War films and books: Who can’t handle the truth?

Last fall, I thought a lot about what writing about war really meant.  Two articles this week went at that question kind of sideways:

First, a Week in Review piece by Washington insider Elizabeth Bumiller, about the newest rack of books on the Iraq and Afghan wars, saying that these soldier-writers “explore the futility of war but wars that they for the most part support. I found that slug less than fully supported by the books/writers mentioned therein, even given the weasel-phrase “for the most part.”

Bumiller also states that such pro-war narratives are different from previous wars, though she writes from little knowledge: “I do not believe much soldier writing about the US Civil War, or World War II, for instance, opposed those wars. I think she is implicitly reacting to some of the books about Vietnam,” wrote science writer Jonathan D. Beard on one of my war-history listservs. Beard’s mostly right, although “not much” does not equal “none” and in that gap much of my book resides.

The same day as the Bumiller piece, A.O. Scott discussed what he called  the new breed of “apolitical” war movies:

It may be that movies, at least as they are currently made and consumed, can’t bridge the gulf between the theater of war and the arena of politics. It is also probably true that the soldiers who are the main characters in fictional and nonfictional war movies don’t talk much about the larger context in which they struggle to survive and get the job done. But in previous wars — in older war movies, that is — they could be a bit more forthcoming. Sailors and infantrymen in World War II combat pictures were known to wax eloquent about the pasting they were going to give Hitler and Tojo, while the grunts in the post-Vietnam Vietnam movies often gave voice to the cynicism and alienation that were part of that war’s actual and cinematic legacy.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different. They are being fought, for one thing, largely out of sight of the American public and largely by an army of professionals. And the respect afforded those professionals — an admiration that is the most pervasive and persuasive aspect of “The Hurt Locker” — extends across the political spectrum. At the same time, though, the political contention about the wars themselves has been vociferous and endless, even as it has involved a measure of ambivalence and, as the wars have gone on, a lot of position-changing and second guessing.

Perhaps the decision to stay out of these debates is a way of acknowledging this ambivalence. Or perhaps filmmakers, aware of the volatility of popular opinion, are leery of turning off potential ticket buyers on one side or another. Or maybe, in the end, the gap between beliefs about war and its reality is too wide for any single movie to capture.

Scott comes close to getting at the core of the issue in one way, though he never addresses the central paradox of writing about war at all. Some of us — yes, I mean you Wilfred Owen, Oliver Stone, Tim O’Brien, let alone us civilian amateurs — instinctively feel that to provide actual, gory details about war is in itself an antiwar act. But I’ll never forget Anthony Swofford’s observation in Jarhead about Gulf War troops getting psyched for battle in 1991:

For three days we sit in our rec room and drink all of the beer and watch all of those damn movies, and we yell Semper fi and we head-butt and beat the crap out of each other and we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. We rewind and review famous scenes, such as Robert Duvall and his helicopter gunships during Apocalypse Now, and in the same film Martin Sheen floating up the fake Vietnamese Congo; we watch Willem Dafoe get shot by a friendly and left on the battlefield in Platoon… the rape scenes when American soldiers return from the bush after killing many VC to sip cool beers in a thatch bar while whores sit on their laps for a song or two (a song from the fifties when America was still sweet) before they retire to rooms and fuck the whores sweetly. The American boys, brutal, young farm boys or tough city boys, sweetly fuck the whores. Yes, somehow the films convince us that these boys are sweet, even though we know we are much like these boys and that we are no longer sweet.

Then is it  the rest of the writing that tells you the politics? If it’s determinedly free of any clues, is that also political? And where does this all fit into my zig-zag definitions of dissent? Those are the questions roiling around in my head right now; I’d love some suggestion from any of you, especially the warrior-writers Bumilller largely ignored.

“the erroneous belief that they have rights”

Certainly not those guaranteed by the First Amendment, with its pesky talk of free speech. This just in from Iraq Veterans Against the War:

The U.S .military plans to extradite stop-lossed Iraq war vet to Iraq for court martial over protest rap song

Fort Stewart, Ga. – The US military plans to extradite a stop-lossed Iraq war veteran to Iraq “within a few days” to face a court martial for allegedly threatening military officers in a protest rap song he made.

Spc. Marc Hall has been jailed in the Liberty County Jail near Fort Stewart, Ga., since Dec. 11 because he wrote a song called “Stop Loss” about the practice of involuntarily extending military members’ contracts.

