VIDEO: Millennials and conscience

Some video reminders why this book has to exist. A simple question, posed 6 years ago by a respected journalist to an author, was already being answered Chelsea Manning, soon to be echoed by the voices of the whistleblowers above.

I discovered the first as I was reshaping – for the last time, I hope! — my World War I chapter, featuring the iconic conscientious objector Evan Thomas. His great-niece Louisa wrote a book about her family, and was interviewed by Jon Meacham below:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?300240-1/conscience

Watching this six years later, I was struck first by how much Thomas resembles her uncle. Then, after an engaging discussion of conscience, war and social responsibility, Meacham asks Thomas “Why does your generation not engage in this kind of dissent?” Meacham asks this despite knowing about then-Private Manning, who at that very moment was in the same prison where Evan Thomas had been tortured. (In that case, Meacham was taking the government’s side.)

Thomas’ response ignores contemporary soldier-dissenters, telling Meacham “Maybe it’s because we aren’t being forced to go to war” and suggesting that the Shark Tank crowd comprised her generation of rebels. But just as I was listening to that exchange, in my Twitter feed gave us Lisa Ling, one of those who stepped forward in Sonia Kennebuck’s documentary NATIONAL BIRD.

I can’t embed the video, but you should click on the link and watch it. Shaming that 2011 Meacham-Thomas exchange, Ling uses the phrase “poverty draft,” which I’m still astonished is not more common. As she describes her path from aspiring nurse to anguished drone operator, you can almost hear the voices of Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh,both of whom honored me with interviews for Ain’t Marching.

When I’ve thought I should drop this whole project, I remember their faces and voices.

 

some musings on moral injury

stfrancisI’ve been talking to the new startup The War Horse about working together. And now I’ve been authorized to come up with a refreshing reporting strategy to explore “moral injury,” a concept that in 2011 seemed so fresh even as it was very very old.

Very old, of course, just as Jonathan Shay points to Homer and Virgil  and Logan Isaac to the Bible’s martial saints – highlighting war’s damage to one sense of self as a moral being. It could even be conceived as one of humanity’s core dilemmas. (Above:  squire Francis of Assisi returning from Perugia.)

But it has taken this generation, armed with 21st-century tools and the  voice of boomer/GenX parents, to demand that when such conflicts are burned into their bodies, it needs to be examined and treatments explored. And the VA, to their credit, has started asking smart questions, including what brings this on?  In 2011, a group of Palo Alto researchers asked veterans, in an effort to trace some of the damage:

 Emerging themes included betrayal (e.g., leadership failures, betrayal by peers, failure to live up to one’s own moral standards, betrayal by trusted civilians), disproportionate violence (e.g., mistreatment of
enemy combatants and acts of revenge), incidents involving civilians (e.g., destruction of civilian property and assault), and within-rank violence (e.g., military sexual trauma, friendly fire, and fragging). The authors suggest that an important next step would be to directly interview Veterans about their experiences to help expand this list.

That last sentence has sent a score of other researchers, journos like me and assorted therapists scuttling toward that ground, with predictable pushback from the PTSD skeptics. (Sally Satel, never to be ignored, even twists the concept into another partisan tool, accusing the rest of us of inflicting “moral injury to the nation.”

There are nonetheless solid thought leaders on the issue, from those Palo Alto researchers including Shira Maguen; theologians from Brite Divinity School and Logan Isaac; pioneers like Tyler Boudreau, who’s declared himself done with this discussion but whose work on it still cuts close to the bone, and the recent work of Michael Yandrell.

And we’ve had good discussions since, including this week at Stars and Stripes, Shay himself and others on NPR,  and Army Surgeon General Elspeth Ritchie, who I interviewed in 2006 for my masters’ thesis “Saving Sgt. Aguilar” and who usefully explored moral injury for TIME Magazine.

So what’s left for the War Horse to do? I’m looking at that list of “possible causes” listed earlier, and wondering if I might be able to reach out to combat-trauma survivors and see what speaks to them. I want to leave the spiritual aspects to the theologians, but hope there’s some moral/political language left un-despoiled by Internet tropes.

