Veterans of Current Wars: Some Perspectives
EDITORIAL, 5 Jul 2010
Amsterdam: TRANSCEND is exploring how recent war veterans react to their experiences. The following are some tentative theory perspectives for that comparative project.
Like any social institution wars are changing, from traditional warfare, even with chivalry, via modern warfare with “no holds barred”, to postmodern warfare where civilians are not only targets but major, not “collateral” targets. World War II was at the interface between modern and postmodern. After that, civilian casualties have dominated the Korea, Viêt Nam Wars, the War on Terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. And the veterans?
Depends on the war. There is what Americans call the good war–victorious, for good causes, with collective and individual glory, bemedaled heroes, even post-glory-exuberance-disorder, a PGED: nice, let us do it again!. And on the other the bad war–lost, or at least not victorious–with collective and individual post-traumatic-stress-disorders, PTSD, with a never more war, or revenge, let them also suffer. PGED is a disaster to states, to nations, classes; PTSD to individuals, those who suffered most, often lower down, soldiers or civilians, on one side or both. To lose a meaningful war is bad, to win a meaningless war is also bad; to lose a meaningless war is catastrophic.
And that is what the West in general, and the USA in particular, are in for these years. The West is protecting residual imperialisms, and the USA a dying but still active empire, against forces–called “communist”, “terrorist” by the West-USA–of liberation that have considerable world support. The West-USA send their troops, even using NATO offensively, “out of area”, brief them in tightly protected propaganda sessions, making their shock with reality even more painful.
And these are not good wars, in the sense of clear-cut wars of Good against Evil. The goals of USA-West, beyond suppressing “insurrection”, seem to include revenge, pure paranoia, clear economic interests, getting bases for future wars that may also be far from “good”. The goals of the enemy, defined by the US-West as Evil, are often very badly understood or not at all.
These are not winnable wars. Like the English experienced 19 April 1775, being attacked by an invisible American enemy on the Boston-Concord road fighting “like savages”: savages have a tendency to win, even it may take time. “Asymmetric war” is in their favor, fighting for sacred values, freedom, human rights, ready to sacrifice their lives, with unlimited time perspective.
A neither good nor winnable war is doubly frustrating. Had it been “bad” but winnable, then the idea of “let us get the job done and over with” might take the upper hand. Had it been good but not winnable then the idea of “going on and on, for final victory” (after a Pearl Harbor or two) might prevail. But bad and unwinnable, immorality + stupidity = frustration+++.
A serious situation with implications at the micro personal level, the meso social level, and at the macro-mega world level.
Some PTSD micro implications: deep somatic traumas, mental disorders, suicide (more than killing enemies?), inability to resume family and work roles, deep violence. They have killed and seen buddies killed. War is about that, a simple reason for PTSD. But the deeper reasons for not coping, neither with the war, nor with civilian life, is that the war is a bad war. But, are they against wars in general, or only against losing wars?
Hence, high rates of desertion, war resistance, remorse, needs to reconcile. Not only inability to cope, to practice “trained to kill and kill”, but deep demoralization.
By certifying “pre-existing personality disorder” in veterans with “troubles”, the US Army saves itself expenses and court martials, forcing the veterans and their families to pay the costs for bad wars and bad fighting, ad bellum and in bello.
And heroism as meaning-creation is out. Heroism is at the interface between risk incurred to Self and damage incurred to Other, like Heroism = Risk to Self x Damage to Other. No damage no heroism but stupidity rather, no risk–killing with drones from an office computer or from 44,000 feet-no heroism either.
Clausewitzian modern warfare created its own negations. Terrorism-guerrilla, fighting upward against the state when the means for “symmetric” state-to-state war are unavailable may generate anger and state terrorist revenge but not a “good war”; attacking nonviolent resistance or direct action even less so.
A war based on the propaganda lies of embedded journalism makes for even more feeling of having been cheated. Soldiers are first line observers, including of their own acts of commission and omission. The feeling of having been lied to, or cheated by manipulated and manipulating media may prevail.
Lowering the soldiers socially and intellectually channels the frustration into aggression against self, family, workplace rather than into political action to change policy, making society less democratic precisely when democracy is most needed.
US conclusions from the Vietnam War were counterproductive. Canceling conscription, buying a volunteer army with incentives (green cards, college education, “employment” in a crisis) pushed the soldiers and their violence. Embedded journalism created feelings of being manipulated. And “shock and awe”, no slow incrementalism, as if wrong direction is compensated by driving faster, has not worked either. Bad wars remain bad.
The USA and ISAF-International Security Assistance Force members, the coalition of the increasingly unwilling, will suffer these consequences for decades, even generations. The sooner this deep irrationality is brought to an end by solving the conflicts, the better for all parties.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Jul 2010.
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