Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (3)


This is the third of a series of posts under the same title.

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The anger I felt when I first read Jane E. Brody’s article “War Wounds That Time Can’t Heal” was actually not directed toward those U. S. veterans of our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who were the subjects of the article. My anger was not at all at those U.S. veterans themselves who suffer from having to live with their knowledge of having once perpetrated atrocities. I was not—and am not—angry at them.

What I feel for such vets themselves is not anger at all. It is actually compassion. From my own experience, I can identify with them and their suffering.

I have never killed any children, either intentionally—whether under orders or not—or by accident. Nor have I ever stood by and watched while others did such killing. But I certainly have done things of which I am far from proud, and I have suffered at the knowledge of my deeds. What is more, I will even disclose, share, and confess that I can understand how it is possible to do even such things as such vets themselves once did.

Perhaps there are some who cannot understand that, but I must say that I can. I realize the capacity for doing such things lies within me, and could be triggered under certain conditions that I hope and pray will never materialize around me. It certainly gives me no pride to acknowledge such capacities in myself, but I am under no illusion that I am free from all possibility of committing such crimes.

I will even go so far as to confess that I would truly like to see those who do suffer from the fact that they actually did commit such crimes come to be healed of their suffering.

Yet I must also confess that, were those who had committed such offenses, and who did so suffer from the knowledge of it, to come to me for some reason to seek counsel and advice, one thing I would not do is tell them what Brody reports Dr. Brett Litz as saying. That is, I would not tell such vets that they are “not to be judged and are deserving of forgiveness.”

I would share with them what I have already shared above, which is that I understand how one could commit such deeds as they committed, which I can even imagine I might also have committed myself under similar circumstances, and that I have compassion for them in their suffering. I’d even tell them that I hoped they would be able to find healing for that suffering.

But then I would go on and tell them that they would not find forgiveness and healing just, “for example, by helping children or writing letters,” as Dr. Litz recommends, by Brody’s account. I’d tell them that, to be sure, helping children today, and also writing letters to the very long-dead children they had killed, expressing their own horror at what they had done to those children, were certainly to be recommended. I would add, however, that in my judgment no amount of such behavior would ever of itself make the perpetrators of such deeds “deserving of forgiveness,” most especially deserving of it from those from whom they most needed to receive it, which is precisely from those now dead, the very one’s they once killed, who are, of course, for that very reason no longer able to offer it.

Above all, I would encourage them to explore ways of accepting that what they did was beyond all possibility of forgiveness, that it was literally unforgiveable. I would counsel them that precisely for that reason, all endeavors to find ways to expiate their guilt were really no more than avoidance strategies on their part. They are such avoidance strategies at best, I would tell them.

I would probably avoid telling them what they are at worst, since that probably wouldn’t help anybody at all, perpetrators or victims or anybody else. That’s because, in my view, what such endeavors at self-expiation are at worst is no more than self-glorifying, grandstanding ways of calling attention to oneself, and thereby compounding one’s already inexpiable guilt.

In either case, best or worst, such behaviors do not succeed in expiating such guilt. They do not atone for it. What I would counsel sufferers of such inexpiable “moral guilt,” in the highly unlikely chance that any were to come to me, is precisely that they abandon any illusion they may have that good deeds they do now will earn them forgiveness. They should certainly do such good deeds, since they are indeed good; but doing them now does not compensate for what they did then, nor will it ever so compensate.

To use an image that gave me the title for my own book The Open Wound, on what my subtitle calls “trauma, identity, and community,” I would counsel them to learn to live with their guilt as with an always still open wound, instead of compulsively repeating futile attempts to close it—attempts that actually always make things worse, not better. I would assure them that I would not reject them, turn my back on them, cast them out of community with me, because of what they did, since I knew I had the capacity to do the same things myself. However, I would persist in telling them that that did not mean that I “forgave” them for what they had done, since it simply was not in my power to grant them such forgiveness. I would tell them that, in my own judgment, my ongoing willingness to accept them into full communion with me, as it were, would in no way bring it about that they were somehow thereby washed clean of their guilt. I would urge them to accept that such forgiveness was something altogether beyond anyone’s power, since what they did was unforgiveable.

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To be continued.

Published in: on November 15, 2016 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (2)


This is the second of a series of four posts under the same title.

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A news-piece appeared in the “Science News” section of The New York Times for July 7, 2016, under the byline of Jane E. Brody, and was entitled “War Wounds That Time Can’t Heal.” Beneath that title came this one-sentence blurb: “Moral injury resembles post-traumatic stress disorder, with an added burden of guilt.”