I’ll keep thinking. Anyone reading this who might have thoughts about what’s next, in the context of post-9/11 wars? Any feedback would be hugely appreciated.

 

 

 

 

“At war, it can protect you; at home, it can kill you.”

Now that’s a Monday morning wake-up for you. Fallujah vet Andrew Chambers’s TedX talk from an Ohio correctional facility:

Like so many of this generation, Chambers begins by telling his 9/11 story, watching a TV in Ohio as it showed the destruction of the Twin Towers. My J-school sensei Dale Maharidge, author of Homeland, will recognize the impulse. Others, vets among you, will sadly recognize the VA’s response when he told a clinic he might hurt someone: andrewC“They prescribed a sleep-aid, said come back in six months.” What he did instead sounds like a perverse version of Operation First Casualty, w/victims instead of volunteers.

Chambers’ YouTube bio said he’s next taking his story to the stage. I can’t wait.

bloody bloody caricature of the citizen soldier

bloodybloodyThis Daily Beast call to strip Andrew Jackson off the $20 is way overdue:

it doesn’t stop with the Trail of Tears. The military record that made Jackson a “war hero”? One long recitation of atrocity. Heroically breaking a treaty with the Creeks to slaughter them wholesale. Taking advantage of the Battle of New Orleans to rule the city as an iron-fisted dictator, complete with summary executions. Ignoring his orders during the First Seminole War in order to conquer Florida, flouting international law in order to grab more territory for America and more glory for himself.

As the playwrights who wrought Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson well knew, AJ is for many the stereotype of the populist soldier-leader. They also knew what I’ve come to believe, that the guy brutalized by British soldiers as a child grew up trying to re-enact that brutalization, over and over.

That’s one of our national original sins, as well. “This country still has an issue equating quickness to rage with moral courage,” the Daily Beast also points out. Telling the difference between anger and rage is an important part of growing up, one this country may not have mastered.

And while Jackson inspired many of his troops to worship him, a not-inconsiderable number said no.

He complained about it constantly. “Two hundred and ninety-nine dead on the field” by the end of 1813, Jackson wrote. “Could I have followed up that victory immediately, the Creek war, before this, had been terminated. But I was compelled [to stop] by a double cause—the want of supplies and the want of cooperation from the East Tennessee troops.” Those words came after two brutal battles in a row: At Tallaskutchee, more than a quarter of Jackson’s troops were killed, marginally fewer when they took the Creek stronghold of Talladega five days later.

There are no surviving letters describing the horrors of those battles. But Jackson watched two brigades melt away as they ended. Neither his beloved militia nor the one-year volunteers, who the previous year had marched to Natchez and back with him, would stay for the rest. “There is grate talk about the 10th of December,” one wrote. “I do not think that Genl Jackson intends to discharge us that day but I still think we shall go home.”

In an oft-recounted episode, Jackson stood shakily on his weapon. “If two men will remain with me, I will never abandon this post,” he said, eventually convincing 109 men to stay. Though he released the rest, the final battles of that campaign brought much harsher measures. Jackson court-martialed a young recruit, John Woods, who’d left his post and talked back to an officer: troops were ordered to watch as the boy was surrounded by soldiers and shot to pieces with 70-caliber rifles.

This and other courts-martial doused another set of mutinies at Fort Strother, the fort built on the bones of Talladega. What was left: a hardened, disciplined group that followed orders right to the climactic battle of Horseshoe Bend, which killed 3000 Creeks and sent the rest fleeing deep into the Floridas. By then the war against Britain was two years old, and Jackson was well on his way to turning Jefferson’s “closed hand” into official Indian policy.

When the battle came to New Orleans, it was a victory lap for Jackson. He faced the British and their Cherokee allies with what Edward Skeen calls “a ragtag force of Creoles, Baratarian pirates, free blacks, Indians, and assorted militia from Louisiana and neighboring states.”

