War, as Britain’s last surviving WWI veteran Harry Patch once told a glassy-eyed Tony Blair, is ‘organized murder, and nothing else.’ In the course of history, different societies have evolved various mechanisms to make this activity possible – and acceptable.
Some have glorified it: Roman histories and chronicles such as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars unapologetically celebrate and even revel in the slaughter of enemy soldiers and civilians. Public monuments in Rome routinely commemorated the enslavement and killing of ‘barbarians’.
Democratic societies prefer to prettify and sanitize war. We describe the pointless slaughter of millions of young men as the ‘Great War’ and construct a heroic image of the universal soldier as the epitome of patriotism and nobility.
We hold ritualistic remembrance day commemorations in which our ruling elites pay homage to the cult of militarism and praise those who have paid ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ – the better to encourage others to fight their future wars for them.
This celebration of the generic soldier-hero invariably emphasizes the soldiers who die ‘for their country’ rather than those who kill for it. In general, we prefer not to think about the kind of soldier who the poet Herbert Read once described in World War I:
His wild heart beats with painful sobs/His strain’d hands clench an ice-cold rifle/ His aching jaws grip a hot parch’d tongue/His wide eyes search unconsciously/He cannot shriek/Bloody saliva dribbles down his shapeless jacket/I saw him stab and stab again/A well-killed Boche.
This perennial discrepancy between the often brutish reality of ‘organized murder’ and its often sentimental, misty-eyed and essentially celebratory representation in civilian society has also been a feature of the ‘9/11 wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Warmongering newspapers participate in ‘help for heroes’ campaigns to increase circulation and raise money for veterans – while simultaneously promoting the cult of militarism.
Civilians, guiltily aware of the drip-drip of death, mutilation and violence that has been taking place for more than a decade as a distant backdrop to the comfortable normality they inhabit, bow their heads to the dead ‘heroes’ returning from these wars and rarely question what they did or what they fought for.
Politicians who have never been anywhere near a battlefield prattle endlessly about ‘our finest men and women’ and glorify the military as some kind of paragon for civilian society.
And all the time, as they have always done, soldiers come home from war, permanently marked by their participation in experiences that society does not understand and often prefers not to hear about – and often ill-equipped to deal with the mundane normality of civilian life.
In the US last year more active-duty soldiers died from suicide than in combat. In total 349 soldiers across all branches of the military killed themselves in 2012, compared with 295 who died in combat, and an astounding 6,500 veterans also killed themselves.
Veterans don’t only kill themselves. In January 2008 the New York Times attributed 121 murders to veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars. Since then the list has continued to grow. In December 2011, a group of active-duty soldiers at Fort Stewart, Georgia murdered a 19-year-old discharged soldier and his girlfriend.
The soldiers were all Iraq war veterans and members of a group called FEAR ( Forever Enduring, Always Ready), who were stockpiling weapons to overthrow the US government. They murdered the couple because they believed they knew too much about what they were doing.
Other veterans have simply ‘gone postal’, like former Marine Ben Sebena, an Iraq war veteran who shot his wife various times in the head in the streets of Milwaukee on Christmas Eve last year.
Sebena was apparently motivated by jealousy. In a video recording two years later for a religious group bizarrely called No Regrets Men’s Ministries, he explained how
‘My experiences in Iraq were having to watch over 50 of my friends or good friends die, having to kill people, having to kill a child that tried to kill me. I was a Marine, and we’re trained to kill. We’re trained that death is OK.’
Such murders are not unique to the US. Last April Aaron Wilkinson, a Territorial Army soldier who had served in Afghanistan, shot dead his landlady in Leeds.
At his trial Wilkinson received a five year sentence for manslaughter on the grounds that he was suffering from PTSD and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Wilkinson was clearly not one of our ‘finest men and women’ and should not have been allowed anywhere near a war zone. Friends described his obsession with guns, and one incident in Afghanistan in which he skewered a cat with a red-hot poker.
These are not the kind of stories we like to hear from soldiers. Generally, society prefers to talk about soldiers as if they were heroic abstractions, rather than deal with the more prosaic reality of young men scarred by war and often transformed – and warped – by the license to kill granted to them by their governments.
This transformation is not new. During the American Civil War, a reporter from the New York Tribune described how during the Battle of Shiloh, ‘Men lost their semblance of humanity, and the spirit of the demon shone in their faces. There was one desire, and that was to destroy.’
There will always be soldiers who get used to such activities, and some may even come to enjoy it in the heat of the moment – possibly many more than we like to think. But many soldiers bring back with them disturbing memories of the things they have seen and done, which they are only able to rationalize or come to terms with through the belief that the wars they fought in were necessary or justified.
Such rationalizations are not easy in the gratuitous wars of choice that characterize our own era. In a powerful piece in The Guardian yesterday, British Iraq war veteran James Jeffrey described the ‘moral scars’ left on soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, for whom
‘futile attempts to reconcile our actions in wars which proved to have little if nothing to do with defending our homeland or that of others fuel further doubts of about whatever threads of moral authority we thought we once possessed or knew how to act on.’
In Jeffrey’s estimation
‘Soldiers naturally seek justification for their actions in the aftermath, when reflection is afforded. An obvious source for justification – as well as inspiring many to join the military – is the notion of acting on the “right side”, being part of a broader effort to do some good. But try sustaining that narrative after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I couldn’t.’
Jeffrey writes of the ‘particular moral challenge’ of the process of post-conflict assimilation into society, in which
‘Having recognised oneself to have been a voluntary party to violence and cruelty, one learns how desperately important it is to try to be good. But one is confronted by a civilian population full of petty selfishness, nastiness and ignorance, while patting you on the back for your service.’
Governments will always be ready to deliver this pat on the back to the young men – and women – who die and kill in their wars, regardless of their cause or objectives.
And most governments would prefer their soldiers to return to society without asking the kinds of questions asked by Jeffrey – and preferably without feeling the need to top themselves or others.
Fortunately, there is a possible solution. The Pentagon is currently conducting research into a ‘memory adjustment pill‘ called D-Cycloserine (DCS) that Wired magazine describes as
‘ a pharmaceutical thought to help extinguish fearful memories. It’s usually taken right before exposure therapy, a process that involves recalling traumatic experiences in an effort to nullify the menacing associations that accompany them.’
So if all goes well, soldiers will be able to take these pills like a ‘morning after’ pill, and do all the stuff that governments want them to do in wartime. And afterwards they will just come home and slot seamlessly back into domesticity as if nothing had happened.
Now won’t that be something to look forward to?