In the article Brody writes that it “is the fate of an untold number of servicemen and servicewomen who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and other wars” to suffer under just such a burden, the burden of “war wounds that time can’t heal.” But the wounds in question arise from the what Brody, following the contemporary clinicians she discusses, calls “moral injury”—that is the injury, the wound, that come from the memory of acts of atrocity that the servicemen and servicewomen (though I suspect there are far fewer of the latter than of the former) at issue themselves committed during their time of service. It is from just such wounds of “moral injury,” writes Brody, that many United States military veterans suffer—the wounds that came from the fact that they “participated in, witnessed or were unable to help in the face of atrocities, from failing to aid an injured person to killing a child”. However, Brody then goes on in effect to wash out, knowingly or not, some of the very moral weight of the categories of atrocity she mentions, by immediately adding, after “killing a child”: “in accident or in self-defense.”

Well, as I wrote in a note to myself about that sentence, what that leaves altogether unmentioned are all those cases such as that of the murders of women and children that were authorized by such United States military veterans as Bob Kerrey. It leaves out all the murders, that is, that were fully intentional, not any “accident” at all, and that were hardly done in “self-defense” (at least unless the killers themselves were suffering from paranoid delusions of the most virulent sort).

A bit later, Brody writes that “the therapeutic community is only now becoming aware of the dimensions of [such] moral injury [such injury as she has been so describing—or perhaps mis-describing] and how it can be treated.” One of the “challenges” to such treatment, the author writes, is the need to “reassure” the onetime atrocity perpetrators who suffer from such a condition “that they will not be judged and are deserving of forgiveness.” Later yet, she quotes Dr. Brett Litz, whom she identifies as “a mental health specialist with the V. A. Boston Healthcare System and a leading expert on moral injury”:

“Disclosing, sharing, confessing is fundamental to repair,” Dr. Litz said. “In doing so, the vets learn that what happened to them can be tolerated, and they’re not rejected.” They are also encouraged to “engage in the world in a way that is repairing—for example, by helping children or writing letters.” The goal is to find forgiveness within themselves or from others.

When I first read those remarks, what I personally felt—as I myself now feel bound to disclose, share, and confess—did not happen to be forgiveness, which I do not think I have any right or standing to offer those who suffer from such “moral injury” anyway. Rather, what I felt was anger.

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To be continued.

Published in: on November 14, 2016 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (1)

This is the first of a series of what will be four posts under the same title. All four derive from the manuscript I wrote this summer for an eventually cancelled conference.

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Having already by then been invited to a conference, originally set to take place in Poland at the end of October this year, on the topic of poetry (literature) and the remembrance of the Holocaust, ideas for my talks on that topic were already germinating in my mind when I read Roy Scranton’s New York Times column on the 2003 war in Iraq (see my preceding post) over the 2016 July 4th weekend. Reading that piece helped begin bringing my thoughts on the topic of the conference to fruition.

Then, just a few more days after that weekend, I read another column by a different author, but with the same historical focus as the one by Scranton: the United States invasion of Iraq early in this century. This second column was called “A Misguided War, The Untold Dead” (New York Times, July 7, 2016), and was occasioned by the release just the day before of the so-called “Chilcot report,” the long-delayed official report from the British government on Britain’s involvement in the war the Bush administration unleashed against Iraq in 2003. The author of the column was Carne Ross, a British diplomat who was the Iraq expert in Britain’s delegation to the United Nations from 1997-2002. Here are the closing lines of his column:

[. . .] I’ve come to believe that government’s failed attempts to impose order by force are themselves the source of disorder. Many Iraqis would doubtless agree

The Chilcot report reveals much about government and its failure but largely ignores the greatest issue. The enormous suffering and losses of the Iraqi people are scarcely mentioned; there is no attempt to count the dead.

There is also no recommendation of making reparation to the Iraqi people, let alone an apology. For me, this should be the ultimate significance of a report like this: that it speaks for those whose lives were needlessly wasted. It is their fate, not those of us and our politicians, that should preoccupy us. Only then can we begin to grasp the magnitude of what was done in our name.

It was actually Ross’s article that finally suggested to me the title for the presentation I was preparing for presentation at the eventually cancelled conference in Poland to which I had been invited. As I wrote in an email to my contact at the Institute sponsoring the conference a few days after reading Ross’s column:

Since I received your initial invitation, the basic concept of the conference has been on my mind. One idea that I find germinating in my own thoughts is that I might do something under some title such as ” ‘Forgetting Ourselves’: Poetry and the Obligation of Remembrance.” In that context, one thing I would want to do is to play upon the ambiguity of the American expression, “forgetting oneself,” which can have both a negative and a positive connotation. In the former sense, saying something, for example, in which old prejudices one has tried to keep buried resurface would be “forgetting oneself”–that is, lapsing back into old, undesirable behaviors. But in the positive sense, we say that we “forget ourselves” when we rush to help someone in need, even if that may prove dangerous to our own physical safety. There, to “forget oneself” means to let go of self-centered attachment and concern, in order to help others.

