Saturday, June 24, 2006

PTSD and Me, or Staying In-Country

Three years of war and occupation has brought a lot of attention to post traumatic stress disorder. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association is one organization working to ensure returning soldiers have access to resources needed to deal with this issue. PTSD Combat is another excellent source of information about the subject. Everything I’ve seen about combat in Iraq tells me that this generation of veterans will have to deal with its lasting impact. The war returns with the veteran in all sorts of ways. I know from experience.

Leaving Vietnam did not mean leaving the war. It came home with me. Not combat dreams or edgy paranoia, my experience was more subtle. Vietnam for me was combat of proximity and potential but almost no actual, a series of maybes that never quite happened to me, even as they happened to others all around me. An infantryman walks in suspense, trying to remain alert to everything. I did that, following the guy immediately ahead of me in the column, keeping him in view but not so close to take a hit with him. I knew that I would shoot to kill in a firefight if it came to that, hoping that it never would. It never did but the tension has been a current inserted into my life, always there. Never far out of mind.

The memory is not surprising, really. Vietnam was an intense experience, one that I am truly amazed to have survived. Even being so fortunate as to not be around when shit happened took a physical and mental toll. I somehow made it through five months of Vietnam combat patrol in 1971 before becoming a rear echelon motherfucker. Mine was not a full bore, 12 month, filled with bloody firefights tour but real enough. “This is a real gun,” Davy Jones would yell from the berm into the jungle surrounding the firebase, “These are real bullets”. And he was so right. I still remember the sound of my M-16 bolt chambering a round.

Surviving Vietnam was sheer luck but I still consider it to be a personal achievement. I’ve thought that since the day I returned. I pulled it off! But there remained the matter of serving in a war I thought wrong. That thought has lurked in my mind, leaving me unsure about my basic goodness, even though I never killed anyone. No matter, I was a working part of the killing machine. I didn’t have the courage to say no.

I don’t have the angst of a lost cause that bothers many Vietnam vets. I had no belief in the war. It was just bad luck for me. Getting killed would have just been the misfortune. The war’s end in 1975 was pretty much as I expected; all that sacrifice and effort wasted, a tragedy for both the United States and Vietnam in which I played a small part. That’s about it. But where I don’t regret a lost cause, I regret my loss of innocence, complying with orders I thought wrong. The regret saddened me, even as I should have celebrated my survival. I managed to live with the regret for 30 years, mainly by putting it aside, not thinking too deeply about it. That ended when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2002.

Walking the Appalachian trail for six months brought Vietnam it back to me in ways I could not ignore. I had lots of time to think and Vietnam occupied much of that time. At times the hike put me back in the jungle. I thought how easy it would be to booby trap a well-used trail. I scanned the wood line. I knew no enemy lurked there but still the part of me that will always be a soldier kept looking. If I held my hiking stick like a rifle, I saw an infantryman’s shadow. Occasionally, I imagined a file of green clad figures moving along the trail with me.

More insistent were the thoughts of my willingness to kill for a cause I did not believe. Whatever heroism my service may have entailed, it was also a reflection of moral cowardice–my acceptance of military duty over conscience. I wrestled with those thoughts every day for the first couple months of the hike, from Georgia to Virginia. Maybe being back in Virginia, my home in the years prior to and after Vietnam, helped me come to terms with my choices. That and the realization that I could do nothing about those choices seemed to take the edge off of the memories. They still haunt me a bit but since the hike those long ago events have lost much of their power.

Combat changes a person and I’m no exception. Combat destroyed my sense of personal security. Death and injury were so random and common in combat that I’ve never since accepted the idea that I am safe. Something can always happen. The idea does not paralyze me or make me unduly paranoid but I stay on guard. That’s why the 9-11 attacks were less of a shock to me than to most Americans. American soil under attack by a foreign enemy was new but the idea of attack was anything but. At one level, it was just another day on patrol where death may happen. The randomness of combat had come to America.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t horrified. I wasn’t that desensitized but being under attack was nothing new. From that point of view, 9-11 was just a very, very successful ambush. We didn’t even have the option of the classic counter ambush tactic of charging the ambushers and getting some payback. They were already dead. The many innocent victims were the unlucky ones who were in the wrong place the wrong time. I felt like I had seen it before. I hadn’t–not even close–but it sure felt familiar.

Long after a war, the consequences remain in the minds of the men and women who fought. Some consequences are more obvious than others. All are real.

Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth.

