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    Morality, Expediency, and Hiroshima

    August 8, 2017 // 10 Comments »



    August 6 usually doesn’t make headlines in America. But mark the day by what absence demonstrates: on the 72nd anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and some 140,000 non-combatants, there is no call for reflection in the United States.

    In an era where pundits routinely worry about America’s loss of moral standing because of an offish, ill-mannered president, the only nation in history to employ a weapon of mass destruction on an epic scale, against an undefended civilian population, otherwise shrugs off the significance of an act of immorality.

    But it is August 6, and so let us talk about Hiroshima.


    Beyond the destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen. This myth has become the underpinning of American war policy ever since, and carries forward the horrors of Hiroshima as generations of August 6’s pass.

    The myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were dropped out of grudging military necessity, to hasten the end of the war, to avoid a land invasion of Japan, maybe to give the Soviets a good pre-Cold War scare. Nasty work, but such is war. As a result, the attacks need not provoke anything akin to introspection or national reflection. The possibility, however remote, that the bombs were tools of revenge or malice, immoral acts, was defined away. They were merely necessary.

    That is the evolved myth, but it was not the way the atomic bombings were first presented to the American people.


    Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new power to destroy at a button push – “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city,” said Mr. Truman. The plan put into play on August 6 – to force the Japanese government to surrender by making it watch mass casualties of innocents – speaks to a scale of cruelty previously unseen. It was fair; they’d started it after all, and they deserved the pain.

    The need to replace the justification to one of grudging military necessity, a tool for saving lives, grew out of John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorke. Owing to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required a formal response. Americans’ imagined belief that they’re a decent people needed to be reconciled with what had been done. With the Cold War getting underway, and with American leadership fully expecting to obliterate a few Russian cities in the near future, some nuclear philosophical groundwork needed to be laid.


    And so the idea that the bombing of Hiroshima was a “necessity” appeared in a 1947 article, signed by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Dr. Conant described the article’s purpose as countering Hersey’s account at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”

    The Stimson article was the moment of formal creation of the Hiroshima myth. A historically challengeable argument was recast as unquestionable – drop the bombs or kill off tens of thousands, or maybe it would be millions (the U.S. regularly revised casualty estimates upwards), of American boys in a land invasion of Japan. It became gospel that the Japanese would never have surrendered owing to their code of honor, though of course surrender is in fact exactly what happened. Nonetheless, such lies were created to buttress a national belief that no moral wrong was committed, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection by the United States. Full speed ahead into the nuclear age.

    No later opportunity to bypass reflection was missed. American presidents from Truman to Bush chose not to visit Hiroshima. The 50th anniversary of the bombing saw a moderately reflective planned exhibit at the Smithsonian turned into a patriotic orgy that only reinforced the “we had no choice” narrative. When Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima in 2016, his spokespeople went out of their way to make it clear he would be looking only forward, the mushroom cloud safely out of sight.


    American foreign policy thus proceeded under a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who holds the knife, with much of the history of the next 70 some years a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition, and indefinite detention could be explained in character as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.

    And with that, Boom! the steps away from August 6 and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the rubble of Mosul are merely a matter of degree. The drone deaths of children at a wedding party are unfortunate collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism. Same as the 3,100 civilians killed from the air since the U.S. launched its coalition war against Islamic State, along with 3,674 civilians destroyed by drone strikes in other parts of the world.

    We are, in fact, able to think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia…) a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands had Hiroshima not be killed for their prospective sins. There is little discussion because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says expediency wipes away concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to righteously strike next.


    America’s deliberate targeting of civilians, and its post-facto justifications, are clearly not unique, either in World War II, or in the wars before or since. Other nations, including Japan itself, added their own horror to the books, mostly without remorse. But history’s only use of nuclear weapons holds a significant place in infamy, especially on this August 6. America’s lack of introspection over one of the single most destructive days in the history of human warfare continues, with 21st century consequences.




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    Hiroshima and the Scar of Moral Injury

    August 7, 2017 // 6 Comments »


    For military historians, walking a battlefield is a special experience. That’s where things previously locked away in books happened, the hill that blocked an advance, the river that defended an important city and altered the course of human history. Historians visit Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Normandy all the time.

    Things work differently for those interested in the final days of World War II. Absent the bloody struggle for Okinawa, the real end days of the war were conducted from the air. The firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the greatest civilian loss of life in a conventional air raid, left no signs some 70 years later in the modern city. There is nothing to indicate a million people were left homeless because one-fourth of the urban area was destroyed. And that is exactly as the Japanese want it. It was all cleaned up, buried, as if it never had happened.

    The only indication in Tokyo that any war at all took place is tucked away in the Yushukan War Memorial Museum. Attached to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japan’s war dead reside (including some who committed war crimes), Yushukan is in its own way a marker of things cleaned up and things buried. The building houses carefully curated artifacts from the war. The choices speak of things almost no Japanese person, and few Japanese textbooks, will otherwise talk about.

    There’s a locomotive from Burma, the rail line it traveled constructed by slave labor (as shown in part in the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai). It is not a symbol of shame, however, like the locomotives displayed elsewhere in the world that pulled train cars into Auschwitz, but a point of pride: Japan brought modern train service to the jungle. Also in the museum is a kaiten, a human-guided, suicide torpedo. Not a symbol of the madness of war, but one of martial spirit. There’s an aircraft like one that bombed Pearl Harbor. A video shown claims Japanese forces were liberating Asia from western colonialism and that Japan’s troops were warmly welcomed into Manchuria. Located inside the stigmatized Yasukuni Shrine grounds, the museum is almost purposely not easily visited. Certainly not by foreign tourists or young people out for day’s entertainment.

    Otherwise, there is little to see, even less to experience, of the war, all across the country. Small towns lack the plaques and displays to the fallen you see in rural America, and certainly nowhere is there evidence of the self-reflection one sees across Germany. Elsewhere, the museum and peace monument at Nagasaki are small, a bit out of the way and well, tatty around the edges. There’s almost nothing of a world war in Japan.

    Nothing except Hiroshima.

    Hiroshima is the place that has not been buried, the place not allowed to heal fully. The Peace Park and Museum at Hiroshima were created for the Japanese as a symbol of their victimhood, but they end up, against all plans, exposing raw edges of a war everyone otherwise wanted to go away.

    I’ve visited Hiroshima many times.

    The thing that always struck me was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was just another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima.

    No matter how many times I went, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise, but past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. No matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down, it could not have been enough. History runs very deep in Hiroshima.

    Even if you have never been to the place, you know the place. The mountains that form the background in all the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of newer, tall buildings now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. You’ve seen the pictures. Most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the Bomb. Same for most public buildings. You could see where you were in 2017 and where you would have been in 1945 because they are the same place.

    In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. You feel like you have asthma. But in 2017, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Atomic Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English and lead you around chatting. Have you seen the famous watch, they ask, the one that the atomic bomb froze at the moment of detonation? How about the atomic shadows, the ashes of people photo-flashed to death? You can take pictures, no problem.

    But no matter how many truly genuine smiles or how many Big Macs, you can’t get away. Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.

    Outside of Japan, most people feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war. Indeed, the museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised as focusing almost exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began over a decade earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives before the bomb fell on August 6, 1945. The criticism is particularly sharp, given the rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Now, as in decades past, China watches to see what Japan will do with its armed forces.

    There is also ongoing friction between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima.

    An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, most slave laborers kidnapped and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories. They were the industrial equivalent of the “comfort women,” the Korean sex slaves raped by the Japanese military. The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, is the final resting place for the ashes of the bomb’s victims. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial. There was of course no way to determine whether a handful of ashes was Japanese or Korean. The Korean dead did not get a marker until the 1980s, and that was laid off to the side, and was paid for by Koreans. Until that time, following Buddhist tradition, the souls of those men and women could not rest.

    How deep does hate lie? Or is it actually a shallow grave?

    There are others with things to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S. remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American ambassador came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. There has never been an apology for the first use of a nuclear weapon, and against a civilian target at that. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” A few elderly survivors, many with disfiguring burns, still suffer today. Yet there is not enough vengeance for some, even seven decades later.

    But perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me. Or so I thought each time I tried.



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    August 6: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

    August 6, 2017 // 6 Comments »

    hiroshima


    There is a lot to say about this day, when 72 years ago, the United States became the first and only nation to use nuclear weapons.


    So much is said every day about Iran and nuclear weapons, and terrorists and nuclear weapons, Putin with nuclear weapons and so forth, but that one fact remains among all the blather. For all the talk, only America has dropped the bomb.

    We did it twice (the Nagasaki bomb was on August 9) and we did it on two civilian targets. There is no use arguing that the two cities had significant military value; if there had been, they would have already been firebombed to tinder the way Tokyo and other cities in Japan had been. Nagasaki was a port, but not far away was the major naval base at Sasebo, which some say was not bombed because the U.S. planned to take possession of it after the war for our own navy (we did.) Both cities had some defense industry, but pretty much any place in Japan larger than a village also did.

    Civilians were not, in today’s language, collateral damage. They were the targets. The image above shows what one child victim then looked like as an adult.

    Please think of him when you hear some American say the Japs deserved it.


    So we’ll leave it at this. As part of my research for my next book, Hooper’s War, I found this, below, an accounting by the United States of the exact, precise number of school children it killed on that hot August morning in 1945.


    hiroshima school children dead




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    Review: Hooper’s War Shows “Moments of Prized Grace”

    August 4, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    A new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan from the Historical Novel Society says “This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity.” Here’s the full review:

    Although set in WWII Japan, it is re-imagined as if the atomic bombs were not unleashed and an invasion of Japan proceeds. The war is still raging in 1946, and the ancient city of Kyoto is about to be firebombed. Nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nate Hooper is in way over his head. He depends on his war-experienced sergeant to help him lead the men in his charge. But they keep dying around him.

    With a wounded comrade, Nate seeks refuge in the house of a Japanese woman, Naoko. They take time out of the carnage to reflect and connect. They are soon joined by a Japanese soldier, Sergeant Nakagawa, a childhood friend of the woman. We also learn his story. Neither man can escape the trauma that war has unleashed. Seventy years later, Nate returns to Japan, still looking for the power to allow him to heal.

    This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity. Its trauma and dilemmas are as fresh as the anguish that today’s returning vets are experiencing.




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    New Five-Star Review for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    July 21, 2017 // 6 Comments »




    This review comes from A Girl Who Reads:

    Nate Hooper fought in Japan in World War II, fighting on the ground and following the orders of his superiors. Along the way, he lost fellow combatants and his innocence, though superiors don’t care much about the loss of spirit and hope. They care about orders followed, Japanese opponents fought, and painting a heroic picture for those left behind in the United States.

    The story is told in reverse chronology; it opens in 2017 with Nate returning to Japan, then we go backward in sections to see the events referenced, interspersed with Nate’s musings in 2017, First, we see the battle at Kyoto, then the “daring escape” his superiors talked about and changed the nature of in reports, the train station attack, the fields, etc. We keep going further and further back, seeing the origin of his disillusionment. Death is never pretty, but he sees it in various kinds of ways. It’s vividly described, and brings home the horror of war on soldiers. We also get scenes from the perspective of Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, and the horrors are the same for Japanese soldiers.

    “…the opposite of fear out there isn’t safety, it’s love. And you do insane things for those you love, including die for them.” (page 102)

    War, as seen on the ground, is one that carves out humanity in pieces. Battles aren’t grandiose, and the losses are glossed over for the media back home. It’s an entirely different world, one where the casual cruelties are rewarded. Saving lives is actually punished if that goes against orders, further lessening the hope in the field.

    “War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.” (page 115)

    The end of the book feels melancholy, and Van Buren adds commentary to explain the historical significance of the events he chose to portray in the novel. This is definitely a book that will haunt you long after you put it down.

    Buy Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan now, in paperback or Kindle, at Amazon!



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    Hooper’s War and Moral Injury: Sometimes the Pain is Fair

    July 9, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    “My guilt will never go away,” one former Marine explained. “There is a significant portion of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”

    Somewhere in that sentence I found the voice of Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character in my new book, Hooper’s War, A Novel of WWII Japan.