“It is our belief that the Army would violate its own regulations by deploying Marc and it would certainly violate his right to due process by making it far more difficult to get witnesses. It appears the Army doesn’t believe it can get a conviction in a fair and public trial. We will do whatever we can to insure he remain in the United States,” said Hall’s civilian attorney, David Gespass.

Gespass claims the Army’s attempts to deploy Hall violate Army Regulations 600-8-105 and the Army’s conscientious objector regulations. Hall applied for a conscientious objector discharge Monday. The military’s move would also separate Hall from both his civilian legal team and military defender.

“The Army seeks to disappear Marc and the politically charged issues involved here, including: the unfair stop-loss policy, the boundary of free speech and art by soldiers, and the continuing Iraq occupation. The actual charges are overblown if not frivolous, so I’m not surprised the Army wants to avoid having a public trial,” explained Jeff Paterson, executive director of Courage to Resist.

An Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) member, Hall served 14 months in Iraq. He was scheduled to end his military contract on Feb. 27 but received a stop loss order that he would have to stay on active-duty to re-deploy to Iraq with his unit.

“Marc served his tour of duty to Iraq honorably,” said Brenda McElveen, Hall’s mother. “To his dismay, he was told that he would be deployed again. When Marc voiced his concerns over this matter, his concerns fell on deaf ears. To let his frustration be known, Marc wrote and released the song. Marc is not now nor has he ever been violent.”

Using stop loss orders, the US military has stopped about 185,000 soldiers from leaving the military since 2001. An additional 13,000 troops are now serving under stop-loss orders. President Obama said he thinks the practice should be stopped.

Hall, 34, was charged Dec. 17 with five specifications in violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Conduct, including “wrongfully threatening acts of violence against members of his unit.” His arrest came about a month after 13 people were killed in a shooting incident at Fort Hood, Texas. Hall, whose hiphop name is Marc Watercus, mailed a copy of his “Stop Loss” song to the Pentagon.

Based at Fort Stewart, Hall said the song was a “free expression of how people feel about the Army and its stop-loss policy” not a threat. “My first sergeant said he actually liked the song and that he did not take it as a threat,” Hall added.

A South Carolina native, Hall wanted to leave the military to spend more time with his wife and child.

The title of the post is historical, of course: those who read my piece in Guernica might remember my talk of the 1819 West Point rebellion put down by superintendent Sylvanus Thayer, who was eager to correct such an “erroneous” belief. Speaking of Guernica, they’ve got me on assignment today, so this will likely be my only post till very late. In the meantime, listen to the song yourself and see whether it’s worth a courts-martial.

today’s news: gay troops and those less gay

First, via Ben Chitty of Vietnam Veterans Against War, some long-overdue adjustment on the part of the Veterans Administration:

More than 4300 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who were diagnosed in service as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but got low military disability ratings, have won an agreement with the Department of Defense to upgrade those ratings retroactively to 50 percent.

The higher rating will represent an important win for this group of veterans mentally scared by war.  It will mean, from date of discharge, eligibility for disability retirement and access to TRICARE, the military’s triple health insurance option, for the veterans, spouses and dependent children.

I can’t tell you how many young vets I talked to, obviously traumatized, who were fighting tooth and nail (usually with the help of independent veterans’ advocates, by the way) to get their original disability ratings renewed. The above news is, therefore, a welcome return to rationality ——if it’s implemented across the board, in every branch of the gigantic military and VA systems. (G.I. Bill issues, anyone?)

Of course, that wasn’t the big “military story” over the past few days. That belongs to the hearings on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the schizophrenic policy originally pushed by Colin Powell and John McCain (who is still fighting for it). Andrew Sullivan has a good summary here of responses to the hearings, and predicts that once the ban is actually lifted  “it will be a non-event.”

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about DADT lately, revising my 1990’s chapter. I learned anew about Lt. Leonard Matlovich, who first sued for equal treatment in 1975, and how the friendship he developed with Clinton aide David Mixner —”He was an amazing person publicly and privately,”Mixner told me over email. Mixner, also a pacifist who had organized the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium, had met sympathetic vets while working on the McCarthy campaign, which had a VVAW component; John Kerry and the others were “Like all veterans that come back from any war, a range of emotions depending on the person, their experience and the horror of that war.” But meeting Matlovich and the others persuaded him their battle could also be theirs, and he helped Clinton to try to end the gay ban. The result was DADT – in many ways, far worse than its predecessor.

