“As a sniper I was not usually the victim of a traumatic event, but the perpetrator of violence and death,” recalled Garrett Reppenhegen of Iraq Veterans Against the War in an essay for Salon.
“My actions in combat would have been more acceptable to me if I could cloak myself in the belief that the whole mission was for a greater good,” he reflected. “Instead, I watched as the purpose of the mission slowly unraveled.”
These words illustrate the concept of moral injury — where a soldier’s conscience has been shaken by what he or she has done, resulting in lasting trauma.
For so many of us, war is something that happens somewhere else. It’s a television news update or a click on the screen, at worst. The real costs of US wars happen to other people, in other places.
Will ordinary Americans ever have to reckon with moral injury?
In Yemen, the non-profit organization Save the Children estimated that 50,000 children died in 2017 due to extreme hunger and disease. Yemen is currently under attack from Saudi Arabia with support from the United States.
In Afghanistan, invaded and occupied by the United States for the last generation, at least 31,000 civilians have been killed. In Iraq, a very conservative estimate from the monitoring group Iraq Body Count found that over 200,000 civilians had died as a result of the aggressive war initiated by the Bush administration.
Beyond the deaths, war is tearing apart entire societies.
The World Bank estimated that the economic cost of the war in Syria from 2011 to 2016 was four times the size of Syria’s economy. The United Nations reports that about one quarter of the entire country’s population has fled the war and become refugees, including more than 2 million children under 12.
In the United States, the equivalent would be 80 million people fleeing not just their homes, but the country as a whole.
From the founding of our country all the way through the 21st century, the United States has been embroiled in nearly continuous warfare — whether against Native Americans, or later against Latin Americans, or later still against developing world countries leaning toward socialism. And where it has not gone to war, it’s used proxies like Saudi Arabia and Israel to fight on its behalf.
As a result, when a president tweets bellicose rhetoric against Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela, he’s not really out of step with the bulk of American history. For the past 100 years, both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses have initiated or funded wars throughout the world, whether in Vietnam, or Haiti, or Iraq.
Our society has become inured to the wars we pay for. Do you know how many countries the United States is at war with? Can you name them all?
So, on this Memorial Day, take a moment to pause from your barbecue and look at your flag. If you want it to stand for something more than violence, you’ll need to do more than thank the veterans who have died for our sins. You’ll need to join vets like Reppenhegen in starting to make amends.