    I wanted to write about what 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 as a U.S. government civilian employee with a combat unit, and where I witnessed two soldier suicides. As I broadened my research, I found myself speaking with more and more veterans who suffered in ways they had a hard time describing but which they wrestled with God over everyday.

    They seemed to be trying out the words for the first time as they told me they went away with the wartime conceit “we’re the good guys,” and then spoke of a depth of guilt and shame when that good guy idea did not survive the test of events. Sometimes they were articulate like; sometimes their voices were blank paper.

    I came to know this as moral injury. The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war, when people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested. As they violate deeply held convictions by doing something (such as killing in error), or failing to do something (such as not reporting a war crime), they suffer an injury to their core being. Think Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried, or films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. As beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, it follows that that sense can be broken.


    Society once expressed skepticism toward such ideas, calling sufferers cowards, or dismissing them, saying it’s all in their heads. Yet today sister illnesses to moral injury such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are widely acknowledged.

    The two afflictions are often co-morbid. Moral injury, however, occurs at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so, in a sense, is all in someone’s head. Moral injury applies guilt and/or shame as a penalty. PTSD is more physical, more fear-based, and includes stresses like hyper-alertness, even in the absence of threat.


    With those veterans’ voices now in my writing, it became important to set Hooper’s War outside of modern times. The things of war – decisions made in seconds that last lifetimes, balancing morality and expediency over things like torture that someone under battlefield stress thinks might save lives, accepting civilian causalities to satisfy a military objective, living in a world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible – have been with us forever.

    But to talk about them in a modern context, say in a novel set in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, means dragging a lot of 2017 politics into something I wanted readers to see as universal. “The Good War,” WWII, is a familiar enough setting, but one removed from the weight of headlines. I think in some way we can talk more about post-9/11 wars by not talking directly about post-9/11 wars.

    The setting evolved to WWII Japan, as I realized moral injury doesn’t just affect soldiers, the same as bombs and bullets don’t affect just civilians. So it was important to include civilians in my story not simply as victims or targets, but as complex participants. I was able to interview now-elderly Japanese who lived the war as children. They described the horrific choices they faced in a landscape of hunger and survival. Desperate people can be forced into desperate acts, and those too cause moral injuries that long survive the act itself. Sometimes things like that don’t end until the sufferers do. I learned moral injury is a debt that has to be settled, one way or another.


    One incident in my book, a composite, focuses on a Japanese child seeing his neighbor killed by an errant American bomb. That changes him from an innocent boy into a soldier seeking revenge. It’s as if he was radicalized, a term we use today to describe the process by which a peaceful person, almost always Muslim in 2017, becomes willing to destroy themselves as a suicide bomber. The same for Japanese combatants such as the kamikaze. Are they so different? What the boy experienced changes him. He goes from playing soldier to fighting Hooper’s war.

    As a veteran of modern conflict said to me, nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in my story atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a fight driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings, where decisions routinely are right and wrong at the same time. Nevertheless, in the darkness, I placed hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with that radicalized Japanese boy, indeed, deciding together a matter of life and death. The horror goes deep, but so too does the potential for overcoming it.


    Hooper’s War is written in reverse chronology. It opens with a broken, elderly Nate Hooper and tumbles through the war back to his boyhood, a literary origami. Stories of loss of innocence in war – I’m thinking Saving Private Ryan – are traditionally told the other way around, from innocence to collapse. One watches the progression downward of a man, perhaps with sympathy, perhaps with sadness at what he has become. It is progressive.

    The reverse chronology is essential to my story, and the idea of moral injury. I want the reader to see Nate Hooper as the man he ended up as, a regressive telling, as the events of a few weeks in war when he was 18 affected his whole life. We’re all responsible for the choices we make as young men and women, but Hooper is in his late 80s when he finally finds a form of redemption. He lived all those years with the things he had seen and done, and I want the reader to feel that as do those now suffering from moral injury.

    And by working backwards, where the book ends with Hooper as an innocent boy as far away in rural Ohio as one can be from Japan, it drives home the desire to return to better days, to put terrible things aside, to just get this stuff out of one’s head, what every sufferer of moral injury seeks via opioids, alcohol, forgiveness or his/her own redemption.

    That is where the reader ends up. There is a winner, of sorts, in Hooper’s War.



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    A Letter: “Life without you has been like drinking bad whiskey by myself”

    July 7, 2017 // 9 Comments »



    Following my book about moral injury, memory, and loss, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, I received a cop of the following unsolicited letter. It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.


    30 June 2017
    FOB Base Marez (Mozul)

    Dear Mark,

    Forgive me for taking so long to write to you. You died back in November, 2014, and it’s taken me all this time to write. Forgive me.

    You once told me back when I was your student at Johns Hopkins that I should “stop mourning everything all the time” — true, I see loss everywhere, and I tend towards sadness — but it’s also true that I have missed you every day since you have died. I miss talking with you. I miss reading the early drafts of your poems and essays. I miss how easily good work comes from you; even early drafts have certain glamour. I miss watching your mouth read. I miss wanting to hold your hand — strangers at church hold hands; why not us? I miss feeling like your poems were prayers, and that your readers were blessed. I miss how handsome you were; even in death, you looked too good to bury.

    Something else: I miss that, unlike most great poets, you had no compulsion to immortalize yourself. Towards the end of your life, you were not a poet writing poems; instead, you were a poet who had become his poems.

    I miss you, my friend, my mentor. Life without you has been like drinking bad whiskey by myself.

    Let me tell you why I’m writing now: I’ve fallen in love. Really. After four divorces. Who would have thought!

    After a youth of restlessness, recklessness, and utter and total irresponsibility towards my wives and kids, and a middle age filled with disappointments, I fell in love with whom I had imagined and desired, but yet didn’t know. My lover has a true substance beyond imagination and desire.

    My lover was unrecognizable until she happened. She was the long-sought beloved. And she appeared from out of nowhere; she rose from the “Black Sea” of which you have written in one of your most anthologized poems.

    Now, loving her all day long in the simplest of chores in daily life, and spooning with her all night long with one aura around our two bodies, I am free. Free. Free. Free. I am free not from wanting, but free from the person who wanted. I am free from myself alone.

    Mark, today I write to you now on an empty street in an empty city in a faraway country besieged by war. Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. Does it matter? There are no children in the streets. There is no music filling the buildings. The buildings are in ruins. The city is devastated. Dusty rumble. Roadblocks everywhere. Snipers everywhere. The last wishes of the dead and dying dissolve in the harsh sunlight on this terrible place. The dead are often without names; they are the nameless. Their toes tagged with numbers. Here, in this city, all the horrors are intended, deliberate, man-made.

    My story here is not so dramatic, but yet I have the life I’ve always wanted. I’m doing the work I was born to do. I’m just your basic MOS 3011 grunt and Fire Team Leader who got discharged, became a national security contractor, who then got assigned to the Expeditionary Targeting Force (ETF), but who is now wanting to be a humanitarian aid worker.

    And I’m in love. Her name is Victoria. She is a Goddess.

    And this is what Victoria taught me: Heaven is not there in the imagination; it is right here, where Hell is, too. Heaven and Hell coexist, and angels and demons cohabitate. Somehow Heaven and Hell both feel the same. Why? Because things matter less than they used to matter. Only love seems to matter now.

    Love and poetry.

    And art of loving and writing poetry.

    Mark, you’ll be happy to know that, finally, I’ve stopped mourning everything all the time. After four divorces, alcohol and other addictions, assorted (and sordid) other self-destructive behaviors, anger management issues, depression, anxiety and panic disorder, etc. — you know my story — I feel reborn, like a baby in his mother’s arms.

    This is what I also know: Soon, in this war-ravaged city, buds will appear on the dead-looking limbs of the trees. The buds will become leaves. Tiny, red-tasseled flowers will appear and bloom. The blossoms will be blood-red, but not blood-red, and it will be a time for magical thinking. The dead will demand it.

    I miss you, maestro. I really miss you. Thank you for being my friend and teacher.

    Love,

    John Good Iron




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    Review of Hooper’s War: Moral Injury the Invisible Wounds of Empire

    July 6, 2017 // 8 Comments »




    Nozomi Hayase writes in her new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan:

    British investigative journalist Robert Fisk once said, “War is a total failure of the human spirit.” If Fisk, a veteran war correspondent, exposed the cruelty of modern warfare to our face, then Van Buren, the former diplomat, with his lucid writing let the destruction of our spirit unravel in slow motion.

    His story is set in an alternate WWII with the American invasion, through a fictional firebombing of Kyoto that Van Buren created, based on eyewitness accounts of the August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sometimes, a metaphorical reality is more effective to reveal the truth of human affairs. In the intersection of historical facts and nonfiction, history is reawakened. We are able to see the wound of war that has been buried deep in the oblivion of our memory.


    In his allegorical retelling of WWII Japan, Van Buren illustrates this process graphically with a sensitive touch. The story unfolds through reflections of both American lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper and young Japanese sergeant Eichi Nakagawa on their experiences before, during and after the invasion. In that period of Japanese imperialism, Japanese became the emperor’s soldiers. Sergeant Nakagawa depicts the lessons from Major Yamada at the training where young men are indoctrinated with the tradition and duty to fulfill obligation to the emperor. Major Yamada told Nakagawa, “You have a mouth but you cannot say what you wish. And you have a brain but you cannot think as you wish”.

    Hooper’s War is a story of courage. It invites readers to retrieve vanished memories of human events. In multiple perspectives depicted in this novel, we are able to see the truth of war, not by a view defined by nationality, neither Japanese nor American, but simply as a human. In the breath of words that unite these souls from different shores, Van Buren asserts his own voice, bearing witness to this tragedy of Hiroshima in his soul.


    Read the full review, or buy the book today!




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    Understanding Moral Injury in Hooper’s War

    July 3, 2017 // 10 Comments »



    Here’s an excerpt from my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, on sale now at Amazon. This excerpt is told from the perspective of the main character, Lieutenant Nate Hooper.

    I’m lucky enough to have a friend with a boat. Sitting at the stern, I watch the boat create its wake, then as we speed away the wake fades just as quick. Thinking about the war doesn’t work that way. About the best I can hope for in real life is to be able to put what happened in a box. The box stays closed most of the time.

    Some guys try and keep it shut by making life meaningless—liquor for the old ones, drugs for the young ones, a little of both for the handlestache Vietnam vets in the middle. The Friday nights drinking with the boys become Wednesday mornings drinking alone in the bathroom with the door shut. Some let that run its course and just tap out.

    But absent a few orange plastic containers next to the bathroom sink, for me, I took my neighbor’s grandson out to the zoo, made dinner, went to work, all the time the curator of some secret museum. The memories don’t go away like the people do.

    If the box pops open, some people try to push such thoughts away, stopping with just their toes in the water, thinking they’ve gone swimming. But after a while I knew I had to go into the deep end, because only there could I confront the real monster: the essence of war is not men dying, the essence of war is killing. War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.


    The part of Hawaii I retired to is peaceful. Some tourists, but not too many, little of the tawdry spank of Waikiki. Sometimes I get lonely for some noise though, and find myself over there, enjoying a little ice cream and a walk.

    For me the war is like a shirt I always know is there in my closet but don’t wear often. I’ll be absently out and step onto an unfamiliar path and it’ll be just the right crunch of gravel under my feet. My eyes will involuntarily lose focus for a second, and if I’m with someone they might ask, “Nate, everything okay?” and I’ll lie and smile, “Oh you know, just a senior moment.” But memory slaps me just the same way stirring up the ashes of barbecue coals turns them red. I’ve failed many times to remember a time when I had nothing particular on my mind.

    The Honolulu end of Waikiki beach is anchored by a Department of Defense hotel, run on taxpayer money as a low-cost vacation destination just for service people. The military is comical about telling them to “keep a low profile,” supposedly so they don’t become targets of the terrorists presumed to haunt these beautiful beaches. But of course you can tell. The buff bodies stand out against the fleshy look of the regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans—all dark brown faces with pale white everywhere else—betray a recent trip to the Middle East.

