• How to Sustain Perpetual War (It’s Easy; Hide the Bodies)

    July 15, 2017 // 24 Comments »

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    Sustaining America’s state of post-9/11 perpetual war requires skillful manipulation of the public at home. The key tool used for this purpose is the bloodless narrative, a combination of policy, falsehoods and media manipulation that creates the impression that America’s wars have few consequences, at least for Americans.

    How can the American government sustain its wars in the face of dead soldiers coming home? Why is there no outcry among the American people over these losses? The answer is the narrative of bloodless war.


    The Dead

    The bloodless war narrative’s solution to the dead is a policy of don’t look, don’t tell.

    Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, helped decide in 1991 the first Iraq War would play better if Americans did not see their fallen return home. He recalled the images of coffins from the 1989 invasion of Panama on television, transposed against the president speaking of victory, and banned media from Dover Air Force Base, where deceased American personnel would arrive from the Persian Gulf.

    The ban at Dover lasted 18 years, past George Bush 2.0 and Iraq War 2.0, overturned only in 2009, well after the casualty counts dropped off. Even then, allowing cameras at Dover was left at the discretion of the families, except of course when the president needed a blood-stirring photo op. Obama took one just before ordering the surge in Afghanistan.

    Death, when it is reluctantly acknowledged, must still follow the bloodless narrative as closely as possible. Death must be for a good cause, freedom if possible, “for his buddies” later when public opinion weakens.

    There is no better example in recent times than the death of Pat Tillman, America’s once-walking propaganda dream. Tillman was a professional football player making a $3.6 million salary. Following 9/11, he gave that all up, and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, the Army told his family he’d been killed by enemy fire after courageously charging up a hill to protect his fellow soldiers.

    It was of course the right thing to say to support the narrative, but it was a lie.

    A month later, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire. The month placed the non-narrative news safely after Tillman’s memorial service and in the fog of faded media interest. Later investigations revealed the Army likely knew the death was by friendly fire within days.

    The Physically Wounded
    For all the trouble the dead cause to the bloodless narrative, the wounded are even messier. They still walk around, sometimes speak to journalists, and, well, do not always look bloodless.

    The Honolulu side of Waikiki beach is anchored by a hotel run by the Department of Defense as a low-cost vacation destination for servicepeople. While some of the grounds are public by Hawaiian law, the hotel itself is off limits.

    I used to have a government ID that let me in. Inside, who is a soldier? The buff bodies stand out against the beached whale look more popular among regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans – browned faces with pale white limbs – betray a recent trip to the Middle East.

    But sometimes it is a missing limb on a 20-year-old, or a face that looks like raw bacon. Could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, but I doubt it. The burns sketched precisely where the helmet had, and had not, been, a map of pain.

    That’s on the inside. When we as outsiders see images of the wounded, they instead follow the narrative. Brave troopers, with their state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs, are shown skiing, surfing or working out. Some featured amputees even demand to return to active duty. They show off their new limbs, some decorated with decals from their favorite sports teams. They are brave and they are strong.

    The inside story is again very different. A recent book by Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars, fills in what the narrative omits. As a summation, Jones offers the haiku of one military trauma nurse: “Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry.”


    The Mentally Wounded
    Military suicides have made it through the screen of bloodless narrative, but just barely, thanks to the Hollywood-ization of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

    Where we need clarity, we get tropes, such as the freaked-out-at-home scenes in Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Not to say those things don’t happen (they do) but to say those types of scenes are incomplete, giving enough info to arouse sympathy without actually being too alarming. As Ann Jones points out, such treatment of PTSD is “useful in raising citizen sympathy for soldiers, defusing opposition to Washington’s wars, and generally medicalizing problems that might raise inconvenient political and moral issues.”

    At the same time, another non-Hollywood narrative bubbles just below the surface, that some vets are exaggerating or outright faking it. PTSD inherits all of our stigmas toward mental illness, and that dilutes the bad news.

    One way of not knowing is not to look for the answers at all. The narrative says we should be like Mafia bosses’ kids, who never ask what Daddy does for a living despite our big house and fancy cars.


