The horror of war:
Such an ambitious title would imply the work of many volumes rather than a few pages.  This is just my own impression.  As a child I tended to think of war as a sort of an adventure until in one Sunday school class the teacher described an incident in the Korean War when a soldier threw a baby into the air and caught it on the tip of his bayonet.  He gave no further details.  Are any needed?

Some time during the many intervening years I read The Chickenhawk by Robert Mason, who was a helicopter pilot.  Gruesome though much of the book is, and bits do have a dark humor, I assumed that we were spared much.  But the book ends with the story of what happened after returning.  Mason’s life did not go well.  He said such difficulties were well known.  That much I believed. 

So I was primed when I read an article in the Saint Petersburg Times on Veteran’s day one year.  I still have the article, but what caught my eye was a graphic that led it.  It showed silhouettes of American soldiers in combat gear for each war from the Spanish American War through Vietnam.  Below were recorded the dates of the wars, how many Americans fought, how many died, and how many still survived.

For reasons I shall not elaborate it was a very unhappy time in my life.  There was nothing to be done about the situation.  It reflected badly on nobody.  But living became a very disagreeable chore.  One of the ways I would get my brain to shut up was to do arithmetic compulsively.  So when I saw the numbers I started crunching them.  I was amazed at what I found.  Allowing for anything like a reasonable rate of death for young men at home in peace time, there was an enormous number of missing soldiers.  In fact I saw that, dangerous although combat is, coming home was more dangerous still.  More died from the war after returning than died while there.  More died each year than died in combat. 

It made good sense to me.  I had done a presentation to the Boylston Society at Harvard Medical School on indoctrination.  The evidence I found indicated that you could take a normal person and replace his beliefs and memories at will.  It was just a matter of submerging him in an environment in which the new personality was adaptive but the old was irrelevant.  There’s a bit more to it, but that was the big picture.  What is not spoken much of is just how hard this is on the victim.  He is very likely to die, particularly of suicide. 

So I thought that immersion in combat and the equally traumatic emergence from combat were enough to explain the loss of life.  I just had never suspected the enormity of the matter.  Since these were my friends and age mates I decided to volunteer to work for one of the organizations helping to deal with the issue.  There had to be a number of them.  After all, the problem was well known.

I could find no such organization.  There was the Veterans Administration, which looked after their health.  But there was no organization simply there to help them cope and get through the situation.  The more I looked around the more frustrating it became.  Good people would look at the numbers and say, “This is terrible.  I’ll look into it.”  Later they would say, “Don’t worry about it.” 

The official position was that there was no problem.  But that was impossible. 

Paranoia began to stalk my path.  Then one day I got a phone call from a friend who said her brother, a Vietnam veteran, had died, and would I be willing to explain the autopsy findings to the mother.  Of course I would.  I think I have told much of this before, so I shall just say that the conditions of his death were quite mysterious and the autopsy looked as if it had been handcrafted to conceal anything odd. 

I thought, “All right.  They got him.  They got my friend.  And they have covered their tracks with exquisite care.  And I can live with that.  Just one thing.  No more nice guy.” 

So I started a letter writing campaign.  In fact I produced a journal Wild Surmise, through which I could hammer on the issue.  I kept it up for two years with no effect at all.  At the end of my powers I recalled my first principle, the no more nice guy thing.  So I started printing the letters I got from the Veterans Administration.  They did not make the VA look very good.  About the time I published the last letter I got a call at work from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.  They said they were looking into the matter.  They did not find the enormous losses I had seen, but it was official and I watched but did nothing for some years.

I had thought that now it was clear what terrible things combat did to soldiers people would never tolerate another war unless there was absolutely no alternative.  Then came Desert Storm.  Then Afghanistan.  The Gulf War Two.  Then Libya.  Now we are snarling at Syria and Iran.  Evidently I had much exaggerated in my mind the human capacity for pity.

Now there is an article (Greg Miller Predicting the Psychological Risks of War SCIENCE vol. 333. no. 6042 July 29, 2012 page 520) describing efforts to determine who is at greatest risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the term for emotional difficulties follow events such as combat, before soldiers are deployed and trying to prevent problems with extra training or maybe medication.  Of course such an effort is to be applauded, but I am pessimistic.  My studies, so long ago, of indoctrination make it clear to me that nobody is immune.  In fact the article indicates that something like one soldier in six will get symptoms of stress disorder from combat.  In my humble opinion, something that is true of more than 15% of the population is a normal variant. 

There is something about the experience of combat, be it physical, the sight of people getting hurt and killed or maybe simply the fact of trying to kill people that does something terrible to the soul.  For my part the cure is not to get into wars. 
But matters get worse.  According to a recent article by David Wood (“Veterans Crisis Line Seeks To Help Those Struggling With Civilian Life, Unemployment, Post-Combat Stress” help lines for suicide prevention for veterans are overwhelmed.  And yes, alas, suicides of returned veterans outnumber combat deaths every year.  My first impression understated the case.  The suicides are the icberg tip. 
And recent news is that an American soldier in Afghanistan ran amuk mudering local civilians, shooting them in their homes without provocation.  Did we have to go back there?  It has been called the worst atrocity since we started that war.  War is always terrible.

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