    I’ll sometimes nod to them, mostly out of politeness. I generally keep to myself the fact that we know a lot about each other. A few will nod back, maybe say a few words and leave you to fill in the silence, but I find the ones who talk too easily are generally part of what I call professional veterans, guys with little dirt under their nails who get a lot of free drinks and airline upgrades in a September 12 world. I’m grateful after meeting them for those portions of my stroll when there’s less time for my thoughts.

    Once in a while someone who fought some of the same kind of war I did is obvious—a missing hand on a 20-year-old, some thick pink scars. It could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, I guess, but I know that wasn’t what it was. I wonder what his friends thought the first time they saw him, or what his ex-girlfriend said, or what he thought being as scared to come home as he was scared to go to war. This is the guy who, after Wolf Blitzer moves on to the next story, cries trying to touch his daughter’s hair, and knows just because he changed from cammies to beach shorts that’s not a shortcut back into normal life. If you see these guys on TV, you always see them young and still strong, showing courage learning to use their new robo-prosthetics. You never see anything that shows what their life is like ten or forty years down the road.

    Out on the beach, some people won’t stop looking, like a 10-year-old’s focus on a a pile of Legos, and some won’t look at all, but either way this is all happening, like the wars did, simultaneously while other people are eating at Applebee’s and going shopping. It gets hard to keep it all in the same world. And you, sure, go ahead, you go on and use the term “unbearable pain” the next time you hit your thumb with a hammer.

    Of course, there are also those you don’t see, the boys and girls who bought the long zipper, the one that closes a body bag. Yes, Mrs. Mom, we took your son, but look, we gave you back a neatly folded flag. See, it’s in a triangle shape, representing the hats of American Revolutionary War soldiers, isn’t that interesting. And if you have a second child, and you call now, we’ll double your order.


    Me, we, they, you, I don’t know the right word to ever use, because it wasn’t just our side. I’d seen something on PBS saying that during the 1950s and early 1960s you could still see a few Japanese soldiers around the train stations, wearing bits of their old uniforms, some with crude prosthetics, begging, failed in the end by disregard. Young people, dressed in the latest western styles, passed by, eyes on the ground, embarrassed about men humiliating themselves in the midst of the post-war economic miracle. What if a visiting foreigner saw them, what would he think of Japan? Older people would slip the soldiers small bills, hoping if they had some money they would go away.

    A few guys ended worse off than the physically wounded, spending the weekends with their regular companions Samuel Adams, Johnnie Walker, and the cops. Get some sleep and have a drink, they were told, only don’t let it turn into too much of either one. Each bad thought seemed like a page that needed a twelve-ounce can of paperweight to hold it down. All we ever thought about was coming home; “If the army doesn’t kill me, I’ve got it made for life,” we said. We were naive; too many of us survived the war only to come back wanting to die every day.

    You learn to be alone in crowded places, deep in your own head. Imagine being on this beautiful beach and not caring to even look up and watch a father try to make his way across the hot sand balancing four dripping ice cream cones.

    They’d lost things whose importance they only recognized when they weren’t there. They’ve come to think today means nothing, tomorrow means nothing, and develop a sense that only things that already happened matter. Nothing has taste or color.


    My generation had no counselors, no clinics, no support groups. In my Ohio hometown, before the wife and I retired to Hawaii, every Memorial Day there’d be little flags first made in Iowa, then Hong Kong, then Japan, then Korea and now China and Vietnam—Vietnam, for gawds sake—on every porch. Half the people my age watching the parade then were vets in wheelchairs. I had a nice welcome home party when I came back, and plenty of good Veteran’s Days to try and use to subtract things from the parts of the fight I dragged along with me. But the underlying message was the same as in every war, whether delivered nicely or crudely: deal with the real stuff in private, we don’t want to know. You pack out your own gear, trooper.

    Drinking hurt, but for some it hurt less. Everyone learns it just sends your pain off to wait for you, but still it was something to look forward to, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling your nose, or the throat-burning shot of something stronger biting into an ulcer. Drinking wiped away hours when someone had too many of them, all the way back to 1945 sometimes. Pain can be patient, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much wine at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walked him outside where he told stories from his knees for an hour which they alone could understand.

    A lot of this festers not out of what you saw and did, but the realization that what you saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture and you had to make up some smaller picture to justify whatever. It should’ve had a reason. People say, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be my age and scared of the dark.


    I came to think of it like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle. You couldn’t say exactly when, but at some point you couldn’t see the picture anymore. It’s the last drop of water hanging swollen on the end of a faucet. You want to know what it’s like to have a breakdown in the meat aisle at Safeway? We can tell you. Even so, we don’t want to be called victims and disabled out, and we’re not seeking some third party’s moral redemption. We just want to get this crap out of our heads.



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    How Accidental are America’s Accidental Civilian Killings Across the Middle East?

    June 30, 2017 // 20 Comments »



    U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said “civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” referring to America’s war against Islamic State.


    How can America in clear conscience continue to kill civilians across the Middle East? It’s easy; ask Grandpa what he did in the Good War. Civilian deaths in WWII weren’t dressed up as collateral damage, they were policy.

    Following what some claim are looser rules of engagement in place under the Trump administration, U.S.-led coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria killed 1,484 civilians in March 2017 alone. Altogether some 3,100 civilians have been killed from the air since the U.S. launched its coalition war against Islamic State, according to the NGO Airwars. Drone strikes outside of the ISIS fight killed 3,674 other civilians. In 2015 the U.S. destroyed an entire hospital in Afghanistan, along with doctors and patients inside.

    That all adds up to a lot of accidents — accidents created in part by the use of Hellfire missiles designed to destroy tanks employed against individual people, and 500 pound bombs that can clear a football-field sized area dropped inside densely inhabited areas. The policy of swatting flies with sledgehammers, surgical strikes with blunt instruments, does indeed seem to lead to civilian deaths, deaths that stretch the definition of “accident.”

    Yet despite the numbers killed, the watchword in modern war is that civilians are never targeted on purpose, at least by our side. Americans would never intentionally kill innocents.


    Except we have.


    The good guys in World War II oversaw the rapid development of new weapons to meet the changing needs of killing entire cities’ worth of innocents. For example, in Europe, brick and stone construction lent itself to the use of conventional explosives to destroy cities. In Japan, however, given the prominence of wood construction, standard explosives tended to simply scatter structures over a limited area. The answer was incendiary devices.

    To fine-tune their use, the U.S. Army Air Force built a full-size Japanese village in Utah. They questioned American architects who had worked in Japan, consulted a furniture importer, and installed tatami straw floor mats taken from Japanese-Americans sent off to internment camps. Among the insights gained was the need for incendiary devices to be made much heavier than originally thought. Japanese homes typically had tile roofs. The early devices tended to bounce right off. A heavier device would break through the tile and ignite inside the structure, creating a much more effective fire.

    Far from accidental, firebombing Japan had been planned in War Plan Orange, written long before Pearl Harbor. As far back as the 1920s, U.S. General Billy Mitchell had said Japan’s paper and wood cities would be “the greatest aerial targets the world had ever seen.” Following the outline in War Plan Orange, the efforts were lead by Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, who expressed his goal as “Japan will eventually be a nation without cities, a nomadic people.”

    LeMay also helped run the U.S. bombing campaign against North Korea during that war, claiming that American efforts killed some 20 percent of the civilian population. The man many call the architect of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, worked for LeMay during the WWII firebombing campaign. McNamara as Secretary of Defense went on to order the use of napalm in Vietnam, often against undefended civilian targets. The accidents of civilian deaths in war turn inside tight circles.

    The skill with which America tuned its WWII firebombing into a exquisite way to destroy civilians reached its peak on March 10, 1945, when three hundred American B-29 bombers flew virtually unopposed over Tokyo’s most densely populated residential area. They dropped enough incendiary bombs to create a firestorm, a conflagration that burned the oxygen out of the air itself.

    What was accomplished? One hundred thousand dead, a million people made homeless. The raid remains the single most destructive act of war ever committed, even after Hiroshima.


    The problem, however, for the U.S. with such raids was their inefficiency in killing civilians. The logistics of sending off 300 planes were daunting, especially when an hour or two of unexpected wind or rain could negate much of effort. There was no question firestorms were the very thing to systematically commit genocide in Japan. But what was needed was a tool to create those firestorms efficiently, and to make them weather-proof.

    It would only take science a few more months after the Tokyo firebombing to provide that tool. A single atomic bomb meant one plane could do the work of 300. And the bomb would create a fire so powerful and large and hot that weather would have no effect; it was foolproof. There could be no better weapon for destroying whole cities and all of the people in them, and it has only been used by one nation. Twice, because the 85,000 killed in Hiroshima were not enough.

    These were tactics of vengeance matched with weapons designed to carry them out as horribly as possible. They worked well: the firebombing campaign over Japan, including the atomic bombings, purposely killed more than one million civilians in just five months in 1945.

    It was only after WWII ended, when accurate descriptions from Hiroshima began finding their way back to America, that the idea of firebombing as a way to shorten the war, to spare lives in the long game, came into full flower. The myth, that the atomic bomb was in fact a reluctant instrument of mercy, not terror, was first published in Harper’s Magazine in February 1947 under the name of Secretary of War Henry Stimson. The actual writing was done by McGeorge Bundy, who later as National Security Adviser helped promote the American war in Vietnam that took several million civilian lives.

    The majority of Americans, recovering their consciences post-war, were thus nudged into seeing what was actually a continuation of long-standing policy of civilian genocide in Japan as an unfortunate but necessary step toward Japan’s surrender, and thus saved innumerable lives that would have been lost had the war dragged on. This thinking lives on today on politically correct ground under the banner of great powers having to reluctantly put aside what is moral in peace for what is expedient in war. A “fact of life,” according to the U.S. Secretary of Defense.


    So look deeper into history if you want to understand the morality-free rise in civilian deaths across America’s battlefields in the Middle East. We don’t like to think of ourselves as the kind of people who willfully kill innocents, but we were pleased by it only a skip back in history; your grandfather flew missions over Japan to burn children to death. Accidents of course happen in war, but there is a dark history of policy that demands skepticism each time such claims are made.



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    My Dreams Seek Revenge: Hiroshima

    June 20, 2017 // 16 Comments »

    Stillman-Hiroshima-690


    I’ve visited Hiroshima many times.


    The thing that always struck me about Hiroshima was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d get off the train, step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima. I had the same feeling only once before, taking a bus out of Munich and having the driver announce the next stop as Dachau. Somehow such names feel wrong being said so prosaically.

    I guess no matter how many times I went to Hiroshima, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there that no matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down could not have been buried deep enough. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise.

    But past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. The mountains that form the background in the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of tall buildings of course now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. In that way the Japanese had of trying to make the war go away as quickly as they could once it was over, most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the bomb. Same for most pubic buildings. With a map and some old photos, you could see where you where in 2016 and where you would have been in 1945.

    In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. Take a fast walk and you feel like you have asthma. But in 2016, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English.


    Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.

    While grieving for the victims, many outside of Japan feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war, preferring to portray the nation as a victim.

    Indeed, the otherwise moving Hiroshima Museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised by some as focusing too exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began years earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives at the hands of the Japanese military. The criticism is particularly sharp right now, given a rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    There have also been issues between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, many of them slave laborers kidnapped from Korea and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories.

    The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, was created as the final resting place for the ashes and bones of the bomb’s victims, many of whom were never fully identified. Under Buddhist tradition, without such interment, the souls of those men and women will never rest. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial.


    There is still much to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S., above all, remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American Ambassador ever came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” There is still not enough for some, even seven decades later.

    Perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me.

    Or so I thought each time I tried, because at night my dreams always sought revenge.



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    Moral Injury and Hooper’s War

    June 17, 2017 // 17 Comments »



    As research for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan I encountered people suffering in ways they had a hard time describing but which they wrestled with God over everyday. They told me they went away to fight with an idea “we’re the good guys, they’re not” that did not always survive the test of events. They spoke of a depth of pain that needed an end, some end, and for too many, as many as 22 a day every day, any end, even suicide.

