Politicians love a man in uniform, as the Gang of Four once sang, no matter how sordid, dishonest, reckless and incoherent the wars they fight in. Last December David Cameron launched the Sun’s Military Awards ceremony with a reception at Downing Street in which he praised the ‘Herculean bravery’ of the nominees. Not to be outdone, Ed Miliband made one of the most fatuous statements of his career and thanked British soldiers in Afghanistan for ensuring a ‘ secure, peaceful and happy Christmas’ to those of us back home.
This glorification of ‘our finest men and women’ as exemplars of sacrifice, courage, and heroism invariably focusses on their willingness to die ‘for their country’ – regardless of whether they actually die for any such thing. But was is about killing as well as dying, and the transformation of young men and women, many of whom are still in their teens, into professional killers, has unintended consequences for those who do it as well as for those on the receiving end.
Last weekend, these consequences were dramatically visible in the United States, when a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran named Benjamin Colton Barnes shot and critically wounded four people at a house party near Seattle. Barnes fled to Oregon’s Rainier Park, where he shot dead a female Park Ranger before escaping into the hills.
On Monday he was found frozen to death in deep snow, wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a single sneaker. A photograph shows him in narcissistic Rambo-mode, stripped to the waist, muscular, tattoed, posing with a machine pistol and an enormous machine-gun. Barnes had previously been involved in a custody dispute with the mother of his toddler daughter, who had sought a restraining order against him. According to Associated Press:
The woman told authorities he was suicidal and possibly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after deploying to Iraq in 2007-2008, and had once sent her a text message saying “I want to die.” She alleged that he gets easily irritated, angry and depressed and keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home. She wrote that she feared for the child’s safety.
Barnes was almost certainly suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and he was not an isolated case. According to a 2008 Rand Corporation study, some 300,000 US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from (PTSD). A 2008 investigation by the New York Times found 121 cases in which US veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan committed or were charged with murders on returning from the wars. According to the Times
In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction. Three-quarters of these veterans were still in the military at the time of the killing. More than half the killings involved guns, and the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bathtub drownings. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.
The Times research found that self-destruction was often linked to the destruction of others in these episodes:
Thirteen of these veterans took their own lives after the killings, and two more were fatally shot by the police. Several more attempted suicide or expressed a death wish, like Joshua Pol, a former soldier convicted of vehicular homicide, who told a judge in Montana in 2006, “To be honest with you, I really wish I had died in Iraq.”
Many US veterans have expressed the same desire. In 2009 and 2010, more US soldiers – both enlisted and veterans – committed suicide than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010 a study by the Center for a New American Security claimed that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans killed themselves every 36 hours.
In Britain, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have also been associated with crime, suicide, homelessness and unemployment. In 2008, according to a report by the association of probation officers (NAPO), 8, 500 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were in custody for a criminal offence. Of 90 cases listed in the report, most offences were related to domestic violence. 24 offenders were considered to be suffering from diagnosed or undiagnosed PTSD while another 19 were diagnosed with depression and other behavioural problems.
A 2009 study carried out by none other than the Conservative Party found that ‘ A lack of mental health support and the intensity of the battle against the Taliban will leave record numbers suffering from post-traumatic stress‘ and ‘that veterans aged 18 to 23 are up to three times more likely to commit suicide than civilians’.
PTSD has always been a consequence of wars – long before it was diagnosed as such. In his poem To a Conscript of 1940 Herbert Read, himself a veteran of World War I, once wrote of the ‘ many who returned and yet were dead’, one of whom tells a conscript:
We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud:
We fought as you will fight
With death and darkness and despair;
We gave what you will give-our brains and our blood.
We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud
Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet
Many veterans from the battlefields of the ‘Global War on Terror’ have found an equally glaring disparity between their public veneration as heroes and the less glorious re-adaptation to civilian life. In previous wars, it was sometimes possible for veterans to take consolation from the fact that the violence they engaged in or witnessed had some meaning or higher purpose.
In today’s neo-colonial occupations and ‘low-intensity wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers have participated in or been exposed to horrific levels of violence that are difficult – and for some – impossible to justify – and which often make them singularly ill-equipped for civilian or domestic life.
But the societies that send them are often equally unable or unwilling to consider the impact of these wars on the men and women they have trained to kill and die on their behalf. Instead they prefer the celebrity-driven idiocy and brazen propaganda of the Sun‘s ‘Millie’ awards, the seasonal feel-good bathos of Military Wives, the sacrificial pagaentry of Wootton Bassett, the staged rituals of Remembrance Day – the better to encourage others to follow their example.
And if we don’t care about the people our soldiers kill on our behalf, the dismal experience of so many returning veterans suggests that we really don’t care that much about the people who kill them either.