Here’s what I had already written in my own notes after reading Ross’s column on the Chilcot report:

It occurred to me that I might call my upcoming talks in Poland “Forgetting Ourselves,” which I’d use in the double sense of (1) dropping self-concern to let the suffering of others be “remembered” (and there, not only Ross in this piece but also Viet Thanh Nguyen on Bob Kerry and the concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators are highly relevant [see below]) and (2) lapsing forgetfully into old behavior patterns we’d like to claim we’ve outgrown (“forgetting ourselves” when, for instance, we lapse back into racist or sexist language or response when stressed or “provoked” [as we self-servingly like to put it].

To explain the two references I make in the first parenthetical remark in that passage: Those references pertain to two other, earlier newspaper articles I’d recently read, both addressing, not the United States’ war in Iraq begun in 2003, but the United States’ war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The first of the two articles at issue was the opinion piece entitled “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam” (NY Times, July 20, 2016), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I discuss in my post before last. The second article pertains to my parenthetical remark in my journal passage above about “concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators.” I’d read it a few weeks before Viet Thanh Nguyen’s column appeared. It was a news-article in the same earlier issue of The New York Times, in fact, that contained the column about the Chilcot report.

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To be continued.

Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (4)

This is the fourth and last of a series of posts under the same title.


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For many years now—many years before ever reading Jane E. Brody’s article, and encountering there the use of the term “moral injury” at issue in what she reports—I have found myself on various occasions wondering about the very issues that arise in her article: issues pertaining to how those who committed wartime atrocities might best be helped to confront themselves and their own crimes, and how they might still be embraced in community. However, the context in terms of which I have always thought about those issues before I read Brody’s article was not the one that concerns her, which is that of U.S. military veterans who fought in our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Instead, the context in terms of which I thought of those issues before reading her article was always that of the Holocaust itself. What I would find myself thinking about was not those U.S. perpetrators of atrocities, but rather those who helped perpetrate the murder of millions during the Holocaust, in death camps or killing fields or any of the other places where such murders were carried out. I would find myself wondering what one could and should say concerning them, and the suffering that, surely, many of them must have experienced by the memories of what they had done—suffering they must have continued to undergo even decades after they had committed the crimes they did commit. What would one say to the former SS camp-guard at Auschwitz, for example, who had bashed babies heads in, and led countless men, women, and children into the gas chambers, and who suffered from the overwhelming guilt the recollection of such deeds should haunt anyone who did them, and must have haunted at least some of the surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust itself?

The anger I felt when I read Jane E. Brody’s article about contemporary clinical approaches to the counseling of U.S. veterans of our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who suffer from the same sort of “moral injury” had its roots deep in the soil of all those earlier thoughts of my own pertaining to German veterans and the veterans of other nations that assisted Germany in perpetrating the Holocaust. My anger rose especially when I read the remarks attributed to Dr. Brett Litz, about the need to assure U.S. vets who suffered from such “moral injury” that “that they will not be judged and are deserving of forgiveness,” the need to tell them that “disclosing, sharing, [and] confessing” their crimes “is fundamental to repair” of their own injuries, and the need to encourage them “ to ‘engage in the world in a way that is repairing—for example, by helping children or writing letters’,” so that they can “find forgiveness within themselves or from others.” I could not help but wonder how receptive readers of those remarks in the Times article would be to them if they were addressed, not to U.S. veterans who perpetrated atrocities in Vietnam and after, but to German and other European nations’ veterans who perpetrated the Holocaust.

I wondered, and I found my anger rising.

As I have said before here, the issue is not to engage in some comparison of atrocities, trying to decide which atrocity was worse, which nation guilty of the most or worst crimes. We should have no patience for the disgusting business of drawing such comparisons, trying to establish the victor in the race of nations into moral depravity. That is not in the least the issue.

The issue is, rather, to abandon all such self-serving attempts to justify “our” own “exceptionalism,” whether that be the exceptionalism of Germany, home of the “master race,” or of the United States of America, “home of the brave and land of the free.” The issue is to forget ourselves and our own obsessive self-concern, that we might at last remember who we really are, and act accordingly.

Published in: on November 9, 2016 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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