    That’s to scratch at describing what we now know as moral injury. The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war — each person sent into conflict finds their sense of right and wrong tested. When they see something, do something, or fail to do something, a transgressive act, that violates their most deeply held convictions, they suffer an injury to the soul, the heart, their core. There are lines inside us which cannot be crossed except at great price — ignoring a plea for medical help, shooting a child in error, watching friends die in a war you have come to question, failing to report a sexual assault witnessed, a sense of guilt simply by presence (documented well in Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried), can cause moral injury. Moral injury is represented well in documentaries such as Almost Sunrise, and though not by name, in films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon.


    Society once expressed skepticism toward such ideas; well, perhaps not skepticism, for that implies more of an open mind than calling sufferers cowards, or dismissing them by saying it’s all in their heads, have a drink, take some time off. Now sister illnesses to moral injury such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not only acknowledged as real, but new MRI technology can pinpoint their effects inside the brain.

    Moral injury differs from PTSD in that it is tied to the parts of a person that decide right and wrong, and applies guilt, regret or shame as a penalty. PTSD is fear-based, and includes stresses like hyperalertness that worked well over there in war (quite valid adaptations in the mind and body, such as hitting the ground when hearing loud noises, to the real situation of other people trying to kill you), but are dangerous, exhausting, and frightening back here. The flight-or-fight response just won’t shut off, even in the absence of threat. PTSD to many is a loss of safety, but not a loss of self. Moral injury might be thought of as a disconnect between one’s pre-war self and a second self develops in the face of death, action, or inaction. Moral injury jumbles these two selves which cannot in fact live well together inside one body.

    There is a formal definition of moral injury, “the lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral and social impact of perpetuating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Moral injury occurs at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so, in a sense, is all in someone’s head — as we are thinking beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, then it follows that sense can be broken. Moral injury ironically represents a strength of character — as a human being they cannot ignore what was done — but it feels like a weakness.


    The term moral injury may have originated with Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who conducted groundbreaking work in PTSD, publishing two books, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and Trials of Homecoming, examining the experience of combat through classical texts. Others place the origins of the term moral illness with Vietnam veteran and philosopher Camillo Mac Bica.

    The Department of Veteran’s Affairs now acknowledges moral injury and its effects. Syracuse University created the Moral Injury Project in 2014 to bring together veterans, doctors, chaplains, and mental health providers. Psychologists are developing diagnostic assessment tools.

    Because the research on moral injury is in its infancy, there are no data yet on the number of combat veterans who suffer from it. But the conditions of modern warfare, from Vietnam forward, suggest they are many.

    “There are no long front-lines,” said Nancy Sherman, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and author of Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers. “The city or village is the war zone today. Women and children are armed. Men are fighting without uniforms.”


    But that sounds too clean to me. Because the results of those two words — moral injury — are exactly what you might expect: a long-war struggle for understanding, thoughts of suicide, and self-medication.

    I came to know a handful of veterans, and spoke intimately with the men and women I lived alongside in Iraq for a terrible year that was scarred by two soldier suicides. I spent time speaking with Japanese who lived through WWII as civilians. One now-elderly woman remembered her mother’s own moral injury after seven decades, a failure to comfort two dying siblings, hearing her mother’s ghost say in a park in 2016 Tokyo “Haruo-kun, that day of the firebombing was so hot for you. Akiko-chan, you wished so hard for water then. Please drink now.”

    What response can there be to something so human?

    A lot of pain festers not just out of what people saw, as with the Japanese woman, but the realization that what they saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture. It should’ve had a reason, many pleaded to me. People say to sufferers, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” to help them create justification, but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be in your 30s, or 70s, and scared of the dark. Imagine you have real reasons to be scared. Imagine you want to cry years out of you. Imagine failing to understand what you feel, not being able to talk much about the things you think about every day.


    Suicide is never far from moral injury. The soul isn’t that big a place.

    It is above all the act of killing that does it: 70 percent of those Afghan and Iraq veterans who participated in heavy combat attempt suicide. One guy who told me he has never forgiven his neighbor from talking him out of going into the garage with his rifle. Another who said the question wasn’t why he might commit suicide, but why he hadn’t already done so. The Department of Veteran Affairs counts 20 veteran suicides a day. About 65 percent of all veteran suicides are by individuals fifty years and older who have had little or no exposure to the most recent conflicts.

    A lot of those suffering from moral injury self-medicate. Seeking help is still a stigma for some, the hard work of recovery too hard or too slow for others.

    Drinking (drugs for many of the younger guys) hurts. Everyone learns it just sends pain off to wait, but still it was something to look forward to, they told me, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling their nose, or the throat-burning shot of something stronger biting into an ulcer. Drinking wiped away hours when someone had too many of them, all the way back to 1945 sometimes. You drink in the dark places, a bar, an unlit living room because there is a sense that you have lost your future and that’s easier to deal with when you can’t see anything (you see too much in the dark anyway.) Pain can be patient, a drop of water swelling on the end of a faucet, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walk him outside where he tells stories from his knees which they understood.

    The trip back is as complex as the individual, and the most effective treatments evolving. “Soul repair” is the term some use.

    One path to healing is via helping a patient to understand (“owning it”) what happened and their own responsibility, not necessarily fault, for transgressions. Others speak of seeking self-forgiveness, including a benevolent moral authority, often because those transgressed against are dead.

    Another way back is for the sufferer to make amends, either toward those harmed, or to a third party. To amend literally mean to change something already done, and in the case of moral injury that is drawing a line between who one was then and can be now.

    The goal is to accept wrong was done but to also understand it and learn how to deal with it; the act, while impossible to reconcile or forgive, does not have to define the rest of a life. The goal is for individuals to reclaim good parts of themselves and to examine and accept — but not be defined by — what they did, what they saw, what others did,

    What doesn’t work, in the eyes of one veteran-advocate, Matthew Hoh, is lying, as we do every day in the United States, telling veterans who view themselves as villains they are really all heroes. Hoh, after leaving the Marine Corps after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, later became one of only four State Department officials to resign in protest over the post-9/11 wars.

    “You mean like that Vietnam helicopter thing?” a well-meaning family doctor asked me when I told him coming home from the anemic role I played in Iraq left me more interested in vodka than my family, with a few too many orange containers lined up next to the sink even before I saw him. That was my own tiny taste of this, a failure to have accomplished anything, but I was lucky to benefit from some good people who helped me to accept my choices, and give up trying to erase them or explain them away. I didn’t want pity or understanding, I just wanted to get this stuff out of my head.

    The process is hard; it doesn’t always have the happy ending I wrote into my story. Sometimes these things don’t end when the war ends. Sometimes for some men and women they don’t end until they do. That’s the end loss for everyone.

     

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    The Myth of Hiroshima

    June 16, 2017 // 17 Comments »

    Stillman-Hiroshima-690

    With rare exception, the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end World War Two is debated only deep within the safety of academic circles.

    Could a land invasion have been otherwise avoided? Would more diplomacy have achieved the same ends without the destruction of two cities? Could an atomic test on a deserted island have convinced the Japanese? Was the surrender instead driven primarily by the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific War, which, by historical accident, took place two days after Hiroshima—and the day before Nagasaki was immolated?

    But it is not only the history of the decision itself that is side stepped. Beyond the acts of destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen.

    The short version of the atomic myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were not dropped out of revenge or malice, immoral acts, but of grudging military necessity. As a result of this, the attacks have not provoked or generated deep introspection and national reflection.

    The use of the term “myth” is appropriate. Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new, extraordinary power the United States alone possessed. The military necessity argument was largely created later, in a 1947 article defending the use of the atomic bomb, written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Conant described the article’s purpose at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”

    The Stimson article was a response to journalist John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorker and later as a book. Due to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required that formal White House response. Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name. The Stimson article was quite literally the moment of creation of the Hiroshima myth.

    The national belief that no moral wrong was committed with the atomic bombs, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection, echoes forward through today (the blithe way Nagasaki is treated as a historical after thought – “and Nagasaki, too” – only drives home the point.) It was 9/11, the new Pearl Harbor, that started a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition and indefinite detention are seen by most as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.

    And with that, the steps away from the violence of Hiroshima and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are merely a matter of degree. The myth allows the world’s most powerful nation to go to war as a victim after the tragic beheadings of only a small number of civilians. Meanwhile, the drone deaths of children at a wedding party are seen as unfortunate but only collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism itself. It is a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who held the knife.

    We may, in fact, think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands to otherwise end World War Two. There is little debate in the “war on terror” because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says an illusion of expediency wipes away any concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to strike next.

    Japan, too, is guilty of failing to look deep into itself over its own wartime atrocities. Yet compared to the stunning array of atrocities during and since World War Two, the world’s only use of nuclear weapons still holds a significant place in infamy. To try and force the Japanese government to surrender (and no one in 1945 knew if the plan would work) by making it watch mass casualties of innocents, and then to hold the nation hostage to future attacks with the promise of more bombs to come, speaks to a cruelty previously unseen.

    For President Obama to visit Hiroshima without reflecting on the why of that unfortunate loss of lives, acting as if they occurred via some natural disaster, is tragically consistent with the fact that for 71 years no American president felt it particularly important to visit the victimized city. America’s lack of introspection over one of the 20th century’s most significant events continues, with 21st century consequences.




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    On the Ethics of Hell

    June 15, 2017 // 14 Comments »

    flyers



    Japan absorbed WWII. The collective memory was tidied up. Little is taught about the war in modern Japanese schools, and even less of what is taught is true. There seems no reason to bring up all those bad deeds and rotten memories. For the most part, the Japanese created their own alternate history of the war.


    Vivisection

    So it is all the more shocking that a Japanese university opened a museum acknowledging that its staff performed vivisections on a handful of downed American airmen (above) during World War II. The incident has been previously documented by both sides of the war, but the very public and ongoing acknowledgement of the atrocity at the site where it was committed is quite unusual for Japan.

    The newly-opened museum at Kyushu University explains how eight U.S. POWs were taken to the center’s medical school in Fukuoka after their plane was shot down in May 1945. The flyers were subjected to horrific medical experiments. Doctors dissected one soldier’s brain to see if epilepsy could be controlled by surgery, and removed parts of the livers of other prisoners as part of tests to see if they would survive. Another soldier was injected with seawater, in an experiment to see if it could be used instead of sterile saline solution to help dehydration.

    The airmen so tortured were aboard a B-29 on a bombing raid over Fukuoka. They all bailed out when their aircraft was rammed by a Japanese fighter.


    Firebombing

    The ethics of hell come into play when we think a bit on what those flyers were doing in the skies over Fukuoka: dropping bombs in hopes of burning, shredding or maiming as many Japanese as possible.

    The U.S. at this late stage of the war was as a strategy not discriminating between “military” and “civilian” targets, and often conducted mass firebombing raids over cities. Thousands of incendiaries were dropped simultaneously in hopes of creating a firestorm, a conflagration that burned hot and long enough to literally suck the oxygen out of the air and kill everything beneath it.

    I have a history of the war on my bookshelf that makes quite a point of being horrified, with no obvious irony, that when the Japanese captured another group of shot-down B-29 crewman from firebombing missions, the flyers were burned alive in an impromptu fire; some others were killed with boiling water. It says elsewhere a negotiated peace was impossible when one side was fighting for civilization and the other represented barbarism.

    Same kind of thing in an actual description from another book of one of the terrible things that happened in the Pacific War: “As the bodies started to sizzle, their arms and legs twitched, and they sat up as if they were alive. Smoke came out of their eye sockets, their mouths opened, and licks of flames came out. Their lungs were full of steam, and hissing noises came out.”

    Did that description come from the firebombing of a Japanese city, or from the burning alive of American prisoners? It was one of the two, though it describes both, but how does that matter?




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    Review: Hooper’s War: An Imaginative Retelling of the End of World War II

    June 14, 2017 // 1 Comment »



    W.J. Astore, on Bracing Views, reviewing Hooper’s War. You can read the whole review at his site, but this paragraph sums up much of what I am trying to say in the book:

    Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.


