War Destroys Your Mind. At Least If You Choose To Do Your Duty

NYT columnist Bob Herbert has a worthy read today. He takes the story of the American soldier who shot five other U.S. soldiers last week to remind us that war, as we all seem to forget every twenty years or so, is always full of unforeseen consequences.

Herbert is writing about PTSD, combat stress, and the other pyschological trauma of war that gets lip service with little action. He writes: “The psychic toll of this foolish and apparently endless war has been profound since day one. And the nation’s willful denial of that toll has been just as profound.”

Towards the bottom of the piece, he makes a point that can’t be made often enough–the burden of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being felt by a ridiculously small part of the population. This is unheard of in American history for such a long conflict. In WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, there was a draft, and the constant turnover of civilians to soldiers gave U.S. society a better understanding of what war actually was and what its costs were. (And a more realistic picture of what the military is.)

Because we have chosen not to share the sacrifices of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrible burden of these conflicts is being shouldered by an obscenely small portion of the population. Since this warrior class is so small, the same troops have to be sent into the war zones for tour after harrowing tour….[SNIP]

… We’re brutally and cold-bloodedly sacrificing the psychological well-being of these men and women, which should be a scandal. If these wars are so important to our national security, we should all be engaging in some form of serious sacrifice, and many more of us should be serving.

But the country soothes its conscience and tamps down its guilt with the cowardly invocation: “Oh, they’re volunteers. They knew what they were getting into.”

There is a delusional nature to pretending that we can keep fielding an all volunteer force that’s cut off from American society and do so without consquences. It used to be understood (and I’m paraphrasing Andrew Bacevich here, so don’t go all MoDo on me) that doing one’s civic duty might very well include time in a uniform. Now, our civic duty is just to say, “I support the troops,” and that’s considered enough. But thanking a soldier in the airport, or buying a box of girl scout cookies, doesn’t quite cut it.


About michaelhastings

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5 Responses to War Destroys Your Mind. At Least If You Choose To Do Your Duty

  1. petersaczkowski says:

    So because the US is entrenched in a disgusting, brutal conflict, one that the population had absolutely NO say in and was lied to about, we should then allow them to draft us in order to fight it? Isnt the real answer to STOP fighting imperialist wars that have nothing to do with national security? It is astounding that anyone would think that the general population is responsible for the psychological maladies that afflict soldiers in the Middle East.

    Furthermore, we should start with making predatory military recruitment illegal, so we dont have inexperienced children on the battlefield. The whole reason that the draft hasn’t been initiated, is because there are so many desperate young people in this country, that it is easy to manipulate them into fighting. Why should the government subject rich people to war when poor people can fight it for them?

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Hi Peter, I’m not advocating the draft. I agree the real answer is to stop fighting imperialist wars. However, I think we’d have a better chance at stopping the kind of misadventures of Iraq and Afghanistan if the military wasn’t such a separate part of the society. It’s separate because of its all volunteer nature. I would suggest reducing the size of the professional military, for starters, and focus on a model that relies more on National Guard type citizen soldiers.

      The anti-war movement seems to have vanished since Obama won. Where’s the progressive outrage on the escalation in Afghanistan? Where’s Moveon.org now? There’s not that same level of visibility or indignation. Part of that is due to the fact that it’s very easy for America to ignore the war when only a very small portion is actually touched by it. (Contrast to Vietnam, where the anti-war movement didn’t just go away. It’s not an accident that Nixon created the all volunteer force in 1972.)

  2. petersaczkowski says:

    Ya, I dont know where the indignation is. Perhaps it is because people are far less certain why we are in Afghanistan? I mean, we know that Cheney, Rumsfeld et al contrived the war in Iraq, torturing prisoners into false confessions and using false WMD intelligence. This seems to be common knowledge, and so Iraq is more of an outrage. But Afghanistan? Do people know that we supported the Taliban (when it was just a disparate group of warlords) after the Soviet Union took over the government there? That the warlords that were sponsored were the same ones who threw acid into the face of women and assassinated political progressives like RAWA founder Meena and her husband? That most, if not all, of the “insurgents” that the US is now fighting were armed and trained by the US itself? I dont think this is public knowledge, and so perhaps more mild-mannered anti-war groups (like moveon.org) dont have as much of a political base to oppose it?

  3. lauramac09 says:

    Here’s an interesting question for psychologists–how does being a trained killer 24-7 affect the psyche? Life-changing, surely. Warping? Probably.
    The us vs. them mentality that I am sure most soldiers have to adopt is crippling.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Laura, yes, it certainly seems that it can be tough for some to get out of that mindset. Can’t be good for the soul, though.

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