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War Trauma

In this excerpt from Combat Trauma, Nadia Abu El-Haj highlights the painstaking efforts taken to grant American soldiers an exemption from the violence they commit.

Verso Books28 September 2022

War Trauma

“Five months after carrying Sergeant Emory down the stairs in Kamaliyah,” he could no longer shake off all the hurt and harm of war. On his third deployment in Iraq, Adam Schumann was done.

His war had become unbearable. He was seeing over and over again his first kill disappearing into a mud puddle, looking at him as he sank. He was seeing a house that had just been obliterated by gunfire, a gate slowly opening, and a wide-eyed little girl about the age of his daughter peering out. He was seeing another gate, another child, and this time a dead-aim soldier firing. He was seeing another soldier, also firing, who afterward vomited as he described watching head spray after head spray through his magnifying scope. He was seeing himself watching the vomiting soldier while casually eating a chicken-and-salsa MRE.

He was still tasting the MRE.
He was still tasting Sergeant Emory’s blood.

Schumann, diagnosed with depression and PTSD, and thinking about suicide, was sent home.

David Finkel, an American journalist who embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion of the US Army during the “surge” in Iraq, beginning in the spring of 2007, tells Schumann’s story in The Good Soldiers. This Pulitzer Prize-winning account of war reads like a diary of specific days and moments—the excitement and patriotism, the gore (of IEDS, of dead bodies, of killing), the anger and the hatred, counterinsurgency tasks like handing out soccer balls, and the psychological pain of the (mostly) very young soldiers who carry it out. In Finkel’s telling, Schumann is not exceptional, in that the military’s own studies “suggested that 20 percent of soldiers deployed to Iraq experienced symptoms of PTSD.” He also reports that “in the culture of the army, where mental illness has long been equated with weakness,” such diagnoses were not easily recognized or accepted. There remained “a lingering suspicion of any diagnosis for which there wasn’t visible evidence.” And yet injuries for which there is no visible evidence are ubiquitous among troops and veterans of these wars—as recounted by journalists and scholars, as repre- sented on TV shows and in movies, as described in novels and poetry written by veterans who have returned from war. And in a discourse that passes over the military’s primary concern with force protection in favor of talk of a national moral obligation, those so-called invisible injuries are examined and explained to the public at large—so they can be understood and healed, so that proper attention to “the war” is paid on the home front.

David Wood, another American journalist (and author of the book What Have We Done, discussed in Chapter 5), embedded with a Marine unit in Afghanistan and some years later, in March 2014, published a lengthy essay on moral injury in the Huffington Post. He opens with the following questions: “How do we begin to accept that Nick Rudolph, a thoughtful, sandy- haired Californian, was sent to war as a 22-year-old Marine and in a desperate gun battle outside Marjah, Afghanistan, found himself killing an Afghan boy? That when Nick came home, strangers thanked him for his service and politicians lauded him as a hero?” Wood continues,

Can we imagine ourselves back on that awful day in the summer of 2010, in the hot firefight that went on for nine hours? Men frenzied with exhaustion and reckless exuberance, eyes and throats burning from dust and smoke, in a battle that erupted after Taliban insurgents castrated a young boy in the village, knowing his family would summon nearby Marines for help and the Marines would come, walking right into a deadly ambush.

In case we cannot imagine it, Wood does so for us: “Nick ... spots somebody darting around the corner of an adobe wall, firing assault rifles at him and his Marines. Nick raises his M-4 carbine. He sees the shooter is a child, maybe 13. With only a split second to decide, he squeezes the trigger and ends the boy’s life.” As for Nick, he struggles with the dilemma: “He was just a kid. But ... I’m trying not to get shot and I don’t want any of my brothers getting hurt ... You know it’s wrong. But ... you don’t have a choice.” This, as Wood informs his readers, is the essence of war trauma as it frequently appears among soldiers who have fought these latest American wars.

In choosing this particular event to open a series of essays on moral injury, Wood ascribes a young American Marine’s trauma to a decision made during a battle reportedly instigated by a barbaric act. Stories of barbaric acts, culturally incommensurable values, and an enemy who does not respect the laws of war characterize many accounts of the wars on terror and the kinds of war trauma, including moral injury, that come in tow. The way Wood understood the situation in Afghanistan, “some ugly aspects of the local culture and the brutality of the Taliban rubbed American sensibilities raw, setting the stage for deeper moral injury.” He quotes Rudolph as an example:

You see the Afghan tradition of basically boys dance for grown men and they give them money and the guy who gives the most money gets to take the boy home. We are partnering with guys who are basically screwing the neighbors’ kids, 6- and 7-year-olds, and we are supposed to grin and bear it because our cultures don’t mesh? ... When I really want to fuckin’ strangle those dudes?”