    Buy Hooper’s War today on Amazon!


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    Review – Hooper’s War, My War

    June 13, 2017 // 8 Comments »



    Here’s a new review of my book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, written by Dr. Rod Deaton. Dr. Deaton has served combat veterans since 2009 in a variety of settings, including at the United State Department of Defense and at the United States Veterans Health Administration.

    His review, below, is what my book is about. Dr. Deaton and I have never met and do not know one another, but his words describe my words as I intended them. If you read this review and it resonates with you, please go on to read my book. This is, to me, a perfect description in a few hundred words what I tried to convey in my few hundred pages.


    The Review

    A longer piece today, reviewing a book well worth reading.

    In Peter Van Buren’s book, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, 2017), history changes. Yet history never changes, even when it does.

    What might have happened had the atomic bomb never been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? he asks. Had the Allies invaded Japan instead, taking first the southern island of Kyushu, establishing then a beachhead on the main island of Honshu? Had the ancient capital of Kyoto, until that point spared aerial attack, become the scene of a firebombing that would leave behind nothing but ash posing as February snow, to be taken up by the wind and then returned in torrents of black rain upon a teen-aged American soldier screaming, “Get it off me, get it off me. It’s people, get it off me.”?

    What might have happened had a ninety-year-old American tourist, years later, stopped hearing that boy’s cries?


    While visiting a Buddhist temple north of Kyoto in 2017, former Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper tells an elderly Japanese women he meets there that he had “outlived them all, and usually in a war that means I won.” She doesn’t seem to mind: she is there to talk to ghosts, after all, the spirits of her two children, while pouring water onto one of the many small Buddhas scattered throughout the garden, comforting souls that had years before thirsted until the heat had finally consumed them.

    It is the image of that old American man that sticks with me: his bending down toward those small statues outside the one temple that had managed to survive not only earthquakes, but also heavenly conflagrations, the shrine having been scuffed around the edges only by some, shall we say, fateful artillery fire. His then reaching into his pocket, his pulling out a yellowed scrap.

    My wife refused to return to Kyoto herself, but insisted I do something for her, after her death. Doctors say someone can’t technically die of a broken heart, but I know better. It just takes a long time. So my final obligation in Kyoto was to leave behind an old photo of two Japanese children. I’d helped take care of it for 70 years, but it was never mine. It was a treasured possession of hers, and it needed to return home, before the next change of season. They were together. It had just taken a long time.

    “Words were all I had,” Hooper tells us. And so Van Buren adds words to that image, moving backwards in time as his American protagonist encounters Naoko Matsumoto, the woman with whom he shared those seventy years, and Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, the man for whom, perhaps, he did.

    For in the end, whatever each man did, he did for her.

    Hooper’s War is anything but a romance. It is not an action thriller, either. It’s not the ending at the beginning that matters, after all. It’s the beginning at the end.

    Van Buren calls it a tale of “moral injury,” the au courant psychological term for what War does to a man’s, a woman’s soul. I’ve heard that some are trying to quantify the term these days. Data is always so helpful when it comes time for reports to the Budget Office. That means we won. I think.

    Words can only qualify an image, however, not replace it. Van Buren makes no promises otherwise. Yet with his words, he delivers, such as when the American soldier and the Japanese soldier play chess, literally and figuratively, mediated by the words and the heart of the young Japanese woman, fully bilingual, fully willing to live out the values that both men would have preferred had remained hidden in the pasts of southern Japan or middle America, pasts that Van Buren slowly unfolds for the reader, until youth is rediscovered, histories that will never again be.


    And it was at that moment of discovery, in the final pages of the novel, that Hooper’s War became mine.

    If as a practicing psychiatrist all I do is hear the wars of others, if I do nothing to make some small part of their War my own, then really I’m just a cleaned-up version of “First Warrant Officer Rand, 20th Army Air Force, strategic bomb damage assessment branch, acting deputy chief assistant assessor”—by the way, also a high school math teacher from Nebraska.

    “So, Rand, you’re saying [all this destruction] is good?” [asked Hooper.]

    “No sir, not good,” Rand said. “I’d have to score it pretty close to perfect to be honest about it. Almost nothing left standing. That’s an achievement.”

    “If you’re so smart, Rand, tell me, why are there so many logs blocking up the river? What caused that?” I said.

    “Oh, those aren’t logs, Lieutenant.”

    Yet in Van Buren’s book, it was not the Nate, Naoko, and Eichi outside Nishinomiya Station, south of Kyoto, who first claimed me.

    No, first it was a Japanese housewife, whom I met briefly in the closing pages of the book.

    My father told me [Eichi] that because Japan had freed Korea and China from the west, our markets were flooded with new goods from those faraway places. Mother especially loved the Korean plums, quietly insisting they were juicier than Japanese ones, even as my father would shush her for fear a neighbor might overhear her being what he said was disloyal.

    Then it was some (likely) high-school track coach from, of all places, Reeve, Ohio.

    I [Nate] was 14-years-old in December 1941, sitting in an overheated classroom hearing about Sherman’s Burning of Atlanta and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, asking my equally bored teacher numbing questions about why we had to learn this stuff. Every minute dragged like a week’s worth of Mondays.

    The novel made War mine through these passing mentions of adults who, without much thought, were living what they were living because someone else, somewhere, had died to give them that opportunity, both soldier and civilian.

    The dead aren’t that choosy, one way or the other, which side they might once have been on. Plums, classrooms, all the same to them.

    I am Eichi’s mother, Nate’s teacher. I am the one who has eaten those plums in those classrooms, who even now nibbles on a sticky bun in a quiet bed and breakfast as my Twitter feed narrates more deaths in Afghanistan, acknowledges final words uttered somewhere, whether in English or inDari.

    I live in my Society. I profit from my Society. My Society has sent troops to other Societies, for reasons good or ill, depending on whose viewpoint you assume.

    Either way, I have therefore sent them there as well

    In his “alternative universe,” Van Buren has forced me to to realize: I too am morally injured. Even more, I have morally injured. Yes, I still can enjoy a rose garden and a Lake Michigan breeze. Yet I don’t get a pass, either.

    Neither Lieutenant Hooper nor Sergeant Nakagawa indict me, their families, their Societies for the acts they themselves, as soldiers, committed or did not commit. They chose their fates as much as they were chosen by them, and they lived with those choices—and died with them.

    Yet, somehow, I cannot but feel indictment, not from the young men in wartime Japan, perhaps, but rather from a boy who had his picture taken with a girl years before, when they had both enjoyed Sakuma, the fruit drops in the metal tin, made in the factory so far away from their hometown. From a boy in Ohio who “left the house in the morning always knowing [he’d] be back in time to wash up for supper.”

    Those two boys–and the girl whom, at different times in different worlds, they together loved–they say to me, “You, Dr. Deaton, you helped make this story. We were merely playing our parts, understudies to much older folks like yourself, taking direction, falling on cue.”

    The Buddhas, the old man, the photograph, quiet Japanese villages and rustic Ohio towns: may the images last with me, even longer than the words. Thank you, Mr. Van Buren, for having, in Hooper’s War, given both to us all.




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    Understanding the Cost of War: Moral Injury

    June 12, 2017 // 10 Comments »

    “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 (including civilians of every imaginable sort), the tens of thousands of American combat casualties, those 20 veteran suicides each day, and the diminished lives of those who survive them all. There’s that pain, carried by an unknown number of women and men, that won’t go away, ever, and that goes by the label “moral injury.”

     

    The Lasting Pain of War

    When I started my new novel, Hooper’s War, a what-if 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 ever more veterans of ever more wars who continued to suffer in ways they had a hard time describing, but which they wrestled with everyday. I realized that I understand 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 found 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,” — because 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 accept civilian causalities 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

    Matthew Hoh, that former Marine, now a veterans advocate, introduced me to the phrase “moral injury,” though the term is usually attributed to clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay. Shay coined it in 1991 while working for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    We are, of course, beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, which can be messed with in disastrous ways. There are boundaries inside us that can’t be crossed without a great price being paid. Though the term moral injury is fairly new, especially outside military circles, the idea is as old as war. When people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested when they violate deeply held convictions by doing something (such as killing a civilian in error) or failing to do something (such as not reporting a war crime.) They suffer an injury to their core being.

    Examples of this phenomenon are relatively commonplace in popular culture. Think of scenes from Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried, William Manchester’s World War II odyssey, Goodbye Darkness, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, or films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

    You can find similar examples as far back as the Iliad and as recently as late last night. Lisa Ling, a former Air Force technical sergeant who worked in America’s armed drone program before turning whistleblower, was perhaps typical when she told the makers of the documentary film National Bird that, in helping carry out drone strikes which killed people across the globe by remote control, “I lost part of my humanity.”

    Once upon a time, society expressed skepticism or worse toward such formulations, calling those who emerged visibly suffering from the acts of war “cowards” or dismissing them as fakes and frauds. Yet today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a widely acknowledged illness that can be identified by MRI tests.

    PTSD and moral injury often occur together — “I think having both PTSD and moral injury are the normal things for us,” says Ling of those in the drone program. Moral injury, however, takes place at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so is, in a sense, all in someone’s head. When experiencing moral injury, a person wields guilt and/or shame as a self-inflicted penalty for a choice made. PTSD is more physical, more fear-based, and often a more direct response to an event or events witnessed in war.

    Think of it this way: PTSD is more likely to result from seeing something terrible, moral injury from having caused something terrible.

     

    Civilians, Too

    Moral injury doesn’t just affect soldiers, but civilians, too. Noncombatants are not just victims or targets, but are often complex participants in war. This reality led me, as my book developed, to interview now-elderly Japanese who had experienced World War II as children. They described the horrific choices they faced, even at a young age. In a wartime landscape of hunger, survival often depended on small, grim acts that would never be forgotten.

    Sometimes, I sensed in talking to them, as in interviewing former soldiers, that the psychic injuries of wartime don’t end until the sufferers do. Moral injury turns out to be a debt that often can never be repaid.

    Those survivors of the end of the war in Japan who got the food had to pay a price for knowing what happened to those who didn’t. In a landscape ravaged by war, just because something wasn’t your fault doesn’t mean it won’t be your responsibility. An act as simple as which of her children a mother offered a disappearing supply of water to first could mean the difference between life and death. And though, in truth, it might have been impossible, in such circumstances and at such an age to know that you were responsible for the death of your sister or brother, 70 years later you might still be thinking about it with an almost unbearable sense of guilt.

    And here’s a small footnote: Did you know that it’s possible to sit quietly on a modern Tokyo park bench, perfectly aware of whose distant relatives and countrymen dropped the bombs that took away the water that forced that mother to make the decision, and still shamefully continue taking notes, saying nothing as you witness someone else’s breakdown?

     

    The Trip Back

    What help can there be for something so human?

    There are, of course, the bad answers, all-too-often including opioids and alcohol. But sufferers soon learn that such substances just send the pain off to ambush you at another moment, and yet, as many told me, you may still look forward to the morning’s first throat-burning shot of something strong. Drinking and drugs have a way, however temporarily, of wiping out hours of pain that may stretch all the way back to the 1940s. You drink in the dark places, even after you understand that in the darkness you can see too much.

    Tragically, suicide is never far from moral injury. The soul isn’t that big a place.

    One former soldier told me he’s never forgiven his neighbor for talking him out of going into the garage with his rifle. Another said the question wasn’t why he might commit suicide, but why he hadn’t. Someone knows vets who have a “designated driver,” a keeper not of the car keys but of their guns during emotional rough patches.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs counts a stunning average of 20 veteran suicides a day in America. About 65% of those are individuals 50 years old or older with little or no exposure to the country’s twenty-first-century conflicts. No one tracks the suicide rate for civilians who survive war, but it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t high as well. The cause of all of those deaths can’t, of course, be tracked to any one thing, but the pain that grows out of moral injury is patient, the equivalent of a slow dripping of water that just adds to whatever else is going on.

