Monday, July 09, 2012

Soldiers - mad, bad, sad

The idea that a soldier may continue to be haunted by his wartime life has had a name since at least the American Civil War. It was called "soldier's heart". In World War I, it went by the name "shell shock". During World War 2, it was called "battle fatigue". The Vietnam War gave us the term "post-Vietnam syndrome". It goes by the description "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD) these days. PTSD's status as an anxiety disorder was enshrined in 1980 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , the bible of psychiatry. The Veterans Administration estimates that between 11 per cent and 20 per cent of the 2.3 million troops who have cycled through Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from it

We now have something called "moral injury" that exacerbates the psychological pain. Soldiers assume that thier role is to protect their country when it was threatened. Instead, they find themselves part of "something evil." It is being involved or witnessing something that you find wrong, something which violates your deeply held beliefs about yourself and your role in the world. Discovering that your country is not at risk but only the profits, power and privilege of the wealthy that at stake. "Moral injury" arises from what you did or failed to do, rather than from what was done to you. It's a sickness of the heart more than the head. The idea that many soldiers suffer from a kind of heartsickness is gaining ground.

Brett Litz, the Associate Director of the National Center for PTSD in Boston, and several colleagues involved in a pilot study for the Marine Corp published "Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans" The authors found that emotional distress was caused less by fear of personal harm than by the tension and conflict between what soldiers had done or seen and what they had previously held to be right. Of course, to have a "moral injury", you have to have a moral code, and to have a moral code, you have to believe, on some level, that the world is a place where justice will ultimately prevail. Faith in a rightly ordered world must be hard for anyone who has been through war; it's particularly elusive for soldiers mired in a war that makes little sense to them, one they’ve come, actively or passively, to resent and oppose. When your military duty requires you to raid houses and  pull sleeping families from their beds at midnight thousands of miles from your home, or to shoot at oncoming cars without knowing who's driving them you begin to question what doing your job means. When the reasons keep shifting for what you’re supposed to be doing in a country where most of the population wants you to go home even more than you want to, it's hard to maintain any sense of innocence. When someone going about his daily life is regularly mistaken for someone who means to kill you - as has repetitively been the case in our occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan - everyone becomes the enemy. And when you try - and fail - to do the right thing in a chaotic and threatening situation, which nothing could have trained you for, the sickness can move inside you and stay there for a very long time. Therein lies the cognitive dissonance. You are told that you are defending your country from an existential threat but you come to realize that you are not. You are told that you are there to help and protect the poor benighted people of the country we've invaded but you come to realize that not only aren't you actually helping or protecting them but they don't want you there at all. the moral injury happens when you've been duped into believing that X is true and you then discover that X is not true but X happens to be the justification you had for doing things that you know are basically wrong.

In trying to heal from a "moral injury", soldiers struggle to restore a sense of themselves as decent human beings, but the stumbling block for many veterans of  wars is that their judgment about the immorality of their actions may well be correct. Obviously, individual suffering which can be avoided should be, but what's gained by robbing soldiers of a moral compass, to salve their conscience. Despite all the glory we swathe soldiers in when we wave them off to battle, people to remember how horrible war is. When you've done irreparable harm, feeling bad about your acts - haunted, sorrowful, distraught, diminished, unhinged by them - is human.

War propaganda dehumanises the enemy. It is easier to shoot "rats", "pigs" or "infidels" than to kill a fellow human being. The task of baic training is to make a soldier unquestioningly obey orders so that he will kill, destroy, and do so in an unemotional manner. If you cannot do it in an unemotional way, you are unfit for military service. If you can, you are unfit for society. Ex-soldiers have recurring flash backs of battles, endless reliving the combat, they hear cries of those shot.  It is not easy to kill human beings and live in good feeling. Many are surprised that their own conscience become their judge, jury and jailer. But what about those they killed, thousands of them.  Does any one care about their trauma, their sorrow, and their wrecked lives. What about the children who run inside and
hide the moment they hear or see an aircraft, or the civilians from drone attack regions in psychiatric wards curled up in fetal position or endlessly rocking back and forth? The terror of drones from sky has changed lives of thousands of innocent poor people.  There is little acknowledgement of their sufferings. The killer’s remorse may not be a fitting punishment, but nature has its ways to bring the guilty to account. The American Psychiatric Association is reportedly thinking about adding guilt and shame to its diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Dave Grossman, a professor of psychology and former army ranger, wrote a book called "On Killing".(reviewed in the Socialist Standard here) It begins with the premise that people have an inherent resistance to killing other people and goes on to examine how the military overcomes that inhibition. Grossman observes: "Killing comes with a price, and societies must learn that their soldiers will have to spend the rest of their lives living with what they have done." That price could be called "moral injury"

It is a bit cynical to accept the concept of "moral injury" without changing the whole chain of events that leads to "moral injury". Socialists work for peace so the next generations won't have to know the heartache of "moral injury".

Adapted from here

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