I wasn’t surprised by McCain and others’ resistance to today’s hearings, and almost wish I’d turned on C-SPAN for the train wreck known as Elaine Donnelly. But I was a little stunned by this:

Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the committee they needed more time to review how to carry out the change in policy, which requires an act of Congress, and predicted some disruption to the armed forces.

MORE study? At last count, there have been at least fifteen major Pentagon studies on homosexual service, some kept secret for years (Google “Crittenden and PERSEREC”) and none of which saw a problem with gay soldiers. Moreover, it’s not considered that revolutionary to talk about it anymore; photogenic folks like Lt. Dan Choi, a latter-day Malkovich of sorts, along with others whose stories are as well-scrubbed and militarist as any proud West Point mom would want.

Why am I so interested in all this, then? if what these folks are fighting for is the right to become the happy enforcers of U.S. military policies?  People who are not stepping away from the cycle of violence but stepping forward and saying “Me too?”

Mostly because (in addition to my admiration of people who volunteer for hard important work) their struggle, up until about now, has thrown fairy dust in the military’s use of an exaggerated, all-heterosexual masculinity to win its wars. Whether that will continue, or what will become of those practices if it doesn’t, is something I guess we’ll all live to see.

Thinking of the first item today, I wonder  if at least having survived these battles gay troops will continue to demand fair treatment —even when it comes to commands calling your combat stress a “pre-existing condition.”

all enemies foreign and domestic

A shocker even from the always absorbing Home Fires, from a former 82nd Infantry officer recalled from the IRR to serve in Afghanistan. Roman Saskow offers us this is one of the most elegant glimpse you’ll see of a dissenting soldier’s interior:

Tragically, over time, I became infected with the belief that our foreign, undeclared wars and endless militarism were destroying America, and this made rolling the dice again extremely difficult. A gigantic void occupied the part of my gut where my patriotism used to be. I needed a principle to be my guiding light, and the colonel’s fit nicely alongside my fragmented and contradictory memories of oaths and creeds I had sworn to long ago: Recognizing the hazards of my chosen profession … Against all enemies foreign and domestic …

Read the rest; you won’t regret it.

“His emotions were always on the rocks”

When I heard about this — first, from Paul Rieckoff of IAVA on Facebook — a simple Google search turned up quickly what felt like two determinative facts: that Joshua Hunter had just spent 15 months in Iraq, and that Fort Drum, where the shooting occurred, is in the process of mobilizing for the new Afghanistan surge. Can no one spell “trigger?”

Hunter’s wife, Emily Hunter, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that her husband was outgoing before he went to war, but when he returned stateside, he was an emotional wreck.

“He wasn’t in any good mental shape at all,” Emily Hunter said. “I tried to get him to go to therapy. They prescribed him medicine and stuff, but it just wasn’t enough.”

She said he saw a therapist at Fort Drum because of his volatile emotions and violent outbursts.

“He’d just burst into tears; spouts of anger or sadness,” she said. “There’d be one emotion but it would be really deep, just extremely happy or extremely sad.”.”

“He’d take his rage out on the wall, or throw something,” she said.

While he wasn’t violent toward his buddies, he was toward her, she said, adding that she went to the hospital a couple of times for treatment of an injured arm and thumb.

She said she moved out two weeks ago because of his violence and is pursuing a divorce.

Emily Hunter said her husband was haunted by one image:

“He saw his best friend get blown up to pieces and he tried to put him back together,” she said. “He was never right after that.”

Calls to Fort Drum to confirm that Hunter had seen a comrade killed by bomb were not immediately returned.

Kudos to the Associated Press’ Mary Esch for putting all the pieces together so quickly. Our profession will need more of this, it seems, as the commedia rolls forward.

“we’re stacking up insurgents like cordwood”

Is this guy who writes to Andrew Sullivan anywhere near right?

We’re trying to learn counter insurgency, while at the same time, we’re stacking insurgent (the only accepted term at the moment) bodies like cordwood.  They’ve gotten a little bit afraid, and are growing more so every day.  The relatively fast 30k is going to relatively quickly change the picture, in noticeable way, in Helmand and Kandahar.  We’re booting the Canadians out of command of Kandahar City.  Omar’s town.  We’re putting a bright, smart, tough, funny Brit 2 star in charge of RC South, where the battle really matters.

So two questions. Is he right that they’re actually winning — and is what they’re doing right?

how do you spell “escalation?”

