Shell shock

Thursday, January 22nd, 2004

The summer before last, in a series of jolts that rocked the military community at Fort Bragg, N.C., the war on terror started coming home.

In a stunning single month that underscored the disconnect between those who wage and pontificate about war and those who fight it, four soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg — three of them members of elite Special Forces units who had recently returned from Afghanistan — shot, strangled or stabbed their wives to death. The three Special Forces members also committed suicide.

Whatever inner hell their lives had become is now a secret that belongs to eternity, but there’s little doubt that their recent combat experiences played a role in the violent outbursts, which begs a question that won’t go away. The question has been back in the news in recent days, with the Army’s disclosure that 21 GI deaths in Iraq in 2003 are verifiable suicides, a rate — described as “alarmingly high” by outside experts — of 13.5 per 100,000.

You can phrase the question any way you like. Usually it’s put in practical terms, e.g., how do you help soldiers cope with the stress of combat, especially in a macho military culture that still regards seeking out a counselor as a sign of weakness?

It’s a sort of technical problem to be solved, in other words — like getting supplies to the front or getting medical attention to the wounded (something the U.S. military is appallingly bad at, it turns out)— with the goal being, finally, the smooth functioning of the war effort.

I would phrase the question a little more simply, however: What the hell are we doing to our young men and women? Just like the hidden, never-calculated health consequences of war, the emotional carnage made apparent by the suicides and murders is a signal that war-making is an enterprise with no human legitimacy.

Twenty-one suicides and four dead spouses are the tip of the iceberg. War is the gift that keeps on giving.

“When I blowed up the village, shrapnel had hit the baby in the chest, and it had a sucking chest wound. It had died, and its mother was screaming and looking at everybody, and I knew I had just did that.”

The speaker is a Vietnam vet named Jim Wolfe, one of a number of vets at a counseling center in Morgantown, W.Va., who talked to PBS reporter Susan Dentzer on a recently aired broadcast called —”No Forgetting.” All of them, including veterans of the Korean War and World War II, were beset by battlefield demons that had persisted for decades.

“I didn’t ask for that check,” another vet in the group told Dentzer, referring to his $25,000 a year in disability compensation from the Veterans Administration. “If you want to jump in my head and live how I live, I’ll give you that check and I’ll go back to the coal mines and make my $60,000 a year if I could sleep, if I could get along with people and not get wild and crazy.”

If we were honest about the full cost of war, would we wage it so easily, to protect vague “national interests” that are ever-shifting and perhaps chimerical? A quarter of a million vets from Gulf War I are on medical disability with various horror manifestations of Gulf War Syndrome. Some 150,000 Vietnam vets — triple the combat casualty toll — have at this point committed suicide.

Today we call the emotional whiplash of war post-traumatic stress disorder; during World War II, it was known as combat fatigue. These are both clinical terms that, while rightly removing the stigma of internalized battlefield terror, are also bland, reality-suffocating euphemisms. In World War I, we called it shell shock.

And shell shock it is. “I felt so bad about it” – this is Jim Wolfe talking again, about the Vietnamese baby with the sucking chest wound —”that me and a friend of mine … (we) took our boots and cut the shoestrings and made a cross and everything and buried the baby.”

But he couldn’t bury the memory.

As a society, we deny complicity in such deaths; linguistically, we bulldoze them into mass graves with terminology such as “collateral damage,” and leave the burden of memory to the individual soldiers. Small wonder their consciences sometimes buckle under the strain. They’re fighting the war on terror all by themselves.