Haunted by what they have seen and done: the soldier’s burden
Too many members of the US military are angry, depressed and anxious after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They deserve to be seen, heard and appreciated, as three books make clear
Fallen friends: a veteran of the war in Iraq sits beside symbolic graves. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Last November I read an op-ed in my current local paper, the Washington Post , headlined, “How the military isolates itself – and hurts veterans”, which lamented the geographical, social and psychological divide between members of the US military and civilians, and suggested how to shrink it.
The authors noted that about a third of military families live on bases in the US where they work, shop, golf, see military doctors, fill their gas tanks and school their children. Many more live just outside the wires, in enclaves. As the military is increasingly concentrating itself on remote bases, “city-dwellers, including the nation’s political and business elites, may rarely see service members in uniform”.
After I read the article I emailed a new friend in DC, the only member of the military, apart from the second World War vets of my parents’ generation, whom I have ever known. A career naval officer in his early 50s who had served in Afghanistan, my friend dismissed the article. “I saw it,” he wrote back, “it’s an old story, and we’re always being blamed as the ones out of touch.”
“But it was written by two guys in the military,” I said, meekly. He didn’t answer. By then my friend and I had had a number of discussions about the civilian-military relationship, and I knew enough to know that he would have agreed with what the first comment below the online version of the article said: “The divide exists because some people know war and some people don’t.”
At the time I had just read David Finkel’s new book, Thank You for Your Service (Scribe, 272pp, £18.99), and among its many unsettling images was an angrier version of that same idea: a severely injured Iraq-war vet named Michael Emory who wears a T-shirt that says, on the front, “What Have You Done for Your Country?” and, on the back, “I Took a Bullet in the Head for Mine”.
It’s an image that speaks volumes about the bind vets are in, on the one hand wanting to be seen, heard, reckoned with, appreciated; on the other dismissing civilians who might make the attempt.
Phil Klay, who served in the United States marine corps in Iraq, came home in better shape than Michael Emory. He has just published Redeployment (Canongate, 288pp, £14.99), his debut story collection. Klay had what he has called “a mild deployment . . . long hours at a cheap plywood desk in a cheap plywood hut in the middle of a desert”. But his narrators voice the same dilemma.
In Psychological Operations a vet enrolled at Amherst is trying to tell a war story to a fellow student, a woman he has invited to his house for the very purpose.
He thinks to himself: “The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people . . . Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, ‘I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians’.”
But then comes the rub: “At the same time, though, you feel somehow less. What happened, what I was a part of, maybe it was the right thing. We were fighting very bad people. But it was an ugly thing.”
Klay has written eloquently in the New York Times about two deleterious ideas: the fetishising of combat trauma as incommunicable and the notion that veterans are unassailable authorities on the experience of war. It is a combination that leaves vets isolated – “able to proclaim about war but not discuss it” – and civilians barred from a conversation about “one of the most morally fraught activities our nation engages in”. To believe that war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility on both sides.
That Klay says these things shouldn’t be taken as an indication that his fiction is driven more by agenda than by the desire to produce first-rate work.
These are sharp, intelligent, compelling stories – well crafted without feeling MFA-ed to death. (Klay got his MFA at Hunter College, in New York.) It means only that he has not been afraid to use the platform the book has given him to speak about the need for dialogue and the place that work like his can play in it.
He has also said that he wanted all his first-person narrators to hold different viewpoints, to have had different experiences, so that readers would be reminded that there is no single American narrative about this war.
I read Klay’s stories on the heels of Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service . Finkel’s first book, The Good Soldiers (2009, Atlantic Books, 320pp, £8.99), detailed the experiences of the 2-16 infantry battalion, with which Finkel was embedded during its 15-month deployment to eastern Baghdad as part of the 2007-08 surge. It is a gripping, harrowing, eerily incantatory work.
In Thank You for Your Service Finkel embeds in what he calls the “after-war”, the struggle back at home of a small group of vets from the 2-16 and the families they’ve returned to. These are men who number among the estimated 500,000 US soldiers – 20 to 30 per cent of veterans – from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury – men for whom things are going horribly wrong.
Haunted by what they have seen and done, and by the deaths and maiming of friends, any initial sense of mission largely gone, they are angry, depressed, anxious, in a state of churning bewilderment. Finkel has said that the aim of the book was to put individuals in place of abstractions and statistics. He has also said that he spent months writing about people who were either trying to kill themselves or trying not to kill themselves.
It is a harrowing book in its own right, and a heartbreaking one, an antidote to the reductive and sentimentalised notions of the heroic that grew up, especially, in the post-9/11 environment.
Finkel was granted extraordinary access to the lives of his subjects. He narrates, as in the first book, in an invisible first-person mode; the “I” never appears, never explicitly editorialises, it merely bears witness – whether attending meetings of the army’s suicide task force or sitting in the back seat of a car while the couple in the front fight tooth and nail, their marriage hanging by a thread.
In 2012, 349 members of the US military took their own lives, the highest number since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides, in 2001, and greater than the number of combat deaths in Afghanistan that year. Finkel cites, in The Good Soldiers , internal military studies that suggest the cost of treating people with PTSD or TBI could eventually be higher than that of the war in Iraq itself.
Considering the above, the discussion in the Washington Post about whether the military and civilians are well served by the former living in enclaves – what seems, relatively speaking, a luxury dilemma: in Iraq or Afghanistan no one has spent the past several years calmly debating to what extent civilians and soldiers should be integrated – might seem more pressing.
Because if you believe, as many do, that the gulf between “city-dwellers” (not to mention the political and business elites) and those who fight our wars contributes to public apathy and wilful ignorance, and hence to ill-advised wars, then the nature and depth of civilian-military interactions are significant indeed.
Klay has said that if the past decade has taught Americans anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military it is far too easy for the nation to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without seriously trying to imagine what that means. These three books insist, rightly, on that act of imagination, even if the results aren’t always satisfactory.
Upon finishing his tale in Psychological Operations , Klay’s narrator thinks: “Now that I’d told her the story, I didn’t feel I’d actually told her anything at all. I think she knew it, too, that the story hadn’t been enough, that something was missing and neither of us knew how to find it.”