• 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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    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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    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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    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 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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    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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    Hooper’s War Now Available for on Amazon and Elsewhere!

    May 21, 2017 // Comments Off on Hooper’s War Now Available for on Amazon and Elsewhere!



    My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now on Amazon. You can order it here.

    Here’s how one reviewer described the book (more reviews):

    In Hooper’s War, a Novel of WWII Japan, an American veteran remembers his time in Japan during a World War II that might have been.

    In this alternate-history novel, author Peter Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late Japanese wife. But back in 1945, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto, dealing with the horrors of war. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.

    Van Buren presents a complex world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation amid moral injury. Hooper is an engaging main character, an innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role.

    Hooper’s War doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.


    Order your copy of Hooper’s War today!


    A Personal Note: If you enjoy this website and my other commentary, please consider buying a copy of Hooper’s War.

    Unlike most other sites, I don’t ask for donations, run funding drives, try and trick you into handing over your email address or any of the other annoyances out there. Instead, I rely on your book purchases to keep things afloat, and for me to keep running this site I need to ask for your support.

    Please also help out by tweeting about my book, and by recommending it to your local library. Ask for it at your local bookstore and see if they’ll carry it. I appreciate your help.

    — Peter




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    Mental Health Care for All Veterans

    May 20, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    How far into the future should punishment go? Should we punish some veterans to death?

    Until the rules change this summer, that is indeed how the Department of Defense has been handling access to emergency mental health care for those with less than honorable discharges. In particular lack of mental health care for vets suffering from PTSD or moral injury has proven deadly; despite whatever the vets did to be discharged with less than honorable status (and the offenses can range from security infractions to crimes of violence), their suffering from the stresses of service is as real as for any other service member. They deserve the (psychological) treatment they may finally get later this year, not the punishment treatment they have been receiving.

    The thinking behind this denial of care was straightforward: benefits, such as access to medical care, should be a reward for those who completed their service honorably. But what seemed straightforward enough ended up leaving vulnerable people, who came home wounded, without help.

    So it was significant that the Department of Veterans Affairs took an important, belated step to protect tens of thousands of former service members. Starting this summer, with Congressional support, the VA will provide emergency mental health care to vets who received less than honorable discharges.

    “Our goal is simple: to save lives,” said David Shulkin, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. “Veterans who are in crisis should receive help immediately.” And help is certainly needed, for among the entire population of veterans, regardless of discharge status, some 20 per day on average commit suicide.


    The number of people who will be eligible for help is significant; there are roughly 500,000 veterans with less than honorable discharges, including more than 100,000 who left service during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, since 2009 when the statistic started to be recorded, the military has discharged at least 22,000 combat veterans for alleged misconduct who had mental health problems or related traumatic brain injuries.

    These changes, while important, only address a subset of veterans. The military has a tiered system of discharges (honorable discharge, general discharge under honorable conditions, other than honorable discharge, bad conduct discharge [issued by special court martial or general court martial] dishonorable discharge, and entry-level separation.) Even under the new rules, some vets who leave the military with service-related psychological issues but under dishonorable discharges will still remain ineligible for care.



    Veterans in crisis should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (press 1), or text 838255.




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    Hooper’s War Now Available for Pre-Order on Amazon!

    April 24, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can order it here.

    Here’s how one reviewer described the book (more reviews):

    In Hooper’s War, a Novel of WWII Japan, an American veteran remembers his time in Japan during a World War II that might have been.

    In this alternate-history novel, author Peter Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late Japanese wife. But back in 1945, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto, dealing with the horrors of war. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.

    Van Buren presents a complex world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation amid moral injury. Hooper is an engaging main character, an innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role.

    Hooper’s War doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.


    Pre-order your copy of Hooper’s War today!


    A Personal Note: If you enjoy this website and my other commentary, please consider buying a copy of Hooper’s War.

    Unlike most other sites, I don’t ask for donations, run funding drives, try and trick you into handing over your email address or any of the other annoyances out there. Instead, I rely on your book purchases to keep things afloat, and for me to keep running this site I need to ask for your support.

    Please also help out by tweeting about my book, and by recommending it to your local library. Ask for it at your local bookstore and see if they’ll carry it. I appreciate your help.

    — Peter




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