Four hundred Kentucky volunteers deserted mid-battle, leaving the left flank of the city unprotected. It might make a better story if those volunteers had left because they had heard the news that peace had been declared: negotiators in Europe had already signed a treaty in Ghent to end the war. But the reasons appear to be closer to the usual mix of hunger, confusion, and fear of being scalped by Britain’s Indian allies. Their action became notorious, with vivid descriptions in Navy Secretary Daniel Patterson’s February report to the National Intelligencer.

That issue of the Intelligencer could have been subtitled, “Desertion Special.”  Pages 3-4 of the 16-page daily are taken up almost entirely with lists of deserters from Andrew Jackson’s southern campaign.

At least a few of those deserters were saying no to genocide, no to rage.  Their voices echo those who want Jackson off the $20 bill, in favor of someone with no career genocides.

Some actual news, some not quite

AintMarchincoverbyAlexYou can likely guess the “not quite.” (I think I’ll use Alex’ image as the standard-bearer for these news roundups….)

  • First and foremost, there’s hope for Andre Shepherd, and a possible higher profile: Wall Street Journal:  “Now German officials must decideWall Street Journal f whether Mr. Shepherd qualifies as a refugee under European Union law as outlined by the court. That sets up a potential clash between American and European law in such sensitive areas as the Iraq war and military desertions, although U.S. officials have to this point not been heavily engaged in the case.” I’ll write more about this in a full post later: I want to talk to his lawyers first.
  • Gizmodo on DOJ completely redacting their own supposed proof of harm done by Snowden. Reading the headline, at first I thought this item (via VICE) was actually about that doubletalking DOJ attorney you see in Citizen Four, trying to persuade a San Francisco courtroom that the NSA shouldn’t be accountable to judicial review.
  • “At the VA they hand out opiates like candy.” I’ve heard that a lot, and it was good to see MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow highlight the issue, working with Aaron Glant – who in addition to his work with the Center for Investigative Reporting, wrote for Haymarket’s the iconic book on Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • I’ve said often that I didn’t want to write about Bowe Bergdahl without talking to him or his attorneys – something that never stops partisan media from speculating. Now The Hill has chimed in with “news” that a decision about Bergdahl is coming “in the near future.” Looks like all you need is ONE quote from the Army secretary and then pack in all the partisan backstory. and Presto – file and get paid. Journalism? I’m not sure.

A veteran #suicide story that’s about much more

mstflash A day rarely passes when I don’t hear of a suicide by a vet of these 21st-century wars.I’d do little else if I tried to note each one, but this story out of Tampa tells us that the MST struggle is so far from won:

“I suspect she was assaulted, and she didn’t feel comfortable reporting it for some reason and internalized the incident so she could finish her deployment, which she did with flying colors,” says Leverich. “It’s not anything she told me, just from talking with all her friends this past week, and piecing those things together. I am female active duty, 18 years in the Coast Guard. I am well aware of those issues, and that’s my gut feeling.”

 “Didn’t feel comfortable reporting it.” Think of that next time someone tells you Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act is unnecessary.

On Veterans’ Day, some important voices on this new forever war

cropped-soldiersoccupyoakland.jpgThe commentary below was published today in shorter form on Al-Jazeera America, but I liked the whole thing enough to share it here.

Inherent Resolve? Try inherent blowback, say recent vets of Iraq war

Veterans Day this year falls almost exactly two months after Pres Obama announced an ongoing military campaign against the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria.  This  new war/counterterrorism op/kinetic activity/forward deployment – “Operation Inherent Resolve”. as was finally named by the Pentagon – has already receded off the front pages. You have to look for news, which then brims with numbers and phrases familiar to any of the veterans we celebrate today:  U.S. Bombing Raid a Success, 150 Jihadists Killed. Kobani/Irbil/[fit region here] Crucial to U.S. Credibility. Allies Gain Momentum.

Last week’s headlines included: “U.S. readying plan to send advisers to Iraqis fighting ISIS in Anbar.” “Inherent Resolve Strikes Continue Against ISIL in Syria, Iraq.”

