Sunday, December 26, 2010

To the Sound of Trumpets

Nine years. For nine years we have been fighting this supposed war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. For nine years we have been losing our soldiers, losing our money, losing face to the rest of the world. For nine years we have been terrorizing the innocent people of these countries trying to find a multitude of rats in bunkers, mountains, and deserts. And after nine years of killing what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of civilians, sometimes mistakenly, sometimes intentionally, the army is finally realizing that our soldiers are not well.

Today, Peter Chiarelli, a top army official, argued that soldiers need more time at home in between deployments in order to recuperate before being shipped back to the front lines. They usually get a year off for a year's deployment, with a minor break in between lasting about two weeks, almost like a typical job we have here at home. Of course, we don't spend the year killing and trying not to be killed. And if a year off hardly seems sufficient to piece together their shattered nerves, it's not, which is being proven time and time again.

The toll of this war is turning our weather-beaten soldiers into cold-hearted psychotic killing machines, as first evidenced by a 2007 video leaked by Wikileaks showing trigger happy soldiers celebrating the accidental killings of four civilians. Carrying cellphones and cameras that were somehow mistaken for AK-47s and grenades (yeah, I don't get it either), the soldiers opened fire amidst cheers and trash talking like they were playing a Wii game on their living room couches. They laughed as one body was mangled by a tank that ran over it, and opened fire on another group of civilians trying to rescue a survivor, riddling their van with bullets and hitting two small girls inside. The sudden realization of the children's presence yielded the icy response, "that's what happens when you bring kids into a warzone". Another incident is a highly publicized criminal proceeding where a number of soldiers killed innocent civilians and kept body parts as souvenirs, and a more recent trial has come to light after a soldier admitted to raping a 14 year old Iraqi girl and killing her and her family because he "didn't think of Iraqis as humans".

The outrage that these attacks have elicited from the world and from me is almost immeasurable, and it's so easy to point fingers, to curse and spit and damn them to Hell, but are we pointing the fingers at the right people? Thrust into an establishment that has only recently encouraged soldiers to seek mental health services (despite existing threats of dishonorable discharges and labels of weakness), fighting for a government that worries more about how many soldiers are killing others than about soldiers who kill themselves when they return home, and having the Us versus Them mentality hammered into their heads every waking moment of every day, it's amazing these men and women last as long as they do.

In Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's book, On Killing, he discusses the multiple psychological casualties of war which, from the civil war to the present, haven't changed much despite developing technologies and the abandonment of guerrilla and trench warfare. Fighting fatigue, many soldiers fall into confusional states of dissociation where they depersonalize from their environment and can suffer from manic-depressive episodes. A prominent syndrome of the state is that of Ganzer, where the soldier will become silly and make jokes, trying to ward off the horrors of war, but in a delusional state that is overwhelmingly morbid. One such soldier fighting in the Korean war had retrieved the severed arm of a North Korean soldier, using it as a puppetry prop. He carried it around waving it in other soldiers' faces, calling it Herbert, and even pretending to pick his nose with one of the fingers. Sadly, this psychotic behavior did not land him safely in a mental ward, but on a double shift of guard duty, and today, only when this behavior becomes deadly such as in killing civilians and keeping "souvenirs" does it warrant attention. The dissociative properties of the confusional state also account for the dehumanization of victims that makes it easier for soldiers to kill, whether it be their targeted enemy, or innocent camera toting civilians and adolescents.

Given the prolonged time periods of service, multiple deployments, watching strangers die, watching friends die, and a war that has actually gotten worse, it's no wonder these people are losing their minds. Many war vets throughout history have come home to PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, destroyed personal lives and obliterated mental health. Nowadays, they develop these issues before leaving their barracks. Swank and Marchand (1946) found that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98% of soldiers became psychiatric casualties. The other 2% escaped the fate only because they were found to already be unstable with "aggressive psychopathic personalities" (did I really just do an APA citation in my freakin' blog? What have you done to me grad school?!). So with our soldiers serving upwards of 90 days of continuous combat and no sign of our government slowing this fight, we will no doubt have many more horror stories of murder, torture, and mind-numbing stomach-churning morbidity to come.

