“Two weeks before he killed himself, around the time of Aurora’s first birthday, he went to see his mother, who lives in a tiny town in Northern Iowa called Chester. ‘I’m not worth nothing. I’m not worth nothing,’ she remembers him saying.”—David Finkel, “Thank You For Your Service.”
Does it really matter that none of the men and women who’ve been running for a presidential nomination for the past two years have ever served on active duty in the military? Must one have worn a uniform to understand why so many soldiers during and after our many wars have harmed themselves?
A guy I barely knew slept in the bunk above me when we were both draftees and tried to hang himself, but was mercifully cut down by someone who happened to walk into the barracks and called the medics. The guy—he was only a boy, really—had been a violinist, a scared, improbable and unwilling soldier who could barely keep up with the platoon and was rumored to be related to a big time politician. I once heard him whisper to our imposing sergeant with his menacing wartime facial scar that he’d be a better soldier in an easier slot, maybe a typist-clerk. Rescued, he was sent to the base hospital, his absence barely noted and no one spoke about it until the sergeant, a lifer, reluctantly mentioned the incident. He told us to forget it. “People do crazy things which we can’t understand. Better to mind your own business.”
But I couldn’t, then and now, so many decades later. Why did he try to commit suicide? He was never in combat unless the very idea of shooting an M-1 or a bazooka or practicing with a bayonet and wearing a gas mask terrified him about things to come. Once, far from a battlefield, he was near a few of us when someone was killed by a defective grenade.
Ann Jones spent much time in Iraq and wrote They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars: The Untold Story and thought she knew so many have preferred death to life. Maybe. To her, it’s the lack of communication between those who fought in a war no one understood while the rest of us were at home “amusing ourselves to death,” in Neil Postman’s perfect words.
Read Iraq vet Phil Klay’s bitter sentiments in Redeployment about the rest of us safe at home: “Gluttonous fat, oversexed, over consuming, materialist at home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults,” let alone understand why some came home and killed, and why the rest continue to accept our historic addiction to war.
Still, can we truly explain why soldiers kill themselves, ever after returning home? In the latest of our wars—always “just wars” mind you—possibly our volunteers and National Guard conscripts (for that what they were) retained complicated forms of guilt, associated with death encounters—guilt because they survived and their buddies did not, guilt for having killed or maimed others. Guilt for having joined in or at least witnessed the destruction of a culture and civilization they never knew, or hated. Guilt for having seen civilians suffer and die, that is especially unbearable when few know why the battle is being fought.
Iraq, George W. Bush’s gift, and Afghanistan, a “necessary war” according to Barack Obama, both non-veterans, had the results of their bequests to the nation described by the NY Times’s Denise Grady as far back as 2006 in her “Struggling Back from War’s Once-Deadly Wounds.”
“Survivors are coming back home with grave injuries, often from roadside bombs, that will transform their lives; combinations of damaged brains and spinal cords, vision and hearing loss, disfigured faces, burns, amputations, mangled limbs, and psychological ills like depression and post-traumatic stress.”
Add that to the recent American Journal of Psychiatry article in April 2016: “The cumulative strain of 14 years of war on service members, veterans, and their families, together with continuing global threats and the unique stresses of military service, are likely to be felt for years to come.”
So, please, ask all of us stay-at-homes who will be their minders and caretakers every day of the weeks and months and years thereafter? I saw a single mother on TV tending to her bedridden veteran, an only son, and the voiceover said he’d probably be on his back the rest of his life. He was not alone.
Who among our sheltered politicians, pundits and think tankers who sent them to war will visit their graves and console their widows and children and parents? Who will demand increased taxes to pay for their forever care? Who of our current living room warriors want a draft, the better to fight more wars? How about your son dying for Saudi Arabia or Ukraine? Or now that girls may be used in combat, as Jacob Hornberger, a perceptive if barely known libertarian writer-editor, added, “your daughters dying for South Korea and Eastern Europe.” Charley Reese, a former columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, once offered his personal but rational test: If you don’t want your kid to join up and fight then the war isn’t worth it.
Soldier suicides and stories of permanently crippled vets have largely vanished from our media, the survivors ignored but for predictable Memorial Day editorials and those self-righteous and bogus “Salute To Our Wounded Warriors” nights at ballparks filled with healthy young non-vets on and off the field and in the press boxes. At the end they all stood and cheered the national anthem. No one then and after suggested the ritual wouldn’t have been necessary had non-veteran ideologists not lied us into a state of permanent war.
So which will it be? Erich Maria Remarque’s lament that his WWI wartime generation “shall fall into ruin.” 0r an ordinary mother, listening to her son tell her ‘how bad it was to be a Vietnam vet, how doves think you’ve committed a sin, and hawks make so much over you because they’re guilty of sending you there in the first place’ and how he then tells me when I interviewed him for a book I once wrote about Vietnam combat vets, “My mother, she sat straight up. ‘Michael, ‘ she said to me, holding my hand, ‘I do believe it was all for nothin.'”