yet another mash note to Dexter Filkins

I’ve been impressed with the work of Dexter Filkins since long before I started on my own zig-zag path to this book. When I made the Iraq war the theme of a writing class I was teaching at La Guardia Community College in 2004, I found Filkins’ reporting from Iraq essential reading, and even assigned one of his Fallujah stories as basis for discussion. (Thanks to your reporting from Fallujah, sir, I still dream about steel rain.) I actually did write such a mash note when Filkins won his fellowship from the Nieman Center for Narrative Journalism, where he wrote the hard-to-forget The Forever War.

So it was as much for Filkins’ prose as his subject’s that I went to his piece this week in the New York Times Book Review. And Filkins’ lede reminded me why:

War is too weird a thing to make sense of when it’s actually happening. It’s not just the combat, which by its nature is unintelligible. Armed conflict so fundamentally alters the environment it takes hold of that no aspect of life escapes undistorted: not love, not friendship, not sleep, not trust, not conversation. In war, even boredom is strange.

And memory is surreal, as many vets have told us for years. Filkins is a poet at heart, as are many of the warrior writers he mentions in this review — including Phil Klay, whose short-story collection Redeployment is already winning awards.

Unknown-1“In Klay’s hands,” Filkins writes, “Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis. ‘Redeployment’ is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”

George Packer, another inspiring journalist, also checked in with his thoughts on  Klay and many vet-scribes. His lede draws from the ones who sang World War I and got us all to do the same: “‘Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,’ Paul Fussell wrote in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” his classic study of the English literature of the First World War. ‘But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.’ The ancient verities of honor and glory were still standing in 1914 when England’s soldier-poets marched off to fight in France. Those young men became modern through the experience of trench warfare, if not in the forms they used to describe it. […]Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen—who all fought in the trenches and, in the last two cases, died there—remained tied to the conventions of the nineteenth century while trying to convey the unprecedented horror of industrial warfare, a condition of existence so murderous and absurd that a romantic or heroic attitude became impossible.” He calls Klay’s book “the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars,” a high bar considering how many voices are being heard.


That should be enough to get you to pick up the book, and maybe write its former-Marine author a mash note of your own. I might too. For now, I’d love to also thank Packer and Filkins, each ten times the journo I’ll ever and translators of hard truths. For the Virgil-lamp, and the inspiration.

99 Problems But a Draft Ain’t One

Originally posted on The Grey Area:

Philip Carter

Dec 3, 2013

To paraphrase Jay-Z: the all-volunteer force has 99 problems, but a lack of conscripts ain’t one of them.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank penned a column titled “Save America: Restore the Draft”.  Conscription, in Milbank’s view, is a panacea that would cure all of America’s ills, from social and class divisions to misuse of the military to overly adventurous foreign policy.

Several years ago, I wrote a long Washington Monthly article with Paul Glastris calling for a draft just like Milbank.  But for a variety of reasons, I now agree with my WOTR colleagues Bob Goldich, John Thorne, and others that the draft is a bad idea, and would do more harm than good to U.S. society.  Here’s why:

1.  We don’t need the manpower.  No, really, we don’t.  We, currently have 2.4 million men and women…

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Carri Leigh Goodwin, United States Marine Corps


See also this NBC News piece on the issue, and the incredible work now being done by survivors.

Originally posted on My Duty to Speak:

by Melissa Obrien as said by Carri’s father; Gary Noling
Carri Leigh Goodwin, USMC

August of 2007 at the age of 18 Carri Leigh Goodwin of Ohio enlisted in the United States Marine Corps to make her father, Gary Noling, a former Marine proud. During her time in the Marine Corps Carri reported a rape. Instead of being supported and having her allegations being taken seriously she felt that the Marine Corps did not do enough to help her. Similar to what many survivors reported, the blame of the rape was put on the survivor instead of the perpetrator. She was bullied by her command for reporting a rape and was eventually forced out of the Marine Corps for reasons of Personality Disorder. According to an external investigation the alleged rapist was accused of another rape in 2006 at Camp Pendleton but was able to continue serving. The alleged rapist…

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From prison, Chelsea Manning speaks out

I don’t know about you, but I found this as surprising as it is heartening.

In accepting the Sam Adams Integrity Award from a task force of intelligence experts, Chelsea Manning issues what feels like her first political statement — a comment on the White House’s refusal to provide information about on the drone war.