But it is important to keep in mind, however, that these soldiers were not sick to begin with. These are not deranged antisocial personalities who come into the army with the perverse desire to kill. Romanced by promises of honor and the idea of serving their country and saving another, the harsh reality of war hits hard, and, disillusioned, their better judgment and morals dissipate in favor of basic survival needs and paranoid delusions about who their enemies are and how to deal with them. War makes people crazy, then we give them a small vacation and ask them to come back and do it again. And again. Then possibly once more. So no, Mr. Chiarelli, they don't need more time off, they need this war to be over. They need to come home. They need aftercare, they need therapy.

Voltaire once wrote "it is forbidden to kill, and therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets". Likewise it seems appropriate to write that all psychotics are locked away to protect society, unless they're zipped into fatigues, then they're given guns and asked to serve their country.

Side note: I can't write a blog about the army without at least mentioning our small triumph of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, but in spite of the success, I can only say to you now, dear gaybugs, stay home, not every right we're afforded needs to be exercised.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Moments Fleeting, Time Lost, Chances Missed

So we're smack-dab in the middle of the holiday season, amidst bustling Christmas shoppers, tree farms, and co-workers who bring in a hoard of sweets under the guise of being friendly when in fact they're snickering behind your back because they know that cheesecake is going on your thighs, not theirs (seriously guys, enough is enough). But as we hurry from point A to point B and zip through the weeks, sweeping aside various everyday tasks that seem menial in comparison to our ever-growing to-do list, how often do we really stop and think about the things we're missing? More specifically, the people in our lives?

Now I know that over the years this resounding message seems more like beating a dead horse than an inspirational note moving us to pick up the phone or write a letter, but stay with me on this. Tonight, in my last official class of my Master's Program, my professor shared with us a personal devastating story. Her neighbor, a war vet with PTSD who had a history of suicidal depression and alcoholism had taken his own life last week. Now my professor had gone the extra mile over the years, providing emotional support, checking in on him, sending him birthday and holiday baskets, food for Thanksgiving, whatever he needed, whatever she could give. However, last week, she wasn't well, in bed with a long-term migraine, feeling physically ill, and she took a moment for herself. It wasn't until she got out of bed one morning, head still aching, that she heard the ominous hum of an idling engine outside her house. Peeking through the kitchen curtain, she found a fire engine and four police squad cars lining her street, and her heart stopped. She knew, without having to ask, what had happened. Her mind flipped back through the past week or so, every moment that she thought to stop by and every time she said, "I'm just too busy to talk to him today." And that guilt, by my own observation, is taking it's toll on her.

First let me clarify, I do not slight this woman in the least. She has extended and over-extended herself for this individual and really had tried to save this broken soul by giving all the love and care she had. Life happens, we get busy sometimes, and unfortunately things get passed up. However, far too many times the rest of us brush people aside without having the track record this woman brought to the table. How many times have we said "tomorrow", or "maybe next week", or "I really need to call/write/email him", and never got around to it? How many times have we thought "I simply don't have the time"?

I have to own it, as my life has gotten more hectic with school, work, internship, and all the time I've invested in just going nuts, I have neglected some people: a cousin I used to speak with almost every week, my dad whom I really only speak to once a month or so, my grandparents whom I keep saying I'll take out to lunch, but have yet to get around to it, and friends that have faded into the background as my once idle and uneventful life takes wing. But it's no excuse, because everywhere we look, we see people, read articles, hear stories of sudden and unexpected loss and pass up the lessons unlearned until it happens to us. Moments that should've been are gone, hopes for memories that were never made have dissipated, and all we have is the "should have, could have, would have if only I had the time" that won't bring our loved ones back.

And, in these trying times when we can all use a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear, or just a hug, we need to take time for one another; to prevent more tragedies, to stop someone from picking up a gun and turning it on themselves, or worse yet, turning it on everyone else, to heal some wounds or at the very least, alleviate some pain. Most importantly, to let people know that they are loved, that they're on your mind, and in your heart.

So get cracking. Make your To-Call list, and hit up some people who haven't heard from you in awhile, or call up some people you may have spoken to yesterday, but this time just to say hi rather than ask for a favor. Write a letter, write an email, hell, write a text message! Despite arguments of technology making social exchanges more superficial and impersonal, let's face it, a text message says so much more than a phone that doesn't ring or a letter that never comes. And while you're at it, give a friendly smile to a stranger at the mall, start a little conversation when you're waiting in those long lines at the cashier, connect to someone new. It might just change their whole day, and you'll feel better for it.