Soldiers’ untold stories

April 9, 2014

Bill Roberts reviews They Were Soldiers, a new book that tells the stories of soldiers, from the battlefield to the hospital and home again.

THIS IS a roller coaster read. You will both cry and shake your fist as you read the stories of maimed-for-life soldiers, their caregivers, and then learn how unnecessary in all is.

In Ann Jones' unsparing but compassionate unfolding of the "untold story" of what the mythmakers call "our heroes," you begin to see how the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations are insidious in their hidden costs--costs that will be born by a generation not yet born.

As Jones makes clear in her introduction, "War is not natural." These "wars of choice" "need never have been fought." The choice to go to war was a manufactured cause dressed in clothes of "national interest."

But those who chose have not suffered and in many ways have profited. Thus, They Were Soldiers reveals the heavy irony of soldiers, who believed they were fighting to protect and extend democracy, becoming the unwitting victims of someone else's choice.

Jones' reporting follows wounded soldiers from the battlefield, through their medical restoration and rehabilitation experiences, and finally home to their ill-prepared family caregivers. At each stage a world that is hidden to most of us unfolds in ramifications that are almost surreal. Even in the mortuary unit, there are walking wounded.

As one member of the Marines Mortuary Affairs unit, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), despite no combat experience, explains, "Our platoon was to the Marines what the Marines are to much of America: We did things that had to be done but that no one wanted to know about." Her job was to make sure as many of the soldiers' body parts, as possible were placed inside his coffin.

One of the strengths of Jones' narrative is its fidelity to the reality of global conflict as it plays out at the level of the average soldier. She describes those who signed up for service as mostly "boys and girls who know next to nothing of the world, but they are taught what to think of it and what to do by higher ups in the military and the government whose grand plans often prove delusionary and who have been known, at decisive moments, to lie." Think "weapons of mass destruction."

For some, like the emergency room personnel, there is no end to the horrors. As one ER nurse, an Army major describes the typical case, "Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22."

One of the hidden costs of the war in Afghanistan is the ironic fact that soldiers tasked with eradicating poppy crops there are now dying from poppy-derived drugs and their synthetic imitations used by military doctors and Veteran Affairs (VA) facilities once they return.

Big Pharma pushes opioid painkillers "mak[ing] unsubstantiated claims for their efficacy and safety." So alarming is the death and destruction of painkiller addiction, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011, issued a warning under the headline "Prescription painkiller overdoes at epidemic levels."

THE PHYSICAL and mental destruction of the soldiers is tragic enough, but the damage is not limited to one individual. Families are also victims. As Jones notes:

the wife of an active duty soldier often is a girl barely out of her teens, who married not long before her shiny new husband in his oh-so-smart uniform deployed, and is now caring for her baby and her moody combat soldier just returned from war and seemingly not very well.

As the Army makes clear in many ways, it is the wife's duty to get the soldier ready for the next deployment if he is physically able. Thus, the wife is often given the message to "suck it up" and ignore the withdrawn, moody, often abusive behavior of her soldier-husband, and send him back to war with a smile.

In so many cases, the military establishment seems blind to what is happening to its own troops. For example, in 2009, shortly after the Fourth Brigade Combat team of Fort Carson, Colo., returned from Iraq, "nine of its members were charged with homicide...In addition, 'charges of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault' at the base rose sharply."

Said an Army prosecutor looking at the mayhem, "Where is this aggression coming from?"

While on the surface the military subscribes to equality--assigning women to combat teams, for example--underneath the contradictions are an indictment screaming for justice.

As Jones reports, "Sexual assault has become such a feature of daily life in the military that it earned an acronym of its own: MST, for Military Sexual Trauma." But, as the author notes, this is a cover, "which describes an effect of rape, to mask rape itself, which is clearly a crime."

What becomes clear in reading They Were Soldiers is that military culture nourishes sexual assault. Jones confronts a colonel at a forward base in Afghanistan regarding the rising rates of sexual assault: "He laughed and said, 'Hey, you know, it's a 'he said, she said' kind of deal.'" His conclusion was "that it's a damn good thing for my men they send us these females. Because the locals...are dogs."

Quite often the military family is lauded in the press for their sacrifices and service to country. Behind the praise though stands a reality that should infuriate. A 2011 study of 300,000 military children "found that 16.7 percent of them had already been diagnosed with a mental problem."

But what are we to hope for when the Ph. D. director of a program to aid military families puzzles over these statistics.

WHAT BEGINS in the military does not stay in the military, however. The grisly shootings by ex-soldiers are only the most dramatic blowback of war training. Referencing Boston psychiatrist, Jonathan Shay, Jones writes:

the skills drilled into the combat soldier--cunning, deceit, strength, quickness, stealth, a repertoire of killing techniques, and the suppression of compassion and guilt--quip him perfectly for a life of crime.

Drug addiction, alcoholism, and crime return with the soldiers of the unnecessary wars. Add to this the despair and havoc visited on families and the social costs that follow, and you begin to understand what is meant by the "hidden costs of war." Jones is a master at revealing this from several points of reference.

Don't let it be said that there is not opportunity for many soldiers once they've completed their required service years. They can always sign up for the "shadow army of private for-profit defense contractors."

The kid-soldiers, once deployed to Afghanistan, soon learn that working alongside them is an ex-soldier who is making big bucks doing the same job for a private contractor. "By 2010, contractors outnumbered uniformed soldiers on casualty lists, as well, though nobody but their parents mistook them for noble 'warriors.'"

The business of war, despite the numerous reports of waste, theft, and disregard for personnel, has been very profitable. By 2008, private contractors had already pocketed $138 billion in profits, with Halliburton alone taking $39.5 billion.

As Jones notes, "The wars...had become a remarkably efficient engine for transferring the wealth of the nation from the public treasury to the pockets of the already rich."

Because Jones had to dig under the subterfuge of hidden wars, she found an unlikely source--local newspapers and their investigative reporters. Here she could pick up the trail of individual soldiers and track "too much trouble too fast for me to investigate."

Jones does not preach. She uncovers, she piles on the evidence, and she lets the hangmen hang themselves in their own words and policies. They Were Soldiers is an indictment of a system in "the business of war."

Read it, pass it forward, and use it as a weapon against the system she exposes.

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