Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When War is the Humane Option

One of the joys of living in Paris is the American community, and within that community, the constant turnover of people visiting, living with, marrying, working and just being in Paris. One of my dear American friends has dinner parties at which it is rare to meet the same person twice. As a result I never know who I am going to meet when I am invited for dinner at Marjorie’s, but I always know there will be someone who I would meet nowhere other than the American in Paris community. And so it was with Caleb, an ex-marine, who got out while the going was good, that is, before he was drafted to Iraq or Afghanistan, before he was maimed for life.

Caleb is in Paris doing his MBA, clearly a young man with choices that those at home, or at war in Afghanistan do not always have available to them. Caleb not only had the foresight of knowing that going to war wasn’t such a good idea, but he had the choice of an alternative career. In anticipation of the Oscars on Sunday night, I asked him if he had seen The Hurt Locker. His response to the film was so was completely different from my own, and so compelling, that it has stayed with me. Caleb thought that the most important sequence of The Hurt Locker was a scene I had nearly forgotten, a scene that gets minimal screen time and no analysis: when Staff Seargent William James goes home to the US and has to choose which brand of cereal to buy for breakfast. The purpose of the scene is to reinforce that returning home is a return to the mundanity of daily life where supermarket shopping rather than de-activating IEDs is the order of the day. James’ inability to make a decision about the breakfast cereal reinforces that a soldier whose work requires the utmost precision and split-second decision making is ill-equipped for the tedium of life on the homefront. There’s no mistaking why James wants to go back to Iraq.

Caleb told me of his friends who had returned from Iraq, unrecognizeable. For these men, the injury is far worse than amputated limbs and schrapnel wounds, precisely because they are not worn physically. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is so extreme that America has no idea of how to heal it, there is no provision for the kind of rehabilitation they need. The men remain traumatized, violent, haunted by an inability and no possibility to express what it is they saw, felt, experienced day in and day out on the battlefield. The flashbacks, nightmares, social isolation are the tip of an iceberg that is given what amounts to lip service. These men might be the picture of physical fitness and prowess, but they face lifetimes of anxiety, depression, uncontrolled bursts of anger, violence, and social stigmatization. And we can expect that these unresolved traumas will be passed onto the next generation. When the troops came home from Vietnam, they may not have come home heroes, but at least they came home to an economy that could support them, if only by giving them jobs. For returned US servicemen today, even this is not on offer, further reinforcing their alienation, further prohibiting rehabilitation and reintegration as functioning individuals.

I have always been fascinated by the merging of the battlefield and the homefront as a result of technological modernity. Wars that take place in urban landscapes have no regard for the lines between battlefield and homefront. And neither does the media: since the days of photography onward, through television, video, the internet, the two once separate worlds are joined, instantaneously, through transmission of events across lands, oceans, airspace. And yet, as Caleb reminded me, the worlds on the battlefield and the home front have never been so distant and unfathomable to each other. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, so the trauma becomes deeper and more profound. In turn, the capacity to deal with it, the therapies needed to heal it, become more elusive. It would be remiss to claim there is no therapy for PTSD, and in some cases, the cure is as technologically avant-garde as that which caused the problems in the first place. But even with innovations such as the "virtual therapy" that takes the soldier back to the battlefield, the "time-space" of the trauma, the cure is not yet adequate to the number and extent of those returning with everything from brain damage to permanent psychiatric disorders. While months are spent training for combat procedures and conditions at war, nothing prepares soldiers and marines for the return to the “normality” of suburban America. Their use value to America is now past the use by date, and there is little of use to them in America.

And so, according to Caleb, Obama made the right choice, took the humane route, when he decided to leave the troops in Afghanistan. At least in Afghanistan they have each other, a community of servicemen and women that supports them, understands them, sees through their eyes. And in Afghanistan they have a raison d’ĂȘtre, even if one that none of us approve of, that is, to kill an enemy. In America, no such luxury of purpose is on offer. Caleb's thinking made perfect sense, and it made me wonder how tragic is the world we live in? Where are we when it is more humane to leave men and women at war than it is to have them at home as contributing members of society?

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