades blown to bits or guilt over buddies they could not save, they had no next act to divert them, no calling, no alternative job or profession.

In this regard the global economy offers limited help. There are ever fewer manufacturing jobs, for example, and in a buyers’ market, such jobs pay less and offer fewer benefits than they used to. The economy separates the wealthy from the toiling masses very early in life.

When I was an enlisted soldier in a mainly conscript army 45 years ago, our second most popular topic of discussion was what we were going to do when we got out. In my case the answer turned out to be college by day and work by night. I had a wife and son, and my salary was paltry, but with the GI Bill and frugal living, we saved nearly $5,000 by the time I graduated at age 26.

The combat soldiers in Finkel’s book seem to have almost no thought of what might come after the military. When their fighting is over, they struggle financially. They have too much time on their hands. Their troubles don’t just seep into their lives; they dominate their lives.

I’m not suggesting most soldiers face this situation, nor am I diminishing the very real problems some soldiers bring home or the difficulty of treating them. But veterans of America’s 20th century wars served mainly in conscript armies and came home to healthy economies. They expected to make a transition to civilian life, and society was accommodating. Those differences seem significant to me.

Thank You for Your Service is, of course, an ironic title. Finkel alludes not to the warmth of the phrase but to the slightness of it and the distance it suggests between civilians and soldiers in the post-9/11 wars. One consequence of the volunteer army is that as a country we’re not all in this together anymore. For returning veterans with mental trauma, this division only adds to the alienation.  

David Finkel's earlier book, The Good
, is one of the best I've
read about the soldiers' experience on
the ground in Iraq.
One story Finkel follows is the military’s approach to confronting and reducing a suicide rate that spiked during the recent wars. He chronicles this effort at the highest levels as generals examine each suicide – what happened, why, what lessons they can take from it. Increasingly the emphasis is on the last question, as it should be, but the campaign goes nowhere. The suicide rate defies their good intentions. (Here and here are excellent commentaries on the suicide rate.)

In short the army has taken on this challenge as it does every challenge – through mandatory suicide training and accountability throughout the chain of command.  But there is something counter-intuitive about an institution that depends on young people’s false sense of immortality also trying to get them to take the risk of suicide seriously. And, as Finkel’s account shows, a cover-your-ass mentality and a frequent changing of the guard undermine accountability.

This is not an easy problem. Soldiers come home with demons – always have. I interviewed a World War II naval veteran once who told me about the aftermath of a Japanese attack on an aircraft carrier. As he stood on the deck of his nearby ship manning his machine gun, body after body slid over the side of the carrier in an endless series of burials at sea. When he told me this, the old sailor began to sob. “This is my nightmare,” he said.

Our conversation took place 65 years after the war. It was part of a series of World War II oral histories that I did with Meg Heckman. These became a book, We Went to War. This navy veteran, and the infantryman who shot his napalmed buddy to put him out his misery, and the airman who survived the Bataan Death March – all these men brought home the horrors of war, but they also brought home a sense of the future.

Thank You for Your Service should be required reading for every American, but I especially hope former President George W. Bush reads it. In Days of Fire, Peter Baker’s new book on the Bush-Cheney presidency, Bush often exhibits a genuine interest in speaking with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq and the families of soldiers who died in the wars there. Finkel’s book would give him a good idea about how these wars affected veterans and families he is unlikely ever to meet.


[A note about David Finkel: In 1977, half a lifetime ago, I was David’s first city editor at the Tallahassee Democrat. He wanted to be a feature writer. Right out of college, he brought with him remarkable writing talent and a reporter's skill for noticing the details with which to enrich a story. He also had a habit I looked for in young reporters: He turned in clean copy, almost daring an editor to touch it. My only contribution to his future was to ease him gently away from features toward news. I can’t pretend this required a lot of convincing.]

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