    For such sufferers, however, progress is being made, even if the trip back is as complex as the individual. The Department of Veterans Affairs now acknowledges moral injury and its effects, and in 2014 Syracuse University created the Moral Injury Project to bring together vets, doctors, and chaplains to work on how to deal with it. In the meantime, psychologists are developing diagnostic assessment tools for what some call “soul repair.”

    One effective path back seems to be through helping patients sort out just what happened to them and, when it comes to transgressions, what part of those may be their own responsibility (though not necessarily their own fault). What doesn’t work, according to Matthew Hoh, is trying to convince veterans who view themselves as damaged that, in the present American manner, they are really heroes.

    Others suffering moral injury may try to deal with it by seeking forgiveness.

    Drone combatant Lisa Ling, for example, traveled to Afghanistan, with a desire to truly grasp her role in a drone program that regularly killed its victims from thousands of miles away. To her surprise, during an encounter with the relatives of some civilian victims of such drone strikes, she was forgiven by them. “I didn’t ask for forgiveness,” Ling told me of her role in the drone program, “because what I did was unforgivable.”

    “Like all of us,” she added, “I spent time on the mission floor, or at briefings where I saw and heard devastating things, or blatant lies, but to actually connect my individual work to single events wasn’t possible due to the diffusion of responsibility. For sensor operators, it is more like stepping on ants. For analysts, they get to know people over time. As watchers and listeners they describe an intimacy that comes with predictably knowing their family patterns. Kissing the kids, taking children to school, and then seeing these same people die.”

    Killing by remote control requires many hands. Ling worked on databases and it networking. Analysts studied the information in those databases to recommend humans to target. Sensor operators manipulated lasers to pinpoint where a drone pilot would eventually slam his missile home for the kill.

     

    Moral Injury and Whistleblowers

    Another way back is for the sufferer to try to rebalance the internal scales a little by making amends of some sort. To do so involves trying to alter or transform acts already committed. In the case of moral injury, this can often mean drawing a line between who one was then and who one might be now. Think of it as an attempt to re-inscribe those internal borders that were transgressed so long ago.

    Perhaps not so surprisingly, the connections between moral injury and whistleblowing, like those between moral injury and suicide, appear to run deep.

    For example, Iraq War whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s decision to leak video of civilian deaths caused by members of the U.S. military may have been her version of amends, driven by guilt over silently witnessing those and other war crimes. Among the acts she saw, for instance, was a raid on a printing facility that had been billed as an al-Qaeda location but wasn’t. The U.S. military had, in fact, been tricked into shutting down the work of political opponents of Iraq’s then-prime minister Nouri al Maliki. Until Manning finally tells her story, this remains speculative, but I was at the same forward operating base in Iraq she was and know what happened and how it affected me, as well as the others around us.

    Whistleblowers (and I was one of them) talk of conscience, of a realization we were part of something that was wrong. Jonathan Shay suggests that the failure of moral agency does not have to rest with the individual alone. It can involve witnessing a betrayal of “what’s right” by a person in legitimate authority.

    That part of moral injury could help explain one of the most significant whistleblowers of our time. In talking about his reasons for blowing the whistle, Edward Snowden invoked questions of right and wrong when it came to the actions of senior American government officials. It would be a worthy question to put to Snowden: How much guilt and shame — the hallmarks of moral injury — do you retain from having been part of the surveillance state, and how much was your whistleblowing driven by trying to rid yourself of it?

    After all, for those suffering from moral injury, the goal is always the same: to somehow reclaim the good parts of oneself and to accept — but not be eternally defined by — what one did or didn’t do.

    I know, because for me, this is so much more than fiction.

     

    My War at Home

    “You mean that Vietnam helicopter thing?” A well-meaning family doctor asked me when I got back from Iraq in 2010, referring to scenes from war movies where the angry vet overreacts to the noise of a helicopter, sending him “back to the jungle.” No, no, far more than that, I responded, and told him a little about my sorry role in administering reconstruction projects in Iraq and how it left me more interested in vodka than my family. That was my own personal taste of moral injury, of a deeply felt failure to accomplish any of the good I’d hoped to do, let down by senior leaders I once believed in. It’s why I tell the story in Hooper’s War in reverse order, opening with a broken Nate Hooper in his late eighties finally finding a form of redemption for the events of a few weeks at war when he was 18. By moving toward an innocent boy as far away in rural Ohio as one can be from war, I felt I was working through my own experience of the damage war causes deep inside the self.

    About the costs of war: is a quick death better than a slow one? A widow with one child versus a widow left with five mouths to feed? A soldier who leaves his brains on the wall in the den ten years after the peace treaty versus one who brought his body home but left his mind ten thousand miles away? What price did each pay? How do you count those costs?

    We are left knowing the price of endless war is beyond calculation. We simply become a society surrounded by costs, the financial, the ones in blood, and the ones we can’t see that tear apart men and women we welcome home. The nasty conclusion is that moral injury scales: our endless wars may indeed have left all of us, a society that cannot stop itself from making war, among the casualties.

     

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    Review: Hooper’s War an “Allegory of Hauntingly Memorable Ethical Power”

    June 11, 2017 // Comments Off on Review: Hooper’s War an “Allegory of Hauntingly Memorable Ethical Power”



    In a new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, author and veteran Pete Free writes:

    Peter Van Buren’s Hooper’s War is an early 21st century American allegory of understated, but hauntingly memorable ethical power… a masterpiece of sparsely worded brevity.

    What is foreseeable in war is its unavoidable escalation of the brutality that lives in us. Wisdom, therefore, counsels against beginning combat, absent genuinely existential justifications. It is in over-expanding the scope of what is existence-threatening that we fall into moral and strategic error.

    Hooper’s War illustrates the first concept (escalating brutality) more than the latter (maintaining a sensibly core scope of vital national interests). But the allegory’s frequent use of early 21st century American English — and, by implication, the history of U.S. warmongering since World War II — remind us that Van Buren’s focus is actually on what happened after we addictively tasted the national power inherent in dropping Little Boy and Fat Man (among other things) on Japan.

    In using his alternative history (meaning conventional war only) format, Van Buren bypassed the moral obfuscation that the expansive nature of atomic weapons brings with them. It is not the fission and fusion weapons that comprise the evil of modern war, he implies. It is the instinct-activated brutality that already lies within us, regardless of the weapons we use.

    See the full review for more!



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    The Actual Order for the Bombing of Hiroshima (With Bonus Children’s Death Count!)

    June 10, 2017 // 6 Comments »

    Here’s the actual operations order that launched the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, along with a sample of the results: a compilation of how many school children the U.S. killed that day! (click to enlarge)




    And one lucky survivor!





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    Propaganda: Imperial Japan and Modern Day

    June 9, 2017 // 10 Comments »

    beheading


    There are basically only two messages in propaganda: our side is good, strong and will win, and their side is evil, weak and will lose. Everything else is just music and narration.


    So to demonstrate how little propaganda statements towards whomever happens to be America’s enemy of the time change, let’s have a look at the 1943 propaganda film here, made to help stir up Americans for the long fight ahead to defeat Imperial Japan during World War II. Everybody likes Japan now, but remember the country that now makes our anime, manga and weird porn used to want to conquer us, even going as far as beheading hostages (sound familiar?)

    The Video



    What We Learn

    In the video we learn many things about the evil Japanese (and ISIS):

    — They are fighting a “Holy War” against the West (no change with ISIS);

    — They are trying to establish a world government with everyone living their austere, Emperor-worshipping lifestyle, with their harsh laws (substitute Caliphate);

    — They fight “fanatically,” and are willing to give their lives for the Emperor, believing Shinto paradise awaits them (substitute Allah and the same Paradise, less virgins on the Japanese side);

    — You “cannot measure the way Japanese think by any Western standard. While their weapons are modern, their thinking and beliefs are 2000 years out of date” (no change with ISIS);

    — The Japanese believe they have a “sacred duty” to fight for the Emperor against all others (ISIS, infidels, Allah, you get it)

    — They are “fanatics, and we must kill them before they destroy our way of life” (no change with ISIS);

    — The Japanese are not nice to their women (no change with ISIS);

    — They hate us (no change with ISIS);

    — They behead hostages (no change with ISIS)



    The Long Con

    Now, this all begs the question: if the core propaganda messages the U.S. government promoted during World War II are nearly identical to those pushed out today via the mass media about ISIS, does that tell us something? Is it that our enemies, as varied as Imperial Japan and ISIS across some sixty-five years of conflicts, are just so much alike, or is it that when America needs a villain, it goes to the same playbook? After all, what works, works.


    Why reinvent the scam?



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    In-Depth Interview: New Novel ‘Hooper’s War’, Explores Moral Injury

    June 6, 2017 // 1 Comment »



    Journalist Peter B. Collins wrote of his latest podcast:


    State Department veteran Peter Van Buren talks about his powerful new antiwar novel, Hooper’s War exploring the personal cost of combat, moral injury. Since he published his first book about his experiences in Iraq, We Meant Well, Van Buren has been a frequent contributor to this podcast.

    Today, we discuss his new novel, set in WWII Japan, which looks at the impact of war on combatants and others and introduces the concept of moral injury. Unlike PTSD, which is the result of a fear-conditioned response, moral injury is a feeling of existential disorientation that manifests as intense guilt, grief and regret, often leading to self-medication and suicidal thoughts.

    The lead characters in Hooper’s War are an American and a Japanese soldier, and the reverse-chronology narrative (Hooper looking back during his final years) of the fictional firebombing of Kyoto.

    As we discuss, Van Buren deftly uses the form of fiction to depict his own residual pain resulting from a one-year tour of Iraq where he saw victims who had been “roasted” by modern warfare driven by incoherent missions and pointless conflict. One of Hooper’s superiors tells him “This shit doesn’t end when the war does, it only ends when we do.”

    While we rarely cover novels on this podcast, Van Buren’s new book is a compelling look at the human cost of armed conflict, and raises many important issues about the morality of war. PBC strongly recommends this book.

    Listen to the whole interview here.



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    Review – Hooper’s War, Prayin’ for Alden Jones

    June 5, 2017 // 24 Comments »




    Here’s an excerpt from an essay titled Harvard Law School–and Private Jones by Dr. Rod Deaton, where he talks about my book, Hooper’s War, and one of its supporting characters, Alden Jones:


    Currently I’m reading a recently-published novel, Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan, by Peter Van Buren. An intriguing tale, it asks an interesting alternative-history question: what if the atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What if, instead, the Allied forces had invaded Japan? What if, soon after that invasion, the one city that had until then survived the bombings, the ancient capital of Kyoto, had instead become the city whose name we’d forever remember, not because of a single plane’s mission, but rather because of the mission of countless planes one particular night, lighting afire a city of wood and paper, turning the word Dresden into just another city that had had its share of War woes?

    What if one particular American, Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper, had a story to tell of just such events?

    Early in my reading, though, it is not yet Hooper who has grabbed me. It is Private Alden Jones, from outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. No spoiler here: within pages of the narrative, you realize that the War will not turn out well for PVT Jones. It is how it does not turn out well that pauses me this morning, sitting again on my quiet porch, somewhere in my consciousness hearing the wind chimes sing in pentatonic, do-la-sol-mi-do-mi-sol-la-do. Quite Asian, come to think of it.

    “You much for praying, Alden?”

    “Sometimes, sir. Not sure God always listens,” Jones said.

    “He’ll hear you,” [Hooper] said. […]

    “If God listened, I don’t think I’d be like this now,” Jones said. He looked away. “I wanna be older. I got a dog at home older than me.”

    So what does all this have to do with Harvard Law School, you might ask?


    Find out what it does have to do with Harvard, here…



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    Review – Hooper’s War: Does it Offer Redemption?

    June 3, 2017 // 1 Comment »


    A Five-Star Review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan says:
    Does it offer redemption to witness the horrors of war through the eyes of one with a conscience? If so, then all must read Hooper’s War.