    When the Narrative Fails
    During the year I spent in Iraq, the only deaths experienced by the Army units I was embedded with were suicides.

    The death I was most familiar with was a young Private, who put his assault rifle into his mouth. No one back home saw what I saw, because they were not supposed to see: the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off as I arrived to look.

    These things are not unspeakable, we just don’t want to talk about them, and the bloodless narrative says we don’t have to. That keeps it alive. Because when the narrative fails, the wars tend to end.

    For example, in 1969, Life magazine published a famous edition consisting entirely of portraits of the Americans who died in Vietnam that week. Many subscribers canceled, but many more looked for the first time outside the narrative. The war found its end.

    In another conflict, President Bill Clinton pulled American troops out of Somalia after a photo showed crowds cheering a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That image dogged American war mongering until it could be cleaned up by the bloodless narrative of Gulf War 1.0.

    We are no longer likely to see those nasty pictures. The military has become more skillful at manipulating the media, even as the media has become more compliant. In the X-rated world of war, most of the media refuses to budge from family fare.

    The military-media symbiosis is just one more tool that feeds the narrative. As long as Americans are convinced of the bloodlessness of perpetual war, the wars will go on.



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    Posted in Iraq, Military

    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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    Posted in Iraq, Military

    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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    Posted in Iraq, Military

    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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    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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    Happy Veterans Day

    November 11, 2014 // 8 Comments »

    VeteranSignWe should all take a moment today, Veterans Day, to thank people in the military for their service.

    They are decent and sincere men and women who joined believing they would serve their nation, or were looking for a job, an education, college money or some adventure, or all of the above. They then get sucked into America’s political wars. Civilians start wars, not soldiers.


    That said, because of the emphasis our society places on military service, sadly, many people who were never in the military now pretend that they did serve. This has come to be called “stolen valor.”

    But on this Veteran’s Day, it is worth not just scorning those pretenders, but trying to see what they are really after. They claim a right to things that they did not earn via service.

    While a few want to score airline upgrades and the like, many of the stolen valor-ilk are hoping to displace legitimate homeless veterans seeking your spare change. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates there are 50,000 veterans homeless on any given night. The Veterans Administration cites much higher numbers: VA’s specialized homelessness programs provide health care to almost 150,000 homeless vets. Additionally, more than 40,000 homeless veterans receive compensation or pension benefits each month.

    In addition to looking to lap up all that spare change real vets are entitled to, many fake veterans also want to not be able to access decent health care in a timely fashion. Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation found, and many of the “stolen valor” vets are pretending they served so they too cannot access life saving care.

    Another thing many pretend servicemembers want to take away is Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). About 460,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars have PTSD; another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). Statistics are hard to come by from America’s other wars, particularly from Vietnam, but since the working figure from Iraq and Afghanistan is about 20 percent, that would leave millions of Vietnam vets suffering. Lousy stolen valor people want a piece of that too they’re not entitled to.

    Vets of our modern wars suffer alcohol-related problems stolen valor thieves can’t legitimately claim either. A sample of Iraq and Afghan veterans showed drinking problems in some 40 percent.

    Finally, stolen valor losers have no claim to the horrific suicide rates among veterans. Having been in the military doubles the risk of suicide. An estimated 5,000 veterans die by suicide each year. That number sadly outpaces combat deaths in even the worst of modern times.

    So maybe at this point the semi-satire of this article is clear. We will hear a lot this Veterans Day about supporting the troops and thanking them for their service. Please do those things; they deserve it.

    But don’t accept any bullsh*t this Veterans Day either. For all the talk by politicians and actors and musicians and media heads about how much we owe, not one will demand that it is time to pay up. If our nation insists on being so quick to send men and women into harm’s way, then it damn well better face up to its obligation to take care of them when they get home. They don’t need yellow ribbons and speeches. Food, shelter, health care, counseling– that’s how you support the troops on Veterans Day and every other day.

    Put up or shut up America.



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    From the PRT Diaspora: PTSD is Real

    March 15, 2013 // 3 Comments »

    Because of this blog, I occasionally receive emails from people who also participated in the reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most writers are civilians, a few military. With the writer’s permission, I publish some of the letters here.