 

With each such headline,  former Navy lieutenant Fabian Bouthillette thinks about the surface warfare officers behind the numbers, those controlling the ships that carry the bombers. Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio thinks about her time with the Lioness infantry unit in Ramadi, a town lost to IS. And drone operator Brandon Bryant thinks about the families he watched die, accidentally lost forever in pursuit of “the bad guys.”

 

As the new campaign proceeds, we’re hearing about it from the usual assortment of think tanks, politicians, and Pentagon press officials. With very few exceptions,  we’re not hearing from veterans of the most recent wars in the region, those charged with implementing the orders of the national security state.

 

Why are these voices important? Even with the presidential promise of “no boots on the ground,”  this war is still being waged by personnel. It took more than a few Navy and Air Force servicemembers to deliver the more than 1000 bombs dropped this past month (the George H.W. Bush alone has nearly 100 planes). Not to mention the more than 1,300 U.S. troops in the newly bolstered Iraq conflict — security personnel, staff at two joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, and the constantly-growing advisory teams working with Iraqi units. For understandable reasons, current personnel can’t speak on their work, or wrestle publicly with its moral complexity— which makes these voices ever more crucial.

 

When OIR was first announced, I began  checking in with some of the Iraq veterans I knew. Almost all are watching closely, and very few were surprised that it has turned out this way. They spoke to me of what they saw and did; mused about what comes next; and described the work each war created, on both sides of the civilian-military divide. It feels as if their intelligence is in some ways better grounded than most,  and more mindful of unintended consequences — from wear and tear on personnel to international blowback.

Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio, former member of the Ramadi Female Engagement Team documented in the film Lioness, was frustrated: “It’s actually quite disgusting to see other combat veterans get into a war-hungry frenzy that was basically constructed by our own government.”  Dallochio, author of the 2013 memoir Quixote in Ramadi, wrote me that she watched as Ramadi was contested this summer with less surprise than anger. “I’m not trying to sound like an armchair know-it-all,” she wrote,  “but I know we were detaining and fighting 90% Saudi mujaheddin in Iraq and it was underreported. We were fighting a war in ‘Alice in Wonderland’” For example, “the way we were gaining intel was through paying people off.  If you had a vendetta against a neighbor in the face of $1000 USD cash, don’t you think submitting faulty intel would be tempting in the slightest? Alice just wanted to be in a world that made sense, and over there, nothing did.




 It felt heartbreaking, but I knew it was going to happen.”

 

So did former Marine Scott Olsen, who also served in the majority Sunni Al Anbar Province.  “It’s something I’ve been expecting,”  Olsen told me last month. “Al-Anbar Province is one of the places where the Islamic State has taken over. And the people there, the guys we were in charge of keeping ‘in control?’  They’re the ones that had the most grievances with the government we installed. It’s no surprise that it’s been easy to recruit for IS there – these people have legitimate grievances.” Olsen added that any blame thrown at the U.S. for the situation is far from unfounded: “In some ways the U.S. created this. Just cause we’re not there anymore – mostly – we’re still responsible. We uncorked the bottle, we released the genie. ….More military action is NOT the solution either,” Olsen said ruefully, though “it’s hard to say what is.”

 

One former infantryman was more blunt: After witnessing the IS takeover of Mosul, where he served a year,  “ It breaks my heart, my friends died for nothing. We spent over a year fighting and securing our sectors just so  they could throw it away,” he wrote.  This young vet, who preferred that his name not be used, added that during his time in Mosul and Baghdad,  his own perspective on the war shifted.  “When my unit got extended i refused to pull the trigger,” he wrote. “Silently: I was in fear for my life if my unit found out. But I had come to the conclusion that our presence over there was bullshit and what we were doing had nothing at all to do with democracy.” Of all the vets who talked with me, he was overall the most pessimistic: “We never should have been over there, we didn’t do any good, we left that place far worse off when the they nowere when Saddam was in charge,” he said.

