Ann Jones’ new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, is devastating, and almost incomprehensibly so when one considers that virtually all of the death and destruction in U.S. wars is on the other side. Statistically, what happens to U.S. troops is almost nothing. In human terms, it’s overwhelming.
Know a young person considering joining the military? Give them this book.
Know a person not working to end war? Give them this book.
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Jones presents the choice before us in the clearest terms in the introduction:
“Contrary to common opinion in the United States, war is not inevitable. Nor has it always been with us. War is a human invention — an organized, deliberate action of an anti-social kind — and in the long span of human life on Earth, a fairly recent one. For more than 99 percent of the time that humans have lived on this planet, most of them have never made war. Many languages don’t even have a word for it. Turn off CNN and read anthropology. You’ll see.
“What’s more, war is obsolete. Most nations don’t make war anymore, except when coerced by the United States to join some spurious ‘coalition.’ The earth is so small, and our time here so short. No other nation on the planet makes war as often, as long, as forcefully, as expensively, as destructively, as wastefully, as senselessly, or as unsuccessfully as the United States. No other nation makes war its business.”
Jones begins her book with that distinguishing feature of war: death. The U.S. military assigns specialists in “Mortuary Affairs” to dispose of the dead. They dispose of their own sanity in the process. And first they dispose of their appetite. “Broiled meat in the chow hall smells much the same as any charred Marine, and you may carry the smell of the dead on a stained cuff as you raise a fork to your mouth, only to quickly put it down.” Much of the dead is — like the slop at the chow hall — unrecognizable meat. Once dumped in landfills, until a Washington Post story made that a scandal, now it’s dumped at sea. Much of the dead is the result of suicides. Mortuary Affairs scrubs the brains out of the port-o-potty and removes the rifle, so other troops don’t have to see.
Then come, in vastly greater numbers, the wounded — Jones’ chapter two. A surgeon tells her that in Iraq the U.S. troops “had severe injuries, but the injuries were still on the body.” In Afghanistan, troops step on mines and IEDs while walking, not driving. Some are literally blown to bits. Others can be picked up in recognizable pieces. Others survive. But many survive without one or two legs, one or two testicles, a penis, an arm, both arms — or with a brain injury, or a ruined face, or all of the above. A doctor describes the emotion for a surgical team the first time they have to remove a penis and “watch it go into the surgical waste container.”
“By early 2012,” Jones writes, “3,000 [U.S.] soldiers had been killed by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 31,394 wounded. Among the wounded were more than 1,800 soldiers with severe damage to their genitals.” Doctors treat an injured soldier’s limbs first, later their genitals, later still their brains.
Back in the states, two young parents and “two pretty adolescent girls,” step up “to sit on the padded platforms in the center of the room. They move with the tentative sobriety of shock. Aides wheel in a gurney that bears a bundle in a flannel sheet. They gather the edges of the sheet and swing the package over the platform into the very heart of the family. Carefully they lower it and then begin to peel away the wrapping. There, revealed, restored to the family, is the son, their boy, not dead, but missing both arms, both legs, and some part — it’s impossible to tell how much — of his lower torso. The director calls out a cheery greeting, ‘Hi Bobby! How are you doing today?’ Bobby tries to answer but makes no sound. He flops on the platform, an emaciated head, eyes full of fear, his chest all bones under a damp grey ARMY tee shirt. . . . “
Be all that you can be.
In training you’re ordered into a poison gas chamber and exposed to a bit of it. If Assad trained his troops that way, we’d murder a half million Syrians to get even. But U.S. military training is training in blind subservience, usually properly resented when it’s too late. Up goes your chances of being dead, injured, guilt-ridden, traumatized, homicidal, and suicidal. Jones recounts the story of a soldier who murdered two Iraqi prisoners, came home convinced he was a murderer, laid out the two dead Iraqis’ dog tags, wrapped a hose twice around his neck, and hung himself. Twenty-two a day: that’s the count of U.S. veteran suicides according to the V.A. The rate is 4.7 times higher than normal, according to the Austin-American Statesmen’s investigation of Texas veterans. That doesn’t count recklessly crashed cars and motorcycles. And it doesn’t count the epidemic of overdoses of the drugs meant to solve the problem.
How to help such suffering? Therapists used to ask people to talk and now ask them to take drugs. In either case, they don’t ask them to honestly deal with their guilt. Between 2001 and 2007 homicides committed by active duty and veteran U.S. troops went up 90 percent. The military looks for problems in soldiers’ family lives to explain such troubles, as if they all suddenly began marrying the wrong spouses just when their country deployed them into the stupidest war yet waged. Jones tells the story of one Marine who killed his wife but kept her body on the couch to watch TV with him for weeks. “I killed the only girl who ever loved me,” he later lamented. Chances are good he had killed other people who were loved as well — he’d just done so in a context in which some people praised him for it.
One wounded warrior tells Jones he loves war and longs to get back into it. “Blowin’ shit up. It’s fucking fun. I fuckin’ love it.” She replies, “I believe you really mean that,” and he says, “No shit. I’m trying to educate you.” But an older Army officer has a different view: “I’ve been in the army 26 years,” he says, “and I can tell you it’s a con.” War, he believes in rather Smedley Butlerish fashion, is a way to make a small number of people “monufuckinmentally rich.” He says his two sons will not serve in the military. “Before that happens I’ll shoot them myself.” Why? “War is absurd,” he says. “Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars — it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.”