    Today’s I publish to call attention to the very real issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All of us suffer from it, some more than others, some more aware of it than others. For me, I benefited from good care (which I had to pay for myself but it was worth it). I have also found most veterans’ groups I’ve run across welcoming– it takes all of 30 seconds to establish that we civilians experienced most of what they did and have more in common than we have apart. To be frank, writing the book and blog are also part of my catharsis. To anyone out there suffering, get help. It makes things better. Anyway, here’s the letter.

    Dear Peter,

    I’ve been reading your blog since its inception and ordered your book while serving with a PRT in Afghanistan. While devouring your book in my “hooch”, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Everything you reported on in Iraq was happening AGAIN in Afghanistan. You actually saved me the time of writing my own book “How I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people”. I felt as if I had found the Holy Grail and ran around my PRT encouraging others to read We Meant Well. My State Department colleague was less than thrilled and was busy bidding on her next assignment while my PRT military colleagues were so burned out (due to multiple deployments) that they either didn’t care or knew that in true military tradition they were there to follow orders and helpless to do anything about the hellhole we found ourselves in. I was stunned that no one appreciated what I had found. They wanted me to quit talking and just do my time (i.e..stop being a trouble maker). Some members of the PRT were in denial and believed COIN was working while others knew that we were failing and didn’t need your experience to remind them.

    It has taken me more than a year to write to you as I’ve been dealing with a great deal of anger and feared I would send you a 10 page rant outlining the insanity of wasted lives and resources that I witnessed during my 12 month deployment. I was offered additional time in Afghanistan but declined. I was afraid my already mild PTSD would be completely unmanageable after another deployment. Our well-deserving veterans are fortunate to have the VA to access once they come home (although I’m told the waiting list for mental health services is horrendous) and find other vets to talk to. These wars have now created yet another fine mess. There are now well over 200,000 people (from various nations) which include former diplomats, civilians who worked directly for the USG, contractors, NGO aid workers and even journalists that come home to no support whatsoever. I can only imagine the broken marriages, broken homes, alcoholism, isolation and other social ills that plague those with full blown PTSD and TBI. To my knowledge, no one is writing about that or even acknowledging it exists outside the military.

    Unlike your “no experience necessary” chapter, I did have years of international development experience. But, I saw plenty that fell into the “no experience necessary” category and it was frightening. Not to mention the out of shape and the overweight (of all ages) who could not get in and out of an MRAP without assistance. No wonder civ-mil had its problems. This is all so terribly sad. I’m still trying to figure out a way to move forward after becoming so disillusioned with my government and the military. It’s now taken me three months to send this.

    In addition to expressing gratitude for your book, I’m also writing to you in memory of the USAID officer, serving in Kunar Province, who was killed in August 2012 (link added). I find it appalling that his death and those of his three military colleagues got about 10 seconds of TV news coverage in the states. If anyone tells me that they died for my freedom, I may seriously lose it. From what I can conclude, they died for the profits of defense contractors, the careers of some high ranking military officials, the pockets of crooked Afghans, and most of all for self serving politicians and diplomats. My freedom had nothing to do with it. You tried to tell them but they didn’t listen. Instead, they tried to kill the messenger. Without knowing it, you’ve been a good friend these past 21 months and I apologize for taking so long to say thank you. Best of luck as you continue to fight for justice.

    I meant well,

    Name Withheld by Request



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    War in Iraq Wasn’t Worth the Price America Paid

    September 30, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    The Sioux City Iowa Journal, not a typical liberal left outlet, sadly concludes that the war in Iraq was not worth it:

    Ending with little fanfare or celebration and no longer a front page story, it is now fair to ask the question, “Was it worth it?” Unless you can check reasoning and logic at the door, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.”