--The Rolling Stones


I wanted to work in a reference to John Prine's song about PTSD, "Sam Stone", written long before America recognized this legacy of the Vietnam War. It didn't quite fit my narrative but you can find the lyrics here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fighting Back Against Karl Rove

Okay, liberals, progressives and everyone else who believes in government and society that serves all and preserves the individual freedom, be warned. Karl Rove is BACK, ready to save BushCheney’s presidency and Republican butt. His plan is no secret. It’s everything he’s done before: cranking up fear, polarizing the electorate and, most important, mobilizing his base. No doubt about it, the man knows politics and can craft strategies that work, especially when he has the Republican Noise Machine echoing his message across the land. If you still have doubts, check out this article.

What Karl Rove and his clients lack is the ability to govern in the public interest. Republican government in the past six years has given this nation spiraling debt, unending war, loss of America’s prestige, diminished public services and an increasingly uncompetitive economy. Republican government promoted an unconscionable polarization of wealth, a society of vast wealth were fewer and fewer can earn a living wage. Republican government has recreated America in the image of torture and domestic surveillance. I could go on but you already know the story.

That this incredible record of failed performance does not guarantee the perpetual banishment and disgrace its architects so richly deserve is testament to Rove’s evil genius. Democrats, liberals and progressives lost the last three elections to Karl Rove and his band because we believed that we could put forth rational, objective arguments that would convince the American people to reject the Republican cabal. Every time, we’ve come up short. Tantalizingly close–we actually won in 2000 and most likely did in 2004–but at the end of the day, we are the fools and Rove the grinning victor.

The meme in 2006 is that the Democrats are too fragmented and unsure to offer a compelling alternative to Rove’s fear-mongering and cynical patriotism. Witness the recent votes on Iraq in the House and Senate: virtually all Senate Democrats and 42 House Democrats were not willing to call the Republicans political bluff on Iraq. A big part of the problem is that neither Democrats nor the progressive community as a whole march in lockstep. We value debate and discourse and tolerate debate, sometimes sharp debate, that makes us look all over the place. For all their lip service to competition, the Republicans are unwilling allow open debate. And, for all the Democratic “disunity” on Iraq, the biggest difference (except for Joe Lieberman) is on the specific exit not on the idea of exit itself.

That’s why I believe the progressive community needs to focus on broad message. This is hardly my idea; I’ve seen it in a variety of places. So have most of you. In the next four and a half months. I will frame my ideas under three broad contexts: freedom, opportunity and security. (My apologies for not linking to the post where I first read this but I couldn’t locate it.)

Freedom for all to live their lives as they please with out unreasonable interference from government, religion or the righteous.

Opportunity for all to overcome the barriers of race, class, place of birth; the “fair shake” that Mark Warner spoke about at Yearly Kos (although he doesn’t have a monopoly on this idea).

Security from threats, foreign and domestic using American resources and forces in ways that actually protect American interests by working with the rest of the world.

Republicans don’t worry about details. They just shout, “Danger”, “Fear”, “Terror” and launch personal invective against all who oppose them. Amplified through their Noise Machine, they have managed to fool Americans into thinking that Republican government is the only alternative. Offering a more focused alternative that bridges the progressive community’s minimal differences (compared to the gulf that separates us from Republicans) is our opportunity to break their monopoly on political discourse in this country.

Cross posted at Daily Kos.

Let It All Hang Out

Today is Hike Naked Day. Find a trail. Lose your clothes. Sunscreen and bug juice recommended.

Monday, June 19, 2006

History Lesson

Juan Cole slaps down White House spokesman Tony Snow on the Battle of the Bulge. Snow, according to Cole, is not only reporting inaccurate history, he and the president he serves, are misusing history, actions that greatly harm this country. Cole reminds us that, despite the shock of the late 1944 German offensives, the Allies remained in control of the strategy.

Cole shifts the historical war analogy from the Greatest Generation to 1980's Afghanistan. There, the Soviets found themselves locked in a stalemate with a Muslilm insurgency. In the end, the Soviets recognized that they could not prevail and decided to withdraw but not before the war had cost them dearly. The Soviets were hardly the first to falter in Afghanistan; Persia,Greece, Russia, Great Britan all failed there.

The difference between Iraq and the success of World War II is control of strategy. America does not control strategy in Iraq. "As they stand up, we stand down" is a recipe for reacting, not performing. In the absence of a clear and realistic strategy, American policies are at the mercy of the many competing interests within a fragmented society. The Soviets never had real control of strategy in Afghanistan and ultimately acknowledged the limits of their power.

So much history. So many lessons. So little learning.


