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“They Were Soldiers” Author Discusses High Cost of War for America’s Veterans

Ann Jones: "As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book...I came to see how much they and their families have suffered...from the delusions of this nation’s leaders." (Photo: Irene Young)

In a new progressive venture, TomDispatch is joining with Haymarket Books to publish books that reflect the substantive and visionary writing on the web site overseen by Tom Engelhardt. The Dispatch Books imprint is being launched with a detailed, empathetic and haunting account of US soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq with severe psychological and physical wounds. It is written by Ann Jones.

We are a jingoistic nation, saluting the Armed Forces everywhere from Super Bowls to automobile dealerships. But this is an abstract commercial patriotism that makes us feel comfortable with ourselves while we down another beer during halftime. On the individual level, the military casualties almost have been forgotten except by their loved ones. Unfortunately, the reception for and treatment of these soldiers far too often fails them.

“Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account – the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops,’ ” Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country writes of Jones’ book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story.

Engelhardt passionately praises the publication: “Jones explores her relations with Americans from the time she was helping Afghan civilians with casualties caused by American convoys to the time, at age 73, that she donned body armor and combat boots and embedded at a U.S. forward combat outpost, to her most recent odyssey – following the grievously war-wounded from a trauma hospital in Afghanistan to another kind of battlefield in the U.S. I think you’ll find … Jones’ new book something to reckon with.”

Get a copy of “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story” with a minimum contribution of $25 to Truthout. Click here now.

It has been estimated that 1 million soldiers have been injured since 2001. The figure is subject to speculation because, according to International Business Times, the Department of Veterans Affairs “is no longer releasing the data.”

Truthout conducted the following interview with Jones, who resides in Oslo:

MARK KARLIN: What drew you toward writing a book about the devastating psychological impact and physical injuries of so many soldiers who return alive from our wars abroad, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq?

ANN JONES: After 9/11, I went to Afghanistan to try to be of help to women and girls. Soldiers were the last people on my mind. Then, after some years, the US military in Afghanistan came up with the idea of forming Female Engagement Teams (FETs). American women soldiers were to “engage” with Afghan women in the villages and persuade them to divulge critical intelligence about Taliban war plans and troop movements. Of course, I was curious about women soldiers – I’ve spent my life writing about women – and those women soldiers in Afghanistan seemed to be getting roped in to yet another clueless, bound-to-fail military scheme. So after eight years of writing about civilians in Afghanistan and other conflict zones, I embedded for the first time with US troops at a forward base on the Pakistani border where an FET was being trained. What happened with the FET is another story, but while I was on that base, I happened to witness the total breakdown of a soldier – a man. He went to pieces, almost literally it seemed, not knowing he was observed. After that, I began to see male soldiers with new eyes. Patrols left that base every day, and often they came back missing men. Where had they gone? I had seen photos in American newspapers of severely wounded veterans, always described as “heroic” and “resilient,” skiing on prosthetic legs with smiles on their faces. I wanted to know what happened to them in between the catastrophe and the ski slope. And how many of those terribly damaged soldiers, and their family members, wound up smiling.

MARK KARLIN: How do these long-term wounds shatter their families and communities?

ANN JONES: Every soldier comes back more or less changed. Family members and friends, who remember them differently, often can’t seem to find the old familiar patterns of love and friendship. A stunning number of parents feel that the soldier who came back to them is not their real son or daughter – as in those old sci-fi films about aliens who assume human bodies and betray their presence only by a peculiar gleam in the eyes. Many family members and friends are vaguely afraid. They don’t want to confront the veteran they love when things are bad – when the vet is drinking or drugging or beating up his girlfriend – for fear of making things worse. And when the vet seems somewhat better, parents and wives don’t want to rock the boat. So every day is a surprise. Life becomes chaotic. Lived on tiptoe. It’s exhausting. Parents may come to blame each other, and wives to blame themselves. Small children are diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Someone has to take care of these vets. Usually it’s Mom who has to quit her job and become a full-time caretaker. Maybe Dad has to take a second job to make ends meet. Or maybe he “moves on.” Families that stick together often are able to do so only because someone – usually Mom – gives up her life to devote it to what’s left of her child. When a veteran kills himself, as so many do, parents and siblings are devastated, and sometimes suicidal as well. Or a wife may be left behind – a young woman who has never held a job, with a couple of kids to raise, and no death benefit because her husband died of war but not in it. Then again, many guys who return from the wars can’t stop being violent. Many of them abuse and murder their wives or girlfriends or children, and surprisingly often they kill other soldiers and random strangers. They destroy their own families and others as well.

MARK KARLIN: In this sense, as you point out in your introduction, our wars never really end, even if they are officially over. They just recede, as you write, “from public to private life.” But if we are one of those fortunate enough not to be impacted by the ripple effect of the living wounded, we think that a given war is finished, isn’t that right?