In her statement, Manning quotes a judge who recently ruled that the administration had no obligation to do so:”The judge also wrote candidly about her frustration with her sense that the request  ‘implicate[d] serious issues about the limits on the power of the Executive Branch under the Constitution and laws of the United States,’and that the Presidential ‘Administration ha[d] engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of fAmerican] citizens, but in cryptic and imprecise ways.’ In other words, it wasn’t that she didn’t think that the public didn’t have a right to know-it was that she didn’t feel that she had the “legal” authority to compel disclosure.”

manning-480x299Given the MONTHS of haggling over classification in Manning’s own trial, Manning then speaks with authority as she adds: “This case, like too many others, presents a critical problem that can also be seen in several recent cases, including my court-martial. For instance, I was accused by the Executive branch, and particularly the Department of Defense, of aiding the enemy-a treasonable offense covered under Article lll of the Constitution. Granted, I received due process. I received charges, was arraigned before a military judge for trial, and eventually acquitted. But, the al-Aulaqi case raises a fundamental question: did the American government, and particularly the same President and Department, have the power to unilaterally determine my guilt of such an offense, and execute me at the will of the pilot of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle?

I’m intrigued beyond measure that her lawyer (still fighting for clemency) approved this statement, and curious as to how she sees her role evolving as a public dissenter. Of course, the award itself gives her hints, given the honor roll of its recent recipients

The annual Sam Adams Award has been given in previous years to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI; Katharine Gun of British Intelligence; Sibel Edmonds of the FBI; Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; Sam Provance, former US Army Sgt; Maj. Frank Grevil of Danish Army Intelligence; Larry Wilkerson, Col., US Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell at State; Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks: Thomas Drake, of NSA; Jesselyn Radack, formerly of Dept. of Justice and now National Security Director of Government Accountability Project; Thomas Fingar, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence and Director, National Intelligence Council, and Edward Snowden, former contractor for the National Security Agency.

Speaking of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower congratulated Manning on the award this week, noting Manning’s “extraordinary act” and that Manning’s bravery (and his treatment) helped forge his own blockbuster revelations.

I’d love to see a conference convened where they share their perspectives, and add to its roster so many of my book’s figures — from Camilo Mejia to Jeff Sharlet (editor of VIETNAM GI though represented by his brilliant nephew) to Ray McGovern, who I met during Manning’s trial and provided the link to the speech. I’d be honored just to witness it.

in defense of channeling voices

I’ve long since added Jill Lepore to my list of people younger than I who fruitlessly I want to be when  grow up.  (Others include legal star Kimberle Crenshaw and my J-school classmate Jina Moore.) So it made sense when I learned, preparing to write this, that she’s one of ours – a ROTC dropout like Bayard Rustin, a 1980s Reagan-resister like Jeff Sharlet, a Warrior Writer.  She only went to college, she told an interviewer in 2005, because “I won an ROTC scholarship:

I really liked ROTC, actually, except I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the military. Loved boot camp; hated SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. So, freshman year, there I was, in ROTC, playing sports, failing all my classes, when I got a letter in the mail. Or, well, my mother got it, and she forwarded it to me. It was from me.

In high school, I had an English teacher who was that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who shapes everything that ever happens to you. He had given us an assignment to write a letter to ourselves five years in the future, or four years into the future, whatever it was. And he was not going to read it. We had to give him money for stamps, adjusted, I thought somewhat suspiciously, for inflation. I mean, good for him, but he charged us like fifty cents. Anyway, we addressed the letters to our parents’ houses. I had completely forgotten about that letter because—did I mention?—I have a terrible memory.

Turns out, it was a very scary letter. It said, more or less, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and it went on like that, scolding, berating: ‘If you’re not actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing, quit everything and figure out your life for God’s sake. Get on with it!’ Apparently, I was a very difficult fourteen-year-old, but not altogether lacking in foresight. It was as if I had known that I would still be the jock who was reading in the dark. So I quit. I quit ROTC. I quit sports. I had been a math major; I switched to English.

This didn’t make me ‘become a historian.’ But later, when I thought about what I did want to do, I remembered that letter, that time capsule, and I wondered what it would be like to read old letters all day, other people’s letters, to listen to the past, and I knew I wanted to do that.