Also in Juan Cole, a report of an Iraqi panel discussion about the Iraqi army that makes me wonder how committed the United States is to "standing up" Iraq's security forces.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Standing Up for America in the Hot Sun of a Red State

Scottsdale and Phoenix Arizona are no place to stand in the afternoon sun on a June day. The heat and light are brutal. The 30 or so Arizonans who stood witness outside Laura Bush’s fund raiser for the truly odious Senator Jon Kyl and held a vigil for Iraq casualties outside Kyl’s Phoenix office showed both patriotism and endurance. The Arizona Alliance for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, Women in Black and Veterans for Peace were at each event, braving the hot sun. (Those of you at YearlyKos who thought Las Vegas was hot, add a few degrees and stand in the sun for thee to four hours and you’ll get the idea.

We greeted the Jaguars, Mercedes, Lexi and all manner of Escalades (Chevy trucks at Cadillac prices), Navigators, Tahoes and other large SUV’s as they entered the Scottsdale Hilton. Laura came in the back way, of course. Like her husband sneaking into Baghdad. By chance two demonstrators were at the back entrance to remind her of reality as she rode by in her black SUV. Three Secret Service agents came out to say “hello”. When they asked who was in charge we just laughed. They were friendly enough but I’m sure they were checking us out. The agents told a cameraman to stop filming but he asserted his right to film in a public space without missing a frame. The agents, all wearing dark suits soon left for the air-conditioned sanctuary of the Hilton. I guess they found us harmless enough.

The fund raising crowd, when they looked at us at all, were disdainful, we are an irritant to their privileged lives. At times incoming vehicles were stuck in front of us as traffic backed up in the parking lot; the drivers resolutely stared ahead, not wanting to be reminded of the actual results of the war they are supporting. We wished them “a nice lunch while the kids die”. Scottsdale Road traffic gave us more than the usual number of obscene gestures and downturned thumbs. One guy drove by, head out the window, screaming at us across six lanes of traffic, red faced. On the other hand, we also got supportive honks, cheers and friendly waves.

Three hours later, we were at Kyl’s Phoenix office on Camelback Road to erect a memorial to the casualties. Rush hour traffic was much friendlier than during the lunch but most of it just passed by. Many looked but did not respond, people on their way about their normal lives. A bagpiper and three drums made us hard to ignore. The memorial is a strong visual, holding photos, flowers, ribbons, dog tags, other memorabilia and flags. It was behind us so most passing drivers probably did not see it. The memorial is portable and will be part of future vigils.

Toward the end of our vigil, a driver waiting at the light spoke to us. He said he had served in Iraq to protect our right to speak out and would return if asked. He wasn’t hostile but he was animated. He even stayed a few seconds into his green light to finish speaking. Between traffic noise and my poor hearing, I only caught a few of his words but I could feel his intensity; Edwina beside me picked up more. She responded with a simple “thank you” as he drove off. Not being entirely sure what he said, I said nothing. Later, I thought about what I would say to this soldier. Simply put I would say “thank you” (Edwina was right in her choice of words) and “I hope you are not disillusioned”.

“Thank you” is something a society owes to those who defend it. Security is a fundamental purpose of organized society, often requiring sacrifice. That leaders sometimes betray or squander this sacrifice makes it no less important or honorable. Those who serve warrant our eternal gratitude. I will make sure to thank them at every opportunity. I have been sincerely gratified by the many thanks I have received in recent years for serving in Vietnam. The thanks take some of the edge off my cynicism and doubt about my service. We owe that to our soldiers. They sacrifice for us.

That’s why I hope the gentleman in the car is not disillusioned. Our service men and women want–and need–to know their sacrifice means something. They deserve leaders who will not betray or misuse their sacrifice. I went to Vietnam believing that what I did there would not benefit my country and have long felt that the nation wasted m–and all others’–sacrifice in that conflict. Today’s soldiers serve with a more positive outlook but I fear that their mission is the same lie and will leave them disillusioned.

Today’s veterans were sent into harm’s way based on lies and deception. They are being used in a way that further endangers America and degrades our standing in the world community. The negative consequences of the Iraq occupation will burden this nation for years. That is no fault of the soldiers. They do what the nation asks. They deserve leaders who do not squander their sacrifice, their gift to the nation.

Cross posted at Daily Kos.

Fathers Day in Iraq

Iraqi fathers speak of their responsibilities in a war-torn land.

"If there is any danger, I am the first to stand in the face of that danger and keep...[my son] home with me," he said. "You cannot hope for the police because sometimes they are the ones committing crimes."

"Our sons and daughters should build a golden statue for us, because we are fighting with monsters to keep them safe," Noor said. "In the end, though, only God can protect them."