    Lt. Hooper is thrust into an invasion of Japan at the end of World War II – an alternative history that is as horrific as the actual account. His relationships with the Japanese woman, Naoko, and Sgt. Nakagawa make Hooper question his own humanity. Surviving battle after battle, often within his own army, does not provide Hooper solace nor victory. He must find a way to heal, even seventy years after the war’s end. The flashbacks unveil Hooper’s struggles bit by bit, making the reader yearn for the ending, if only to relieve the burden of memory. Hooper’s War is not an easy read due to the magnitude of the issue – the emotional weight of war – but it is necessary to read in the current divisive culture.

    Reminiscent of McCormick’s Purple Heart and Myer’s Sunrise Over Fallujah and Fallen Angels, Hooper’s War offers an intense emotional struggle not to be missed. As Van Buren writes, “..the question isn’t so much why Private Garner is screaming. It’s why we aren’t.”

     

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    Top Five WWII Movies

    June 2, 2017 // 27 Comments »

    War is Over!


    My latest book, Hooper’s War, is set in WWII Japan, and portrays the horrors of war from the rotating perspectives of an American solider, a Japanese soldier, and a Japanese woman civilian.

    With that setting in mind, here are my top five favorite World War II movies.

    1) Saving Private Ryan

    Is there anyone’s Top Movie List, never mind one of WWII films, that doesn’t include Saving Private Ryan? I’m a big fan of war films that bring massive-scale events down to human scale, and none do that better than Ryan. The largest amphibious invasion in human history? Sure, there are a few panoramic shots, but the images we remember are of Tom Hanks and Tom Berenger struggling to get their men off that beach. WWII as a crusade to save Europe? Noted, but how about a couple of hours of a crusade to save one man?

    Ryan gives you the all-star cast, the production values and realism, the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of horror, and the split-seconds of terror surrounded by hours of boredom. I’ll just say it — no one will ever make a better war movie than this.





    2) The Best Years of Our Lives

    When I first saw The Best Years of Our Lives and learned it was made in 1946, and then learned it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, I knew I was watching a profoundly subversive film that had somehow slipped into the mainstream.

    The story follows Fred, Al, and Homer, three couldn’t-be-more-different at first glance World War II veterans coming home to find that things were not going to be as easy as they thought. The war had changed them, and changed the America they left. The slick Fred is a war hero honored for his service while ignored by employers. Wealthy bank executive Al realizes his desire to help vets with loans conflicts with the profit motives of his bank now that the war is over. Homer, who lost both hands in the Pacific, learns he will not fit in, and that his courage is no longer seen as worth much removed from combat.

    The men learn the lesson following “The Good War” that too many think was unique to the post-Vietnam years: that despite some happy talk and the occasional free drink, society could care less about its warriors once the fighting is over.





    3) Grave of the Fireflies

    Few movies focus on civilians as much more than targets or victims, often showing them as little more than ants scurrying under falling bombs, or villagers accidentally killed, a dramatic plot device to bring on the hero’s angst in Act II before redemption in Act III.

    Grave of the Fireflies is an animated feature from Japanese geniuses Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro and others.) The film is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the home front in Japan. It follows two young Japanese children in last days of World War II, with a focus on the numbing hunger that plagued Japan alongside daily firebombing raids conducted by the United States against civilian targets. There are no happy endings in this movie as it reveals the desperate acts people can be forced into to survive in wartime.





    4) Patton

    Every list of great WWII movies has got to have one real sh*tkicker. Mine could have been Bridge at Remagen, Battle of the Bulge, Kelley’s Heroes, Von Ryan’s Express, The Longest Day… you get the idea.

    But Patton comes out on top for its sweeping battle scenes — so that’s what a massive tank battle criss-crossing Northern Africa would have looked like — as well as its sharp portrayal of the kind of men America wants to fight its wars, but then acts embarrassed around as the fighting starts to fade. Patton was the perfect man in the right place to help win the war in Europe, but as victory became more and more understood, his crude manners and obvious affection for killing turn into something America wanted shut away, at least until the next conflict. A film that begins on the grandest scale (that opening speech in front of the flag!) and ends more than bittersweet.




    5) Sophie’s Choice

    I get one controversial choice, right?

    Though only a short portion of Sophie’s Choice takes place in WWII proper, the entire film is a lovingly detailed metaphor for the horror of war, the suffering its survivors cannot end until they do, and the delicate compassion without understanding well-meaning people try to bring to war’s victims. The naive main character Stingo, thinking he can understand what has happened to Sophie and her children inside the concentration camps, seems a stand-in for a post-war America far removed from the killing fields of Europe and the Pacific. Not everyone destroyed by moral injury carried a weapon.






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    Review and Podcast: Hooper’s War is Raw, Caustic and Sober Look at War

    May 30, 2017 // 5 Comments »




    Hooper’s War is a raw novel, caustic in tone and sober in its treatment of war and the forever rot that war creates within us. It revolves around a character who is a World War II veteran, and its content carries even greater resonance as Americans mark another Memorial Day.


    On this week’s Unauthorized Disclosure Podcast former State Department employee Peter Van Buren joins the show to discuss his new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.


    Van Buren blew the whistle on malfeasance and corruption related to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. He is also the author of Ghosts of Tom Joad and, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

    Hooper’s War is a raw novel, caustic in tone and sober in its treatment of war and the forever rot that war creates within us. It revolves around a character who is a World War II veteran, and its content carries even greater resonance as Americans mark another Memorial Day.

    During the interview, Van Buren highlights what influenced his story. The show delves into the concept of moral injury.

    We discuss myths about wars that are told, particularly how those who served in World War II were the “Greatest Generation.” Later, Van Buren addresses finding ways to heal by making amends with those veterans once dehumanized as well as endless war and what the book’s main character, Hooper, might think about the present day.

    As Van Buren describes, his book “deals with the issue of moral injury in war, the concept that people set off to fight America’s endless wars come home broken, their moral fiber challenged.”

    Moral injury, according to Van Buren, is well-established in military circles. It is an acknowledged illness by the Veterans Administration. In fact, the term was coined in the 1980s by Veteran Affairs psychologist Jonathan Shay.

    “As complex moral beings with a sense of right and wrong, that sense of right and wrong can be bent and eventually broken in war,” Van Buren adds. This can happen when transgressing moral boundaries or when people fail to do something that also crosses a moral line (such as failing to stop an atrocity).

    “It’s very difficult to describe what 100,000 deaths look like so what I wanted to do in my book is talk about what one death looked like—what happens in someone’s mind when they watch someone die, when they feel culpability for that single death in the midst of this horrific scenario, where there’s 100,000 corpses all around you.”

    In regards to myths, Van Buren contends that myths are “very much a part of causing moral injury because it’s the conflict between the grossness of reality and the cleanliness of those types of myths that cause people to realize that they have been buffaloed. That they have been taken advantage. That they have sacrificed a lifetime of comfort with themselves in the dark for these myths.”

    One of the most persuasive myths that comes out of World War II, which is central to Hooper’s War, is that by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and taking away countless the United States did the Japanese a favor. The war ended earlier than it would have if the U.S. had not dropped bombs.

    Separately, Van Buren asserts the myth of the “Greatest Generation” has been “responsible for an extraordinary amount of suffering.”

    “What you find is, sure, it’s great to be called up at the Memorial Day ceremony as the oldest surviving veteran in the crowd and the member of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ defeated fascism, band of brothers, marched across Europe, all those good things. And there’s truth to that, of course” Van Buren says.

    “But war is what it is, and when you send people out to commit acts of violence, when you force them into morally ambiguous situations, where you take an 18 year-old and you give him the power of life and death over others and the responsibility for preserving the life with them and you don’t expect mistakes to be made, if you don’t expect bad people to be made horrible, you’re not being fair.”

    Van Buren argues, “When you place that burden of ‘Greatest Generation,’ you’re telling people you shut up about this. We’ve got a story going here.”

    On the subject of endless war, “We have set in motion, following 9/11, an endless cycle of war, where it is impossible for the United States to ‘win,’ which means it’s impossible for anything to really end. And I don’t think ending is what anyone is particularly looking for. You’re talking about tamping down a fire that you know will inevitably flare back up, and you have conditioned a society based around this multi-ambiguous fear of terrorism.”

    Van Buren believes the main character in his book, Hooper, has figured out at the end of his life he was used. He has a great sense of loathing when it comes to the clever manipulation that transformed him and others into killers.




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    The Battle for Nishinomiya Junction

    May 26, 2017 // 3 Comments »



    Here’s an excerpt from my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, on sale now at Amazon. This excerpt is told from the perspective of the main character, Lieutenant Nate Hooper.

    After you’ve heard that thunk, you always know it. Once you know that sound, being mortared is like a sneeze coming on. It’s going to happen and there is nothing you can do about it but wonder if the shell is marked with your name. Thunk. That’s fear.

    Men were dying all around me. Each mortar shell exploded into light so I could see who was being killed, the explosions walking across the battlefield like giants. About the only thing I could do was roll into a hole and pull my knees up to my chin and try and dig out the dirt and snow blown up my nose. The pressure on my eardrums first emptied the world of sound and then pinched out tears. My mouth dried to a whisper. There was nowhere to hide; I was inside it.

    There was another sound. Sharper, closer, our mortars replying. We had the same kinds of shells, and I knew they were creating the same hellscape among the Japanese. But I truly did not care. I wanted them to all die in as horrible and painful a way as I was watching happen to us. I was on my knees in my hole now like every other man, thanking a no doubt horrified Baby Jesus for the American mortars.

    The battle became a living thing that ate men. It had become harvest time in our field. Then we heard whistles and shouts. Whoever was still alive on our side ordered the final assault on the rail junction to begin.


    People who have not experienced this level of madness cannot understand why we left our holes and advanced. People will say “Why didn’t you surrender, or quit, or run away, or hide?” Any man who tells you he did not consider each and every one of those choices is a coward for not telling the truth.

    But if you can’t understand how guys who spent all of a few weeks together 70 years ago can greet each other like brothers today, then you can’t understand why we ran forward. The best I can do for you is say time out there is dog years, a place where we gained and lost significant things, our one minute of combat together worth seven of your suburban existence. We were 18-year-olds facing things even most 90-year-olds don’t understand. You learn what’s private and secret about a man whose first name you don’t know, because out there you don’t talk about honor or duty, you talk like goober poets about girlfriends and baseball games you screwed up in high school and dads, and sometimes about the dark.

    And so if love at first sight is possible at home, then love after a week in war is also possible, because the opposite of fear out there isn’t safety, it’s love. And you do insane things for those you love, including die for them. The brotherhood you hear about isn’t friendship. It’s about knowing what happens to you depends fully on what happens to all of you. It works that way, and always has, and the people who start wars depend on it. So do the soldiers.

    I did not refuse or surrender or run away or quit or hide because I saw Sergeant Laabs move forward like dying wasn’t a possibility. There are no medals for things like that, Laabs just acting like sergeants leading men in combat have done since Julius Caesar’s time. I don’t know why he did that just then, maybe he saw someone else advance, but once I saw him move I knew I had to move. Then someone saw me and stepped out, and someone saw that man, and we advanced, all that were left in our group—Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones. It was more like the blurry photos from Antietam or Gettysburg than anything I imagined belonged in a modern war. The battle had been handed to us on the ground. Men would pay for yards with their lives.


    It was suicide to stand up, but we were certainly going to die lying down. Me, Laabs, Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones.

    Marino ran right into the station wall, bouncing off it. Laabs dropped and rolled the last few feet, moving like he was a piece of the night. I was close behind. I counted off the men as they grouped around us, Polanski, Hermann and Jones. Smitty was still trying to run as the next star shell burst overhead, spotlighting him. He’d been weighed down by the engineers who designed his SRC-300 radio, the damn thing now killing him with its thirty pounds and its two ten-pound spare batteries.

    Smitty obediently began the process of disintegrating, like cardboard in the rain.

    As the rounds stopped his forward progress, other Japanese gunners swiveled to the stationary target. What was left of Smitty’s body was held vertical for some part of a second by the force of the bullets, before he gave in and fell forward with the greatest possible violence and the least possible grace.