ANN JONES: Exactly. Men make war. (There’s no getting around the fact that war is a guy thing.) Then they make a deal to stop shooting and withdraw. (The US once used to win wars, but now it just makes deals.) They call the cessation of armed violence against one another’s armies “peace,” although violence against civilians continues – as is the case in Iraq today – and individual soldiers bring their violence home. Wives and parents trying to live in peace at home with veterans today feel the burden placed on them to adapt to the vet’s volatility, to humor him and ward off the violence he might do to himself and others. They get no peace. And all taxpayers, whether they recognize it or not, will continue to be deeply involved in these wars long after official “peace” is declared. Medical and disability payments alone for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq already have cost taxpayers $135 billion, and those costs won’t peak until close to midcentury – topping out at an estimated $754 billion. The total cost of these two wars to date is well above $3 trillion and rising, while the government, having failed to raise taxes to pay for them, now takes a hatchet to social programs as basic as education, women’s shelters and food stamps – programs that once helped the poor to rise. If war has changed soldiers in fundamental ways, it has also transformed the country in ways equally heartbreaking.

MARK KARLIN: There’s the infamous story of how Gen. George S. Patton (re-created in the movie about him) slaps a soldier during World War II who is in a military infirmary for what was then called “shell shock.” Patton calls him a coward. Although Patton was “disciplined” for the action, he represented the culture of the Army at the time. Would you say that is still the case?

ANN JONES: Yes, despite some more enlightened leadership, the military still seems to be a fundamentally macho organization that requires soldiers to suck up their problems and pains without complaint. That compounds their physical problems. A remarkable number of soldiers break down under the weight of their own armor and the equipment they have to carry. They’re given opioid painkillers and sent back to the infantry time after time, only to wind up as addicts with permanently incapacitating orthopedic injuries and a newfound interest in suicide. Disease, too, can become terminal while a soldier sucks up the pain. I saw soldiers who had lived with cancer for so long that when they finally complained, they were beyond treatment. That suck-it-up attitude combines with sexism to hit sexually assaulted women in the ranks especially hard. In many cases, even if they want to lodge a complaint, they have to file it with the superior officer who raped them or is a pal of the man who did. Right now Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is leading a tough fight in Congress to get the reporting process removed from the chain of command to a specialized legal unit. It’s a simple, sensible proposal, but the good old boys in command are fighting it with all the macho bravado of General Patton himself.

MARK KARLIN: Ongoing press reports indicate US vets who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have a high suicide rate. Are we – the Pentagon and our society – providing inadequate support to help these members of our armed forces cope with the demons unleashed by war?

ANN JONES: The support vets get seems to be well-intentioned, unreliable, inadequate, often inappropriate and, in the heavy reliance on medications, lethal. Countless soldiers have taken their lives while waiting for an appointment at the VA, or after having been denied hospitalization or treatment. Some of the saddest stories I heard came from distraught families who had tried desperately and failed to get help from the VA for their suicidal soldier. On the other hand, many vets who commit suicide are being treated at the VA, although not necessarily for suicidal thoughts. For years, the Big Pharma companies have conducted a massive campaign to persuade the VA to prescribe opioid painkillers for any and every instance of pain – from those commonplace orthopedic injuries to a toothache – and opioids have proved to be not only highly addictive but also conducive to suicide. The most important way we fail soldiers, however, is by sending them to unnecessary wars in the first place. There was no reason for any of these soldiers to be wounded or killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, or ever to have left home, except for the foolish delusions and arrogant ideology of politicians in power who got off on dressing up in military uniforms and playing commander-in-chief. They are the demons who unleashed the wars that unleashed the demons that did in the soldiers.

MARK KARLIN: You choose to begin your book by providing a detailed account of how the bodies and belongings of soldiers killed in our wars are processed. Why did you start They Were Soldiers with this chapter?

ANN JONES: This may sound odd, but it seemed to me less painful to readers to begin with the dead, who are well and truly beyond suffering, although their families still grieve their loss. I also wanted readers to understand what an efficient system the Pentagon has developed for the disposal of the dead – rather like the mass-production line in any factory – and how the death of soldiers was concealed from the public for nearly two decades by a special order of Dick Cheney, banning press coverage. My book is about the suffering of soldiers and their families, but it is also about this soulless, automatic, invisible system for disposal of the dead and concealment of the dreadfully damaged, which is, in turn, merely a cog in the gigantic American war-making machine.

MARK KARLIN: You end the book with the account of a mother’s vigil with her younger Marine son, who is back stateside in a hospital with a horrifying injury. Her oldest son had joined the Navy because he couldn’t find a job. I recall this was the case with Jessica Lynch, whom the Pentagon had used for propaganda purposes during the Iraq War. And you detail other reasons that compel enlistees to “sign up.” Before the draft was ended, nearly everyone in America was potentially part of the military, now it is a job opportunity. How has this disassociation between those who fight in our wars and our society at large – which appears largely unaffected by the conflicts – affected the way in which we largely ignore returning vets, except for jingoistic tributes at sporting events and the like?