I don’t know about you, but I needed half a bottle of wine to get through watching President Obama at West Point. The freshman midshipmen, only a few years older than my dear nephew, watched soberly and crowded around him after for cellphone camera photos. As he smiled, Obama giving his trademark grin for the first time, I wondered if he’d been able to squelch my inevitable impulse: some of these kids will  not be alive.

I’m not the only one who fears that we’re in 1965, the year LBJ really went to war in Vietnam, or heard echoes in Obama’s pledges last night. One Vietnam vet I know mourned on Facebook: “Let’s see, we trained the ARVN for well over a decade, and when we pulled out of Vietnam the south was lost within two years. After nearly seven years training up the Iraqi army & police, they still are not able to secure, stabilize, and bring order to much of that country. After eight years training the Afghan army & …police, we need a surge to allow us more time to train them?”

As I listened, my thoughts were similar to those of Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch. Go read it all, but here’s the part that encapsulates what haunts me:

Nothing the U.S. does or does not do in Afghanistan will defeat al-Qaeda — the failure of that movement will happen for its own reasons, if it happens (as it already largely has in the Arab world).

The moment where Obama recognized this reality was both reassuring and terrifying:  when he mentioned Somalia and Yemen.  He understands that Afghanistan is not the only, or even the primary, location where those motivated by al-Qaeda’s ideas can operate.  But  if the next move is to bring  governance and stability, and counter-terrorism and COIN, to every ungoverned space on Earth — or even every Muslim-majority ungoverned space on Earth — then we are truly facing bankruptcy.  Intellectually, financially, militarily, and politically.   We can’t afford to do this in Afghanistan. We certainly can’t afford to do it in Somalia and Yemen… even if we should, which I strongly doubt.

OK, that’s not what haunts me. What haunts me most is the prospect of more kids coming home, many after multiple tours, and trying to make sense of the rest of their lives.  Even the Supreme Court just noted, in an overlooked move, that too often the consequences land them in prison. Adam Liptak at the Times tells us why:

At a 1995 state-court hearing on whether Mr. Porter was entitled to a new sentencing, his company commander testified about the “ horrifying experiences” Mr. Porter had endured, including a “fierce hand-to-hand fight with the Chinese” and a two-day battle in which his company suffered casualties of more than 50 percent.

“After his discharge,” the decision said, Mr. Porter “suffered dreadful nightmares and would attempt to climb his bedroom walls with knives at night.”

Porter served in Korea, long before the term PTSD existed, long before you could buy T-shirts in the local PX saying “PTSD – Don’t Leave Iraq Without it.” Today’s soldiers know what’s up, and many — like the poetic Michael Jernigan, whose unflinching, poetic posts on the “Home Fires” site are not to be missed — are not letting trauma stamp them down without a fight. And a lot of those I’ve met, who have been to Afghanistan, have felt they were doing some good there.

So right now, like everyone else, I get to wait. There will be vigils, and protests, and loud statements this week. But @JointChiefs already told us last night: they are “fully in support…and prepared to EXECUTE” the president’s orders.

Execute, indeed.

“because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you”

That was my original title for the Guernica piece, a quote from All Quiet on the Western Front. I’m reminded of it now, as I’ve started to get letters from families of soldiers that tear at my heart.One, in particular, wrote that someone they loved

…did two tours in Iraq and was nearly killed by shrapnel.  He is now home with a  diagnosis of PTSD. He sits and stares and reveals nothing of his inner turmoil to his family. The VA medicates him and sends him on his way.
Your article should be required reading by anybody who has a relationship with a vet.  We worry about him and the many like him who do what they are asked to do and are then disposed of without thought to their well being.
Thanks for providing the walk through history.

That’s why I drew so extensively on this guy’s words:

I was also heartened to hear from an active-duty soldier, who called the piece “solid.” And another set of parents wrote to remind me that many soldiers enlist for a mix of reasons:

Very powerful……Unfortunately, most of the recruits are coming from homes of economic hardship. These kids join for the money, the opportunities, the benefits. They have no idea what the horrors of war actually are.

Others enlist because of their sense of duty and patriotism, my son being one of them. He was driven by images of the 9/11 attacks. Again, not having any concrete idea of what they will be facing and what they will experience.

The sacrifices of these soldiers and their families draw my loyalty, not the war itself.

Me too.

Now I get to hope the book honors them properly.