Like many, I discovered Lepore through her brilliant historical-context pieces for The New Yorkerone of which led me to her lovely Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.  On my way there, I did note that she named herself a fellow member of the I’m-Only-Happy-When-it-Rains Club, or what my friend Joshua Phillips calls “The House of Slytherin.” She describes why she took so long to be truly interested in Ben Franklin’s semi-literate sister:  at Harvard in the late 1980s, “I was sick of attics, sick of blighted girlhood….I wanted to study war. I wanted to investigate atrocity. I wanted to write about politics.” So her first books were about documenting the atrocity-born “New World,” about 18-century New York City set afire by abolitionism and untrammeled commerce. She’d already read all the work of William Apess, the main figure of my second chapter , and in 2005 published a book answering in depth my questions about Apess’ final work, “In Defense of King Philip.”

 "Philip, King of Mount Hope, from the Church's The Entertaining History of King Philip's War," line engraving, colored by hand, by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere. 17.3 cm x 10.7 cm (6 13/16 in. x 4 3/16 in.) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University Art Gallery. Courtesy of Yale University, New Haven. Conn.

“Philip, King of Mount Hope, from the Church’s The Entertaining History of King Philip’s War,” line engraving, colored by hand, by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere. 17.3 cm x 10.7 cm (6 13/16 in. x 4 3/16 in.) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University Art Gallery. Courtesy of Yale University, New Haven. Conn.

In 1836, Apess was writing about Metacom, the Wampanoug warrior who led perhaps the last serious effort by those indigenous to “New England” against the colonists there in the 1670s. His essay is one of thousands of documents Lepore illuminates in The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,  Lepore’s exploration of both the facts behind those early wars and the way ‘Philip”s defeat has been memorialized by waves of writers after. Including, as we learn from the image at left, Paul Revere, who 100 years after Philip’s defeat took up his image a s a herald of resistance to the British. Lepore does so with her signature clarity,  giving generous voice to Philip’s numerous chroniclers, including Revere, Apess, and the thoroughly unpleasant Increase Mather, who saw Indians as savages from hell and the war against  them holy. More important, she lifts beautifully the scraps and fragments that help us understand a little of that earlier world, strewing details that startle: how long Philip’s severed head loomed over Kennett Square, or how many natives of Massachusetts and Connecticut were sold by the Puritans into slavery in the Caribbean. It all goes down like an insomniac bedtime story, with endnotes nearly as mesmerizing as the text. I actually read The Name of War a few months after the equally absorbing Jane Franklin book, in which those scraps and fragments are of seemingly humbler stuff — but the second book is as much about power, memory,identity as the other. And as much about violence, if you count the sort of semi-voluntary servitude that as 13 successive pregnancies and the multiple child deaths that followed. The difference, in some ways, is that Jane Franklin did write her own story, in a language we can read and greatly helped by a writer who persuades us that her story is no less a biography of America.

Veterans Day musings on moral injury

Note: I know it’s been awhile since I posted here: reasons too boring. But it made sense to share today’s Veterans Day op-ed — which focuses on a theme that ties together s0 much of why I wanted to write this book in the first place.

Air Force analyst Heather Lea Linebaugh never deployed, but she still saw combat, as a participant in the newest layer called “drone warfare.”  “I have nightmares to this day of women I have seen killed, children I have seen lost in vain, fathers who will never return to their families, and soldiers who will never say goodbye to their families,” Linebaugh wrote this past June, not long after I saw her speak at Fort Meade, Maryland. I contacted her almost immediately thereafter; she was voicing an ache I’d rarely heard articulated so well in years of working with and writing about soldiers and vets.

I knew, therefore, that Linebaugh would be my first Veterans Day voice this year.

Rita-BrockClose by would  be that of Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock (left), described in a New York Times  profile as “tending the spiritual wounds of warriors, seeking theological answers to the condition among veterans called ‘moral injury.’”

Daughter of a World War II veteran and Vietnam War  medic, Brock helped create the Soul Repair Center to go beyond the clinical in approaching these questions. Now based at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, the Center has attracted Iraq vets like Michael Yandell, 28, who worked on a bomb disposal team is now a seminarian at Brock’s school, telling the Times “It’s not that you lose your ability to tell right from wrong, but things don’t seem so clear anymore. For me, it’s whether or not what I did, did any good.”  Yandell, like Linebaugh, is among the new generation refusing to call combat trauma a mental illness.