    The article goes on to ask:

    Who paid the price for this war? Many. The numbers are staggering: 4,487 U.S. soldiers gave their lives in Iraq, 32,753 were wounded, 103,160 – 113,728 Iraqi deaths have been documented (other estimates are as high as 654,965 – Iraqi record-keeping is ad hoc at best), five million Iraqi children were orphaned as of 2007 and sadly, the number of casualties will continue to increase as post-combat-related suicides continue at an alarming rate and families cope with the difficulties of post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Finally, the article references We Meant Well on the failure of reconstruction:

    The attempted reconstruction of Iraq was the largest nation-building program in history, even exceeding the cost of the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II. At a cost to taxpayers of more than $63 billion, the plan was lavishly funded, yet fraught with pervasive waste, inefficiency, mistaken judgments, and flawed policies. It spent money indiscriminately in the hopes that some good might come from it. (For a detailed account, read “We Meant Well” by Peter Van Buren.)

    So how has all this war and “rebuilding” worked for the country of Iraq? Not so well. Sectarian violence and random killings are pervasive. The government appears largely dysfunctional and is the 10th most “failed” country in the world. Sixty to 70 percent of Iraqi children suffer psychological problems. Malnutrition rates are high, safe drinking water is rare and electricity sporadic. And, they hate us.


    A very sad legacy. Read the entire article online now at The Sioux City Iowa Journal.



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    Posted in Iraq, Military

    What Happened in Afghanistan?

    March 18, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    Serious this one. The recent massacre (tragically, most recent massacre in Afghanistan) raises many questions that need answering to allow us to answer a more important question: is this indeed another sad, isolated incident or is it an ugly sign of a system in breakdown, the Army?

    Let’s stick with the official version of things for argument’s sake: a single soldier left his base, killed 16 people, set their bodies on fire and then returned to that base. An areostat (balloon) was overhead and some images were recorded. So…

    The uber question is should this soldier have deployed at all? Did his PTSD, injuries or previous experiences make him unfit to be sent out again and did the system fail him?

    On the ground, bases, even small bases in rural Afghanistan, are surrounded by walls, wire, towers and sensors. While we don’t know exactly what was out there that night, how did this guy bypass it all and just leave without being seen? Nobody watching?

    Every soldier has an assigned “battle buddy.” No soldier is supposed to walk around alone, with kidnap threats and who knows what else. Where was this guy’s battle buddy? Your buddy is also supposed to watch out for you, watch your mood, contact someone when things turn dark. In one instance I personally know from Iraq, a battle buddy took the bolt out of the rifle of another soldier who was talking suicide.

    Did no one notice anything about the guy in the days/hours/minutes leading up to the attack? Can someone appear fully “normal” outwardly and then turn into a monster in a flash? Soldiers live very close in the field, physically and emotionally. There is no privacy. You eat together, sleep with a roomate(s) and are around each other constantly. This wasn’t the TV cliche of some guy sitting in his basement alone brooding, sharpening his knife. Nobody saw nothing? Nobody did nothing?

    If the shooter had been drinking, where/how did he get the hooch? Drinking is illegal for soldiers in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the units I was with enforced that rule ruthlessly. Were others drinking? Was there a discipline problem?

    The areostat and whatever else was flying that night have optics that work day and night, maybe thermal and sound imaging, motion detectors and lots of other tech stuff, watched 24/7. How did none of the activity get picked up? Does more video exist? If it was picked up, why didn’t anyone react to it?

    The site of the killings was not far from the base. Every soldier knows the difference in sound between his US rifle’s sound and the sound of the weapons the bad guys use. Knowing that difference saves your life every day. It is very dark and very quiet at night in rural Afghanistan. Lots of people heard lots of shots. Why was there no response? Every base has a group of soldiers on immediate standby, a rapid reaction force, for such things. A lot of shooting nearby should attract a lot of attention.

    How did the shooter get back on to the base? Someone must have been alerted by the noise, by sensors, by guards in the towers. Walking up to an alerted base with a weapon in your hand at night is a very dangerous thing to do. Was no one watching, or was the base alerted and knew it was somehow an American outside the wire?


    We’ll possibly learn more about what really happened, but the underlying question is this. Did the safeguards break down? Did no one see the change in the shooter? Did none of the people who were supposed to be watching the perimeter see anything? Are there discipline problems, leadership problems, command and control problems exposed here? And are those problems isolated, or are they signs of an Army that is tired from eleven years of war and needs to be pulled back home before it starts eating itself again– Vietnam.



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