    Watching Smitty die, my brain squeezed down to a lump that pushed everything aside I thought only moments before. We’d gotten this far, proven ourselves; why did we have to go forward again? Couldn’t some other outfit do that, men I didn’t know? What if we stopped shooting at the Japanese, wouldn’t they figure it out and stop shooting at us? Two male pitbulls snarling at each other, who in the end back away, deciding it wasn’t worth it?

    I unbuckled my web belt and was ready to throw away my weapon. It was only Sergeant Laabs, again, who pulled me back into his landscape, deciding for all of us.

    Sergeant Laabs led us, crawling, pressed as tightly as we could against the foundation of the building, away from the Japanese, their weapons still picking at Smitty’s corpse, or aiming at other soldiers trapped like light looking to hide in the sanctuary of shadow. The wall near me had whole constellations of bullet holes violated into it.

    As we neared a door, Laabs shouted, “They’re in there, I can smell them. We’ll break through, catch them by surprise. Follow me.”

    How the man could think clearly, I can never know. He could squeeze away everything else and what was left was not what was desirable or nice, but what was necessary. That’s what makes war such a terrible thing for an otherwise decent society, because you don’t want monsters like that teaching in your schools or working in your hospitals, but you need them for a time here before you want them to go away until the next war. You’re looking for a man mad enough to commit murder, with enough conscience to come home feeling a little guilty.

    Laabs.


    The group of us burst through the door, screaming prayers and curses, and hid behind a busted slab of office wall. I heard men scuttling across the floor. The Japanese had moved to the other side of the office, our two groups separated only by that concrete slab. We heard the clink of metal against metal. They were loading a heavy machine gun.

    “You two, Marino and Jones, job opportunity for you, around that side, throw your grenades and make as much clatter as you can pulling back to distract the scum,” Laabs said. “Polanski and Hermann, you shoot any Japanese that come around after them. I’m going alone around this other side. Lieutenant, watch it, because I don’t intend to let any of ’em past me and if you shoot me by accident running back I will return from the grave and kill you myself. If this works, I’ll get most of them, and the four of you will take apart any of the others.”

    “American, you dung man.” The Japanese were calling at us in broken English from the other side of the wall. “You surrender, you no die tonight, GI.”

    “Gentlemen, I’ll see you all on the other side,” Laabs moved up to his corner. “Marino, Jones, on my count.”

    “American, you die tonight.”

    Laabs, loud: “One.”

    Jones mouthed the word alongside Laabs.

    “You no never see your mama home.”

    Laabs, louder: “Two.”

    Jones made a low sound.

    “You die here, American.”

    Laabs, a whisper: “Three.”

    Marino and Jones turned their corner. Laabs stepped forward, me leaning to watch him.

    Marino fired, and a Japanese went down, shot just below his right eye. Marino rose and fired again, into the now prone target, all eight rounds his M-1 held. As the magazine emptied with that metallic sound the spring inside made, a second Japanese soldier rounded the corner and shot Marino twice in the chest. I heard Marino’s skull connect with the concrete floor with a soft crack, a sound people who’d never a heard a rifle shot or a skull break think sounds like a rifle shot. Jones shot the man who shot Marino who earlier had grenaded the first Japanese to die.

    Me, Laabs, Polanski, Hermann, and Jones left.

    Sergeant Laabs stepped tight around his corner, between the wall and the stream of rounds coming out of the Nambu. He grabbed the red-hot barrel of the machine gun, screaming as it hissed against his bare hand, and swung it aside.

    His hand had fused to the hot metal. He tore it off, leaving a mitten of flesh on the weapon, and fell on the one Japanese left. With bloody fingers he stabbed at the man’s eyes. Laabs could not stop, the head now in both hands, the blood in the cold air.

    The war was now between Laabs and the Japanese.

    I knew hundreds of other American soldiers were fighting somewhere around us, opposed by hundreds of Japanese. I heard distant mortaring. I heard far off screams.

    I saw only Laabs.

    “Oh hey, Lieutenant, you wanna hear a story?” Laabs said.

    “Laabs, what’re you talking about?” I barely recognized his voice.

    “On Okinawa. We’re clearing caves with flamethrowers, a day before that stuff I did saving those kids. I never talked to anyone before now about this other cave I ran into, where all I found alongside the smoked up bodies were pencil boxes and schoolbooks. Two minutes later the Doc was giving first aid to one school kid that somehow was still alive. Two minutes between one thing and the other. Go figure. And you know the worst part? It didn’t even bother me until now.”

    “Laabs, I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

    “Nothing more to say. That’s the whole story. Now get into position with Jones,” Laabs said. He smiled. “Got something I need to do.”

    I scrambled to join Jones and Polanski. Gunfire flashed from deep inside the station, as if the Japanese were taking photos at a wedding. I watched Hermann get shot through the head. Two minutes between one thing and the other.


    And there stood Laabs. What was left of Hermann’s body lay nearby. There is a lot of blood inside a man, and it looked as if some naughty boy had spilled two full cans of red paint on the garage floor.

    Everyone who’d been in the field long enough heard of a guy who one day under enemy fire just stood up and took off his helmet. Laabs left it up to us to figure out the difference between self-sacrifice and self-destruction.

    I actually think he was dead before he rose, the Japanese bullets unnecessary even as they tore him apart. That’s how Jones, Polanski, and I watched Sergeant Jason Laabs die inside the train station the day before his 18th birthday.

    “Lieutenant, we gonna die?” Jones said. His legs were bloody.

    Deep breath. Calm, waiting for my turn. An explosion, and a bright flash…


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    Racism and Our Enemies, Same as It Ever Was

    May 24, 2017 // 3 Comments »

    For those are persist in using the word “unprecedented” in relation to the racism and fear that pervade our society today, directed at Muslims, here’s a propaganda cartoon from WWII showing much of the same, directed at the Japanese.




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    Hooper’s War: What is Moral Injury?

    May 23, 2017 // 4 Comments »

    Here’s a “book trailer” to go along with my new book, on sale now via Amazon, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. This video helps define the central concept of my book, moral injury. Have a look.

     

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    Willful Ignorance and the Legacy of the ‘Comfort Women’ (慰安婦) in Japan

    May 22, 2017 // 11 Comments »

    comfort-women-5


    Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once told told parliament he was “stunned” at the content of an American high school history textbook. Japan’s Foreign Ministry complained to the book’s author. A group of 19 Japanese historians, lead by a professor from Ivy League-equivalent Nihon University is sending “corrections” to the publisher.

    The topic of contention: Japan’s World War II system of sex slavery, the so-called “comfort women,” (慰安婦; ianfu in Japanese) women and girls kidnapped from conquered Asia to serve as sex slaves to the Japanese Imperial Army. Japanese historians downplay or deny their existence. Japan’s Asian neighbors know the truth, and struggle against the revisionist history.



    Germany, Japan and the Legacy of WWII

    Unlike Germany, which has reconciled with its World War II past, paid reparations to its victims and worked to achieve modern relationships with its neighbors, Japan has more than passively chosen to not acknowledge its past. Japan seeks to actively deny the existence of well-documented historical events it committed, even to the detriment of current relations with important neighboring nations. Yet while Holocaust deniers in Germany are seen as little more than crackpots, comfort women deniers occupy positions at the most senior levels of government.

    The majority of Japan’s victims were kidnapped from occupied Korea. Known in Japanese as ianfu, and in Korean as wianbu, the number of women enslaved varies considerably, from unrealistic lows in the tens of thousands to high-end estimates close to half a million. While the numbers themselves are a source of ongoing friction between Japan and the victimized countries, in some ways they matter little; atrocity is atrocity, and tragedy tragedy. Pain does not scale, it simply remains. Nonetheless, differences over the number of women involved are representative of the larger issue: Japan simply will not come to terms with what it did.



    The Evidence

    Japan’s official attitudes toward the issue are especially troubling given the preponderance of evidence even within their own archives. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, stationed during WWII on Borneo, organized a “comfort station.” The young officer’s success in procuring Indonesian women went so well that he was officially commended. The source of this information? Nakasone’s own 1978 autobiography.

    Imagine a U.S. presidential candidate making similar claims.

    Limited but key testimony from Japanese responsible for the system also exists. The former president of the Sankei newspaper, a major Japanese daily, worked in the accounting division of the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. He was in charge of staffing and opening “comfort stations.” The now-elderly former bureaucrat described his work as “When we procured the girls, we had to look at their endurance, how used up they were, whether they were good or not. We had to calculate the allotted time for commissioned officers, commanding officers, grunts, how many minutes. There was even a prospectus we learned in military accounting school. The term used for the procurement of women was choben, an old military word that referred to gathering food for the horses.”

    But nothing from the Japanese side comes close to comparing to the memories of the surviving women themselves. Here is just one example; as with the Holocaust, there are too many more:

    Soldiers came to my room. The first soldier wasn’t drunk and when he tried to rip my clothes off, I shouted “No!” and he left. The second soldier was drunk. He waved a knife at me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. But I didn’t care if I died, and in the end he stabbed me… My clothes were soaked with blood. I was treated in the infirmary for twenty days. I was sent back to my room. A soldier who had just returned from the fighting came in… I had a bandage on my chest. Despite that, the soldier attacked me, and when I wouldn’t do what he said, he seized my wrists and threw me out of the room. My wrists were broken, and they are still very weak. I was kicked by a soldier. It took the skin right off… you could see the bone. When the soldiers came back from the battlefields, as many as 20 men would come to my room from early morning… There was no bedding… underneath was earth. We cried in the dark “Mummy, it hurts!

    Approximately three quarters of comfort women died, and most survivors were left infertile due to sexual trauma or sexually transmitted diseases. Beatings and physical torture, beyond the daily gang rapes, were common.



    Current Efforts in Japan to Deny the Issue

    Current Prime Minister Abe’s administration denies Japan ran a system of human trafficking and sex slavery, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes. His latest move came when his party appointed Nakasone’s son to chair a commission to “consider concrete measures to restore Japan’s honor with regard to the comfort women issue.”

    Abe’s goal is to dilute the 1993 Kono Statement, named for Japan’s chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono. Though perhaps unnecessarily vague in the original language text, the statement was understood in Asia as about the closest that was ever going to emerge from the Japanese government to an apology for the sex slave system.

    The efforts by Abe to deny sex slavery are not his first. During Abe’s first administration, in 2007, his cabinet began undermining the Kono Statement by stating there was no documentary evidence of coercion in the acquisition of women, and that the Statement was not binding government policy.


    Sex Slaves and Foreign Relations

    The Japanese government seems unconcerned in the extreme with how its views on WWII sex slavery affect its Asian neighbors. The issue remains a block to better relations with Korea and China especially; some of Japan’s other neighbors who do not occupy such strong economic positions have had to ameliorate their criticism for practical reasons, though the underlying anger remains.

    The role of the United States remains troubling to many. Unlike in Germany, where the U.S.-led Nuremberg Trials pressed Nazi war crimes into the world’s media and served as a starting point for Germany’s own healing, war crime trials in post-war Japan were brief, focused in large part on responsibility for the decision to go to war in the first place, and purposefully excluded the Emperor. Imagine if Hitler had lived and if the U.S. chose not to bring him to trial.

    Support in the United States is spotty. The House of Representatives, in 2007, passed a non-binding resolution asking the Japanese government to redress the situation and to teach the actual historical facts in its schools. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the use of the euphemism “comfort women” and stated the victims should be referred to as “enforced sex slaves.”

    However, the United States otherwise has remained largely silent on the issue, preferring to say the disagreements over the history of the sex slaves, like those over the facts of the Rape of Nanjing and the ownership of several small islands in the region that continue to roil East Asian relations, need to be sorted out by the parties involved. Many see this as a weak way out, and, given America’s influence over Japan, almost a tacit acceptance of Japan’s history as unimportant.

    How many Japanese citizens agree with their government’s version of WWII history is difficult to pin down. However, given the election successes of those politicians pandering to the extreme revisionist views of events, one can sadly surmise the percentage is not small. Willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence remains the most recent wounds committed against the “comfort women” by Japan.



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    Posted in Hooper's War, Military

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