I work in a mental health clinic that provides free counseling services to combat veterans suffering from PTSD. My experience at work is full of contradictions. I am surrounded by the victims of war; people who have had their lives irreversibly changed. The institutionalization of war and the trauma brought by combat destroys lives, ruins relationships, and estranges families. Suicidal ideation is a daily occurance among those returning from the occupation. Distrust and hatred of war and the state combine with an undercurrent of jingoism and loyalty to the nation.
I work in an atmosphere and facility that valorizes combat and military service. War and its underlying cause and perpetuation are not questioned, nor ever considered relevant topics to even discuss. The structure of the organization is such that these questions are never even thought of. Militarism is an unquestioned virtue, all military service is worthy of honor, and the actions and nature of the US Empire are fundamentally benign by presumption. though sometimes foolish.
The contradictions are alive not only in the clientelle and organizational structure, but naturally in the staff as well. While most of the staff exalts war time service and the "support the troops" mantra of the War on Terror, they are almost all without exception opposed to the occupation of Iraq and the messianic-militarism of the neoconservative doctrine. None, however, questions the premise of the Empire.
This is not to say, however, that they are not open anti-imperialist arguments. As noted above, it is not that they overtly support imperialism itself. It’s just the questions of empire have never occured to them.
There is one staff member who was still on the fence about the Iraq war as of yesterday. Amanda (or so I’ll refer to her), is an Iraq vet herself. Growing up in a small, rural town in the Pacific Northwest, for her, the Army was the only way to escape a troubled childhood. It provided purpose and community to her life. She served in Iraq after volunteering to deploy. Amanda is generally uncomfortable discussing the war, she explains frankly, because she tends to decide issues on gut feeling and emotion. She is enamored by nationalist symbology and the valor militarism represents in our culture.
Today, however, she told me she was officially "off the fence." She explained that she had heard a song written by a local artist titled "Why Are We Here" at a veteran’s poetry event over the weekend. "It was beautiful," she exclaimed excitedly. "I wrote a poem in my seat on the spot and got up later in front of the crowd and read it."
She took the title of the song, "Why Are We Here," and related it to her experience in Iraq. "Why are we here? I asked myself that five years in a country I knew nothing about and a culture that was hostile to our presence." Perhaps she had been in denial for awhile, but finally she said she could no longer stand the way this occupation is "poisoning the lives of the Iraqis, and in turn poisoning the lives at home." Amanda had rejected the occupation.
I told her her poem reminded me of George Orwell’s reflections on his service in Burma as a member of the Indian imperial police in the 1920s, and his perception that
when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears the mask, and his face grows to fit it.
Where Orwell discussed the humiliation derived from the colonizer’s action becoming the root of his own colonization, Amanda discussed the same symbiotic relationship between colonizer and colonized in Iraq, only this time the trauma inflicted upon the "natives" is reciprocated back.
Amanda told a story of a vet who returned six months ago who had suddenly become overwhelmed with the symptoms of PTSD after smelling his old equipment for the first time since coming back. He was reminded of some children his squad often brought food too. He had taken a liking to one little girl he talked with. One day, while visiting the children, he noticed something different about the little girl. She was oddly shaped, as if she was wearing something under her clothes. As she approached him, he panicked, and begged her not to come any closer. She continued to come. He begged her again to stay away. She continued, and he shot her dead, fearing she was strapped. Now, he can no longer look at his own daughter without seeing the image of the little girl; a tremendous guilt that will haunt him for the rest of his life. He now contemplates killing himself. He refuses for his family’s sake, but wonders how he can be a father when he cannot even look his daughter in the eyes without feeling shame so powerful as to sap him of his desire to live.
The veteran, an agent of occupation and subjugation, has not only killed for those ends, but has ended up destroying his own life as well. While he may not have been a bad human being or a killer before, his face had grown to the mask he wore, and the circumstances of war had transformed a tool of tyranny into its victim. Where Orwell’s humiliation of the Burmese led to his own humiliation, this vet’s destruction of a little girl’s life has to led to his losing the desire to continue his own, lest his conscience make his existence unbearable.
Some on the left tend to view combat veteran’s as criminals and dismiss any notion of their being victims. There are undoubtedly sick people who would destroy lives whether in the military or not. But we should separate the institution and the individual. A prison guard may be a completely decent, kind, and caring human being, but who by the very nature of the role they occupy in an institution, commit criminal acts and in the process destroy their own freedom.
It is the abolition of war itself as an institution that is the only way to eliminate war criminals.