ANN JONES: We worry – if at all – about how vets are treated when they return because of our mistaken notion that Vietnam vets suffered mightily from not being greeted as heroes. What Vietnam veterans truly suffered from was not their reception, but the war. That fact we tend to forget. Consequently, we think we can resolve all the possible nasty consequences of war by waving flags at airports as troops return. The deeper problem is that none of these veterans of the wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan – not one of them – should ever have been sent to war. But without a draft that can potentially strike any family in the country, those who have no fear that a family member may be compelled to serve are free to ignore the whole political and public relations process by which leaders drag the country into war and carry it on. War can be left to a supposedly “all volunteer” standing army – those poor kids with no job options or a shot at college – which is precisely what the founding fathers warned against, believing that a standing army would be used by autocrats to destroy democracy. That volunteer army, of course, is shadowed by a larger privatized for-profit army of mercenary contractors. The standing army of the poor and patriotic is alienated from the general public and left at the mercy of the president. Our recent presidents and their cronies, who hold a nearly unblemished record of evading military service, have thrown kids into war with an enthusiasm undampened by any real knowledge of what war is, while the most influential segments of the general public, feeling both grateful and guilty that their kids are safe, make no effort to restrain those war-loving leaders.

MARK KARLIN: Has your expertise as a professor, researcher and author about women and violence assisted you in your coverage of war and its impact?

ANN JONES: I believe it has. I am particularly struck by the similarities between the situation of battered women, who commonly are subjected to repeated rape, and soldiers, and I describe the parallels in the book. Twenty years ago or more, researchers studying battered women and rape victims noted psychological after-effects that matched the criteria just then being established to define post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of the war in Vietnam. That’s not coincidence. We’re taught to think of soldiers as strong, armed men in control of things. But if you think about the situation the combat soldiers are in – scared to death, forced to follow somebody else’s orders, compelled to do things that contradict their basic moral beliefs – clearly they are as much victims of the soldiering job they volunteered for as any battered woman who volunteered for the job of wife and found it different from the advance publicity. Soldiers, of course, are taught to see themselves as anything but victims, and the public is trained to honor them as warrior heroes. If we saw victimized soldiers for what they are, who but sociopaths would ever volunteer for war again?

MARK KARLIN: You ask in the book, “Could there be any connections between the size of those corporate profits and Washington’s patriotic dedication to eternal wartime?” This profiteering involves the private contractors on the ground in our wars, consultants and those corporations that sell big ticket items to the Pentagon, doesn’t it?

ANN JONES: Absolutely. But it goes well beyond that. In 2011, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont released a Defense Department study showing that at least 300 contractors providing goods and services to the DOD had committed fraud. They included major corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and the big winner of the war in Iraq, Halliburton. But during ten years of warfare, the DOD had given to the top 37 fraudulent contractors alone some $1.1 trillion. The DOD got that money from Congress, and I’ll let you guess the identity of the top contributors to the campaign funds of Congressmen. It’s said that when President [Dwight] Eisenhower drafted his famous farewell speech to the nation, he wanted to warn citizens against a “military-industrial-congressional complex.” Someone, perhaps a Congressman, persuaded him that the phrase would be catchier if he left out the word “Congressional,” but Congressmen are surely in it now up to their ears. It’s now next to impossible to get elected to government in this country if you oppose war because the money is on the other side. Even the Supreme Court, when it declared corporations to have the rights of people, helped mightily to facilitate that arrangement.

MARK KARLIN: You dedicate your book to your father, who served in World War I. There were critics at the time who claimed that “The Great War” (great only in the size of its gruesome devastation, you note) was egged on by war profiteers. Has anything changed but the technology since then in this regard?

ANN JONES: I suspect the profiteers are much more sophisticated now. The weapons manufacturers, for example, have managed to make themselves thought of not as “merchants of death,” as they used to be called, but patriotic and even altruistic enterprises, creating jobs and wealth in the free market and dedicating their efforts to the security of the Homeland, with a capital H. Sustaining that image involves manipulation of government personnel, lobbyists, the media, Congress, even social studies teachers. The military, too, has become more sophisticated in recruiting the necessary canon fodder. The Pentagon installs retired officers to teach Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps programs in the nation’s poorest high schools. Recruiters are in those schools too, looking smart in full dress uniforms. They go to work on poor kids of 14, 15 or 16 who see no other job option, no other means of finding an identity to match their idealism and ambition. Of course, this country could not have fought these wars, plus countless other “actions” and “missions” around the world, without that much larger privatized army of mercenary contractors to do most of the work the military once did for itself. Unfortunately, the government can’t hand the whole job to them and ask the public to “Support Our Contractors!” That bald motto would give away the fact that war is now America’s business. So while the profiteers feed on the public treasury, the political leaders still need those kids in uniform – the “heroic” and “resilient” ones – to risk their lives in battles the old-fashioned way, like in the movies, and make the public complicit, quiet and vaguely proud.

Get a copy of “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story” with a minimum contribution of $25 to Truthout. Click here now.