Other kinds of stories about moral injury are also told, some more critical politically, such as the one recounted by an Army veteran at a conference on moral injury discussed in the previous chapter. He recalled being shaken to the core by his own cruelty toward an Iraqi child. An adult came over to protect the child, and the speaker did not recognize himself in the man’s terrified eyes. Moral injuries can result as well from seemingly banal acts of carrying out an occupation—kicking in doors, scaring the family, and frequently enough finding no insurgents at home. Soldiers tell of mistaking noncombatants for insurgents in the heat of battle or having no opportunity to discriminate, at a checkpoint, for example, with a car speeding at them that fails to stop. For the most part, these narratives are framed by a set of shared assumptions about the inevitable moral ambiguities of counterinsurgency wars. Occasionally they are offered—almost exclusively by veterans—as a political critique of America’s wars, which they now oppose.

War stories told about combat trauma by journalists and scholars who were “embedded” with American soldiers in the war zone or spent time with veterans back home are generally narrated from the soldiers’ point of view. Readers are typically admonished to recognize their obligation to face the realities of war, to confront rather than evade the question of what “we” have sent “them” to do, while, at the same time typically sanitizing the extent and brutality of American military aggression. Wood describes the “scowling young killers of Uganda and Congo” he encountered previously as a war correspondent; a few pages later, he writes of American troops carrying “immense responsibility”; handling it “well and with passion.” “At war, I have seen Americans at their best. In a very personal way, I admire and honor their service.” One has to wonder what he has seen and heard in the midst of battle and in its aftermath that he leaves out of his story. A parallel question might be asked of recent anthropological accounts of the war, narrated from the soldiers’ points of view, in which case ethnography as method operates to some extent as the functional equivalent of embed- ded journalism. What might the soldiers with whom various anthropologists have “embedded” stateside chosen not to share?

In “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce,” Ashley Gilbertson takes a different tack in her account of the kinds of actions, sensibilities, and affects that drive combat, as well as its horrors and traumatic afterlives. Noah Pierce was an Army veteran who committed suicide in 2007 and whose war experi- ence Gilbertson reconstructs based on his diary and letters home he wrote from Iraq. She wants to know what pushed Pierce to suicide. “It could have been the memory of the Iraqi child he crushed under his Bradley. ‘It must have been a dog,’ he told his commanders. It could have been the unarmed man he shot point-blank in the forehead during a house-to-house raid, or the friend he tried madly to gather into a plastic bag after he had been blown to bits by a roadside bomb, or ... it could have been the doctor he killed at a checkpoint.” The “moral ambiguity of house-to-house raids” haunted Pierce. He wrote about how he and others in his platoon would “blow off steam” by “abusing prisoners.” “I’m so pissed off right now,” he wrote to his parents, relating how “beatin’ a s********* unconscious would help but we will get in serious trouble if it happens again.” He stole money from Iraqi civilians and sent it back to his parents. “Well staying here as part of the postwar occupation has had one good impact on me,” he wrote in another letter.

I no longer regret what I did during the war. I have so much hatred in me I could go murder more s********** and I would just smile. That goes for almost everyone here. We had sympathy for them after the war but now we have absolutely nothing but hatred for them. We should have killed more during the war. I let all kinds of “‘innocent” people go when I should have just mowed them down.

Or as he recounted in his diary,

So far, this has been the worst month of my life. With all this work I have been ready to snap. I don’t know how much I can take. A car pissed me off last night. The fucker kept flashing me and when he pulled off the road I almost ran him over. I changed my mind though, I could have gotten away with killing that mother-fucker though. My transmission was going out and I could have blamed it on that. I am just waiting for a good opportunity though. I am just waiting for the chance where I know people will die. I am not going to swerve at them, but I am not going to avoid it like I have been. The only reason I have avoided it so far is there have been women and children in the cars coming at me.

“I am a bad person,” he bemoans.

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Combat Trauma
Americans have long been asked to support the troops and care for veterans' psychological wounds. Who, though, does this injunction serve?As acclaimed scholar Nadia Abu El-Haj argues here, in the A...