War and the unfortunate killers (our children)

by Rob Tiller

We should recognize that the young people we send to foreign lands to kill others on our behalf pay a terrible price.  Killing, even when sanctioned by governments and rules of war, typically leaves soldiers with chronic problems of depression, anxiety, and self-loathing.  They are prone to substance abuse and suicide.  The individuals soldiers themselves often assume these problems are due to their own weakness of character.  At any rate, they seldom care to discuss this issue, and their psychological injuries from their wartime actions is not a popular media subject.

It isn’t surprising that this subject doesn’t get much airplay.  In military recruiting commercials, soldiering is shown as a chance to prove oneself, gain respect, and serve one’s country for the greater good.  Battle is depicted as an adventure, with incredibly powerful weapons.   The meta message is that battle is ennobling, socially beneficial, and also a lot of fun.  Hollywood and major media are complicit in amplifying this message.  Exploding the myths and making clear that killing in battle leaves soldiers permanently scarred would be highly detrimental to recruiting.

Every now and again, the NY Time has  piece about the trauma suffered by veterans who’ve done what they were trained to do.  Last week, it ran an op ed piece titled Distant Wars, Constant Ghosts by Shannon P. Meehan, an Army lieutenant who served in Iraq.  http://tiny.cc/zc2AP Meehan described her rage and self-loathing after calling in an air strike that resulted in several civilian deaths.  She explained that the killing caused soldiers to lose regard for human life, including their own lives.

The NY Times also had a story this month on increasing recognition that veterans who killed in battle suffer post traumatic stress and a variety of psychological problems. _ http://tiny.cc/7Mchz The piece focussed on the difficulty of getting therapy for these soldiers, who are often unwilling to discuss their problems or seek help.  We do need to work hard to help these veterans, who are themselves victims of war.

But we also need to address the larger problem of reducing the incidence of war and politically motivated killing.   I realize that sounds sort of obvious, and at time a bit utopian.  To be sure, universal peace is probably an unrealistic goal.  But what if we tried to have just a little less killing?  Wouldn’t most agree that that would be good?

Here’s a thought experiment:  for every death we administer or suffer, what if we asked, is this act achieving a clear objective worth the terrible cost to all the victims?   We need to devote scholarly effort to study of  the best alternatives to violent conflict.  We need to have some difficult conversations on this subject.  And to sustain us in this effort, we need to learn at an emotional level what war really means.  I highly recommend as one source  the sublime poetry of Wilfred Owen, who wrote about the battlefield experience in WWI.  http://tiny.cc/xypcN Owen died at age 25 one week before the end of the war.