 

Susanne Rossignol,  who also served in Mosul and in Tikrit, sees those same events from a more big-picture perspective. She quoted an interpreters she worked with: “He said that removing Saddam was like taking a plug out of bathtub that had spiders in the pipes [and] even though he didn’t support Saddam, removing him quickly let the other spiders come out.  I think anytime you have a power vacuum, there is an opportunity for a nefarious force to take advantage.” Rossignol, now a computer programmer, added that  “I’m not sure it was a product of having been in the Sunni triangle, but my understanding, on a macro level, is that the less infrastructure a country has, the more likely that the most aggressive force will come into power.”  She did derive some small hope from the recent participation of Kurdish forces: “Up until recent events, I was very hopeful that Kurdish peshmerga were going to be able to defeat ISIS independently,” she said, though mostly “I hope that innocent people can get out.”

 

But how much use is all this perspective on the past? What about the engagements we hear most about now, in or near Syria?

 

For that I turned first to Annapolis graduate Fabian Bouthilette, who served as a surface warfare officer on the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. WILBUR until 2005. Bouthilette told me that ever since Operation Inherent Resolve began, he’s thought about the officers operating the aircraft carriers. “We SWOs are the ones driving and maintaining the ships. All of them,” he said. Officers like him, he adds, thus wouldn’t be involved in the bombings but enabling them: “I wish  could tell them- even though they aren’t pulling triggers, I’d remind them that they are integral pieces of a war machine.” In any event, he added,  “ISIS may deserve what they’re getting, but where’s the long term plan for peace? Dropping bombs is easy, but it shouldn’t be done without long term plans for peace, and America has not demonstrated any capacity to organize peace.”

 

Full disclosure: Both Bouthillette and and Scott Olsen are both members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.. Olsen, in fact, first came to public attention when he was injured by police when part of an IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland in 2011; Bouthillette followed his Navy service with three years as an IVAW activist before moving to Los Angeles and working for iconic author (and fellow Navy veteran) Gore Vidal, the latter chronicled in his new book Gore Vidal’s Last Stand. I first met both of them, as well as the others, while working on  Ain’t Marching Anymore, a book about soldiers and veterans who dissent –in which  category one might find any vet raising questions about the morality of Operation Inherent Resolve.

 

If “morality” feels a remote concept when you’re talking about an enemy parading beheading videos, it doesn’t to troops who’ve been charged with chasing down the evildoers. Brandon Bryant, a former drone sensor operator on missions over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, ended his service with a certificate attesting to more than 1500 “kills” accomplished by his team, hunting the worst of the worst. But he  remembers watching one man bleed out in real time, saw whole families running from the sound of the Predator.  He’s also spoken since, he told me, with Pakistanis who reached out to him at events examining the effects of drone warfare: “That was hard. ” In the quiet, one mother who had lost her son “looked at me….with pity,” he said in disbelief.

 

Asked by The Intercept  about the war on ISIS, Brandon refused Obama’s statement that IS is ‘unique in their brutality.’ We’ve got prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that haven’t seen the light of fucking day. We’ve killed children. We’ve killed entire families getting at one or two people. ” Like many of the others I spoke to, Bryant also uses the newish term ‘moral injury’ when describing his own particular burden.

 

“I mean, I swore an oath, you know?” Bryant has said repeatedly. “I swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And how do you feel if you can’t use “I obeyed orders” as an excuse? It’s ‘I obeyed the Constitution, regardless of lawful or unlawful orders.’ [But] lawful orders follow the Constitution.” Similar conflicts roiled many of the Vietnam vets treated by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who pioneered the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder but devised ‘moral injury’ to describe such attacks of conscience.

Bryant, Bouthillette and the others know well that Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, a day to celebrate the “day to end all wars.” This year, no doubt, we’ll hear much about the Greatest Generation’s war 70 years ago and the Vietnam conflict now passing into history.

But when it’s no longer ‘Veterans Day,’ Operation Inherent Resolve will still be with us. And the voices of these newer veterans will be crucial for any honest reckoning.

(Photo: The IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland.)