Moral injury, writes former Army surgeon general Elspeth Ritchie, is  “an important concept to help understand the experiences of our service members.” The  term was first coined by psychiatrist and MacArthur Award-winning “genius” Jonathan Shay, in his iconic Odysseus in America:  “Betrayal of ‘what’s right’ in a high stakes situation by someone who holds power.” Shay knew from his decades of work with Vietnam vets that “the consequences for those still on active duty range from a loss of motivation and enjoyment, resulting in attrition from the service at the next available moment, to passive obstructionism, goldbricking, and petty theft, to outright desertion . . . sabotage, fragging, or treason. In a war, the consequences are catastrophic.”  And afterward, he wrote two years ago in Daedalus, that betrayal puts land mines in a soldier’s heart: “The body codes moral injury as physical attack and reacts with the same massive mobilization” in response.

Amid the current epidemic of suicides among veterans (at last count, 22 per day), the Veterans Administration has started to notice the injury. The VA’s Shira Maguen  distinguished it from the more-familiar-sounding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: “There is no threshold for establishing the presence of moral injury,” she wrote. “Rather, at a given point in time, a Veteran may have none, or have mild to extreme manifestations. Furthermore, transgression is not necessary for a PTSD diagnosis nor does PTSD sufficiently capture moral injury, or the shame, guilt, and self-handicapping behaviors that often accompany moral injury.”  Those words and Shay’s definitions of the term even made it into this terrific NPR graphic essay, and vets are being able to raise these issues with people around them.

Most essentially,the new generation  challenges us to look at our own moral injury in these wars. “Moral injuries are not about benefits or blame. They’re not about treatment or medications. They’re not about disability. They are about our society and our moral values,” writes Tyler Boudreau, author of Packing Inferno: the Unmaking of a Marine in the Massachusetts Review. “A moral injury is not inherently the same thing as a war crime, though clearly the two ideas overlap. But when we talk about war crimes, we seek justice; when we talk about moral injuries, we seek a deeper understanding of our humanity.Like Heather Linebaugh, Boudreau is less interested in his own trauma than in its implications in our war-besotted nation.

Other new vets are making common cause with veterans overseas, reaching out to Combatants for Peace in Israel, which works to end the occupation of the West Bank along with  Breaking the Silence, which has posted nearly 1,000 testimonials   on what they saw when serving there. All of these newer groups emphasize that it’s not about the vets own personal trauma, at least not exclusively. Avner Gvaryahu from Breaking the Silence, in a recent interview, used the Hebrew phrase yorim u’vochim, “shooting and crying,” to describe the limits of such testimonials for enacting change. “It’s easy to find people having regrets – saying ‘they forced us to be evil.’ The vast majority of soldiers will admit that,” he said. “We are aware of the fact that many more testifiers suffered from moral injuries,” he added, “but we’re also aware of the fact that we are not victims but rather the victimizers.”

Thus, Gvaryahu’s Breaking the Silence “has a political goal: to create a constituency in Israel for ending  the occupation of the West Bank.  Tyler Boudreau founded founded the Iraq Veterans’ Refugee Aid Association (IVRAA), and in 2010  testified along with hundreds of other young vets at the Truth Commission on Conscience and War. And  last month, Heather Linebaugh co-founded Front Lines International, an international media-based initiative which presents equally stories from both sides of the “front line.”

These days, Linebaugh is training to be a massage therapist, doing yoga and taking care of herself — which for her includes her work with Front Lines International. As she told Facebook in August, “[After]  finishing my shifts at my normal job, I’m heading straight home to do work for my cause and [my] research for my mission to educate on peace and ending cultural misunderstanding and needless violence due to the War and Violence paradigms that exist in our time. This, at times, can be exhausting, but I am more alive, enlightened and in love with the world than ever before in my life.  I will never stop.”


Chris Hedges doesn’t need me to re-blog him. But here’s my bit so that Tomas Young isn’t forgotten too soon.

Originally posted on LeakSource:



I flew to Kansas City last week to see Tomas Young. Young was paralyzed in Iraq in 2004. He is now receiving hospice care at his home. I knew him by reputation and the movie documentary “Body of War.” He was one of the first veterans to publicly oppose the war in Iraq. He fought as long and as hard as he could against the war that crippled him, until his physical deterioration caught up with him.

“I had been toying with the idea of suicide for a long time because I had become helpless,” he told me in his small house on the Kansas City outskirts where he intends to die. “I couldn’t dress myself. People have to help me with the most rudimentary of things. I decided I did not want to go through life like that anymore. The pain, the frustration. …”

He stopped abruptly and…

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